About Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott (b.1953) is from London but traces her family roots to the former mining communities of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and currently teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. The sure-footed surrealism of her first collection, Electroplating the Baby, won immediate acclaim and was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Shapcott had already announced her arrival on the poetry scene three years earlier when she won the National Poetry Competition, a feat which she repeated in 1991 with the title poem from her second collection, Phrase Book. This introduced Shapcott’s celebrated ‘Mad Cow’ persona to the world and also delighted in the poetic potential of quantum physics, whilst her third collection, My Life Asleep, won the Forward Prize for best collection. A selected poems, Her Book, appeared from Faber in 2000 and they also published Tender Taxes, the fruit of Shapcott’s ten-year engagement with the French poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Intellectually ambitious and eschewing the personal, Shapcott’s poetry nevertheless belongs as much to the body as the mind. There is a celebratory eroticism in many of her poems, even when skewed by serious illness as in her startling description of a bald head as “newborn-pale, erection-tender” (‘Hairless’). Shapcott is particularly drawn to moments of dissolution when the boundaries between the self and the outside world are disrupted, the skin made permeable: so in her poem ‘Deft’ she imagines her body as “a drop of water”. That Shapcott’s transformative treatment of the body can sometimes have a feminist context is evident in the playful defiance of a poem like ‘Piss Flower’. Elsewhere it is a conduit to ecstasy, a means of experiencing unity with the world: “I breathe in and become everything I see” (‘Deft’). This quality of intimate exploration is also present in her versions of Rilke, particularly the sequence on roses in which Shapcott allows the flowers whom Rilke addressed to talk back to him. Equal parts challenge and seduction, these poems offer an interchange between translator and translated which is like the closeness of lovers: “You touch me with everything/that’s touched you.” (‘Rosa foliolosa.’) Shapcott’s most recent collection, Of Mutability, was published in 2010 and won the Costa Book Award. In 2011, Jo Shapcott was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

Shapcott’s voice relishes the sensuality of her work, exploring it with the “rangy, long-legged” brio which one critic described as her characteristic tone.

Her first recording for The Poetry Archivewas made on 16 December 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London, UK and was produced by Richard Carrington. Her second recording was made on 21 April 2016, at The Soundhouse in London, and was also produced by Richard Carrington. 

Poems by Jo Shapcott

Callisto’s Song - Jo Shapcott
The Game - Jo Shapcott
Elements - Jo Shapcott
Phrase Book - Jo Shapcott
2014/2015 - Jo Shapcott
Pavlova’s Physics - Jo Shapcott
Hairless - Jo Shapcott
Deft - Jo Shapcott
Piss Flower - Jo Shapcott
Jo Shapcott in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

Featured in the Archive

Books by Jo Shapcott

Awards

1982

South West Arts Literature Award

Prize website
1985

National Poetry Competition (First Prize), 'The Surrealists' Summer Convention Came to Our City'

1989

Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, Electroplating the Baby

1989

New Statesman Prudence Farmer Award

1991

National Poetry Competition (First Prize), 'Phrase Book'

1991

Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection - winner), My Life Asleep

2006

Cholmondeley Award

Prize website
2010

Costa Book of the Year award

Prize website
2011

The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 2011 The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry

Prize website
Close