Poet Ellen van Neerven wins Book of the Year, Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and Multicultural NSW Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards


Mununjali Yugambeh’s young author Ellen van Neerven scored a hat trick at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for their second collection of poetry, Throat, in an online ceremony Monday night.

Awarding van Neerven’s collection the Book of the Year (valued at $ 10,000), the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($ 30,000) and the Multicultural NSW Award ($ 20,000), the judges saluted the “beauty, honesty and power” of the work and declared that it “confirms their place as one of the sharpest and most convincing poets of their generation”.

“The gorge is both intimate and radical, giving us a glimpse into the life, experiences and thoughts of van Neerven, while piercing the trauma at the heart of this country.”

Accepting their rewards from the lands of Turrbal and Yuggera near Meanjin (Brisbane), van Neerven expressed his gratitude and surprise.

“It gives me a boost to keep doing what I’m trying to do, which is to write as gently and as carefully as possible,” said the poet.

Speaking to the ABC, van Neerven also acknowledged the special bonanza of the prize money.

“I’m really grateful for that. Because you know, if I was just relying on book sales, I wouldn’t have any money.”

The $ 60,000 will give them “time and space” for larger projects.

“You know, on paper, I’m 30 years old and I’ve written three books and I’ve done a lot of other kinds of books, anthologies and that sort of thing as well. It looks like I would probably be like ‘go go for it’ – but in fact I tried not to rush things, ”van Neerven told the ABC.

“This is how I got to a point where I’m happy with a book – like with this book [Throat]. I probably worked there for about four or five years. But it’s a luxury – not to rush. “

Van Neerven is the third Indigenous poet to win the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry since it was first awarded in 1980, following Samuel Wagan Watson (2005) and Ali Cobby Eckermann (2013).

Meanwhile, this year’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($ 40,000) went to Kate Grenville, for A Room Made of Leaves – a fictional account of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of the prominent British settler and Australian and wool merchant John Macarthur.

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Scroll down for the full list of rewards

As with last year’s event, which was held just a month after the state library closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s award winners were announced via a pre-recorded digital ceremony broadcast on the State Library of NSW website.

State Librarian John Vallance, who hosted the ceremony, said: “I really hope this is the last time we have to do it like this. In 2022, I look forward to welcoming you all in no one at the State Library. “

‘A sense of community’

Throat is divided into five loosely thematic chapters, but across the volume van Neerven also sketches out his own story arc – on poems with titles like The Only Black Queer in the World, Chermy (after Westfield Chermside Mall), Dysphoria and unsent SMS. .

Hot pink background with bright color illustration of face and text: THROAT ELLEN VAN NEERVEN

There is the feeling of multiple awakenings at work – political, sexual, cultural, literary – and an active struggle against racism, capitalism, memory, identity, grief and trauma.

There is a one-page “Throat Reader-Author Power-Sharing Treaty” – with a place to sign and an accompanying note. “What is our relationship with each other? What are our expectations of each other?” wonders the author.

The collection is supported by this kind of playful engagement with the reader; by evoking the family and the community; and by humor and hard-earned wisdom.

Van Neerven said one of the most rewarding experiences since the book’s publication in 2020 has received feedback from readers – especially younger, First Nations and queer readers.

“It gets so many comments from readers who aren’t really interested in poetry. Even people who tell me, ‘This is the first book of poetry I’ve read’ – and that, for me, is so huge… because I think I tried to write it down as a bit collective [experience] – a job that did not only concern me, but also a sense of community. “

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The precariousness of poetry

Van Neerven is not kidding when they say “it doesn’t make financial sense to be a poet”.

The prizes are “like a lottery”, the poetry draws are generally smaller than most fiction – and between the two there is a lot of commotion.

“I have to supplement my income in different ways,” they said.

“At one point, you know, you have eight jobs at a time – and no sick leave.”

Poetry is important to them, however.

“Poetry has always been meaningful to me because it’s so important in the community,” they told ABC.

“For First Nations people, poetry is one of the most popular forms, and always has been.”

Like many children, they struggled to take advantage of the Western “canon” as taught in school – and as a result, had to overcome some degree of impostor syndrome.

“For a long time I was like, ‘I can’t write poetry because I can’t write a sonnet or I don’t rhyme’ – or, you know, all these kinds of things about poetry that you read. at school. “

Intensive reading – especially poetry from First Nations, people of color, women, and trans and non-binary writers – gave them confidence.

“I have read so much poetry in recent years, and it has given me permission to be a poet myself.”

Heroes, mentors and peers

Mentors and “heroes” have also played a crucial role in the development of van Neerven.

When asked what drives them to overcome obstacles to pursue poetry, they replied, “I guess I really like to read it – and there are a lot of poets that I really admire. And, you know, you go and you read with them, and you get so inspired, you’re like, ‘I just wanna keep doing this.’ “

Heroes include the late Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lisa Bellear, and contemporary poets Ali Cobby Eckermann and Samuel Wagan Watson (both former winners of the Kenneth Slessor and Book of the Year awards).

Van Neerven also thanked two mentors in their acceptance speech: Sue Abbey, former editor-in-chief at the University of Queensland Press (which publishes van Neerven) and founder of the black & write indigenous writing and publishing project; and the writer and poet Wiradjuri Jeanine Leane.

Van Neerven is not an outlier either; they are part of a cohort of young First Nations poets, mostly women, who seem to thrive – if not financially, then creatively and in terms of readership.

These include Alison Whittaker, Evelyn Araluen and Kirli Saunders – all of whom are on the lineup for this week’s Sydney Writers Festival, alongside van Neerven.

Van Neerven places this in a longer term movement.

“Over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a surge in the literary industry for more First Nations people to work behind the scenes in the production of the work – whether as editors, editors, reviewers, the people who organize it – and that contributes to how the work is viewed and how it is disseminated. “

At the same time, the audience for poetry seems to have grown – or at least rejuvenated – as evidenced by the viral popularity of figures like Canadian Rupi Kaur and American Amanda Gorman.

“There is this thirst for poetry through social media and Instagram [and] it’s a lot easier to share online – like, ‘i saw this great poem online’ than ‘i read this great novel’, ”said van Neerven.

“It can go viral so quickly which is really amazing.”

Whether this can translate into financial stability for poets remains to be seen.

Complete list of winners

Book of the Year ($ 10,000)
Throat by Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Christina Stead Fiction Prize ($ 40,000)
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville (text edition)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($ 5,000)
Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne (text edit)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($ 40,000)
The Warrior, the Traveler and the Artist: Three Lives in the Age of Empire by Kate Fullagar (Yale University Press)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($ 30,000)
Gorge by Ellen van Neerven (UQP)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($ 30,000)
The World’s Largest Bookstore by Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press)

Ethel Turner Prize for Children’s Literature ($ 30,000)
The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love By Davina Bell (Text Edit)

Nick Enright Award for Dramatic Writing ($ 30,000)
Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg (The Street Theater)

Betty Roland Award for Screenwriting ($ 30,000)
FREEMAN by Laurence Billiet (General Strike & Matchbox Pictures)

Multicultural NSW Award ($ 20,000)
Gorge by Ellen van Neerven (UQP)

NSW Translation Prize ($ 30,000) – biennial prize – joint winners
Autumn manuscripts by Tasos Leivaditis, translated by NN Trakakis (Smokestack Books)
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos, translated by Alice Whitmore (Giramondo Publishing)

Special Price ($ 10,000)
Melina Marchetta

People’s Choice Award
Pip Williams Lost Words Dictionary (Affirm Press)

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