For an indication of the health of British poetry, says Lemn Sissay, look no further than the strength of the entries to young people's competitions. "They're the momentum in a movement," he says – the force against a "competitive note" that has entered the contemporary poetry scene. The 42-year-old performance poet has just completed a week teaching the 15 winners of last year's Foyle Young Poets Award, which drew a record 14,000 entries from all over the world – and, by his reckoning, the future of the art form is very bright indeed.
Founded by the Poetry Society in 1998, the award opens to 2010 entries tomorrow; anyone aged 11-17 on the closing date (31 July) may enter any number of poems, of any sort. The poets Jane Draycott and Luke Kennard will judge the entries and choose 15 Young Poets of the Year and 85 further commendations. Five winners from the younger age group, 11-14, will be mentored by a poet, as well as winning poetry residencies for their schools. Fifteen winners in the 15-17 age group will attend a prestigious residential course, like the one taught by Sissay at the end of last month.
Previous winners have repaid their promise, and then some. Richard O'Brien (a winner in 2006 and 2007) set up Pomegranate, a poetry ezine, to publish the best new work by writers under 30. Caroline Bird (1999 and 2000) was the youngest writer shortlisted for the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize. Now 22, she co-tutored February's course.
If there was a theme among last year's entries, says Sissay, it had to do with "a need to counter the thunderstorm of mass information we receive through every medium". But the 15 winning poets on the course came from all walks of life – from the daughter of a family of gypsies to the son of a London theatre producer. One, 17 year-old Phoebe Power, writes her account of the week, over the following two pages.
So what would inspire a young person to write poems in the first place? "It's simple," says Sissay. "If you want to speak out about globalisation, about making people accountable, a way to do that is to create something original. Why should they write? It's a celebration of themselves. And it's a buzz."
For more information, or to enter this year's competition, visit foyleyoungpoets.org
Diary by Phoebe Power
A winner in the 15- to17-year-olds category, 2009
I arrived at The Hurst, the former home of the playwright John Osborne, at the Arvon Centre in Shropshire in the evening – not nervous, just excited. I had a chance to chat with the other winners before dinner. We met our tutors, Lemn Sissay and Caroline Bird. After dinner, Caroline led a workshop, setting our creativity in motion by asking us to conjure images of "happiness". Caroline took the best imagery from each of us and put together a brilliant collective poem.
We met in the Ted Hughes Room at 9.30am, where we were split into two groups. Half of us stayed with Caroline and the others went with Lemn to the Foyle Studio, a converted barn packed with poetry books. Caroline did a series of exercises with us, including one where we wrote a poem inspired by "The Fragrant Cloud" by James Tate, and another where we imagined a time capsule had been found containing things from our life. At the end of every exercise we read out our work, which gave me more confidence in my writing, and it was interesting to see how others had interpreted the task. We stopped for lunch and had a bit of time to relax, before the groups swapped and my half worked with Lemn.
In Caroline's workshop we had written several quite spontaneous poems in a short space of time, whereas Lemn had a different, but equally exciting, approach. He led us through the careful craft of a single poem – about someone we loved – giving us a structure and rhyme scheme to follow. With Lemn's help, we teased out the precise nuances we needed. It was wonderful to be given time to explore something very personal, while improving our skill at creating original, powerful imagery.
At 4.30pm, the evening's cooks got started while the rest of us chatted, or edited and typed up our work. Each night, a team of three or four were chosen to cook (tried- and-tested recipes were used – all delicious), and it was a brilliant way of working with other people and relaxing with a practical task after a day of thinking. After dinner, Lemn and Caroline performed their work. They were both fantastic, and showed how poetry can swallow an audience with a great performance or reading.
A second day of workshops. With Lemn, we each wrote a poem beginning with "Let there be...". Some brilliant work was being produced by everyone, including poems beginning "Let there be Sin", "Let there be Secrecy" and "Let there be Longing". Caroline gave us another set of tasks, including a poem about our perception of contemporary life that started, "I'm being told...". We also did an interesting exercise where Caroline read out a list of unusual words (such as "baleful" and "calcium") and we had to mould a poem around them. It was intriguing to see how the words caused certain ideas to rise to the surface.
In the evening, a guest poet, Luke Wright, came to perform. He performed brilliantly and, like Caroline and Lemn, you could trace his unique style, which encouraged me to write in my own way without worrying. It was becoming clear to me how important honesty is in poetry.
There were one-to-one tutorials throughout the day, each lasting half an hour. The tutors were positive, understanding and helpful, scrutinising every piece of work I showed them. During the rest of the day, we had time to work on their suggestions, redraft and edit the poems which we'd written in the workshops, print them out and read them to each other.
We were also busy flicking through poetry books, finding favourite poems to read after dinner. These were either known to us from before the course or discovered during the week, and hearing other people's choices offered an insight into new authors and poems. I read "The Circle" by Don Paterson and "You're" by Sylvia Plath, which was invaluable practice for reading my own poetry the following evening.
In the morning, Lemn and Caroline ran a performance workshop. Caroline gave us some dramatic phrases, such as "We need to talk", to include in an improvised sketch. After half an hour, each group performed their piece, and all of them were hilarious and imaginative. Lemn and Caroline then gave us lots of advice on reading poetry aloud in front of an audience. In the afternoon, there were more tutorials, and time to polish our poems ready for the evening. We gave a selection of poems to Melissa, Hannah and Phoebe Walker, who were the "curators" for a special exhibition in the Ted Hughes Room. All the furniture was moved, and lengths of string put up. Everyone's poems were hung from the string or stuck on the wall, and the lights turned off. With a beautiful piece by Sibelius playing, everyone entered with torches and read the poems in silence. It was a lovely way to read poetry, and established the perfect atmosphere for the reading that followed.
In the Foyle Studio, everyone read a couple of pieces of their best work. All the poems were phenomenal, and I loved hearing the variety of styles. Afterwards, Lemn and Caroline encouraged us all to continue writing at all costs. They explained the importance of creativity, and their words uplifted and instilled in me a new energy for writing.
As well as giving my poetry space to develop, the course also gave me a set of lovely new friends! Poetry is, essentially, our thoughts and feelings, in the truest way we can represent them. Sharing them resulted in a wonderful openness and trust in the group. The casual, non-competitive atmosphere made it easy to write honestly and without feeling self-conscious, and by the end of the week, I loved everyone, and felt as if I had known them all my life.
Phoebe's winning poem
ShortMessageService is so 2two0thousand0and7seven.
I prefer MicroSoftNetwork, OKay
but only when you've got WirelessFidelity.
Every1one of you'll get
AcquiredImmuneDeficiency Syndrome from
social networking, I prefer my MovingPicturesexpertsgroup
player, it's so compact.
My headphones nestled within curls
rectilinear, charred and static,
I always use my GoodHairDays;
I remain faithful to the new religion.
My pal Ryan and I fly airily
away across the wasteland;
earth's got cheap.
I'll pick up a souvenir on the
SevereAcuteRespiratory Syndrome, and when I'm
hospitalised, they'll get in
some visitors: amiable
to send me to zzzzzz
while my friend, Mister Brain
is being insouciantly fried
by polyphonic microwaves with toothy blue grins