Foyle Friday 5: Michael Donkor & Anbara Salam

In our fifth Foyle Friday special we speak to two poets who have gone on to become acclaimed novelists: Michael Donkor and Anbara Salam. Both are represented by the agency Blake Friedmann, and Anbara is represented by agent Hattie Grunewald, another Foyle Young Poet (stay tuned for more). The Award can launch your literary career in any genre – if you are aged 11-17 or know someone who is, remind them that this year’s free competition closes on 31 July 2018.

Michael Donkor

Photo credit: David Yiu.

FYP: Commended in 2002.

What did winning mean to you? It was such a thrill! Although I wrote poetry compulsively as a teenager, I was never confident about the quality of my efforts; being recognised by the Foyle judges game me some sense that I was producing stuff that, in some way, spoke to and touched readers.

It made me start thinking much more seriously about myself as a writer, as someone who might be able to place the crafting of stories at the centre of their life. It made that rather abstract ambition feel that little bit more tangible. Being commended was a lovely spur that encouraged me to keep writing in various forms and to submit my work to other competitions, journals and magazines.

Have you kept in touch with any Foyle Young Poets? Funnily enough, Anbara Salam and I share the same literary agent (and she gave me a wonderful quote for the cover of my debut novel Hold) and when I was teaching English Literature at Esher College a few years ago I invited Helen Mort to come in and do a reading for my students. She was magnificent; the definition of composure, generosity and patience.

Favourite poet then? I loved the sensuality and corporeality of Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’. The purity and power of his startling images in this poem are extraordinary; when I was a teenager I’d never read anything quite like it.

Favourite poet now? A focus on the body – in all its sexy, messy, fragile, beautiful glory – is also present in the work of my current favourite poets: Sharon Olds and Andrew McMillan. In their very different ways, both of these writers create an astonishing and intense intimacy with the reader; a connection that sometimes comforts, sometimes unsettles.

What are you up to now? My first novel Hold has just been published by 4th Estate. It’s about a diligent 17 year old Ghanaian housegirl Belinda, who is brought over from Kumasi to London – leaving behind a younger housemaid and close friend Mary – to help ‘fix’ the behaviour of wayward British-Ghanaian teenager Amma. The novel explores the friendships that these girls share as they stumble towards womanhood.

I’ve been working on it for the best part of a decade – and at some points during that period thought that I’d never finish it! – so I find myself in a state of shock every time I walk into a Foyles (tee hee!) and see serried ranks of my novel on the shelves. I’m currently doing promotional stuff to publicise Hold; readings, interviews and so on. It’s really fun!

Top editing tip? Try removing what you think should be the first line/stanza/paragraph/chapter of your writing. Think carefully about how the text feels when that opening is lopped off. Does it make the work begin in a fresher way? Does it challenge the reader a little more? Could the opening be used elsewhere, or differently?

Often the things that I write at the start of a story actually turn out to be like warm ups or rehearsals; they’re useful for me but not for anyone else, and so I tend to get rid of them.

Advice for young writers? Read fiction and poetry that you aren’t naturally ‘drawn’ to, read work in translation, talk to people about what you’re reading, keep a journal, study the world around you with curiosity, fearlessness and openness.

Anbara Salam

FYP: Commended in 2001 and top 15 winner in 2002.

What did winning mean to you? Part of what made the award so inspiring was meeting other young people who were passionate about creative writing; it felt as if I was suddenly ‘allowed’ to talk seriously about this hobby I had always kept a bit secret. Winning was a huge confidence boost. It encouraged me to take more risks with my creative writing: I studied an undergraduate degree in English and History at the University of York, which being fantastically hippy, allowed students to submit portfolios of creative work to be assessed alongside their critical essays. I submitted a collection of poems – something I that would never have felt confident enough to do without the sense that my interest had been validated someow by the award.

Favourite poet then? At the time I clearly remember being obsessed with Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Gate’ – I still have the same copy on my bookshelf and it’s falling apart.

Favourite poet now? Most recently, I’ve just finished reading ‘England: Poems from a School’, which was produced by students at Oxford Spires Academy, a school only a street away from my office. The poet Kate Clanchy has been working with and mentoring the students, and the collection totally blew me away.

What have you been up to recently? On the non-writing side, I’m living in Oxford and working for a NGO that provides postgraduate scholarships for refugee students. On the writing side, I’ve been mainly writing prose, and my first novel, Things Bright and Beautiful was published by Fig Tree/Penguin in April 2018.

Top tips for young writers? I know everyone says this, but that’s because it’s true: scribble out that first draft without fear. You can always edit bad work, but you can’t edit nothing. So make as much mess as you can, and clean it up later. And when it comes to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award: apply, apply, apply! You genuinely have nothing to lose by submitting your work to free competitions. Putting yourself ‘out there’ can feel scary but challenge yourself to take a risk – you never know what amazing opportunities will come from taking that first step.

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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