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Owl Poet Wins $47,400 Costa Book Prize After ‘Robust Argument’

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"The Hand That First Held Mine"
The cover jacket of "The Hand That First Held Mine" by Maggie O'Farrell. Source: Costa Book Awards via Bloomberg

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- London poet Jo Shapcott won the Costa Book of the Year Award last night for “Of Mutability,” defeating finalists including Edmund de Waal and Maggie O’Farrell for the prize of 30,000 pounds ($47,400).

Shapcott was honored during a champagne reception at London restaurant Quaglino’s, having won the Costa Poetry Award earlier this month. This marks the second year in a row that a poet has claimed the top prize.

“Positive stories about poetry don’t happen that often,” Shapcott said at a news conference after the ceremony, “so it’s lovely to celebrate one and I doubt I’d be here without my fellow poets.”

“Of Mutability” (Faber) meditates on mortality and the nature of change from a variety of perspectives.

“Too many of the best cells in my body/ are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw/ in this spring chill,” she writes, reflecting her own battle with breast cancer.

Her poems feature magical shape-shifters, too, harking back to Greek transformation myths, as in “Night Flight From Muncaster,” during which readers are invited to imagine they have become an owl soaring in the sky.

The judges praised “Of Mutability” for its compassion and accessibility.

“They appreciate that poetry is not everybody’s first choice in literature,” said the head of the judging panel, publisher and broadcaster Andrew Neil. “But they really felt that if someone was uncertain about poetry, if they got this book in their hands they would fall in love with it and read it again and again.”

Poetic Momentum

“People always try to measure whether poetry is gaining momentum or going back, but it’s always there,” Shapcott said. “One of the things that cheers me like mad is that when I get to talking to people about poetry, 99 percent will say, ‘I wrote a poem once.’”

Whitbread Plc’s Costa coffee-shop chain grants annual awards of 5,000 pounds apiece for books in five categories -- novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s literature. The five then compete for the Costa Book of the Year.

The final choice this year, Neil said, was between Shapcott’s poems and Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, “The Hand That First Held Mine” (Headline Review), which weaves together the stories of two women from two different times.

The vote was not unanimous, Neil said, though a clear majority voted for the poet. “There was quite a lot of robust argument over choosing the poetry book over a novel,” he said.

De Waal, Desai

Shapcott also overcame competition from De Waal’s “The Hare With Amber Eyes” (Chatto & Windus), which won this year’s Costa Biography Award for its exploration of the people who owned 264 Japanese netsuke -- miniature wood and ivory carvings -- that he inherited. The other finalists were Kishwar Desai’s “Witness the Night” (Beautiful Books), which took the First Novel Award; and Jason Wallace’s “Out of Shadows” (Andersen), which claimed the Children’s Book Award.

Previously known as the Whitbreads, the Costas aim to promote contemporary British and Irish writing. They have been a highlight of the literary calendar since their creation in 1971.

Past winners of the Book of the Year include Sebastian Barry, A.L. Kennedy, Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman.

To contact the reporters on the story: James Pressley in Brussels at jpressley@bloomberg.net; Hephzibah Anderson in London at Hephzibah_anderson@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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