Writing communities

I’m the Learning and Participation Manager at The Poetry Society. Before that, I was Head of Programmes at The Poetry School, and before that I was the Marketing and Education Officer at The Poetry Book Society. I’ve published one poetry pamphlet, two poetry collections and one poetry artist’s book.

You might discern a theme.

I try to keep a bit of distance between my poetry promoting life and my poetry writing life – the one requires cheery equitability and a set of spreadsheet skills, and the other is dreamier, more particular. Unaccountable. The philosophy that links them together, though, is community.

Although I went straight from being a bookish child to an Eng Lit undergrad, I didn’t start to write poetry until my mid-20s. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote, the internet was only half full at that point and accessible for just 30 minutes at a time in the library: it was hard to find people with whom to unpick this new-found interest. It wasn’t until my first Arvon week that I really discovered that a group of people who understand your reference points and who share your desire to make sense of the world through poetry are as vital to your craft as a heavy reading habit and a decent gsm notebook. Every friend I’ve made at a reading, on a course, at a book launch since has built that community – I would not have published without them.

That feeling is one I’ve tried to replicate in the work I do too – from physical residencies I’ve created to the hundreds of face to face courses I programmed at The Poetry School. I can plan for what’s going to happen in a classroom or auditorium, but I purposely make space for what might happen between participants before and afterwards. I try to set up the conditions in which people can build their own communities. Some of this been hard to access, I know, for people who can’t get to a physical space for 101 different reasons. The more sophisticated online platforms become, and the more I learn about the pockets of funding which support online community building, the better I can extend these community-building opportunities to as wide an audience as possible.

I work with my colleagues at The Poetry Society on The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Year after year, we see the winners and commended poets find each other at the award ceremony, and then forge deep, supportive critical friendships through the residential writing week that the winners receive, and the other mentoring activities we organise. This community gathers across cohorts too. During our Foyle 20th anniversary celebrations we were heartened to discover that the early winners of the competition – now in their 30s and often established poets – and the newer, younger ones still in their teens regard themselves as part of the same Foyle family.

This year’s Foyle will be a little different. Pandemic planning means the live work we do around the competition is likely to be reimagined digitally. We’ll award prizes, we’ll celebrate poems … and we’ll find a way to welcome young writers to a lifelong poetry community.



Julia Bird has worked as a poetry programmer and community builder for more than 20 years. She has an MA in Creative Writing, Arts & Education from Sussex University. Her two poetry collections published by Salt are Hannah and the Monk (2008) and Twenty-four Seven Blossom (2013), and she recently published Paper Trail, a poetry artist’s book with Mike Sims and Roy Willingham (Blown Rose, 2019). Now You Can Look, her Emma Press poetry pamphlet, was published in 2017.  More at www.juliabird.wordpress.com

More about the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award at https://foyleyoungpoets.org/

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