Jo Shapcott was born in 1953 in London and educated in Dublin and Oxford and at Harvard. She has worked extensively in universities and in arts education, including at the Arts Council and the Southbank Centre. In 1985 she won first prize in the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition with ‘The Surrealists’ Summer Convention Came to Our City’, which was later included in her first collection, Electroplating the Baby (Bloodaxe), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection.
Laden with deft, measured rhythms, but with a sense of colloquial spontaneity, her early poems could be described as Larkinesque, but with a great degree of irony in relation to Larkin’s prejudices. As she wrote in an early sonnet, ‘Country House Hotel’:
It’s like a comfy, undemanding club
where the guests blush when their feet ring on the floor
and where the world of Securicor and Chubb
is as rude and far off as a working whore.
If anything, her work is well-marked by its kicks against established social orders, not least the patriarchal snobbery Larkin was associated with. As Tom Paulin said of her first collection, she played “all sorts of tricks with social consciousness, with politics, with history, with the imagination”.
Among her many plaudits, she can claim a second win in the National Poetry Competition (in 1991 with ‘Phrase Book’), the Forward Poetry Prize, and a number of academic positions. As well as teaching creative writing at Royal Holloway, she is Visiting Professor in Poetry at Newcastle University and the University of the Arts, London. She is also co-editor, with Matthew Sweeney, of The Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (Faber, 1996), an anthology which was much celebrated for collecting its poems by thematic associations and readers’ tastes.
In recent years Jo has taken on the mantle of President of the Poetry Society, supporting the charity’s work in encouraging the use, study and enjoyment of poetry. She also judged the first ever Young Poets of the Year Award for the Poetry Society, in 1998, and reprised the role for the tenth anniversary of the competition.
In 2008 Jo was one of the judges of the National Poetry Competition. Her feature here on Poetry International Web, as part of the Poetry Society’s Centenary celebrations, sits alongside this year’s first-prize winner of the competition, Christopher James.
Electroplating the Baby, Bloodaxe Books, Northumberland, 1988
Phrase Book, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992
Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (co-edited with Matthew Sweeney), Faber and Faber, London, 1996
My Life Asleep, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Poems 1988-1998, Faber and Faber, London, 2000
Tender Taxes, Faber and Faber, London, 2002
The Transformers: Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, Bloodaxe, Northumberland, 2007
Poems, Farzaneh Khojandi, (co-translator with Narquess Farzad), Enitharmon, London, 2008
Audio recordings of poems by Jo Shapcott at the Poetry Archive
Christina Patterson interviews Jo Shapcott for The Independent
Deryn Rees-Jones interviews Jo Shapcott for LUPAS