When Chinese-British poet Sarah Howe’s debut collection “Loop of Jade” won The Poetry Book Society’s prestigious 2015 TS Eliot Prize, the hashtag #derangedpoetess began trending on Twitter — not referring to Howe or her poetry, but in response to criticism that implied Howe was too young, too beautiful, too Chinese to deserve the prize.
Howe's book was praised by Pascale Petit, chair of the TS Eliot Prize judging panel, as having "shone with its startling exploration of gender and injustice through place and identity, its erudition, and powerful imagery as well as her daring experiment with form. She brings new possibilities to British poetry."
But according to a roundup of responses in The Guardian, the online magazine Private Eye pointed out the other prizes that Howe had not won and asked if she had won the TS Eliot prize for “extra-poetic reasons,” namely being “a successful and very ‘presentable’ young woman.” The Times Literary Supplement called Howe’s win one of “a series of successes on the British prize circuit for persons of colour.” The Sunday Times article by Oliver Thring, “Born in the rubbish tip, the greatest poetry of today,” was dismissive in tone regarding her book, “Howe’s thin new volume... took her ten years to write,” her education, her intelligence, and discussed her husband and her furniture.
However, it was Thring’s response on Twitter when called out by women poets, “This gentle interview with a leading young poet has led various deranged poetesses to call me thick, sexist etc….,” that sparked the hashtag #DerangedPoetess and jubilant solidarity among women poets, poets of color, and those who support women poets and poets of color.
“Tellingly, very little of the criticism has surrounded her actual poetry,” Ravi Shankar, poet and founding editor of Drunken Boat online arts journal, told NBC News. “When the canonical figure after whom the award was named wrote ‘The Wasteland,’ it was acclaimed for its erudition and allusiveness, but when Oliver Thring interviewed Howe, he scolded her for ‘pummel[ing] the reader with allusion, scholarship, and a brusque, sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence.’ Could that not describe much of the British literati?”
About the hashtag #derangedpoetess sparked by Thring’s criticism of Howe’s supporters, Shankar said, “When we live in a society where one of the reviewers of the Sunday Times uses the phrase 'poetess,' we clearly have a long, long way to go.”
Born in Hong Kong and raised in England, Howe has a Ph.D. from University of Cambridge in Renaissance literature and the psychology of visual perception. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. Her book was shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for best first collection. She also won the 2015 Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.