Building community at The Hurst

The Foyle Young Poets winners (and highly commended poets) have been coming to The Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Shropshire, for nearly 15 years, to spend a week learning, writing and sharing work amongst their peers in a beautiful patch of lush countryside. Looking back through evaluation reports from the past few years gives a vivid sense of how energising and valuable the experience has been, not just for the young poets but also their tutors, accompanying Poetry Society staff and members of the Arvon hosting team.

As with any Arvon course, the sense of being inducted into a ‘community of writers’ is key to the impact of the experience. Being winners of the competition and coming from all over the UK and indeed the world, the group are usually entirely new to each other – unusual for our courses for under-18s which usually comprise of schools and youth groups. For many, the chance to spend time amongst other committed young writers is a revelation – taking what may previously have been a somewhat lonely practice and positioning it amongst a diversity of voices, styles and points of view. As one tutor put it, “For them, The Hurst was like a parallel universe where all the ‘weird kids at school’ were suddenly the coolest (which of course they were anyway, just no-one realised it).”

Beyond the small temporary community at The Hurst, the experience introduces the young poets to a wider community stretching outwards in space and back in time. Meeting tutors and guest readers like Caroline Bird or Sarah Howe who were Foyle Young Poets winners themselves in their teens, gives a glimpse of what’s possible from this point on and places them in a lineage of alumni with branches throughout the poetry ecosystem. Browsing through the huge poetry collection in the Michael Donaghy Library at The Hurst, sharing each other’s favourites and being introduced to new poets by their tutors, they leave the week with a better understanding of the global network of poets and their own unique place in it. When prompted to choose three words to describe the experience, one participant wrote ‘Phenomenal – Baptizing – Memorable.’ That second word gives an idea of what the experience can mean to a young poet still building their voice.

Lots of careful preparation goes into creating the atmosphere for this community to arise and this induction to take place – from Arvon, The Poetry Society, and our brilliant and experienced judges/tutors. But huge credit also has to go to the ‘in loco parentis’ group leaders (or ‘Foyles Parents’ as they are sometimes called). Adult group leaders can make or break a residential course for young people, and the tutor feedback routinely praises the Foyles Parents’ “light and lively touch”, helping the young poets feel, as one participant put it, “liberated, but also looked after and cared for”. One tutor called them “warm, supportive and keen to participate fully”; a colleague at The Hurst said “they were a joy to have around and know the Arvon formula inside out”. Another tutor went into more depth: “Colin and Jane were amazing with the young people. They ruled the roost with a deceptive sleight of hand, that was calm, subtle yet authoritative”; they earned respect from the poets by showing they were “not afraid to be as vulnerable as the group in terms of sharing work. That delicate balance can be difficult to maintain, but they managed to pull it off with ease.” Special mention to Colin Watts who has apparently been a Foyles Parent on FYP residentials for the past 17 years!

At Arvon we’re grateful to be part of this project which has become a key institution in the UK poetry world, and we love hearing stories from those who have taken part. We look forward to hearing more as the Young Poets’ Stories project moves forward.

Joe Bibby, Arvon’s Head of Learning: http://www.arvon.org/learning

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