Jay Bernard: the Ted Hughes Prize Winner asking old questions and giving new answers

Astrid Godfrey 12 May 2018

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, responses were divisive and passionate. The first songwriter to win the award, he was praised for “having created new poetic expression within the great American son tradition”. Commenting on the win, the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion said Dylan’s songs “work as poems” exposing a truth – song lyrics, in his mind, are not poems, but can be seen “as” poems. The rift between the different mediums of poetry and song had been exposed to us, but the committee had taken the first step to closing it.

The choice for this year’s Ted Hughes prize has intervened in the multi-media debate that was brought to our attention by the awarding of Dylan’s Nobel Prize. The prize, awarded for “excellence in poetry, highlighting outstanding contributions made by poets to our cultural life”, was awarded to Jay Bernard, a 30 year-old non-binary Londoner, for their ‘Surge: Side A’, a moving piece centred around the 1981 New Cross Massacre. A fire at a house party, the horrific blaze killed 13 young people between the ages of 14-22 with another survivor committing suicide only two years later. The fire was a pivotal moment in the recent history of race relations in the UK. In ways chillingly reminiscent of last year’s Grenfell Fire, it revealed the rifts within the British establishment: police incompetence, political indifference, media bias. Following the fire, The Sun reported a peaceful demonstration with the headline “Day the blacks ran riot in London”; the wilful blindness of the organs of the state and commercial interests continued to other the victims, a guilt-induced amnesia set in. Despite strong suggestions of arson, racial tension and far-right activity in the area, the police investigation prevaricated before eventually deeming no one responsible. In Bernard’s work, the question of culpability hangs accusingly above our heads.

The event was commemorated at the time by Johnny Osbourne’s '13 Dead and Nothing Said’ and Benjamin Zephaniah’s ’13 Dead’ but the return to the event by Bernard is particularly pertinent for our own political environment. They started working on ‘Surge: Side A’ during a residency at the Padmore Institute in London, a centre for black history, between the Brexit vote and election of Trump and gave a one-off performance of part of the poem in 2017. The piece is written in the voices of those who were killed, and uses archived audio and film, giving a voice back to those who lost theirs. Praised by the judges as “a moving and powerful struggle for validation in the Black British community”, the piece is built up from multimedia snapshots. Bernard’s words flow melodically, and indeed one of their poems is sung with a refrain that punctuates and haunts. Simultaneously vulnerable and accusing, it’s a lone voice that transfixes and holds us. The double-impact of musical and textual shifts in mood infuses the poem with a power that we can’t help but be chilled by. In another clip, Bernard reads a poem which is broken up by the urgent command “Jump”, striking with a sadness and desperation with each repetition. It’s hard to remain unmoved. Significantly, ‘Surge: Side A’ remains unfinished. The piece epitomises fragmentariness, the never-ending search for expression and the feeling of not being fully understood: a poem without end for a case, and experience, without adequate closure.  

An extraordinary valediction of performance poetry, ‘Surge: Side A’ recreates a history through the layering of voices, associations, and media. In a society where gender and sexuality are finally being recognised as fluid, Bernard has created a work that is as fluid as the situation it is born out of. This is poetry that is more than just words on a page; it is a moment, a community, a collective questioning, a call to action. It’s a piece that asks about how we speak, where we speak from, and how those who are lost for words can be heard. It calls for a poetry that is fluid and novel, a poetry that looks to the past to ask questions about our future. Bernard writes, “I called and no one seemed to call with me”; perhaps it’s time we all started calling.