Seven Partnerships That Changed Young Poets Network – And Might Change You

What do Oxfam, the National Maritime Museum, the Moon Festival, Modern Poetry in Translation and the University of Leeds all have in common? Young Poets Network!

Language is a way of understanding culture. Poetry particularly does that. When we get a wider understanding of the views around football, people can understand each other better. Nick Makoha on Thinking Outside the Penalty Box

One of the main ideas behind setting up Young Poets Network in 2011 was to work with a variety of different organisations, including those whose work had nothing to do with poetry. We wanted to bring poetry to history and science museums; local, national and international organisations; we wanted Young Poets Network to have the freedom to respond to regular events like the BBC Proms and moments like the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon Landings.

But we didn’t just bring poetry to other organisations – we’ve learnt so much by collaborating with different disciplines, languages and interests. We’ve made films and taken young poets to the Houses of Parliament, and changed many young people’s idea of what poetry can be and do.

Our partnerships have been one of Young Poets Network’s most unique assets. Today we’re remembering a few of those brilliant collaborations from over the years, focusing on how they’ve shaped us, and hearing from the poets and partners involved.

1. Cape Farewell and Young Poets Network’s Focus on the Environment

Former Education Manager Lucy Wood

‘And I believe, Father, that what is gone is certitude.’ – Rachel Lewis

The partnership we set up with the pioneering environmental arts organisation Cape Farewell back in 2013 represented a watershed moment in many ways. A series of challenges, hosted on Young Poets Network, designed by poets Karen McCarthy Wolf and later, Helen Mort, challenged young poets to immerse themselves in Cape Farewell’s rich visual archive of environment focused artworks to create powerful – and often devastating – new writing. 

This collaboration set a gold standard for the YPN’s cross-disciplinary approaches to poetry. It introduced hundreds of young writers to the arresting – and increasingly urgent – climate-focused works by artists including Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread and Ryuichi Sakamoto. The resulting poems were as beautiful as they were harrowing, and can be read as a clarion call from upcoming generations that business as usual simply cannot continue.

In 2014 we were able to take cross-disciplinary approach one step further by partnering with Hollywood composer David Julyan (whose credits include Memento, Cabin in the Woods and The Prestige) to score the winning poems; creating four unique poetry soundscapes that immerse the audience in the beauty and vulnerability of our planet. I’ll never forget the hushed awe of the group as we entered the atrium of the world famous Air Studios in Hampstead to complete the recording; made even more awesome by being told that the legendary composer Hans Zimmer had just vacated the space hours previous!

I’m very proud of this collaboration, which had been one of our most popular challenges on YPN to date. It inspired me to follow a path into art-science and climate commissions – and I hope inspired a generation to engage with their environment, in all its texture and terror, like never before. The end results were poems which speak of a world in crisis, but one that the upcoming generation is ready to fight for.

A twilight photograph of an artic region, with balloons representing greenhouse gases in the air
Photo by Nathan Gallagher / Cape Farewell. The artwork shown is ‘Greenhouse Gas’ by Sunand Prasad.
Helen Mort on her role in the Cape Farewell challenges:

Working alongside Young Poets Network is exciting for me as a writer as well as a workshop facilitator: I’ve had the opportunity to explore archives like the amazing Cape Farewell resources, discover visual artists, learn about the scientific context for our current climate emergency and – best of all – read hundreds of poems by talented new writers. I think that’s the best bit actually: seeing how many students connected with the challenges and produced original work. I love that ‘wow, how did they think of that?’ feeling as a judge! I still have some of the visual art from our poetry challenges on my desktop too, I got obsessed with ‘the library of ice’. After I set the first challenges, I was lucky enough to go on an expedition to Greenland and found my head was full of poetry as I lived on the glacier there.

Winner Rachel Lewis writes:

As part of the prize for this challenge my poem was professionally recorded and set to a film made for the poem. This was an amazing final product to have to showcase my work and a huge confidence boost. The whole experience was brilliant and made me feel like a professional poet for the first time. I still sometimes send people the link to introduce them to what I do and it was 5 years ago now!

Find out more about the Cape Farewell collaboration and all the environmental challenges with other organisations that it inspired

2. The Timothy Corsellis Prize: A Focus on Lesser Known War Poets

The Poetry Society ran the annual Timothy Corsellis Prize on Young Poets Network from 2014 to 2019. The Prize was set up and sustained by the generous support of the family of Timothy Corsellis, a poet-soldier who fought and died in the Second World War. In the UK, it’s hard to go through your education without learning about poets of the First World War, but the Timothy Corsellis Prize offered the chance to pay close attention to the next generation of equally powerful but lesser-known war poets.

The Prize asked young poets worldwide to write poems and short essays in response to the life and/or work of a small selection of Second World War poets, including Timothy Corsellis, Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich, Miklós Radnóti. Each year, we added a new poet to the roster, and a new perspective on the war.

Over six years, the Timothy Corsellis Prize inspired hundreds of young people to research and respond creatively to poets of the Second World War. The prize has had far-reaching effects: in 2019 alone, we received entries from some fourteen different countries including Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Italy, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the USA. The Timothy Corsellis pages on our websites have been viewed over 44,000 times, and the teaching resources and profiles of WWII poets remain online and free for curious readers to explore. Thank you again to the Corsellis family for making this Prize possible.

Photo of Timothy Corsellis at Winchester College.
Timothy Corsellis in 1938. Reproduced with permission of the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College.
One of the judges, poet and lecturer Karen Leeder, writes:

Judging The Timothy Corsellis Prize over the past years has been so rewarding. It is wonderful to see young writers exploring poets from near and far with such different perspectives on the war. I have been impressed and moved by the personal engagement shown by many of the young writers; but also the sophistication of their achievement: the confidence with which they have approached subjects so far from their own experience and drawn out the communalities; the way they have responded to rhythms, vocabularies and visions outside their own ken and expanded their own ways of seeing and saying. At a time when our sensibilities are ever more local and even parochial this is a valuable way of reaching across borders and encountering the language of some of the greats. I hope it stimulates the entrants to delve further into poetry from the past and from all over the world and rub their own languages up against different ways of being in the world and on the page.

Oil painting of Anna Akhmatova, with sharp lines and bold colours - a yellow shawl draped on the chair, her arms and legs crossed in a blue dress
“Portrait of Anna Akhmatova” (1915) by Natay Altman. From the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Previous winners reflect:

I am incredibly grateful to the Timothy Corsellis Prize for directing my attention towards war trauma, an impact which has stayed with me. I wrote my final year dissertation on Wilfred Owen’s psychologist, Dr Arthur Brock.
– Katharina Dixon-Ward

I entered because I wanted to respond to British canonical war poetry – which is overwhelming white, male, and western-centred – with my family’s harrowing experiences of war as Vietnamese-Chinese refugees. The realities of war for displaced persons – particularly those from the Global South – have been historically neglected in the British canon, and I felt that these stories needed to be re-centred. As an emerging poet of colour, I have a tendency to look at the British canon as something separate from myself and my writing, in that it doesn’t often reflect my realities or experiences or those of my family. But winning second prize helped me feel that I was part of a movement to challenge and expand this literary landscape; it was gratifying to know that there could be a wider interest in my work and subject matter.
– Natalie Linh Bolderston

3. Oxfam and Speaking Out

The London People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs, that took place on Sunday 29th November 2015 Brendan Foster/Oxfam

Oxfam is one of the larger organisations Young Poets Network has partnered with, and it was an exciting chance to reach even more people in a completely different way. We ran three challenges together over the years, giving young people a place to fight against social injustices using their poetry. Even It Up asked young people to respond to gender and global inequality; Turn Up The Volume was part of our year-long focus on climate change in 2017; and the End Hunger UK challenge responded to the scandal of food poverty in the UK. The End Hunger UK winners took part in a performance workshop with Anthony Anaxagorou, had their poems professionally filmed to camera (find the playlist here!) and included in a touring exhibition. Some of them even performed their work at the House of Lords to an audience of MPs and policymakers, and the print anthology was distributed across the UK. Our challenges with Oxfam helped to inspire other opportunities like the protest poetry and political language challenges. To all those who say that poetry can do nothing – we respectfully disagree.

From Oxfam:

Oxfam GB was proud to collaborate with The Poetry Society on three poetry challenges with the Young Poets Network. Harnessing young people’s creativity with the spoken word to Oxfam’s mission to end poverty resulted in many passionate, powerful and influential entries from around the country and the world. The poems’ messages were amplified loudly and widely by social, print and broadcast media, and the End Hunger challenge winners read for MPs who were debating poverty in Parliament. In a space usually dominated by policy reports and dry research, poetry crafted by young people has a special power to cut through.

4. People Need Nature: How to Write Poetry in the World

People Need Nature is a charity which promotes the (non-economic) value of nature for people in their everyday lives: nature as a source of inspiration and solace. We’ve run three challenges with them (with plans for a fourth!) – Ways to be Wilder and Namedropping both set and judged by poet Jen Hadfield, and the simply titled People Need Nature challenge written and judged by Gboyega Odubanjo. These have explored writing about what nature means to you, the weird and wonderful names in the natural world, and the small ways nature presents itself in our lives. These challenges focused on a profound love and awe for the world around us, as a mindful break from the powerful anger and grief often foregrounded in protest poetry. We’d like to thank People Need Nature and Mrs J R King again for generously supporting  these challenges, and we look forward to many more.

Gboyega Odubanjo writes:

My horizons, with regards to my relationship with nature, were broadened throughout lockdown and they have been broadened further thanks to the poems I have read. With this challenge I had hoped to be able to see nature through the eyes of others and, as much as I can, I believe I have. From the intimate and rueful image of weeping “for the arctic in [a] hotel” to the simple, playful freedom of a squirrel – “the highwayman of the highstreet – scuttling through man-made streets without a man in sight. I am fascinated with the ever-thinning line that we draw between ourselves and nature. As we all know the ways in which we approach nature are often devastating – as when “we [build] mineswhere we shouldn’t” – but hope can be found in our continued learning, and in the world around us which hopefully we continue to learn from.  Thank you kindly to all who submitted; I hope that these poems have done you as much good as they have done me.

Jen Hadfield and Gboyega Odubanjo (by Sylvia Suli)

5. Thinking Outside the Penalty Box: Football, Race and Poetry

You are knocked down, but you rise,
Running towards the net,
You were ready to fly

And you flew.

from ‘Eniola Aluko’ by Amelia Doherty

Thinking Outside the Penalty Box is a programme run by Lizzy Attree and Nick Makoha. It aims to spotlight the experiences of African footballers playing in the UK, and to tackle racism with positive, inspirational stories around the incredible achievements of the players. This was a brilliant opportunity to bring sport and poetry together through a writing challenge in 2018, and a free poetry workshop led by Kayo Chingonyi at The Poetry Society. We published a print and online anthology including the poems created in the workshop, the Young Poets Network challenge winners and four commissioned poems by premiere league poets Nick Makoha, Roger Robinson, Sugar J and Kayo Chingonyi. (This partnership also offered lots of chances for football puns.)

Nick Makoha writes:

We always wanted to work with Young Poets Network, right from the first time Lizzy and I met at the Southbank Centre to talk about this idea. We wanted to come up with a positive way to look at racism. How could we put out an enquiry into racism with a positive spin on it? Rather than the Black body being the victim, how could we celebrate it? We knew we wanted to have some kind of expression through poetry, so we wanted to do an anthology, and we knew we wanted to do that with Young Poets Network. YPN is a safe community, and a growing community.

When we reached out to football clubs to get them involved, they were keen to do something with their education departments. We ran workshops with the Arsenal and Chelsea youth groups and did a lot of learning as we went along, finding out what people knew about racism and Black footballers. Then we were ready to work with young writers. We didn’t want just any group of schoolchildren, we wanted young writers. Language is a way of understanding culture. Poetry particularly does that. When we get a wider understanding of the views around football, people can understand each other better. That’s why working with The Poetry Society and Young Poets Network was important – Young Poets Network breaks down barriers too.

We wanted to do more – and we still might. We’d love to do another anthology, run a masterclass with footballers and have them on a panel with poets at a big venue. And we’d love to take the young poets to a football game.

Photo of a crowd of football players leaping to header a ball, featuring Kolo Touré
Kolo Touré. Photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald / flickr

6. Modern Poetry in Translation: A New Way of Writing

Young Poets Network had dabbled in translation before our partnership with world-renowned journal Modern Poetry in Translation. A YPNer who founded The Ofi Press created a special issue of poems by Young Poets Networkers, whose work was translated into Spanish and published in both languages. We’d also run a challenge with the British Council translating Mexican poetry. But our recent collaborations with Modern Poetry in Translation have become a mainstay of poetry translation opportunities for young poets, alongside the Stephen Spender Prize. MPT editor Clare Pollard has facilitated life-changing (in some cases!) poetry translation workshops exclusively for YPNers, as well as the opportunity for the first-prize winning poem to be printed in this leading magazine.

Photos of the two poets whose work has been translated: Lola Koundakjian (photographed at The Cloisters Museum, NYC by Farida Soumar) and Suhrab Sirat

MPT editor Clare Pollard writes:

As a poetry-loving teenager at the end of the last millennium, I always felt very isolated, writing poems for none of my peers; posting them out to small magazines I’d never read. If Young Poets Network had existed then it would have seemed like heaven to me. All poets want to communicate, to feel their poems make a human connection, and YPN creates a warm, supportive space for young people to do that. Since the beginning I’ve always been glad to set challenges, write blogs and run workshops for YPN, and I’m so pleased that now I edit Modern Poetry in Translation we have teamed up to set an annual translation challenge, with the winner published in MPT.  We’ve had such an array of submissions – considerate, ingenious, experimental, tender. I believe that when you’re young, the right chance at the right time can change the path of your life, and YPN has been the beginning of so many wonderful journeys.

YPNer Katie Kirkpatrick writes:

My favourite YPN-related memory is the YPN/MPT translation workshop in summer 2019. It remains the most interesting poetry-based workshop I’ve been to, and it sparked an interest in poetry translation that’s since led me to run my own similar workshops and be published in MPT.

The two issues of MPT with challenge winners’ work

7. Bloodaxe Archive & Human Cell Atlas challenges

Exploring the digital archives of one of the UK’s most respected poetry presses, and writing with the language of a global research project on human cells… these things seem to have little tying them together, but the common thread is the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA) and our poetry challenges with them. NCLA are part of Newcastle University and organise events, courses, competitions and other opportunities in the North East of England. To get more people to engage with the Bloodaxe Archive which they run, they teamed up with us to run four writing challenges, and send two young poets into the physical archives in 2019-20. One of these poets, Lauren Aspery, writes, “I’ll always cherish my time spent in the Bloodaxe archive digging through the messy drafts of some of my favourite poets to write up for the YPN blog. It was such an exciting opportunity and contributed to my growing love of archives!” (Find the challenges here.)

These challenges were so successful that when Newcastle University got involved in One Cell At A Time (the arts strand of the Human Cell Atlas), they wanted to run another challenge with us. The results of the Human Cell Atlas challenge – exploring the language of human biology – were published in April 2021 and the winners, we hope, will be able to perform at an event sometime in the next year.

The NCLA have so far led us to unexpected and fruitful places, and we hope to keep prompting new poems with them.

Photo of a scrapbook with leaves stuck in and notes scribbled

Theresa Muñoz at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts writes:

We’re very pleased to have collaborated with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network on a series of writing challenges focused on the Bloodaxe Archive website and as well as the Human Cell Atlas Project. These challenges, which were either focused on penning poems about writers’ archives or the language of human cells, have been made available to poets all over the world and attracted hundreds of entries. The feedback from participants has illustrated an enriched understanding of archives and a transformed personal writing practice. We are so impressed with the global reach of the Young Poets Network as well as the sheer talent, hard work and enthusiasm displayed by the young poets. We feel very lucky to have worked with the Young Poets Network and to have been a part of the creative development of future stars of the poetry scene.  

Thank you again to all our partners from over the years. We are grateful for every one of you:

One Cell at a Time, 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, British Council, 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.

We can’t wait to make new friendships and new projects in the years to come.

Find out more about Young Poets Network’s tenth anniversary celebrations and how you can get involved.

Published April 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *