The Polari Prizes: Then and Now
From an upstairs room in a Soho bar to a new £2000 prize for LGBT writers

The infamous Polari First Book Prize has been awarded for the ninth year! Celebrating work that explores LGBT experiences, 2019 marked the launch of a new prize for established writers.

NCW’s Executive Director Chris Gribble was joined on the judging panel for the inaugural Polari Prize by Bernardine Evaristo – Booker Prize winner and International Literature Showcase selected writer – to choose an exceptional book by an established writer. We caught up with Paul Burston, author, journalist and founder of the Polari Salon and Prizes to find out how the prizes grew from an upstairs room in a Soho bar…

Polari was born out of my love of books and frustration at the shortage of opportunities for LGBT+ writers to showcase their work. In 2007, I published my third novel. Like the previous two, it featured a gay protagonist. I’d previously published four non-fiction books, including a biography and a collection of essays, all with queer themes. I’d been a published author for over a decade. And in all that time, l had never once been invited to take part in a book festival. I was faced with a choice – complain about the injustice of it all or do something about it. Before becoming a writer, I’d been an AIDS activist with the direction action group ACT-UP. It was the activist in me that prompted me to start a literary salon of my own, dedicated to LGBT+ writers. If a door isn’t open, break it down or find another way in.

“In a matter of months, we outgrew that venue, and then another venue and another…”

Polari started small, in the upstairs room of a bar in Soho. It was basically just me and a few friends. But word of mouth soon spread and the event grew. In a matter of months, we outgrew that venue, and then another venue and another, until word reached someone from the Southbank Centre and I was invited in for a meeting. We moved to the Southbank in September 2009 and have been there ever since. We hold events most months, with audiences of up to 150 people. Not bad for an event that started without any financial backing or organisational support and with an audience of around a dozen!

Four years after creating Polari in 2007, it became clear to me that there was a lot of emerging LGBT+ literary talent out there and that a new book prize would be a good way of recognising that talent. The Polari First Book Prize was launched in 2011, to acknowledge the achievements of debut authors and celebrate books which explore the LGBT+ experience. All kinds of books are eligible, including self published work. For me, diversity is key. Winning books have included a memoir, a poetry collection, a crime novel, two short story collections and several long works of literary fiction. Past winners have included four women, one Irishman, a Scot and two authors writing about the experience of being gay and Muslim. Each year our winner is invited to headline at Polari Up North at Huddersfield Literature Festival, which was the first litfest to welcome us with open arms. This year we’ve added a second Polari Book Prize, for non debut writers. Judges for this prize include CEO of the National Centre for Writing Chris Gribble and Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. The Polari First Book Prize is sponsored by award-winning arts communication company FMcM Associates, with the winner receiving a cheque for £1000. The Polari Prize is sponsored by DHH Literary Agency, with the winner receiving a cheque for £2000.

This year’s winners are:

Polari Prize – Andrew McMillan, Playtime, (Cape Poetry)

 width=In these intimate, sometimes painfully frank poems, Andrew McMillan takes us back to childhood and early adolescence to explore the different ways we grow into our sexual selves and our adult identities.







Polari First Book Prize – Angela Chadwick, XX, (Dialogue Books)

 width=When Rosie and Jules discover a ground-breaking clinical trial that enables two women to have a female baby, they jump at the chance to make history. Fear-mongering politicians and right-wing movements are quick to latch on to the controversies surrounding Ovum-to-Ovum (o-o) technology and stoke the fears of the public. What will happen to the numbers of little boys born?




Polari also tours regularly, funded by Arts Council England. Over the past five years we’ve appeared across the UK and Ireland, from Aberdeen to Belfast, Bradford to Brighton, Dublin to Edinburgh, Hastings and Huddersfield to, ahem, Heaven. In May this year we played to our biggest audience yet, taking over the main floor at London’s leading LGBT nightclub Heaven with a site-specific event celebrating forty years of the legendary venue. Part of the Polari ethos is presenting LGBT live literature and spoken word performance in non-arts spaces. We have another Polari In Heaven planned for February and some very exciting plans for next year, which will mark the tenth anniversary of the Polari First Book Prize. Watch this space.


Twitter @polarisalon

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