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Roland Mathias Prize 2011

Bleary-eyed from a drive back from Brecon after attending the Roland Mathias award, which has just been made to poet Ruth Bidgood for Time Being (Seren). Octogenarian Ruth was a popular choice with the audience, not only for her dignity, but also as the local contender. Her local square mile: its landscape, deep history, its here and now - minutely known and loved - is the subject of Time Being, from which she read, introducing almost every poem unassumingly as "little". Not a little is the sum she takes home: £3000, although strangely no cheque was presented to her tonight, but only a map of Brecon. I rather think that Ruth, living in nearby Llanwrtyd Wells, was the most likely of the nominees to make practical use of such a map!

The evening plus earlier poetry readings commencing at the unlitfriendly hour of 4.30pm, had an audience of 80 plus, and was extremely well organised: a model award ceremony, which cannot be down to BBC involvement alone but to unpaid, kind hours put in by committee members and judges (including Chris Meredith and Catherine Merriman, also of this parish and not too far away Abergavenny, respectively). No wonder the prize will be a major player in the revamped 2012 Book of the Year Award. Becoming annual, the RM Prize will in future go to the poetry category of the bigger award, effectively becoming part of a shortlist of three for the overall winner across all categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. And the poetry prize ceremony remains in Brecon: a coup for literary Wales beyond Cardiff.

Fittingly for its last year in its current form, the shortlist reflected every corner of its remit: short fiction, poetry, history and literary criticism, the latter two being bundled into M Wynn Thomas' In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Welsh Writers and Welsh Nonconformity (UWP). Prof Thomas disarmed the audience by describing his own book as "the cuckoo in the [shortlist's] nest" and "an academic book with modest pretensions to general interest" before arresting us with images from his book. These included renovated contemporary chapels seen as "cross-dressing", and as having become as "incomprehensibe" as Easter Island statues to a new literary generation. These twentieth-century writers, according to Prof Thomas, inherited the fallout of writers from Caradoc Evans onwards who reacted with fury against nonconformism, but do not understand (until they read this book, at least) the vitriol of that reaction.

Huw Lawrence was the only newcomer to this prize, with his debut book, story collection Always the Love of Someone (Alcemi), a meditation on all aspects of love from the romantic to the everyday grind and getting on with it.

Having made a moving tribute to Roland Mathias, the founder of the prize (and of this magazine in its earliest incarnation), MC Sam Adams praised the work of the shortlist's second poet, Oliver Reynolds as "cerebral, witty and human". Stealing a march on the others by reading one of Mathias' poems, Oliver also touched on his own collection Hodge's subjects of colonialism, "Quba" [sic], monumentalism and Cardiff's old Empire pool (I've swum there!).

Ruth Bidgood's poems are fond of images of scars in the landscape, healed over into "smooth hills" where the original rupture is forgotten. This, her twelfth collection may be the pinnacle of a career spanning over forty years. Whichever view you take, this year's Roland Mathias prize ensures that Ruth Bidgood isn't forgotten. Full details


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