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.

Alice Watson: Combat the World with Poetry

Combat the World with Poetry

The world can really feel like a strange place at times, even more so with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, and whilst many people are clearing supermarket shelves of hand sanitizers and buying more toilet rolls that an Andrex puppy can jump into, I think it is important that we continue to seek nourishment through writing and reading poetry in confusing times.

As the Education Officer for The Poetry Society I am lucky that I am always immersed in poetry and constantly blown away by poetry written by young people across the Education programmes we deliver at The Poetry Society. One of the most prestigious programmes that I manage is the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the biggest and one of the most significant poetry competitions in the world. This year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award was launched on 5 March to coincide with World Book Day and I couldn’t be more excited that this year’s judges include the inspiring Maura Dooley and amazing Keith Jarrett. For more information about the competition please visit foyleyoungpoets.org.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award encourages young people to be bold, brave, creative, to express themselves through poetry and to share their understanding of themselves and how they navigate the world. I am always struck by how talented, compassionate and concerned so many young people are, and how they express this in their poetry which does not shy away from global issues including racism, gender politics and climate change.

I think it’s important that when a young person enters a poem (or 20 poems) into the competition, that they feel a huge sense of accomplishment. They have taken the time to express themselves and to create their own piece of art, and it really is a pleasure for the judges and me to read their work. Every young person who enters the competition this year will receive a certificate to congratulate them on their achievement, and I hope that each entrant displays their certificate with pride and continues to express themselves through poetry.

In the February half term, I had the great honour of spending a couple of days with the top 15 winners of the 2019 Foyle Young Poets competition on their Arvon writing retreat at The Hurst in Shropshire. Here, the top 15 winners from across the U.K. and overseas spent 5 days fully immersed in writing, reading and performing poetry, as well as cooking, exploring the Shropshire countryside and making new friendships. At The Hurst, all of the winners were given time to explore new skills and experiment with poetic forms and work with world class poet-tutors including Mimi Khalvati, Raymond Antrobus and guest tutor Anthony Anaxagorou.

Arvon Residential at The Hurst for 2019 Foyle winners, poet tutors and in locos. Photo credit Dan Haworth for The Poetry Society.

The haven of space and time to explore poetry either as a writer, reader or hopefully both is a necessary liberation in a world that many of us can’t quite fathom. Even Storm Dennis had a good go at trying to halt the winners’ writing retreat, but thankfully the poet gods worked in our favour and everyone arrived without trouble.

As someone who does not regularly write, I increasingly experience the benefit of self-expression through poetry, not just as a reader but also as a writer and I hope more people are encouraged to be as brave, bold and creative as the entrants to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Poetry (as I have learnt) can be a fulfilling sanctuary of creative expression to combat the panic of supermarket sweep.

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.

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.