I joined The Poetry Society as Education Officer in November 2021, just after the last year’s Foyle Young Poets award ceremony. The event was held online. I watched along from home, witnessing the nervousness of the winners melt away as they read, the joy of the judges as they read out the names of the 100 winners: a new group of talented young writers were becoming a part of the Foyle Young Poets community.
Despite not having an in-person event since 2019, the competition’s reach has grown dramatically. This year, more than 6,600 poets aged 11 – 17 submitted 13,500 poems. We received work from 100 countries and over 98% of UK postcodes. From these poems, this year’s judges Anthony Anaxagorou and Mona Arshi selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets.
Though I, like most, am tired of icebreakers and bad Wi-Fi connections, distracting backgrounds and software updates, the prospect of an in-person person event back on the cards for 2022 made me nervous. I would have to welcome hundreds of new faces into the poetry community, ask many of them to read for the first time in front of a large (although incredibly supportive!) crowd. What if they were shy? What if no one came? What about the train strikes!? It felt like there was much more to take into account when planning a live ceremony, and so much more potential for things to go wrong.
I shouldn’t have worried. From the moment the first writers arrived at the National Theatre, I could see they were buzzing to meet the other young poets. I heard them laugh and scream in recognition, at friends and acquaintances they had previously only met online. Everyone was much taller/shorter/more real than they appeared on Zoom.
Mona Arshi, one of this year’s judges, hosted the ceremony alongside poet Clare Pollard, with readings from former winners Phoebe Stuckes and Mukahang Limbu. Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and this year’s Foyle patron Savannah Brown also joined us.
The top 15 young poets read their winning poems, and the hosts remarked how different it was to hear the lines hit the air, to celebrate with whoops and cheers and the chance to be together. Judge Anthony Anaxagorou shared a message with the winners:
‘to witness such an open display of aliveness to the world, to the systems, inequalities and rhythms we live amongst confirmed the future of poetry as being vibrant, dynamic and restless’.
After many congratulations, the young poets were led to the National Poetry Library to receive a tour of the book collection. Some parents lingered behind, chatting excitedly about the event and the potential for their children to come together again and write. They praised the performers, remarked how surprised they were at the confidence of the young people: ‘They’re poets; I thought they’d be shy!’
The willingness and bravery of the 2022 Foyle Young Poets gave fresh energy to the event and reminded me of the importance of hearing from lively voices which have been cooped up in the digital space for too long.
Rachel Cleverly is a poet and producer. She is a Barbican Young Poet, an Old Vic Theatre Maker and works as an Education Officer at The Poetry Society, where she manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and has been published by The North, Poetry Wales, SPAM, The Feminist Library, Ink, Sweat & Tears and flipped eye press among others, and has been shortlisted for the UEA New Forms Award and Winchester Poetry Prize.
The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the biggest poetry competition for 11-17 year olds in the world. www.foyleyoungpoets.org poetrysociety.org.uk youngpoetsnetwork.org.uk
All photos © Hayley Madden, except the image of Rachel Cleverly, which is © Betty Laura Zapata.