Helen Bowell: 10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the world’s biggest competition for 11-17 year old poets in the world, and it’s changed hundreds of lives – including mine! After I was commended in the competition as a teenager, I got to meet other young writers at the Foyle Young Poets winners’ ceremony, take part in a young people’s reading at The Poetry Café, and even interview Imtiaz Dharker the day before sitting an English GCSE exam. Those encouraging initial experiences with poetry are partly why I am a poet today, and why I work for The Poetry Society, championing its programmes for young people.

Nowadays, I run Young Poets Network (YPN), The Poetry Society’s free online platform for writers aged 25 and younger worldwide. We run regular writing ‘challenges’ and publish the winners’ work, and help young people to discover new authors, techniques and ideas for writing. We also keep an up-to-date Poetry Opportunities page for young poets. And by publishing young people’s work and running events and workshops, we do our best to foster a global community.

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

In April 2021, we celebrated Young Poets Network’s tenth anniversary. In the midst of the pandemic, working on these celebrations was so uplifting. Since 2011, YPN has been visited over two million times, and received poems from young people in every single county in England and 88 countries worldwide, from Cyprus to Hong Kong, Mauritius to North Sudan. We’ve published 813 poems and five special edition anthologies, and sent young people to perform at the House of Lords, the National Maritime Museum, UniSlam, professional recording studios and to explore the Bloodaxe Archives in Newcastle. If you’d like a cheering read, you can browse the fond memories and generous reflections of a number of Young Poets Networkers who have grown, gained self-belief and found their tribe with us over the past decade. Here’s what one of those young people, Ellora Sutton, says: “What does YPN mean to me? Friendship. Encouragement. Warmth. Opportunities. And, of course, poetry. I will never not be grateful for it.”

Though I got into poetry as a teenager, there’s no lower age limit for Young Poets Network. Some of the most brilliant poems we receive are by children under 10 who manage to see the world more clearly than the rest of us. A 2019 challenge inspired by the 50th anniversary of the moon landings attracted hundreds of entries; and two of the nine winning poets were young children. Sophie Orman’s poem ‘Moon Watching’ was written when she was 7, and Max Dixon (whose poem ‘Christmas Moon’ won third prize) was just 6 at the time. I love receiving poems by young children, and I hope that as parents, teachers and poets you’ll find our resources helpful in inspiring people of all ages to write.

As I am now officially no longer a ‘young poet’, where possible, I invite young writers to write for the website. Every August, we commission four Foyle Young Poets to set writing challenges, keeping people busy over the summer holidays. This year, Sinéad O’Reilly, Mukisa Verrall, Euan Sinclair and Anisha Minocha will be challenging young people to explore conversations, the absurd, objects and letter-writing. You can check out their resources and submit by 12 September 2021, and join our worldwide community as it embarks on its second decade.

Find the latest Young Poets Network challenges here.

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Here at The Poetry Society, we have been placing poets in schools for over 50 years. And never once did we think to prepare for a global pandemic.

When the UK went into lockdown in March, schools were forced to cancel their Poets in Schools bookings. There was nothing either schools or poets could do about it, but it marked the start of a significant loss of income for freelancers who depended on working in schools.

So the Education Team hurriedly donned their sparkly thinking caps. We were able to pay the five poets who had last-minute cancellations what they would have earned, commissioning new resources to help teachers keep teaching poetry from home. Joseph Coelho had great suggestions for poetic forms and Michelle Madsen helped us to imagine ourselves elsewhere, while Joelle Taylor addressed the Covid-19 pandemic directly. One teacher even asked us for a volcanic poetry resource, and Justin Coe provided!

These resources kick-started what would become a major project for us in the Spring and Summer terms – our new Learning from Home section, chock-full of responsive lesson plans, writing prompts and reading suggestions. We asked teachers what they wanted from us, and did our best to provide it, putting together ideas for addressing racism and mental health through poetry, and directing them to the wealth of resources that already existed on Poetryclass.

Meanwhile, we surveyed poets we’d sent into schools in the last two years, asking them what they felt safe doing and about their ideas for digital versions of Poets in Schools. PiS regular Cheryl Moskowitz had been independently visiting schools all through lockdown to put together The Corona Collectionand was helping to steer our thinking. Cheryl also wrote us some ace notes for teachers on how poetry can help students process the pandemic.

By the summer, we were finding that less than a fifth of teachers wanted a Poets in Schools visit that looked exactly as in the past. Poets were agreed that the pandemic presented a chance to do things differently, and that a digital ‘visit’ to a school could be as valuable as an in-person day of workshops and performances. Mandy Coe pointed out that there was fun to be had with the tech, like being carried around a classroom on an iPad, and many poets were already running online workshops for families.

One of our highlights of the summer was Zooming with twenty-odd wonderful Poets in Schools to share questions and findings, and work on creative solutions together. As a result of that consultation, we put together some guidance for poet facilitators in the time of coronavirus, shared some updated safeguarding notes, amended our terms of agreement to include digital visits and made sure to ask important Covid/software related questions at point of enquiry.

Digital workshops and performances are, of course, not perfect. It can be harder to excite students and make sure nobody’s left out when the poet’s not physically in the room, and we know there is disparity in access to technology, both among students and schools. But there are advantages, too –we can now beam in poets to rural schools without adding a big train fare to the bill, and save the poet an early start. There are creative solutions to be had, and we are excited to discover more.

We are very lucky to work with brilliant poet educators who are passionate about inspiring young people. They have been able to adapt to and even embrace the changing circumstances in ways we could never have predicted. As for us at The Poetry Society – we will keep supporting poets and schools, and championing poetry, whatever happens next.

Find out more about Poets in Schools and make an enquiry.

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.