The Poetics of the Archive: Bloodaxe Archive Challenge #1

Young Poets Network has teamed up with Newcastle University to explore the archives of Bloodaxe Books, one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers. This winter, we’re challenging young poets everywhere to delve into the specially designed digital version of the Bloodaxe archive and respond creatively to four brand new writing challenges.

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judges: Daniel Baksi, Jack Cooper, April Egan, Luca Goaten, Hania Habib, Hannah Hodgson, Alex Howe, Jayant Kashyap, Nadia Lines, Pieta Mackle Bayley, Kate McCaughey, Marina McCready, Alice McCusker, Tom Nalder, Madeleine Oliver, Rory Pringle, Tom Rowe, Jamie Smith, Olivia Todd, Maggie Wang and Elspeth Wilson.

The challenge: write a poem or poems inspired by your journey through the Bloodaxe Archive.

What is an archive?

Archives are simply defined as ‘collections of information’. They can include lots of different kinds of things, such as letters, registers, maps, photographs, films and sound recordings. Literary archives, like the Bloodaxe Archive, often include writers’ drafts as well as anything relating to a writer’s process, such as letters, post-it notes, diary entries and notebooks.

People can also have their own personal archive – for example, the collection of all Winston Churchill’s letters, notes and journals would make up his archive. What would you put in your archive? How would you catalogue or order the items in it?

What is Bloodaxe Books?

Bloodaxe Books is one of the biggest and most established poetry publishers in the UK. Founded in 1978, the press is edited by Neil Astley and is based in Newcastle in the North East of England. It was the first publisher of many of the big names in British poetry including Imtiaz Dharker, Helen Dunmore, Jackie Kay and Sean O’Brien. The current poet laureate Simon Armitage published his debut collection, Zoom!, with Bloodaxe in 1989, while Tony Harrison’s controversial V was published in 1985. Bloodaxe has also published important work in translation by European poets, including the Nobel Prize-winning Tomas Tranströmer. Find out more about Bloodaxe here

What’s in the Bloodaxe archive?

In 2013, Newcastle University acquired the archive of Bloodaxe Books, which dates back to the very start of Bloodaxe. Bloodaxe has published an amazing 1,100 books, and so far over 5,000 items from their files have been catalogued. In the archive you’ll find…

  • book manuscripts – thousands of poems-in-progress, many scribbled on by the poet or editor
  • correspondence, including letters, postcards and notes
  • publicity and marketing
  • doodles and illustrations
  • poets’ notebooks and scribblings

The Bloodaxe Archive takes two different forms: physical (in boxes in Special Collections at Newcastle University) and digital. You can find out how to visit the physical collection and request items to view here – and if you live in the North East of England we encourage you do!

But if you can’t, don’t worry – we’ll be focusing on the specially-created website for the Bloodaxe Archive in this winter’s series of challenges: Here you’ll find lots of exciting and surprising ways of searching through the collections which we hope you’ll find inspiring. So let’s get stuck in!

Get exploring!

Today your challenge is to write a poem inspired by your journey through the Bloodaxe Archive. So, first things first: head over to the Bloodaxe Archive and begin your archival adventure!

Each of the symbols on the homepage will help you explore the archive through a different lens. Going clockwise…

  • the curly brackets { } will reveal data about each Bloodaxe poet’s publishing history
  • the triangle allows you to filter poems just by their shape on the page
  • the W lets you search the whole archive using a word, like a regular search engine
  • the rectangle takes you to a gallery of video interviews with Bloodaxe poets and editor Neil Astley himself
  • the lightbulb showcases other people’s research and creative responses to the ‘poetics of the archive’, through the mediums of art, design, collages and poetry
  • and the book in the middle will show you a list of Bloodaxe books to explore in their entirety, ordered in a new way every time you click on it

So there are six different ways (at least!) of exploring the archive: data, shape, word, gallery, research and books.

Some things to keep an eye out for:

Randomness is encouraged!

Much of the website is randomised – on purpose. When you refresh the page, things will change places. That means that the connections you make between two books or two poems might be totally unique to you. Could you write a poem about a conversation between poets or poems that appear next to one another in the archive?

Some parts of the website (like the ability to search by shape, or finding related poems based on a shared word) are generated through algorithms. This means that a computer system is asked to scan the material for similarities – but because this process is done by a computer, it often makes surprising connections. Go with those surprises! Let them take you places you wouldn’t necessarily have gone yourself. For example, the algorithm below tries to summarise the ‘main’ words on each page of the index of Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960-2000:

What marvellous groups of words! You could challenge yourself to write a poem using every word in one of those groups – for instance, a poem that uses come, postcard, kind, time, anti, wall, afternoon, point and paint… for added difficulty, try using the words in your poem in the order they appear in the archive.

The archive is designed to help you browse the material, like you might browse the shelves of a library or bookshop. So wander about, and find your own connections and pathways through.

Poems as visual art

The Shapes section groups different pages of books-in-progress, based on how the computer thinks they look. It’s meant to show you poems, but some shapes bring up illustrations too. What do you think is the role of the visual in a poem? When we read a poem, do we tend to ignore how a poem looks, including the paper, typeface, ink, and focus only on what we think of as its ‘meaning’? When we start thinking about poems as shapes, as relationships between black text and white space, how does our understanding of a poem change? Could you call a poem a type of visual art? How might this influence your own reading and writing of poetry (if at all)?


If you’d like someone else’s perspective on the archive, or to find different kinds of media other than scanned pages, head to the gallery and research sections.

Within gallery, look at ‘Work’ and ‘Showcase’, where you’ll find some of the exciting creative work that has already been prompted by the archive. You can also see films of Bloodaxe poets reading some of their poems in the ‘Readings’ section. Your poem may well be inspired by someone else’s response!

And in research you’ll find a series of filmed interviews with poets including Jackie Kay, Simon Armitage, Fleur Adcock and Carolyn Forché to inspire your writing and editing. Under ‘Critical’ you’ll find some short essays about selected poems and pages in the archive, including poems by Jo Shapcott, Tony Harrison and Selima Hill. If you’re wanting to find out more about a particular poem or poet, this is the place to explore. This area has also gathered together some very interesting annotated pages – spend some time reading the notes between poets and editor Neil Astley, wondering if they should ‘lose the stanza breaks in this one’ or just squiggling out entire lines and re-writing them in the editing process.

The challenge

Write a poem or poems inspired, in any way, by the Bloodaxe Archive and your journey through it.

We’ve already given you a few prompts which you can choose to follow – here are a few more optional ideas:

  • Write a poem exploring the questions we’ve raised, or questions you’ve come up with, prompted by the archive.
  • Write a poem responding to a poem or resource from the archive.
  • Choose ten words from the Words section and use them as end-words for your lines.
  • In shapes find an interestingly shaped poem and write a poem copying its form exactly, with the same length and number of lines. Even the same font, if you can manage it! Or, alternatively, you could write a poem in the opposite shape – right-aligned, upside-down. Your poem might respond to the content of the original poem, or it might not.
  • Write a Golden Shovel after one of the poems in the archive.
  • Write a poem inspired by a note or marginalia you’ve read. This can be: imagining a story behind the note, imagining a response to the note, or writing your own note in response to it. Or something else!

You don’t have to follow these prompts – you can respond in whatever way you like! But however you choose to respond to the archive, when you submit your poem, please include a short explanation of how you’ve created your poem, and (if applicable) which poem, book or resource you’re responding to.


Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, Bloodaxe poetry books and an invitation to perform at the prestigious Newcastle Poetry Festival in May.

Due to the pandemic, we weren’t able to post out our usual prizes to the winners of this challenge immediately after they won. We got in touch with a few poetry publishers to ask if they would consider donating an ebook as a digital prize, and were overwhelmed by their kindness. We want to thank publishers Out-Spoken, The Emma Press and Penned in the Margins for generously donating ebooks as prizes for the winners of this challenge.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 26 January 2020. 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.

Remember to include a short explanation of how you’ve created your poem in response to the Bloodaxe Archive!

Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Bloodaxe Archive challenge #1’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, 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/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible. These anonymised statistics will be shared with our partner Newcastle University.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 26 January 2020, 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 youth 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 Newcastle University 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].

Published November, 2019

2 thoughts on “The Poetics of the Archive: Bloodaxe Archive Challenge #1

    1. Hi Anna,

      Thanks for your comment! We always welcome multiple poems (unless specifically stated in the challenge). There’s no limit – send us as many as you like!

      Best wishes and best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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