Celebrating 10 Years of Young Poets Network: A History

Happy tenth birthday to Young Poets Network (YPN)! To celebrate, throughout April we’re showcasing some of the brilliant things YPN has achieved in the past decade, and hearing from young people whose lives have been changed. In this feature, we’re looking into YPN’s never-before-seen history and some of the highlights of the past ten years.

Young Poets Network 10 years: ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk

On 1 April 2021, Young Poets Network (YPN) marks its tenth birthday.

Young Poets Network is The Poetry Society’s online platform for poetry lovers aged 25 and younger worldwide. We publish regular features about poetry, run inspiring writing challenges, publish and celebrate challenge winners, offer chances to perform and attend workshops, host a poetry glossary, and keep an up-to-date list of the best opportunities for young poets in the sector. Young Poets Network has grown into the biggest and (we think) best place for young poets aged 5-25 worldwide to develop their skills, get inspired by their peers’ work and find a community.

Often, I’m the faceless voice of Young Poets Network – but today, so that I can tell its story, I’m going to unveil the processes behind this website and make myself known. Hello! It’s Helen Bowell, Education Co-ordinator at The Poetry Society. How are you doing? I’ve run Young Poets Network since the summer of 2017, following on from Phoebe Walker (2015-17), Rachel Piercey (2012-15) and Holly Hopkins (2008-12). All four of us are so passionate about Young Poets Network, and I’m about to tell you its story.

Photo of Helen and Alice outside The Poetry Café
Education Co-ordinator Helen Bowell and Education Officer Alice Watson outside The Poetry Café in London. Photo: Cesare de Giglio

Before Young Poets Network: YM & Young Poet Pages

To begin our journey, I invite you to cast your minds back to the heady days of the late Noughties. Think: McFly, Converses, Facebook walls, sliding phones, shutter shades. At The Poetry Society, the Noughties was a time for renewed interest in celebrating and supporting young poets. In 1998 we launched the international Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, and in 2001 SLAMbassadors began its hunt for the best young spoken word poets in the UK. These were brilliant, life-changing competitions – but there was still no permanent place where young people could get published, find prompts and develop their skills all year round.

In around 2009/2010, ideas began to foment. The Poetry Society ran two issues of ‘Young Poet Pages’ on its main website. This was a kind of online magazine where Youth Members of The Poetry Society could submit poems, recordings, articles and reviews for publication. You can still visit the archived Poetry Society site (content warning: strong Noughties aesthetics) and read the first and second issues to find poets who are still writing brilliant work, from Richard O’Brien and Adham Smart to A.K. Blakemore and James Coghill. Meanwhile, Foyle Young Poets were also running their own magazines like Pomegranate and The Cadaverine in the UK themselves, and in the US, Foyle Young Poet Peter LaBerge set up The Adroit Journal. (You can read more about Peter’s journey here.)

It was in this context that ideas for a larger project, for all young people – not just paid-up Youth Members – really started to shape up. Holly Hopkins remembers:

I wanted to build a place where students who didn’t have access to poetry workshops could share work, improve their skills, and find the (often rare) opportunities in their area. I’d been back through the Poetry Society’s archives and discovered the last time we’d had a dedicated space that consistently set challenges and published young people’s work was The Voice of Youth, a magazine from the 1950s, whose first prompt had been set by Enid Blyton (she invited younger children and girls to write a poem about puppies and boys to write a poem about the sea). It seemed shocking I couldn’t find a place where the Society had regularly provided remote writing prompts and advice for young poets since then. We started by setting up an online magazine, YM, with a different student guest editor each month and prompts for new work. It was a resounding success and we were able to use it as a proof of concept to raise funds for the more ambitious Network.

This was a strong move towards a more open, global platform, now with its own URL. Many of you reading this now will have never heard of YM, but I remember its burgundy background well, and the excitement that here was a place, run by a national organisation, for young poets.

YM logo: Outline of a moose whose antlers spell YM

YPN launches in 2011!

Things were starting to happen. As Holly explains, with the help of some initial funding from Arts Council England’s Poetry & Young People Project, The Poetry Society worked with if:books and BookTrust to develop and set up YPN as it exists. The aims were to reach younger and older writers than the core age group of 11-18 year olds who The Poetry Society already worked with, to share opportunities for young poets from across the sector, to engage young people year-round and no matter their geographical location, and to work with partners to spark new ideas and reach new audiences.

With all these goals and hopes in mind, the website youngpoetsnetwork.org launched on 1 April 2011, and we never looked back. Some of the early work that YPN did includes collaborations with Poetry Digest to put young people’s poems on cupcakes; a focus on video and audio including a song lyric challenge; and a huge number of brilliant features by some of the best poets in the UK, from Daljit Nagra to Jack Underwood, Jo Shapcott to Kayo Chingonyi. Since then, we’ve challenged young people to write everything from a Golden Shovel to poems about memes, and interviewed, reviewed and read thoughts from poets like Rupi Kaur, Mary Jean Chan and Jay Bernard, and many young poets themselves.

Back in 2011, we also ran our first opportunity for young people to receive feedback from Clare Pollard. There would be two more of these over the years, with Melanie Abrahams and Caroline Bird: we know how vital and encouraging it is to receive attentive feedback on your writing, and we hope to run more.

At the time, though it may be hard to believe, there was no one place where young people could find out about poetry opportunities for them. Providing that place was one of the most important aims of YPN. The initial Poetry Map would become the Poetry Opportunities page, which remains one of our most-visited parts of the website, currently listing 215 magazines, competitions, writing groups and more for young poets.

Another big aim was to team up with lots of other organisations, and make cross-cultural links. From the beginning, we’ve worked with leading poets and organisations, from the V&A Museum and English National Ballet to RSPB and BBC Proms. We’ve built relationships and had repeat partnerships with Oxfam, People Need Nature and Modern Poetry in Translation, offering young people the chance to perform at Parliament and publication in world-leading journals.

Timothy Corsellis in 1938. Reproduced with permission of the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College.

Between 2014 and 2019, with the generous support of the Corsellis family, we ran the prestigious Timothy Corsellis Prize for poems and essays inspired by the powerful but lesser-known poets of the Second World War. Former YPN editor Rachel Piercey writes:

I was delighted to find myself working on YPN when I started at The Poetry Society: it was exactly the kind of resource I would have adored as a young writer, full of inspiration, opportunities and practical advice. I loved devising challenges and features and it was especially exciting once we started collaborating regularly with other organisations, which felt very glamorous to me! Highlights include watching the progress of YPNers over the years, and helping to set up the Timothy Corsellis Prize. I knew that young people did not typically encounter much WWII poetry – I hadn’t myself – so it felt like a unique and valuable undertaking. Those poems have stayed with me – I recently explored Keith Douglas’s ‘How To Kill’, which I first read via the Corsellis Prize, with my uni students.

We’re going to run a separate feature diving into some of these bigger projects and partnerships, but for now feast your eyes upon this comprehensive list of more or less everyone we’ve ever worked with:

Human Cell Atlas, Orwell Foundation, People Need Nature, Modern Poetry in Translation, Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Bloodaxe Archive, Freud Museum London, Artlyst, Little Angel Theatre, Imperial War Museum, War Poets Association, Moon Festival, Mary on the Green, Bletchley Park, End Hunger UK, Oxfam, Thinking Outside the Penalty Box, National Maritime Museum, University of Leeds, Cape Farewell, Museum of London, The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, British Library, English National Ballet, V&A Museum, Greys Court, Agincourt 600, the RSPB, The Offi Press, Edith Sitwell Festival, Free Word, National Trust, Like Starlings, Melodica, Melody and Me, BBC Proms, and Poetry Digest.

The growth of Young Poets Network

Initially, Young Poets Network’s audience was mostly Foyle Young Poets and SLAMbassadors who were already in The Poetry Society’s networks, but our readers grew exponentially. Since 2011, YPN has been visited over two million times – 500,000 times in the last year alone. We’ve received poems from young people in every single county in England and eighty-eight countries worldwide, from Cyprus to Hong Kong, Mauritius to North Sudan. (I repeat: eighty-eight countries! That’s wild!) 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, the University of Leeds, UniSlam, into professional recording studios and to explore the Bloodaxe Archives in Newcastle. We’ve also run free performance, writing and translation workshops at The Poetry Café, London, and online. During the pandemic, we ran a series of writing, editing and feedback workshops over Zoom for a group of twelve engaged, thoughtful writers aged 18-25 from the UK and US. With its wide age range, international reach, and free, engaging ways to learn about poetry (not just win competitions) all year round, Young Poets Network is a leader in the poetry sector.

One of the things I wanted to create in my time at The Poetry Society was a physical space for young poets in our home at The Poetry Café. Young Poets Takeovers are poetry events specifically for, by and with poets aged 25 and younger. These are safe spaces for young people to meet each other and share their work and have become a much-loved mainstay of our work with young people. During the pandemic, we’ve run Young Poets Takeovers online to great feedback. Open mic-er and YPNer Elsie Hayward said, “It was a spectacularly uplifting experience that had such a great, positive feel to it. I felt so supported and cheered for.” Which is exactly what this Network is all about.

Most important, of course, is Young Poets Network’s impact on each one of you. Later this month we’ll be publishing some case studies of Young Poets Networkers who share what a big impact this little website has had on them. Here’s a snippet from Ellora Sutton:

As a rural young person, the poetry world can often feel very far away and inaccessible – for me, Young Poets Network has broken down barriers, introduced me to new poets, and helped me to make some of my dearest friends. It is no exaggeration to say that YPN has changed the way I write, introducing me to new forms such as the Golden Shovel, and it has boosted my confidence so so much. Before YPN, I’d never read my work anywhere – now I’m actively signing up for open mics! Whenever I have writers’ block, I hop onto the YPN website and look at past challenges. My favourite single memory would probably have to be reading my commended poem from the Moon challenge, ‘lunacy’, at the Moon Festival in Woolwich – it was the first time, I think, where I really felt like a ‘poet’. I think that’s what YPN does for so many young people, it gives us the space to write, it gives us permission to write, and it gives us ambition. It tells us yes you can. It feels like a friend. But perhaps more importantly, it brings people together. Over my years entering YPN challenges I’ve felt privileged to be part of a growing global young poets’ community, supporting each other. What does YPN mean to me? Friendship. Encouragement. Warmth. Opportunities. And, of course, poetry. I will never not be grateful for it.

Lauren Aspery, Ellora Sutton and Jack Cooper at The Poetry Café for Art Does Not Get You A Job launch, standing in front of a POET mural
Lauren Aspery, Ellora Sutton and Jack Cooper at The Poetry Café for Art Does Not Get You A Job launch, following their wins in the Carol Ann Duffy challenge

We’re grateful for every single young person, teacher, parent and poetry fan who has visited this website in the past ten years. My predecessor, Phoebe Walker, writes:

My sense of ambition for YPN was for it to be a warm, welcoming, engaging space for young people with all kinds of poetic interests, or none at all. One of the loveliest things about managing YPN was getting to know some of the young poets, who would be consistently submitting poems in response to challenges, or responding to articles – just these positive, creative young presences out there in the ether. I first encountered poets such as Hannah Hodgson and Eleanor Penny through YPN challenges, and it’s great to see them continuing to do brilliant things in poetry years later. Most exciting was being able to host a live YPN event in Leeds, with Helen Mort, as part of the I Am the Universe challenge – it was the one time I actually got to meet a whole group of YPNers in person; a really special celebration. 

Thank you for being here, and thank you Holly, Rachel and Phoebe for laying and building on the foundations of YPN, to make it what it is today.

What next?

What about the next ten years? We’re planning a website redesign, more performance, feedback and workshop opportunities, more chances to connect with other young writers, and of course many more features about poetry, writing challenges and opportunities to develop. If there’s anything else you’d like to see us do, send us your ideas at [email protected]. Sign up to our mailing list if you’re not already on it, and join over 5,000 other young poets worldwide.

A final (overly earnest) word on YPN from me. It has been an honour to run this website for the past four years, and to read thousands of poems sent in by thoughtful, creative, hopeful young people from across the world. I really am grateful when you share your work with us. I also want you to know that there are no pre-requisites for being a Young Poets Networker. Whoever you are, I hope you’ll find something for you on YPN, and as long as you want to be part of this community, you’re welcome here.

Thank you to everyone – young writers, teachers, poets, organisations, administrators past and present – who has made YPN what it is today. Happy birthday, old friend. Here’s to many more decades of this global community.

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