Matt Goodfellow: How Did I Become a Poet?

Working as a poet in schools, I regularly get asked the same few questions over and over again – one of them is: ‘How did you become a poet?’ The simple answer is: music. My dad is a massive music fan. Throughout my childhood, Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, incantatory voice was the one I heard the most.

‘I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me’

‘Leave your stepping stones behind now, something calls for you’

I had no idea what he was singing about. But it intrigued me.

My mum and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old and both found new partners. Other than me and my sister, Jane, the only thing that unified the four of them was one album: Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Jennifer Warnes.

‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’

‘And deep into his fiery heart, he took the dust of Joan of Arc’

Beautiful stuff. And again, it interested me. I heard the songs all the time. Still do.

I don’t remember reading much when I was at primary or secondary schools, although Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ certainly left its mark. Precise, poetic language. I used to walk in the woods at Alderley Edge, a few miles down the road from me, hearing the voices of Colin and Susan, the sneer of the shape-shifting Selina Place.

I must have studied ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats at some point during secondary school – and something about it stuck in my head:

seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – I liked that.

As for writing poetry, the only memory I have is of writing a rhyming epitaph in, perhaps, Y8?!:

in this grave, lies a man, who died by means of a frying pan’

I thought it was pretty good. The teacher’s response: ‘you didn’t write that!’

Schoolwork (other than maths!), especially reading and writing, always came pretty easy to me –  and I never really saw the need to extend myself. This attitude towards academia continued all the way to studying English at Manchester Met (where Carol Ann Duffy was my poetry tutor).

By about 15, I began to discover music and words of my own that spoke to me. In 1995, The Charlatans released a self-titled album that I listened to over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. But it sounded great:

‘here comes a soul saver on your record player, floatin’ about in the dust’

‘take your pick who’s your saviour, come in five different flavours’

‘kiss behind the coolest of walls’

I loved ‘immerse me in your splendour’ from ‘This Is the One’ by The Stone Roses. And so, without really reading poetry, by 16 I was full of it. I’d been playing the guitar for a few years and started up some bands. I was a pretty rubbish musician, but I enjoyed performing. And I began to write the lyrics.

I carried on with music and words, bands like Doves continuing my lyrical fascination, until I finally realised I had no musical talent whatsoever – and put down the guitar at about 23. I became a primary school teacher, which filled the entirety of my head for a while. Words began to surface, though, and soon I was writing songs for assemblies and poems to use in class.

Twelve years later, here I am: a poet. Fancy that.

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester, England. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent solo collection is Chicken on the Roof (Otter Barry 2018), and most recent book is Be the Change – poems to help you save the world (Macmillan 2019), written with Liz Brownlee and Roger Stevens. His next solo collection, Bright Bursts of Colour (Bloomsbury) is published Feb 2020.

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.

But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.

 

That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.

It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.

A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.

 

Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.

Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).

But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.

Hannah Rolls

Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.

Tracey Guiry: Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

I don’t remember poetry being spoken of in my house as I grew up and certainly not spoken out loud. We lived on a remote farm and I spent from dawn to dusk outdoors, which in the 60’s and 70’s meant truly outdoors,  being given a cheese sandwich and some orange squash and told to be back before it got dark. The stories I most loved as a child reflected that sense of freedom, of being master of my own destiny, an explorer and an adventurer no less brave or able than my brothers.

From an early age I knew the name of pretty much everything I came across in the fields and woods around our village so it is really no surprise that the first poems which snagged my imagination were about the things I knew best. Poems like John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest, with his lovely made-up words like ‘prog’, and Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox, ‘and again now, and now, and now’ brought a shock of recognition which I can still recall with a smile. These poems filled my mind with pictures even if, at the time, I thought they truly were only about a mouse and a fox. There is nothing can compare to the moment we discover something we know speaks to us alone.  I remembered these feelings as we made the decision to create a Poetry Archive dedicated to children.

The Poetry Archive exists to produce, acquire, preserve and share the world’s finest poetry read out loud and it wasn’t long into our history of making recordings that we knew children’s poetry should have its own website.  We believe passionately that poems are not only words on a page but equally have a life in the mouth and on the ear and we wanted to break down any barriers which might exist between a child and a poem. The quality of writing for children has always been high – children are the most discerning and demanding audiences – but there were few websites specifically designed with a younger user in mind.

Young people today are technologically savvy in ways I couldn’t even have imagined at their age, and our site needed to reflect that. The ‘favourite’ function next to each poem allows users to click on the and save poems to their very own collection in ‘My Archive’. From there they can create their own poetry playlists, listen back to their own curated collections and share the poems they like with their friends. The ‘eyes closed, ears open’ button allows them to switch off all the other sights and sounds on the page except for the poet and their voice.

We want children to discover poetry for themselves. There is no fanfare of description on the Children’s Poetry Archive, no lessons on meaning, or other people’s opinions, though these can be found by anyone wanting to search. When a child arrives at the Children’s Archive they will find only the poet’s voice, the sound their words make, and a head full of pictures all their own which they can recall with a smile all their lives.

Tracey Guiry

Children’s Poetry Archive.

Tracey Guiry is the Director of the Poetry Archive. She worked in the Giant Screen film industry before learning how to build very big cinemas. She then went on to build even bigger Visitor Attractions and Science Centres which brought art, science and nature education to the public, becoming a Director at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol before it launched in 2000. Her passion for poetry and literature led to her co-founding Literature Works with Alex Cluness in 2008 to provide developmental support to writers – this became a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council in 2009. She joined the Poetry Archive in 2016, working to ensure their poetry collections and education materials can continue to be shared free-of-charge with as many people as possible. The Children’s Poetry Archive was developed with the kind support of the T S Eliot Foundation.

Laura Mucha: The Volume of Words

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 MusicBBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, she has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets on the Dublin overground. Laura’s debut non-fiction book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury) was published earlier this year, her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in 2020, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. 

Joshua Seigal: I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

Some of the most fun I have had so far in my career as a poet was when Bloomsbury asked me to edit an anthology of funny poems for children. Entitled I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, the book came out in 2018 and features poems by myself and a bunch of other poets, all ostensibly funny. I put out an open call for submissions, and for several months was inundated with poems from hundreds of poets. From these, I had to choose the ‘funniest’.

What was the importance of this activity? And what indeed is the value of funny books, and funny poetry, in general? One obvious purpose is to appeal to reluctant readers. When I was at school, I was not an especially voracious reader. When I started to get seriously into books, it was always the funny ones that first grabbed my attention. I remember howling with laughter to myself in my room whilst reading Adrian Mole and The Beano, and even now some of the most pleasure I have gleaned as a reader has been from Viz magazine (not for kids!). I know from personal experience that if something is funny it will have a readership beyond people who are typically considered bookish.

Relatedly, writing funny poems can appeal to people who might not normally pick up a pen. I run workshops in schools, and I have lost count of the number of times I have seen humour, or the prospect thereof, galvanise children into writing. Speaking for myself as a writer, I got into poetry in part through watching stand up comedy, and one of my favourite things as a poet is when I stand on stage and the audience laughs (not straight away; I normally have to say some words first). This, for me, is an experience unlike any other, and one of the reasons I cannot imagine doing another job.

It is not the case that to be funny means to be flippant, or facile. Funny poems can serve the purpose of highlighting serious issues. Much of my own poetry, though funny, is tinged with a sense of sadness in ways I’m not sure I can explain. Perhaps this is not obvious to the reader, but for me the sadness is often there. I started messing around with words in the first place as a kind of antidote to depression, which I am sadly never far away from. The best humorous poetry works hard for its laughs, and uses clever, tricky wordplay and sophisticated jokes. These were the types of poems I tried to select for my anthology (although I also firmly believe toilet humour has a place in a book of funny kids’ poems).

So far I have been trying to justify the use of humour in poetry, reading and writing, but at a profound level I’m not sure it needs justifying. Its benefit is self-evident. Laughter is one of the things that makes life worth living; it is a basic good, like life itself, that does not need to be justified. If there were no humour, life would be a tunnel of grey – empty, colourless and devoid of meaning or worth. As I mentioned before, I love it when audiences laugh. For me, this is an affirmation of life at an elemental level.

I am surely not the only one who thinks this way. The Lollies Award (Laugh Out Loud Award; formerly the Roald Dahl Funny Prize) is the only prize in the UK for funny books. I am delighted to say that I Bet I Can Make You Laugh is on the shortlist for 2020, and I am even more delighted to say that whether or not it wins is in your hands! You can vote for my book in the 9-13 year old category, and you can do it using this link here (if you are a teacher you can vote up to 35 times!): Lollies.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader. He frequently visits schools to run inspiring poetry workshops, and has performed all over the world, including the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Dubai Literature Festival. His most recent book, I Bet I Can Make You Laugh (Bloomsbury), is shortlisted for the 2020 Lollies Award.

You can vote for the Lollies if you are a child, teacher, or grown up voting on behalf of a child. Voting closes the first week in December.

 

James Carter: Poet Laureate… for Children

What better date than National Poetry Day to suggest something new to the children’s poetry world…?

Now. In the 20 years or so I’ve been lucky to be working as a children’s poet – writing and publishing children’s poetry, visiting well over 1200 schools in the UK and abroad – I’ve noticed a gradual but significant sea change. For up-and-coming poets I’d argue it’s a more welcoming place than it ever was. Moreover, there’s a wonderful, thriving and wholly supportive community of UK children’s poets online; check it out on Twitter. I feel that the poetry books – collections and anthologies – we publish now are of a better quality overall and have a more inspiring range of topics than ever before. Many of the wonderful teachers I meet – Primary teachers – seem to be so much more enthusiastic about poetry now and have shaken off that age-old intimidation or reluctance – even saying to me how much their classes love doing poetry – reading, writing and performing it. Not so much do I hear ‘poetry is scary’. Hurrah! Literary festivals are booking more poets. We even have a number of children’s poetry awards. (A couple more would be good though…) Plus, as far as I can see, poetry seems to be read far more at home than it ever was. Allelujah to that!

Yet the ‘p’ word still garners the odd groan amongst adults particularly, and that will never go away entirely – and I partly blame the English Literature curriculum’s obsession with verse deconstruction at GCSE for that.

As a fan of American verse, I often look to see what poetry is happening over the pond. And what I’ve noticed is that they don’t just have a Children’s Laureate, but a Children’s Poet Laureate. So how about having the same over here, in office for say two years, leading conferences, training teachers, advising librarians, doing family shows in communities, training up-and-coming poets on how to perform poems/run workshops, giving media soundbites on why poetry is so vital for the young. And rather than trying to work nationally all the time, they could focus their work regionally, so much more can be achieved and with greater depth. I can think of many contemporary children’s poets that would be ideal for this job.

And though poetry is on the up, there’s still more to be done – more teachers, librarians, parents and carers that need to be convinced and shown the myriad benefits of poetry – in terms of children writing, nurturing children’s reading and developing oracy/performance skills. They need to be shown that prose is a mountain, verse is a hill. The more hills children can climb – and early on – the better communicators, the more passionate readers and committed writers they will become. Poetry writing encourages autobiographical writing (q.v. free verse) as well as figurative and expressive language, full of rich imagery; it actively promotes children writing imaginatively and freely, exploring their own thoughts, ideas and creativities. What’s more, the more poems children write, the better they will be at writing prose. This is not a theory but a fact!

Fancy sponsoring this WH Smiths, Foyles, Blackwells, Amazon? And how about getting National Poetry Day UK / The Poetry Society / Children’s Poetry Summit behind this? If each Laureate does a two year term – after ten years, there would have been five different laureates, say all based in very different parts of the UK, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bringing all of us children’s poets ever closer together, with each Laureate spreading their own interests and expertise, inspiring both adults and children, handing out plenty of the good stuff. There. What’s not to like?

James Carter

National Poetry Day Ambassador

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and non-fiction writer. He travels all over
the UK and abroad (with his melodica, Steve) to give lively poetry/music performances
and workshops, and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1200 Primary schools.
He is an ambassador for National Poetry Day. Once Upon A Star – the story of the sun, James’s non-fiction picture book in verse, is out now in p/b; The Big Beyond – the story of space travel –is out now in hardback. (both Little Tiger Press). His website is here.

 

Debbie Pullinger: Why the Revival?

Why the Revival?

Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless.

Maybe it’s just a pendulum swing thing. The wheel goes round and poetry is recalled and re-cooled.

Maybe it’s because we’re remembering that poetry is all about the ear and the tongue. School poetry, in particular, got rather stuck to the page for all sorts of reasons. But in classrooms as in performance venues, its voice is being heard.

Maybe it’s because a poem is short. It’s all we can manage when we’re so strapped for time and attention.

Maybe it’s part of what David Sax calls “The Revenge of Analogue”.* Like listening to songs on vinyl or writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book, speaking and writing and even learning poems feels like some kind of material resistance in this digital age. A slowing, flowing, real-world sort of activity.

Maybe all those, and maybe more.

Another question might be about why we lost the poetry plot in the first place. Because, the fact is, poetry is where we all started. Our human ancestors’ first foray into language was a kind of singing – whose main purpose was to maintain bonds within social groups once they became too large for everyone to groom everyone else.** Not language to label and manage, but language to connect and enchant. And it’s where we still start. When you arrived to join the world, it was the musical rhythms and intonations of your family’s speech that you recognised, and vocalised, first. Vocabulary and syntax came later.***

So poetic language is primarily primal language. It’s language rooted in music, emotion and the body. It hangs loose with meaning. It’s playful. That’s what all poetry – but children’s poetry in particular – taps into. Its meaning is often enacted in the body through physicality and sensuousness. This much is obvious in many nursery rhymes (‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’), but you can find these subtle mimetic qualities in most poetry. The patterned, musical sounds of poetic language reassure the very young (and perhaps all of us) that language is not an arbitrary, alien assemblage of sound symbols, but something that has a deep connection with our own bodily experience, and connects our embodied selves to the world around.

Most importantly, poems offer a vital sense of containment. The world is vast and feelings overwhelming. Rhymes and songs assure children that both can be contained and ordered.

So maybe this revival is simply our first language reasserting itself, in spite of everything. Normality resumed.

*David Sax, 2016, The Revenge of Analogue: Real Things and Why They Matter. New York: PublicAffairs

**Robin Dunbar, 2004, The Human Story. London: Faber

***Studies of language development in infants indicate that rhythm and phrasing are acquired before vocabulary and syntax, and that this process begins before birth.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Childrens Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2017. Website: Debbie Pullinger.

 

Allie Esiri: A Childhood Love of Poetry and Shakespeare

A Childhood Love of Poetry and Shakespeare

In recent years, while compiling poetry anthologies and their accompanying apps and audiobooks, I have rediscovered the power of poetry when spoken aloud. This has never been more apparent than in the course of compiling my forthcoming anthology, Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year.

As I have been revisiting Shakespeare’s work, the words come alive in my recollections of where I have heard his poetry most vividly rendered. This has not only been on stage, but also in school classrooms, weddings, films, political theatres and funerals throughout my life.

Since childhood I have found poetry books the easiest to read of them all. From my earliest memories, I know Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry lived for a long time at the side of my bed, and my mother tells me she could hear me reciting the poems, night after night.

As I got older, all of these poems remained lodged in my heart, there to witness, and to console, its every leap and break.

I first encountered Shakespeare in that treasury, and asked my aunt for Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare for my eleventh birthday. This sumptuous volume, pink cloth encompassing the hardback cover, quickly became my second most prized possession, and furnished me with more material to enunciate to my wardrobe and drawers.

Curiously enough, as Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year is released this month, I will have done a very similar thing to the eleven-year-old Allie who, after finding so much to love in Shakespeare, decided he needed a book of his own. If just one person who picks up the book feels even a whit of what I did when I first saw and heard these lines, I would consider it a job well done.

Now I am all grown up, I have had the privilege of getting many of the poems I loved as a child published in anthologies of my own, and spoken by some of our greatest actors for the next generation of potential poetry-lovers.

More than any of my anthologies to date, my latest should be consumed through the ears. So here is a little taster of what’s to come.

Sir Simon Russell Beale reads Sonnet 18 for Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan, 2019). Other readers on the audiobook include Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory.

Allie Esiri

Allie Esiri is an accomplished curator and host of live poetry events at The National Theatre, The Bridge Theatre and at major literary festivals. Her anthologies, including A Poem for Every Day of the Year (Macmillan, 2017) and A Poem for Every Night of the Year (Macmillan, 2016) have been listed as best books of the year in The Times, The Observer and The New Statesman. Her poetry app, The Love Book, features readings from Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Watson and Tom Hiddleston, and has been credited with bringing poetry into the digital age. Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year was released on 19 September, 2019.

To contact Allie please visit her website.

John Hegley: Word Play with the Card Players

Image: Travis Elborough.

Word Play with the Card players

Tom* and I we sat and spoke

about the kids, and them awoke;

writing (and drawing) til their pencils wore away or broke.

What was to be drawn and writ

would be about a bit of local art

in which they’d get to take a part,

with poets working in the school,

each employing, as a tool

a local gallery exhibit

to inspire and uninhibit.

Clare** would come there too, to note

and photograph the drawn and wrote

in Bristol, Bradford, Luton Town:

the young creative gold dust sieved.

And, London, where I’ve also lived.

*Tom MacAndrew, freelance producer, **Clare Elstow, writer and broadcaster.

Paul CézanneThe Card Players 1894–1895, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, public domain.

As a tester for this, I visited a nearby primary school with ‘The Card Players’ by the French painter, Paul Cezanne. I explained that I had a French Connection because my dad was born in Paris and French was his mother tongue. I told the children and their teacher that I celebrate these French roots. We discussed a wide variety of roots and heritage present in the classroom. We then looked at the two card players present in the painting, at their opposite ends of the table.

Are they friends? Are they brothers? Are they farmers? Look how big their knees are! Can you supply a third person to put in the middle? What does this person look like? How big are the newcomer’s knees? What do the existing card players think about the new arrival? What does the table think? What does Paul Cezanne think of what is going on?

John’s own drawing in answer to this exercise!

The teacher in this class is most attentive,

as the children write and draw,

ignited by this image from the Courtauld.

I have learned, with running courses

in classes, workshopping in schools,

that tools held by teachers are such valuable resources.

They know the children, understand

when many hands go shooting up,

which voice

is the most prudent choice.

It may not be the chosen reply

will be the cleverest,

but it may be, here is a child too shy

to ordinarily supply their teacher

with an answer.

The teacher can also advise the guest

when it may be best

to say goodbye.

 

John Hegley

John Hegley was born in Newington Green, North London, and was educated in Luton, Bristol and Bradford University.

He has produced ten books of verse and prose pieces, two CDs and one mug, but his largest source of income is from stages on his native island. An Edinburgh Festival regular, he is noted for his exploration of such diverse topics as dog hair, potatoes, handkerchieves and the misery of human existence.

He is an occasional DJ, dancer and workshop leader, using drawing, poetry and gesture. He has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts from what is now the University of Bedfordshire, and once performed in a women’s prison in Columbia.

Alice Watson: In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

Image credit: Ben Rogers for The Poetry Society

In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

One of my first experiences of poetry was when I recited Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ at my school eisteddfod.

This was a big deal. My headmistress was proudly Welsh, and despite my school being in Deal, Kent, the eisteddfod was a big calendar event. With two Welsh grandmothers, one of whom was a published poet in the local area, I was determined that I would perform my favourite poem with confidence and bring the house down.

Or at least, this is what I had dreamt in my bedroom, and not quite what happened on the day. In a state of stage fright, I caught the worst case of the giggles and was told to finish the line I was attempting and to “GET OFF THE STAGE!”

Despite this moment, my love for poetry and performance has never diminished and to work at The Poetry Society and deliver one of the biggest poetry competitions in the world, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, is a dream come true.

Top 15 Foyle Young Poet winners and judges Caroline Bird and Daljit Nagra. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is synonymous with excellence in poetry and has recognised, nurtured and supported some of the best known poets in the English-speaking world. However, the Award is not just about the excellent winning poems, it is also about the very act of a young person expressing themselves. There is a bravery with each poem that I wish I had known as a teenager. This year, the competition received over 11,000 poems from over 6,000 young people from across the world, and whilst it is exhausting to read that many poems (and to eat that many biscuits during the judging process) it is such a privilege to read poems by the young people who will shape our world.

Left to right, Kara Jackson Foyle Young Poet and Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Patricia Frazier former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Em Power Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018, Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo Foyle Young Poet winner 2018, Natalie Richardson Foyle Young Poet and former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago and poet Rachel Long. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

The Foyle Award connects to so many more poetry activities outside of the competition itself. Some of this year’s highlights include sending poet Ryan van Winkle on an epic adventure to the Isle of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, to run poetry workshops with 150 students across a week. We welcomed three youth poet laureates from Chicago, two of whom were Foyle Young Poets, to The Poetry Café to lead workshops for recent Foyle winners and entrants, and to share a stage with them at our free Young Poets Takeover. And we sent three-time Foyle winner Mukahang Limbu and 2019 judge Raymond Antrobus to Wogan House to catch up with Cerys Matthews on her BBC6 Music radio show.

Left to right, Mukahang Limbu Foyle Young Poet winner 2016. 2017 and 2018, Cerys Matthews and Foyle Young Poet judge Raymond Antrobus. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

Last year we celebrated 20 years of the Foyle Award, and what really struck me was that approximately 100,000 young people in the last 20 years have shared their work with The Poetry Society, and whilst we celebrate 100 winners each year, I think it is also important to celebrate the very act of writing poetry itself. Like many of us, I was only taught to read and recite poetry at school, and I wish I had been given the tools and confidence to write poetry myself, and share in the power and freedom that it can give a young person. That is why, in celebration of the legacy of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and its ongoing commitment to poetry, we will be launching a new teaching resource for teachers using Foyle Young Poets’ winning poems as inspiration for lesson plans that will enable young people to write poetry themselves in and out of the classroom.

Left to right Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018 Suzanne Antelme and 5 time Foyle Young Poet winner and former judge Helen Mort. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

On the 2nd October 2019 this year’s top 100 winners, selected by judges Raymond Antrobus and Jackie Kay, will be announced at the Southbank Centre and another 100 young people will join the Foyle Young Poets family.

Alice Watson

Alice Watson is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of SLAMbassadors, Look North More Often and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked at Lauderdale House and Shakespeare’s Globe and studied an MA at King’s College, University of London in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings. To get in touch please contact Alice Watson.