To launch this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, last month we published two anthologies of the winning and commended poems in the 2020 competition, entitled You Speak in Constellations. The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is one of the biggest competitions for young poets aged 11-17. It’s free to enter and you can win some amazing prizes. Check out the ‘Resources for Writers’ section for inspiration, and enter your poems to this year’s competition by 31 July 2021 at foyleyoungpoets.org
In this resource, we’re taking a closer look at one of the winning poems in the anthology, Libby Russell’s ‘Love Poem to Young Offenders Support Workers’. There are activities for teachers using the anthology in the classroom, and for individuals reading the poems in their own time, or looking for inspiration for their own writing. Teachers can request a free class pack of the anthology by emailing [email protected] or you can access the online version here.
Navigate the resource using the links below. This resource features:
- a video of Libby reading the poem, alongside the text
- a lesson plan for teachers, suitable for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5
- an interview with Libby about the poem
- points to think about when you’re reading the poem
- writing prompts to help you create your own poem
- an extension activity, comparing and contrasting three more poems by previous winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award. These poems appear in the anthology of commended poems in the 2020 award: ‘Glenrothes’ by Ailsa Morgan, ‘Ode to the Milkman’ by Sinéad O’Reilly, and ‘Gateways Club, 1967 (Lipstick and Jazz)’ by Elise Withey
Love Poem to Young Offenders Support Workers
Here, where the streetlights have seen
more than any expert, there is a currency
in the green ghosts of cheap chains hidden under collars,
or in knowing somebody’s brother from school,
or in the phone numbers of people who know
how to scoop up boys spilling out onto pavements,
their limbs limp as weeds, without calling for sirens
and warrants and lights; people who know
what to say to young men with grey faces
trembling blood onto paving stones,
and how to empty their hands without trouble. Here,
where there are no newspapers, talk is never cheap.
There is a currency in handlebar seats, and boys know
the value of dragging each other home.
If you’re a teacher, take a look at a brand new lesson plan on the poem, written by Teacher Trailblazer Gareth Ellis, from Whitley Bay High School. Gareth asks students to think about why poets choose to write about love, how society values different types of knowledge, and the relationship between ‘here’ and ‘home’ in this poem.
If you’re coming to the poem as an individual student, you might also find the lesson plan illuminating, or read on for more ways into the poem…
Libby Russell is a queer, working-class poet. They study social anthropology. Here, Libby tells us a bit more about why they wrote the poem.
Question: What was your motivation for writing ‘Love Poem to Young Offenders Support Workers’?
Answer: I’ve been involved in youth activism for about five years, and knife crime is an issue that comes up again and again in our work. Being involved in campaigns, I’ve learned that there is no neat binary between victims and perpetrators, or innocence and guilt. I believe the media is complicit in stirring up disproportionate outrage against Black and brown young men, and our legal system is designed to ignore issues of poverty, trauma, mental illness and substance abuse that make young offenders’ lives complicated. I interviewed a young offenders’ support worker for a documentary my local youth cabinet made, and found our discussion very enlightening. He spoke with huge empathy for the young people he worked with. I believe strongly in police abolition and wanted to write about the potential for rehabilitation and community rebuilding when our focus is not just on punishing perpetrators, but on the humanity of everyone involved, and ending cycles of violence.
Question: The poem is written in sonnet form. Traditionally, sonnets have fourteen lines and can follow any number of formal rhyme schemes. They’re also often associated with themes like love and romance. Of course, lots of poets have experimented with this form or subverted its traditional associations. Why did you choose the sonnet form for this poem?
Answer: In knife crime coverage, the media only depicts these archetypal figures of heroic police officers, evil perpetrators and tragic victims. It talks about mindless violence and senseless stabbings. I don’t believe any of that is realistic. Humans are messy, complicated beings. The poem is a sonnet and that form is traditionally used for more romantic, tender themes. I thought it was interesting to use it for a poem that’s about boredom and violence, and hoped it would help the reader focus on the tenderness that is present there – dependence, reassurance, and care. Even though the poem itself is also largely about young offenders, I wanted to frame it with support workers because I think the work they do is underappreciated. I knew almost nothing about them until I met one, and was surprised by the difference from police officers I had spoken to. Both say they are motivated to promote safety and justice, but only one has chosen to be in a position of power, in a system that perpetuates racial and class inequality.
Question: Could you tell us anything about the voice or point of view of the poem?
Answer: I’m a white non-binary person and have never been directly exposed to knife crime. It would have been completely inappropriate for me to assume experiences that aren’t mine, so I chose to make the poem more observational. I think there’s a misconception that violent crime only happens in big cities, but it was definitely a presence in the small town in the south-east [of England], where I’m from. By not writing from a first-person position, I wanted to show that knife crime doesn’t only have an impact on those directly involved. Those people are embedded in social networks, in friendships and families and school environments. The effects of violence resonate throughout communities. A lot of young people say they started carrying weapons because they were afraid of being threatened or attacked.
Question: There is a strong visual quality to the poem, with imagery including bikes, clothing, jewellery. Why did you choose this imagery?
Answer: I think people who aren’t from my region have this idea that the south-east is all scenic villages and rich people living in big manor houses. There is some of that, but that’s not what my town is like. It’s neither very rural or urban, and the recent cuts to youth services means there’s not much there for young people. There’s this boredom and restlessness that settles in the evening after all the shops have shut, and teenagers spend a lot of time just walking or cycling around town. The way young people construct their identities, especially when they don’t have a lot of money, is really interesting, which is what I was getting at when I mentioned “cheap chains.” People who don’t have very much place extra important on these status signifiers of clothes, jewellery, bikes, and connections. Who you know and who knows you are very central things in small towns.
- The poem repeats the word ‘Here’. Where do you think ‘here’ might be (read Libby’s interview above for clues)? What effect does the poet create by starting with ‘here’, rather than ‘there’?
- There is lots of language to do with money in the poem – ‘cheap’, ‘currency’, ‘value’. This is what we call a ‘lexical field’, when there are lots of words relating to the same theme in one text. What does the poem value? Is there a message about what we place value on?
- The poem refers to ‘any expert’, and the verb ‘to know’ appears four times. What does the poem say about knowledge? What kind of knowledge is considered important in a context like this?
- There are some prominent concrete nouns (nouns denoting material objects, rather than abstract concepts) in the poem, such as ‘chains’, ‘pavements’, ‘paving stones’, ‘handlebar seats’. Does this create a particular image in your mind? How do these concrete images relate to more abstract ideas in the poem like love, knowledge, or value? Again, read Libby’s interview for ideas.
- Light appears twice: the streetlights are witness to the scene described, while ‘sirens, warrants and lights’ are seen as something negative that is better avoided. Do you think light is a passive or active force? Can it be invasive and revealing at the same time?
- Do you think this is a conventional love poem? What is the purpose of the title?
If you’d like to try writing your own poem, here are some ideas to get you started. You can submit your poem(s) for free to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award at foyleyoungpoets.org
- Think about a place that means something to you. It might be where you’re from or another place that is special to you. How is this place perceived by people who don’t know it well? Does the reality differ from the general perception?
- Still thinking about somewhere special to you, what imagery would you use to conjure up the scene? Try to focus on details that aren’t obvious, but which only those who know the place well might know. What does each detail mean to you?
- Think about the people who live in, work in, or enjoy the place you have in mind. Are any of them overlooked or undervalued? What do you think their perception of the place might be? How do different groups of people interrelate in this place? Will their perspective inform the voice of your poem? Try to remember that you want your poetic voice to be as authentic as possible – where possible, draw on your own experiences and observations.
- Will your poem take a particular form? Libby’s poem was in the form of a sonnet, but you could experiment with other poetic forms – odes, villanelles, haikus. There are loads to try out!
‘Love Poem to Young Offenders Support Workers’ is a poem with a strong sense of place, and in which light plays a role in illuminating important details about the scene and its inhabitants. If you’re interested in exploring this theme a bit further, here are three more poems from the 2020 Foyle Young Poets. All these poems are collected in the commended poems anthology, here. Once you’ve read the poems, think about the discussion points, below, comparing and contrasting the texts. The different colours used in the poems below have been added by us, to help you when reading the discussion points.
Ailsa Morgan’s ‘Glenrothes’ (watch Ailsa performing the poem here)
We drove into day
Blanket-bright, squinting, double-glazed eyes
On the newborn road, thick hedged with baby teeth
Laying the path. The houses were empty,
Felt like the cut, the stitch, the sigh –
Sounded like a wine glass’s thumbed hollow
Tracking, tracing, trailing the hours.
Glenrothes lights, sodium stars,
Lit up the width, the length, the depth,
Of broken-up walls I’ve
Left in a labyrinth, lost in a kitchen
Where bodies had crammed for tatties and Spam. There –
A room was room for us all, here –
There is space, space, echo, another,
Repeating, and breaking, and repeating.
I want my own maze. I spun my silk thread
Outer to inner, leaving a line,
A hook to catch home on. The shadowed walls
Cramped the air, birthed dark wrinkles
In my palms –
A map I can’t use.
Give back the girl above us. Let me keep the bath,
And a room for myself. All this is new bricks,
New skin, will warm.
I am waiting for the first breath.
Sinéad O’ Reilly’s ‘Ode to the Milkman’ (listen to Sinéad reading the poem here)
Unseen, your footfalls float like early dew,
A tipping fulcrum, captain dawn to shore,
The keeper of one hundred blinking moons,
Deposited like lanterns at each door.
You’re silent as a backdrop to a dream,
As wheel spokes glint, unroll Hemera’s cloak,
Your eyes alone behold her naked gleam,
Your hand unlocks the caged-in glassy notes.
With hearth-sparks, beating palm, you lace the cold.
The cornerstone of morning, time endured,
A memory, a silence not untold,
For countless sleeping ears are reassured.
At sunrise picture bottles smashed in flight,
As day spills round your feet; a pool of light.
Elise Withey’s ‘Gateways Club, 1967 (Lipstick and Jazz)’
You speak in constellations,
lips leave trails of stardust on my skin
like city lights. Kiss me in minor key,
baby, spin me sweet songs in the dark.
Tonight we dance under neon sunshine
and glitter-ball stars.
Headlights, spilled bright over wet pavement;
golden squares stamped into skyscrapers;
these are your stars, they say, and your song is
the hum of traffic
the dry crinkle of newspapers.
Legs pressed like a proper lady, that’s it,
and don’t forget to blush for the fellas.
But close your eyes and there are
constellations seared into your eyelids,
swung quavers echoing in your ears.
Wait a little and we’ll shatter those concrete skies, drench
ourselves in neon sunshine,
and then you’ll undo me in compound time
to the bass of your heart.
(A.N: the Gateways Club was a prominent lesbian nightclub in the 60s.)
Use these discussion points to compare the three poems, also drawing on what you have learned about Libby Russell’s poem:
- All three poems create a powerful sense of place. ‘Glenrothes’, the title of Ailsa Morgan’s poem, is a town near Fife, in east-central Scotland. Is there any language in the poem that contributes to the evocation of Scotland?
- In contrast, Sinéad O’Reilly’s poem does not name the place in which it is located. If you had to guess, where would you say it was? Why? Are there any other texts you can think of that might give you a clue? For example, Anna Burns’s novel Milkman might be interesting to read alongside this poem.
- What do you think is the significance of the milkman?
- In the author’s note, Elise Withey tells us that Gateways Club was a prominent lesbian nightclub in the 1960s. Does knowing this change how you read the poem?
- How does the voice differ in the three poems? Think about whether they are written in the first, second, or third person. Do they address someone specific?
- Compare and contrast the tone and tense of each poem. Does it make a difference if they are written in the past or present tense? Do any of the poems feel more immediate than the others?
- Both ‘Ode to the Milkman’ and ‘Gateways Club, 1967’ could be described as love poems – one is an ode, a poem in praise of something or someone, and the other evokes romantic feelings. How is love portrayed in these two poems?
- All three poems include lots of strong imagery, including similes and metaphors. Take a look at the words coloured blue in the texts. How do these images help to create the tone of the poems?
- Looking more closely at ‘Glenrothes’, we’ve highlighted some words green and some orange. What do these words have in common? From this, what can you say about the themes of the poem?
- Like Libby Russell’s poem, ‘Ode to the Milkman’ is also a sonnet. Some traditional sonnets include a ‘volta’ (from the Italian word for ‘turn’), which means a turning point in a poem, where the tone, theme, or meaning shifts. Can you identify where the volta is in ‘Ode to the Milkman’? What effect does it have?
- Look at the words coloured purple in ‘Ode to the Milkman’? They are all words of silence or invisibility. What does this tell us about the milkman? How might this contrast with the ‘smashed bottles’ in the final couplet?
- In contrast, ‘Gateways Club, 1967’ is a poem full of noise – see all the words in red. How do the sounds of the poem work together with the images?
- Finally, all three poems are full of images of light – stars, moons, sun, daylight and artificial light. What different roles does light play in each of these poems?
All the poems featured in this resource were written by poets aged 11-17. If you’re aged 11-17 and you’ve been inspired by these poems, consider entering this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Visit foyleyoungpoets.org to submit your poems.