Sullivan, a 39-year-old Londoner who won the £25,000 prize, is the third first time poet to take the prize, with all three winning in the last five years: Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong in 2017 and Chinese-British Sarah Howe in 2015. Before then, the prize had tended to be awarded to more established poets a few collections into their careers, among them Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
Sullivan, who studied at Cambridge and Harvard, worked as an assistant professor at Stanford, and is now associate professor of English at New College, Oxford. She is unusual in that she had not been widely published in the lead-up to her debut, theguardian.com reported.
“A star is born. Where has she come from?” said chair of judges, poet and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey. “I don’t know her personally, I hadn’t read her in magazines or anywhere else before. She has not come through the usual creative-writing, pamphlet route. She has just arrived, and it is breathtaking. I couldn’t be more delighted if I had won it myself.”
Sullivan’s debut is made up of three lengthy poems: You, Very Young in New York, which explores the lives of various young people, all united by their cynicism and their uncertainty, making their way through unfulfilling relationships and work in the city; Repeat Until Time is an exploration of revision in art and form, Sullivan’s Ph.D. subject; the third, The Sandpit After Rain explores connections between the birth of her baby and the death of her father.
Morrissey said the decision to award Sullivan the prize was unanimous. “Our relationship with her work only deepened on each subsequent rereading,” she said. “It is not just the formal mastery, but how that formal mastery is so well-handled as to be almost invisible. That is the height of praise. You almost don’t notice the architecture underneath because you are so compelled by what is being said.”
She called Three Poems hugely ambitious: “It is taking on perennial themes such as our mortality, our sexuality, our gender and our movement through time and place, and doing it in such a fresh and observant way. It is an absolutely exhilarating collection and it is all the more surprising that it is a debut.”