I remember the first time I heard of the Barbican Young Poets.
It was summer of 2014 and it’s been three years since I signed up for the mailing list for the Young Poets Network. Had I not scrolled down to the very bottom of the July 2014 email I might have never seen the submissions call for this poetry workshop taking place in the Barbican Centre aptly called the Barbican Young Poets.
Never really been someone who learnt creative writing in a workshop before, I applied, one curious eyebrow raised up. By September I got my first letter confirming I wasn’t successful to the next part of the application process. And I was okay with that. There was always next year. Or rather, the year after that when I actually got in, when my work as a writer and my work as a person needed structure and discipline the most.
Fast forward to October of 2016, and I became part of the 2016-2017 roster of the Barbican Young Poets led by Jacob Sam-La Rose and Rachel Long. Being in a place where I was 110% ready and hungry to be there was very helpful because that meant I was awake, absorbing every single thing that was happening, and I think Jacob planned all of this because he’s the type of person that knows what’s best for you and acts on that. Also because he’s psychic.
Scroll down to read more about their perspective on the programme and how they themselves have grown from being a part of it.
What first inspired you to take part in BYP?
Jacob: I set up Barbican Young Poets in 2009. I had spent the three years prior to that setting up the Roundhouse Poetry program, and it felt like a good time to do something else. I wanted to continue to deliver a long term engagement for young and emerging poets, and I wanted that to be the foundation for a larger, long running community. I also wanted to continue to support an engagement with a broad range of poetics, without any exclusive focus on spoken word or “page” poetry.
Rachel: The BYP programme was close-enough legend to me, way before I was part of this here poetry ‘scene’/family/community, when I was a not-so-fresh-out-of-uni Lit. grad. trying her hand at scriptwriting (far too elaborate stage directions), I’d heard about it through theatre friends who were friends of poets on the programme. It sounded like exactly what I was looking for – if only I knew then that it was poetry that I was writing (albeit badly) in those stage directions. It wasn’t until I met Jacob some years later, when he was running a poetry workshop for Apples and Snakes, and he invited me to join Burn After Reading (BAR) that I learnt more fully what Barbican Young Poets was, how deeply it affected, stimulated and nurtured young poets in a similar way to what I was experiencing through BAR.
When Jacob, a few more years later, invited me to be Assistant Tutor on the programme, I was honoured. I am still – each session, with every new cohort. I said yes, immediately, to the offer because of him – Jacob is a source of inspiration to me – poetically and pedagogically. I said yes because I hadn’t met a young person who hadn’t become a better poet through the course of the programme, I said yes because it would be an opportunity for me to become a better facilitator, to learn more about how to support a poet’s journey.
What impact do you think collectives such as BYP, Octavia and Roundhouse have on modern poetry and people’s perception of it?
Jacob: Slight tangent: I think of Barbican Young Poets as a community rather than a collective. We take on up to 25 poets each year, through an application and shortlisting process, and when you become a Barbican Young Poet, you become a member of the community of poets who’ve passed through the programme over the eight years the programme has thus far been operating. Part of the joy of that community is the way different members can manifest completely different poetics but still come together through a set of core values and principles that foster mutual appreciation and learning.
I think there’s something incredibly powerful about the way that groups of poets collectively or communally make work happen and manifest their visions of what might be possible for that work. Not to discount the power of the individual artist, but at their best, collectives and communities amplify the agency of the artists that they consist of. The fellowship that communities and collectives provide can catalyse creative and professional development. When artists come together in fellowship with a focus on the work they’re respectively doing, progress happens.
Barbican Young Poets, the Roundhouse programmes and collectives, Slambassadors, Six Weeks, Burn After Reading, Spit the Atom, Poets’ Platform, Octavia and all of the other communities and collectives at work across London and up and down the country— they’ve all pushed the way that people have thought about what’s possible with contemporary poetry, and they’ve validated different ways of working. Many of them have challenged commonly held notions of poetry and the traditional mechanisms for bringing poetry to the people. It’s not unusual for the work of young poets or poets of particular backgrounds or orientations to be undervalued, but through these communities and collectives, a lot of effort has been invested in challenging people to pay proper attention.
Rachel: I’m not sure whether all of these would identify as collectives, some moreso as communities or programmes with scope for graduates/alumni to create their own collectives/communities thereafter… But I think that there are certainly crossovers in terms of purpose, ethos, goals. For example, they are all spaces created for young poets to come together to read, write, share, perform, and as a result grow as artists. They each combine the power of community with the power of Art, and they embody the necessity of Art within the community. Their impact ranges from giving confidence to a young writer to pick up a pen again after a year of not writing right through to redefining the image of poetry culturally.
I feel that it is sometimes difficult to measure macro impact from within the space and time of ‘the happening’, I am interested in how collectives/communities/programmes such as these and others have on the next generation of poetry, and how what we are doing here and now informs the future.
On that note, what is one thing BYP has that other collectives don’t in your opinion?
Jacob: What I know is that I’m concerned with creating a space where people can practice craft (paying attention to the finer points of craft in writing and performance) and care (caring enough about the work to commit to continued learning and innovation, caring enough about themselves to commit in sustainable ways, and caring enough about their community to be present and proactive). I’m also keenly invested in creating a space where all poets feel welcome— an ethos that’s manifested in part through the showcase and the anthology we produce each season. If any one of those considerations is unique to BYP, that’s great, but I think many of the programs that operate in similar ways celebrate similar ideals.
Rachel: Each poetry programme/collective/community works differently and that, I believe, should be embraced. It is these differences that make our wider poetry community exciting, nuanced, fresh. I only have intimate knowledge on how the Barbican Young Poets programme and Octavia Collective work, so I’ll only make comment on these. Case in point, there are multiple differences between BYP and Octavia, but I don’t think that this means that one ‘has’ something that the other does not, simply that they do things differently. Octavia, for example, is exclusively for women of colour poets, membership is by invitation only, we do not operate in terms. BYP is for all poets under 26, it is publicly advertised, each new yearly cohort is selected by application, an anthology is produced. What we each cover in-session may have crossovers – we may read the same poems, poets, learn from similar guest facilitators. All I can say is that BYP is unique, that it is a very special programme (but that is not to say the others aren’t also). I would be tempted to say that what BYP has that the others do not is Jacob, but this also is not strictly true, so generous is he with his time and resources that poets who have never been part of the BYP programme can also benefit from the opportunities and initiatives he creates, the resources he shares – widely, the work he does in and outside of the programme.
What are some traits you look for or you expect new members of BYP to have (if you can share!)?
Jacob: In new members, I’m looking for people who are hungry to learn, willing to push themselves and be pushed (in the best possible sense), and keen to commit to the work and the community. People who arrive with questions about their creative practice and aren’t afraid of engaging with unexpected sources to find answers. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the most accomplished poets of their generation. It doesn’t even matter whether they think of themselves as poets or not, or whether they aspire to being professional poets for the rest of their lives. As long as they take the work we do in the room seriously, and find a way to make it relate to whatever they do beyond the bounds of each workshop or project.
Rachel: I have not been part of the BYP application process as of yet. I will be this year, I’m very much looking forward to it. But I would guess that the main criteria for Jacob and Lauren when looking through all the BYP applications is: commitment to the programme, a willingness to learn and grow, evidence to suggest that the applicant would likely work well and be active within the BYP community. I imagine that they look for ‘spark’ in the poems submitted, not that they must all be perfect poems (whatever they are), but that there is something exciting and true about the work, that perhaps they just might need a programme like BYP to make them them reach further, hit harder, dare more.
And lastly, what was one thing that you have taken away from being a part of BYP this year?
Jacob: Having led the programme for so long, I love the fact that each year is an opportunity to challenge not just the people I work with, but also myself and my own practice. Each year brings a different configuration of concerns, queries and needs. What I take away from this year and every year is the joy of having worked with a group of young poets who’ve discovered new things about themselves and each other, and the joy of knowing that the challenge is different every time.
Rachel: Hope and excitement for the future of Poetry.
Can I have just one more? – I feel that I become a better facilitator each year by being part of the programme, learning from Jacob and also from the poets.
Jacob Sam-La Rose:
Website – www.jsamlarose.com
Photos courtesy of Dan Hipkin of TEA Films, Barbican 2017.