What happens after you win the Foyle?

Annie Katchinska first won the Foyle in 2006. In the fourteen years since, she’s had a vibrant career writing and talking about poetry. Annie tells us about the opportunities the Foyle gave her and looks forward to seeing the incoming generation of Foyle winners…

I first won Foyle Young Poets in 2006, when I was sixteen. Since then I’ve had the good fortune to have been involved in various poetry things over the years: I’ve been published, read at festivals and other events, and met lots of great people. And I’ve also had long stretches of time where none of these things have happened, strings of months (or years, oops) where it feels like I somehow voluntarily drop out of “poetry stuff” – I don’t submit poems anywhere, I don’t go to any events or do any readings, I read the poems I like but don’t keep up with what’s going on in poetry generally. During these times I still write a lot, but most of those poems will probably never be seen by anyone. I’ve come to realise and accept that this cyclical process – being very busy and active, then doing basically nothing, then getting involved again – is just the way I approach things and it’s probably pretty normal and healthy. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently since getting involved in Young Poets’ Stories, and being asked what winning FYP meant to me and talking about the poetry community it introduced me to. It sometimes seems like a strange thing to talk about considering the fact that I retreat from that community fairly frequently.

The impact of winning a competition like FYP and being mentored and recognised at a young age can be huge. Not just the winning, but also the experience of going to The Hurst and sharing my poems with established writers and having them take what I was doing seriously and give me feedback – all of this made me feel like writing was something I could keep going with, that there was something actually worthwhile in this activity that I spent hours and hours of my life doing. I came home from both of my trips to The Hurst (in 2007 and 2008) with this sort of hungry desperation to keep writing and keep reading and to write better. And I did write better: I tried to use the different forms and styles and voices I’d learned about, I read poets who challenged me and expanded my ideas about what I could write, and I felt confident enough to do this, I think, because I had been seen and had been told that all this was worth pursuing. I also wasn’t writing in isolation any more: I had a group of friends with whom I could share poems and give and get encouragement and feedback. And I also became aware of a wider poetry community that I could get involved in. Here were other young poets I could read and then meet, here were magazines and journals I could submit to, here were open mic nights where I could make some embarrassing memories, here were other competitions I could enter. I think this experience I’ve described can be significant at any time of life, but it’s particularly formative and intoxicating if it happens when you’re a teenager and you’re still figuring out your identity and what’s important to you. The way I thought about myself changed after FYP, and so did the poems I wrote and what I did with those poems.

For any writer, though, there’s a danger in becoming too fixated on the idea of getting published and/or getting the right kind of positive reception at the expense of writing what you want or need to write, and it’s possibly the case that when you’re young and you’ve just got some recognition for the first time you might be especially susceptible to this. Being signposted to various magazines, competitions and opportunities was obviously really helpful, but I can’t deny that once I knew these things existed I started to write, to some extent, with a specific goal in mind – and sometimes maybe this didn’t overly restrict the kinds of poems I was writing, and sometimes I think I did get too fixated on being “acceptable” (publishable) and maybe it did restrict me. Again, this is definitely something that any writer seeking publication needs to think about – finding that balance between working towards being published and leaving your mind free enough to write without restriction or worrying about fitting into some publishing ideal – and I think it’s something I realised quite early on. This is probably why “dropping out of poetry” is so important to me – giving myself time not to think about what I could or should be writing or reading or doing and just writing for myself feels like a necessary reset. And again, I think this is especially important when you’re young and you’re working out what kind of person you are and what kind of writer you could be. Getting published or doing readings at a young age can be a huge boost but shouldn’t stop you also writing the messy and experimental and weird (and okay, sometimes very rubbish) stuff that helps you figure out what you do and don’t like, what you do and don’t want to write. When I was fifteen, I used to spend hours sitting on this secluded bench by a brook in my local park writing pages and pages and pages of poetry in a big red notebook (just to give you a sense of what kind of fun-loving teenager I was). I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was just trying things out, trying to get down all the murky stuff in my head, and gradually what I was writing became slightly less terrible. Since winning FYP I’ve had to consciously work on writing with that level of freedom.

I guess this has made me think about what could be offered to young poets after winning something like FYP, and the mentorship they receive. Supporting young poets to develop their writing by introducing them to different kinds of poetry, giving them feedback to make their work better, pointing them in the direction of other resources and opportunities – all of this is invaluable. Perhaps alongside that it’s helpful, in any mentoring relationship, to allow some space for the young poet to keep experimenting, to be messy and unformed in their writing, without any pressure or expectation to “hone” what they’re doing necessarily for publication. I guess in a mentoring position I would guard against over-editing a young poet’s work or imposing too many of my own tastes and sensibilities on it, and maybe make it explicit that those poems that seem too scrappy and unacceptable could actually be the most valuable. I know that the poets who mentored me recognised this. When I was eighteen, I was fortunate enough to get guidance from two established poets on two separate occasions, both of whom coincidentally gave me similar advice. One poet looked at a very unfinished unpolished poem I’d written and told me I should keep all the unpolished bits. The other told me “you should trust your nose for strangeness and not worry about justification”, which I copied into a journal and still return to whenever I’m feeling insecure about my writing. I think this is what’s important when mentoring young people in any capacity actually – recognising and celebrating what’s unpolished can be just as impactful as giving practical advice and feedback.

I’m really looking forward to learning more through Young Poets’ Stories.

Annie Katchinska

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