‘Writers sure enough’: Mentoring school children in poetry

Centre for New Writing graduate writer Joe Hunter shares his experience of being one of a small team of MA and PhD creative writers to bring out the best in young poets attending schools local to The University of Manchester.

At first I wasn't sure I was the right person to act as a mentor for the schools poetry competition. After all I was – I am – primarily a fiction writer. But I write plenty of poetry, and had certainly studied it for long enough. As Dr Luke Brown said to me once when I admitted my private poetry habit: “I think we're all secret poets.”

Professor John McCauliffe, poet and Director of the Centre for New Writing, sent out an email call in early March, which I answered along with a dozen or so other graduate writers. Over a couple of Zoom calls we learned what was expected of the students, and of us.

Participating state schools in Manchester were set a prompt – this year they were to write poems relating to climate change. Each of us would be assigned one or more schools in which students had submitted poems. We would visit the schools and hold a 'poetry clinic', giving the students individual feedback.

“For most of these students this'll be the first time they've met a real writer,” said Dr Rebecca Hurst, key coordinator for the poetry clinics. “It can be intimidating for them, but also exciting.”

Intimidating for me, too. In order to ensure I gave each poem its due I wrote a mini-essay of a page or so for each student's work and brought it in with me along with annotations. The other mentors did the same.

I was allocated two schools to visit in mid-May: Burnage Academy for Boys and Whalley Range High School. Both schools are large, impressive, business-like places – at Burnage Academy in particular I was surprised, walking to reception past the thronged sports field, that any of these boys had chosen to write poetry at all. And yet at both places I had half a dozen keen-eyed junior poets to mentor, and from their busy notetaking as I spoke, and the moment-by-moment shift of affect in their eyes as they listened to their feedback, I saw that these were writers sure enough just like any others I had ever sat in a workshop with.

As Rebecca had predicted, the young poets had to be guided back towards the concrete. We didn’t overwhelm them with technical annotations, but asked them to seize and stay with the everyday image, or sustain the germ of an idea they'd neglected for more grandstanding or general statements. Sometimes they wrote phrases that you felt were what they believed they were expected to write about climate change, but there was always something simple, concrete, and personal to steer them back towards.

The poets were wonderful, but so were the teachers. At both schools I met earnest teachers who'd been keen for their students to participate.

'I'm not sure they've ever written a second draft of anything,' one teacher said to me. 'This is great for them.'

Yes, a second draft is good, I thought. Then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. They'll learn that in time. The important thing is that they're writing.

You can read the winning entries of the Schools Poetry Competition 2022 in the Glass Corridor of the Samuel Alexander Building this September.

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