Foyle Friday 2: Helen Mort, Richard O’Brien and Ankita Saxena

Welcome to our second Foyle Friday. With just over three weeks until the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2018 closes for its 20th year, today we’re speaking to three winners who have gone on to have incredible careers in writing, academia and retelling Jurassic World. Read on for more…

Helen Mort

FYP: Won a record seven times. A top 15 winner five times and commended twice (1998-2004). Went on to judge the FYP in 2012.

What did you go on to do? I studied Social and Political Sciences and focused on psychology because – as a student and as a writer – I was interested in what makes people tick! Now I’m a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

What are you up to now? I’ve been really occupied over the last few years with editing my first novel Black Car Burning and I’m thrilled that it is coming out next year with Chatto & Windus. The novel is set in Sheffield (where I live) and it’s all about trust: trust in relationships, trust in rock climbing and trust in the police. I’m also finishing off a third collection (‘Failsafe’) and hoping to send it off to my editor for her verdict…

Favourite poem then? That’s a really tough question! When I was beginning to write, my dad introduced me to a lot of Seamus Heaney and Wilfred Owen and they were the poets who really stayed with me. I still love their writing now and am in awe of both of them. The first poem I ever memorised was Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice’.

Favourite poem now? The poem I’ve read most recently that has stayed with me is anything from Layli Long Soldier’s brilliant collection ‘Whereas’. But I discover new favourite poems and authors all the time and I’m always on the lookout. I get loads of recommendations from the wonderful Andrew McMillan who is much better read than me! 

Top tips for poets? Other people’s opinions are really valuable, but the hardest skill you need to master is developing and trusting your own judgement as a writer.

Top tips for Foyle entrants? Don’t try to second-guess what the judges might like – be yourself. If I could go back and give advice to my teenage self it would be it’s okay to be weird.

Richard O’Brien

Photo credit: Adrian Pope.

FYP: Top 15 winner twice, in 2006 and 2007.

What did winning mean to you? It made me take the idea of myself as a writer seriously, having never known anyone my age who wrote or liked poetry. Through contacts made in that community, I ended up with my first publication, my first pamphlet, and so on. And my first year of FYP winners (2006) started an online magazine together, Pomegranate, which helped us both to make contact with and to offer publication to a range of other writers under 30, many of whom have gone on to great things themselves!

What are you up to nowadays? I did a PhD on Shakespeare and the development of verse drama, asking why it isn’t a form we often see on contemporary stages any more, and I teach in the Creative Writing department at the University of Birmingham. I’m also working on a YA novel, sending out my first collection, editing a book of children’s poems about dinosaurs for the Emma Press, and am getting increasingly involved in poetry and translation. I also spent some time this year writing a poetic retelling of the romance plot from Jurassic World, and honestly I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of anything.

Favourite poet then? There is a horrendous interview I gave to my local paper when I won the Foyle Award, where a photographer came to my house and I wore a blue-and-white striped jacket like an ice-cream man and gave the distinct impression I was asking ‘How did you get into my office?’ I think in that I talked about Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, and Pete Doherty… basically whatever I was aware of at the time.

Favourite poet now? I still like most of them, but a lot of learning, literary and otherwise, is unlearning, and in recent years I’ve been consciously seeking out different voices. Poets I’ve read and enjoyed recently include Hera Lindsay Bird, Jason Koo, Chen Chen, A. E. Stallings, Jack Nicholls, Stephen Sexton, and as soon as I send this off I’m going to think of ten other people I should have mentioned.

Top tips for poets? When you start young, it can feel like it takes a long time for things to happen: I’m 27 now and still don’t have a full-length collection, which feels to me like an issue because I’ve been writing ‘professionally’ for ten years – but really 27 isn’t very old! Daljit Nagra, who taught the winners’ Arvon course in my second year (2007) advised me not to publish a full collection before I was thirty, and though at the time I was extremely resistant, there was merit in that advice: I would have ended up putting out a lot of work that these days I wouldn’t be proud of.  I’m much happier with my quote-unquote ‘mature work’ – but it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the FYP. In general, read a lot, be ambitious, and read contemporary poetry: you can’t write in a way that speaks to the modern day if that’s not what you read. Follow poets on Twitter, look at who publishes them and whose work they share, and see where it leads you!

Ankita Saxena

FYP: Commended thrice, in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

What did winning mean to you? Winning the FYP made me realise what contemporary poetry looked and sounded like. The fact that the competition is open internationally means that at a young age I was able to understand the texture of poetry around the world. It gave me the confidence in the strange and continually morphing shape of my own piece of the poetry jigsaw. It’s incredible I could feel that so early on. 

Favourite poet then? I loved reading anthologies – I remember Faber (I think) put out these little books of sonnets, villanelles, etc. Form really excited me and I was trying to learn as much as I could as quickly, so anthologies were a good way to do this. The poems in the Foyle anthology were always so diverse too – there were sestinas, conversational free verse pieces and prose poems. Discovering different methods of presenting poetry really challenged me to break out of what I thought a poem should look like.

Favourite poet now? I am currently really drawn to the work of American poets, such as Safia Elhillo and Angel Nafis. I also love the work of poets who inhabit similar spaces to me – and who I’ve been lucky to write, meet and work with – Mary Jean Chan, Rachel Long, Momtaza Mehri.

What have you been up to since? I became a Barbican Young Poet, studied English at Oxford, and became a member of the Octavia Poetry Collective, with whom I still write and perform. I don’t know if any of this would have happened if I didn’t think that poetry and literature were significant. Since I graduated in July I have been working and writing. My challenge for myself this year has been to learn a new type of writing. I did a playwriting course at the National Theatre and recently had my first short play staged as part of a scratch night. I am also working on putting together my first poetry pamphlet.

Advice for poets? Be instinctive in your journey with poetry. You have the authority to decide who you like and don’t like. If you don’t like the book that everyone’s been talking about, ditch it and pick up another one. Use the resources you have: your local library, the National Poetry Library if you live in London, or the online resources available on Young Poets Network. Go to open mic nights and performances by poets you’re intrigued by. Go wild on Google. Own what makes you and your writing style different! And of course, keep writing.


Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 20th anniversary logo: black and white text on a square backgroundThe Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is an opportunity for any young poet aged 11-17 to accelerate their writing career. Since it was founded in 1998 the Award has kick-started the career of some of today’s most exciting new voices. This year the Award celebrates its 20th anniversary, with lots of exciting activity throughout 2018.

Each year 100 winners (85 Commendations and 15 Overall Winners) are selected by a team of high profile judges, this year Caroline Bird (herself a former winner) and Daljit Nagra. There are loads of exciting prizes up for grabs, including publication, mentoring, poetry books and long-term support from The Poetry Society. Teachers can also access free teaching resources. Find out more and enter by 31 July 2018 at

Don’t miss the other features in our Foyle Friday series…

Published July, 2018

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