Past & Present: Poetry that answers back :: NEWS

Past & Present: Poetry that answers back

17 June 2021 Share

Poetry Society Teacher Trailblazer Gareth Ellis on how to inspire the next generation of young poets

Past & Present: Poetry that answers back


As the deadline for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award draws closer, it’s worth spending a moment to consider how past entries might be used to inspire a new year of poetry entries. Library Manager and Poetry Society Teacher Trailblazer Gareth Ellis reflects on how Whitley Bay High School’s creative writing group has taken inspiration from previous award winners.


In the last year, school librarians will have occupied a curious position. As a result of pandemic planning and Covid secure schools, libraries and their staff have stepped up to be redeployed in a variety of new and often crucial ways. In some schools the library has suddenly become the 6th form common room where books are issued side by side with the selling of lunches. In other schools the library has been used for vulnerable students, or the space has simply become another classroom to ease the pressure of overcrowded rooms. All this has meant that the usual preserves of the librarian – reading events and initiatives, literacy interventions, supporting T&L – have simply not been able to happen.

              But school librarians are a tenacious and resilient species. Reading groups have diversified and turned to Teams, or they’ve decamped beyond bubbled boundaries. Literacy interventions have found new ways of being. Librarians have become experts in book quarantining in order to get that treasured tome into the right pair of hands. And all the things librarians do so well – enriching the student experience, solving endless problems, listening, inspiring and sharing creative opportunities – have had to find a new means of expression.

              Take for example the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Often it is the librarian who takes a lead in this remarkable opportunity, ensuring students are aware of it, offering chances to write, spaces to think, places to read. The award might find the library to be one of its natural habitats, so what happens when that habitat is, albeit temporarily, living an alternative life?

              The beauty of the Foyle Award is that it is something that can, and indeed often does, have a life beyond the library. The resources provided by The Poetry Society can be used, adapted and shared with students beyond any need for face-to-face interactions. Our creative writing group in Whitley Bay High School is one of the places where the competition is explored in some depth, but at present only Year 9s can physically attend. Other interested writers have been reached via email and through sharing the poems in English lessons.


              In terms of the face-to-face writing interactions that are possible, the anthology You Speak in Constellations has been invaluable. It is a pocket-sized poetic treasure trove. It is also a powerful telescope that scans the creative firmament of young people’s poetic output. It distils and condenses the entries of thousands of poets across the country and brings us the representative refracted light of a generation. So where better to start when inspiring this year’s potential entrants than this engaging, intriguing, provocative selection? Poems have been shared with group members, particularly those pieces that are formally inventive or which challenge student assumptions of what poetry can be. Sometimes, young people need to the door to innovation to be unlocked for them, to be shown the wonders and marvels of poems such as *///Total///* by Anna Gilmore Heezen or to understand how ancient forms, such as the sonnet, can be reimagined as a vehicle for exploring contemporary social issues in Libby Russell’s Love Poem to Young Offenders Support Workers.

Our students have been exploring these poems and have been challenged to ‘answer back’ to them, to use the poems as a springboard for their own writing, either offering an alternative view or by extending the ideas further, applying them to their own lives and offering a more personal perspective, a reflective iteration that maintains the dialogue. This process also introduces them to a style and mode of writing that they might not experience in the curriculum. The power here, of course, lies in the students reading the work of young poets who are not so distant from them in terms of age. These poems have sprung not from the minds of past eras – important as they are – but from the pens of poets practising now; from poets who might be sitting their GCSEs or choosing their options, or who have embarked on their A Levels; from poets who live and breathe the same air, who navigate the same challenges, who celebrate the same successes.

              Indeed, students have sometimes taken words from the poems as starting points, taking a cutting, cultivating it in new soil and seeing what grows out of it. In this sense, words and forms are batons to be passed from one writing community to another.

English lessons have also been used as vehicles for promoting the competition, often as examples of how to approach an unseen poem, using the poems’ young adult focus and inherent relatability, this leverage, to inspire students who might not normally be interested to take part. Librarians yet again can provide a valuable service to teaching colleagues by using the Foyle Award as a means of sharing great examples and inspiring texts from their collection. A poet or poem of the week feature, emailed out to all students and staff can offer a platform to promote both the library’s resources and widen students’ awareness of the wealth of poets writing today. Specific recommendations can be hugely powerful too where librarians offer a regular suggestion of a poet to those who have enjoyed, for example, reading John Agard or ImtiazDharker as part of their GCSE studies.

              So the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is an opportunity not just to inspire great writing, but to step outside our usual boundaries. It affords us the chance to extend the scope of our creative reach and also helps students to think outside the curriculum. 


The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is open to writers aged 11-17 anywhere in the world. It is free to enter and poems can be on any theme and of any length. Visit to enter by the deadline of 31 July 2021. UK schools can request a free class set of the anthology You Speak in Constellations by emailing