Young Poets Network is teaming up with People Need Nature for a fourth time, to challenge young poets to respond to the UK’s COP26 Presidency theme of Nature. Poet Louisa Adjoa Parker shows us how to imagine solutions to the climate crisis inspired by the natural world.
This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read, watch and hear in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judge Louisa Adjoa Parker: Kaitlyn Amott, Elinor Clark, Jack Cooper, Kaycee Hill, Spatika Jayaram, Alfie Lash, Sarah O’Flynn, Sinéad O’Reilly and Matt Sowerby.
A selection of the winners performed at COP26 in Glasgow on 6 November 2021. Find out more here and watch the recording of the event below.
The challenge: Write a poem or poems imagining natural solutions to problems caused by the climate crisis
This November, the UK is set to host the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP26. People from many nations, including heads of state, climate experts and negotiators, will come together and agree urgent global action to tackle climate change together.
What are the problems?
The climate crisis poses all kinds of problems for people and nature across the world, from flooding to wildfires. I’m of English and Ghanaian heritage and I’m particularly interested in the experiences of ethnically diverse people in the countryside, as I’ve always lived in non-urban areas. When it comes to climate change, different communities (globally, and in the UK) are often impacted differently. Here in the UK, people of African and Asian heritage are more likely to live in urban areas, which have the highest levels of pollution – so they are more at risk of respiratory diseases.
Globally, we know that the first people to suffer impacts of climate change are mostly black and brown skinned people of the global south, even though they’ve polluted the planet the least. One of these impacts is a more extreme climate. Here in Europe we’ve seen hotter summers and sudden ‘rain bombs’. But in Bangladesh, because of global warming, the monsoon season last year was so bad that a quarter of the country was underwater, almost 1.3 million homes were damaged, and hundreds of people died (read more here). 166 million people live in Bangladesh, and a third of those might be forced to move because of the climate crisis.
At the same time, our landscapes and wildlife are affected too. Here in the UK, we see birds starving to death from food shortages, pests and diseases becoming more likely to survive the winter, and waterfowl killed by pollution in places like Greater Manchester’s River Tame, which recently recorded the highest level of microplastics anywhere in the world. The UK is now ‘one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world’, with over 1,000 species at risk of extinction, and 97% of all flower-rich grasslands lost since the 1930s.
What are governments doing about it?
As the host of COP26, the UK is leading climate campaigns in five different areas called ‘Presidency themes’. The theme I’m most interested in is Nature. Because not only will nature benefit from action against climate change, nature itself can hold solutions to this crisis.
On the COP26 website, you can read how ‘natural carbon sinks like the ocean, peatlands and forests’ can help to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and ‘protecting and restoring forests, wetland and coastal ecosystems, can also help humanity adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change, [and] lead healthy and productive lives’. But this is just the start.
For many years, scientists have been looking to nature for solutions to the problems I’ve mentioned above – and they’re finding some amazing things. For example, they’ve discovered that specially adapted natural sponges could soak up oil spills. And (unbelievably) certain wooden floors which have been rotted by fungi can generate electricity when you walk on them!
Inspired by the COP26 UK Presidency theme of Nature, we are challenging you to imagine not only how nature will thrive as we tackle the climate crisis – but also how nature could solve some of the problems caused by climate change.
Your poems don’t have to be realistic – in fact, they can be as surreal and strange as you like! I’m particularly excited to read poems about the nature in your everyday life, and how it could resolve a specific problem caused by climate change. Can you imagine a new source of renewable energy? Something that would stop all the trees from catching fire? A magical way to raise everyone’s homes above flooding levels? Could a second Tulip Mania sink all the carbon in Europe? Could a Scottish crossbill teach us how to survive extinction? Real discoveries by scientists, like a wooden floor generating its own clean electricity, are pretty unbelievable – so who’s to say your ideas wouldn’t work?
Getting started with your poem…
You can interpret this challenge any way you like, but here are a few prompts and poems to inspire you.
- Start off by writing down and researching some of the problems that the planet faces due to the climate crisis.
- Next, think of something from Nature. It could be a living thing – a plant or animal – or an object – a rock, a river. Choose something that you are personally familiar with, that exists in your life.
- Now find out more about it. You might be surprised at what you find. For instance, did you know that trees can talk to one another? Or that colour-changing beetles have inspired us to engineer more efficiently?
- Answer the following questions about your chosen thing:
- Describe it – its shape, colours, textures, smells, sounds.
- What does it do by itself? How have humans used it?
- Describe its surroundings – is it on a beach, in a forest, or river, or field? Is it in the country you live in, another country, or an imagined place?
- Now it’s time to use your imagination. How will it thrive in the future? What power to combat climate change might it have?
Need some examples?
Now you’ve got your idea… how can you turn it into a poem? Let’s see how other people have done it.
First, read ‘The birds sing about water’ by Jackie Wills. Wills uses joyous imagery to evoke the magic of these birds, who can carry water over a parched landscape. You can just hear the ‘Fistfuls of pebbles [which] slam on the zozo’s / tin roof’. She doesn’t specifically say there’s a drought, and you might choose not to name the problem in your poem.
Now, read ‘The Arctic Tern’s Prayer’ by Mary Anne Clarke. Written from the perspective of a migratory bird, Clarke’s poem is a tender and personal plea. Taking inspiration from it, you might structure your poem ‘Tell the … to…’ or ‘Let X happen, and let Y happen…’
For a different approach, read ‘The Government Lake’ by James Tate. This poem might inspire you to write in a surreal way. If you don’t know where to start with this challenge, begin writing a poem with a short statement of your nature-based solution, and don’t explain how it works or question why it’s happening. ‘The colour-changing beetles were a game-changer.’ or ‘The trees taught us how to speak better.’ Introduce some characters and some events. What happens? If you’re going down this route, try not to include any emotional responses. Keep your sentences as short and detached as possible. Believe in your imagination: write with an absolutely certain tone.
And finally, read my poem ‘On the Hill’. I wrote it during the lockdown in March 2020, after going for a walk. Being in the natural environment, letting my imagination run free, and writing this, helped me come to terms with what was happening at the time.
On the Hill
by Louisa Adjoa Parker
And I climbed to the top of the hill
and stood still, surveying the land
as if it was mine, and the earth
was green velvet dotted with pearls
and the wind nudged at my spine
and nipped at my ears, and a truth
came to me that the world wasn’t ours
but we belong to the earth
and we belong to these hours
and the choices we make now
matter more than before
and my feet grew white roots
that touched the earth’s core
and my shoulders grew wings
and I found I could fly
and the wind carried me higher
till my head brushed the sky
and as my roots trailed beneath me
in a white twisted dance
I looked up at the stars
as though in a trance
and began falling towards
green velvet dotted with pearls
and the wind stroked my cheeks
and the wind, like a hand,
cradled me gently,
before placing me back on the land.
One of the problems that the climate crisis is causing is a mental health crisis. As millions of people are forced to migrate and have to endure more wildfires and storms, people will need to build emotional resilience, too.
Inspired by this poem, you could try thinking about a time nature helped you overcome a challenge, to make sense of something or to feel better. Then write for 5 minutes beginning with the words: And I climbed (or walked/ran/swam etc.). Trying using repetition and some rhyme, as I’ve done in my poem, and see what happens.
Some final writing tips…
- Your poem can be long and detailed, or short and simple.
- Make use of all your poetic tools: think about imagery, similes and metaphors.
- When editing, read your poem out loud to hear how it sounds – if you’re stumbling over your words, think about choosing different words or a different word order for the rhythm.
- Think carefully about your line-breaks. It’s often (but not always) effective to break the line on an important word – a noun or a verb – rather than a little word like ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘my’.
- When editing, try all kinds of different line lengths. What happens to the poem when there’s only three words to a line? What happens when there’s ten? What happens if all the lines are the same length? What happens when they’re all raggedy? Keep going until you’re happy!
- Finally, leave your poem for a while and go back to it with fresh eyes to make final changes before you submit.
Write a poem or poems imagining how nature around you can thrive, and how it can solve a problem caused by the climate crisis. Be as imaginative as you like! I’m particularly excited to read poems about the nature in your everyday life. I can’t wait to read your poems.
This challenge will be judged by Louisa Adjoa Parker. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and the People Need Nature website, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies. We hope to offer a performance opportunity to the winners of this challenge – more details will be confirmed soon.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. Young poets of working class, Black, Asian and other minoritised ethnic backgrounds (also known as the Global Majority) are particularly encouraged to enter this challenge. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 11 July 2021. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Poems to solve the climate crisis’. In your email, please tell us your name, date of birth/age, gender, ethnicity, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). Please also fill out and return this form to help us monitor entrants’ socioeconomic background. This data is used for statistical purposes and to help us reach as wide an audience as possible. Because this challenge is open to anyone aged 25 and younger, you are only required to provide your age. All other data is optional.
If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 11 July 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.
We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.
If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.
By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and People Need Nature to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.
If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].
Our thanks go to People Need Nature for helping to make this challenge possible.
People Need Nature is a charity which promotes the value of nature for people in their everyday lives: nature as a source of inspiration, as a source of solace; and nature enriching people’s spiritual lives. PNN also work to influence public thinking and policy to place a greater value on nature for these things. PNN are delighted to work with the Young Poets Network on this fourth poetry challenge together. We would also like to acknowledge with thanks the generous support for this challenge from Mrs J R King. Find out more about People Need Nature’s work at peopleneednature.org.uk
Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer and poet of English-Ghanaian heritage who lives in south west England. Her first poetry collections were published by Cinnamon Press, and her third, How to wear a skin, was published by Indigo Dreams. Her debut short story collection, Stay with me, was published in 2020 by Colenso Books. Her poetry pamphlet, She can still sing, will be published by Flipped Eye in June 2021, and she has a coastal memoir forthcoming with Little Toller Books. Louisa’s poetry and prose has been widely published. Her work has been highly commended in the Forward Prizes for Poetry; twice shortlisted in the Bridport Prize; and her grief poem, ‘Kindness‘, was commended in the National Poetry Competition 2019. She has performed her work in the south west and beyond and has run many writing workshops. Louisa has written extensively about ethnically diverse history and rural racism, and works as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant. She is a sought-after speaker and trainer on rural racism, black history, and mental health.