Cheryl Moskowitz: What Makes a Young Poet?

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a week at Arvon with a group of young poets, top winners and commended in the 2020 Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award.

It was an ideal opportunity to find out how these phenomenal young writers got into poetry. Chiefly I was curious to know, how far back did it go? Were there poems that had significant influence on them as young children? Could they identify an ‘aha’ moment, some turning point in their lives that made them become poets?

Interestingly, for most I spoke to, early childhood was not a factor – their interest in poetry came when they were a bit older, at the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary.

April mentioned coming across W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ which she found ‘visually beautiful’ and was inspired to write nature poems of her own. Aged twelve she began to post these on allpoetry.com and got feedback from people of all ages. That led her to Young Poets Network.

“Children have complex emotions,” says April, ‘I wish I could have got into poetry earlier but I wasn’t that interested in the poetry that was being exclusively written for children.” What was important was that the schools these young poets went to encouraged them to enter poetry competitions. Thank goodness they did!

Many liked reading poems written by young poets their own age writing about things they recognise. One remembered their teacher reading a poem ‘Midnight Cat’ to their Yr 5 class explaining ‘this was written by an eleven year old’. That made an impression and really made you sit up and listen!

Entering a competition for these young poets was important in terms of setting the bar high for themselves. Many were appreciative of teachers or older students who organised reading groups where poetry could be discussed in a non-academic way. Discovering there are ‘multiple ways of looking at a poem’, realising that poets generally write about things that trouble them, and recognising poetry as a way in to learning about current affairs, history and science, can lead to new ways of knowing the world, and the self.

Daniel, for example, read a book in his GCSE history class ‘The Making of America’ and was shocked to learn of the violence early Americans inflicted on indigenous people. He became interested in the ‘Trail of Tears’, the displacement of the Cherokee and Navajo peoples, and some of this has gone into his poetry.

Euan told me, “The most vivid poetic encounter I remember from childhood was ‘A Case of Murder’ by Vernon Scannell. Our teacher read it aloud, then gave us a copy. The poem is about a boy tormenting a cat and when the cat tries to escape by running out the door, the boy slams the door just as it passes through and, ‘the cat cracked like a nut’. That is the line that remains clearly in my head, even after six years.”

Euan remembers how the poem frightened him so much so that he eventually had to take it home to discuss there, in particular that piercing image of the cat cracking like a nut.

The poetry that matters most and influences us for the rest of our lives is the stuff that touches us deeply, even uncomfortably so. Euan explains, “I think this experience has shaped my understanding of art. The artistic encounters that have moved me the most are often those that are the most disturbing. My favourite pieces of writing are those which make me most uncomfortable or uneasy.”

Thanks to the Foyle Young Poets for sharing their experiences. Work by April Egan, Daniel Wale and Euan Sinclair can be found here:

https://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poets/daniel-wale/https://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poets/april-egan/

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Cheryl’s website.

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.