Natasha Ryan: Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

I joined The Poetry Society as Education Officer in April as a maternity cover. My main role is organising the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which has just opened for entries again – visit foyleyoungpoets.org to learn more.

When I took the job, I was especially looking forward to attending poetry readings in the Poetry Café in London, as well as young poets’ showcases in schools and arts venues. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

Like many arts organisations over the last year, The Poetry Society has moved much of its live activity online: from the recent bicentennial Keats celebrations to launches of our quarterly Poetry Review, Zoom has become the dominant mode of interaction with our audiences, an ill-fitting peg in a Betterton Street-shaped hole. The same is true of our work with young people, where we’ve had to adapt to variables like students’ learning from home, increased teacher workload, different safeguarding concerns, and an awareness of new pressures on young people’s mental health.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our young people’s work is the strong sense of community our young poets form, whether through shared activities as winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, or through Young Poets Network. We were especially keen not to lose this.

Mindful that social distancing is not optimal for forging such connections, it would have been easy to be all zoom and gloom. However, the new structures imposed on us revealed a surprising silver lining. For instance, at the last Foyle Young Poets awards ceremony, we were not only joined by more international winners than usual, but also by large school groups whom we could not normally host at an in-person event. In one case, an entire year group joined the event to support their peers.

Last month, we ran an online writing course for the 15 top winners of the award. Over the course of two days, the young poets participated in eleven hours of workshops and sharing sessions to encourage them to develop their craft, build confidence, and support one another.

Undeniably, it was a lot of screen time. But despite the Zoom fatigue, the technology also offered certain advantages: written responses to prompts could be shared instantly and simultaneously using the chat function; for young people sharing their work for the first time, being in the comfort of their own homes reduced anxiety; and the resources we shared onscreen could be edited in real time, giving the participants agency in shaping the material. What’s more, although the nerve-wracking moment when the participants had to unmute themselves before voicing an idea introduced delays into discussions, it was also an important process – the technology forced them actively to give themselves permission to be heard. Once they relaxed into this, they embraced the surreal nature of some of the tasks, so that an ideas-generating exercise prompted unexpected phrases like “Charlotte Brontë knows how to do the worm”, while one participant wrote a villanelle about sweet potatoes that very afternoon.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not looking forward to in-person events again, but I hope we retain some of the benefits of the online format and use it to reach audiences further afield. The paradox of this age of social distancing is that although we feel further apart from friends and family, we can be in the same Zoom room as someone thousands of miles away. When you think about it, that’s an even more extraordinary notion than, say, Charlotte Brontë doing the worm.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is free to enter and is open to poets aged 11-17 anywhere in the world. Enter online at foyleyoungpoets.org by 31 July 2021.

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.

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