This is my first blog as Young People’s Laureate so I want to start with a clean slate and make a confession: I am an addict. I am addicted to devouring newsfeeds, online newspapers, blogs, social media – anything that can provide me with more information, greater knowledge, perhaps a better understanding of current events and, perhaps more importantly of people, of who we really are. Because I can’t make sense of it. I can’t comprehend why we behave the way we do and I need an expert, a pundit, the BBC, New Statesman, Facebook somebody to tell me that it’s okay – there is a plan, it will all work out.
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The Young People’s Laureate initiative aims to inspire self-expression and increase literacy and communication skills in young people. By using a wide range of disciplines the project has been developed to engage the next generation with literature in new and innovative ways. The initiative was launched in October 2011 with Catherine Fisher appointed as first Laureate, and has been developed by performer and poet Martin Daws who has been Wales’ Young People’s Laureate since 2013.
About Sophie McKeand:
Sophie McKeand is a poet and educator from north Wales. She won the Out Spoken Innovation in Poetry Award in 2015, was longlisted for the Poetry Society‘s National Poetry Competition in 2014 and will be the Poet-in-Residence at Focus Wales Festival in 2016. Sophie has performed at numerous festivals and events, and in November 2015 embarked on a Wales-wide tour to coincide with the publication of her second poetry pamphlet Hanes.
She is a writer and producer for various National Theatre Wales TEAM projects, and regularly facilitates workshops for Literature Wales as well as organisations such as Arts Council Wales, Age Cymru and Oriel Wrecsam. She is also a Creative Practitioner for Arts Council Wales’ Lead Creative Schools scheme.
In her new role, Sophie will figurehead some of Literature Wales’ flagship projects for young people including Slam Cymru, Wales’ first bilingual slam competition. She will also run workshops with families and community groups as part of Literature Wales’ Roald Dahl-inspired outreach scheme, Invent your Event.
Sophie said: “I’m deeply honoured to be the next Young People’s Laureate for Wales. This opportunity to share my love of poetry across our beautiful country is a dream come true and I look forward to collaborating with, and listening to, the many young people of Wales I’ll meet on this incredible two-year journey.”
Steffan Jones-Hughes from Oriel Learning said “Sophie brings her energy and enthusiasm for words and language to every session. She is an excellent communicator and has brought a wide range of skills to our programme. I would recommend Sophie to any organisation that wants to combine literature, poetry, performance and vitality in their activities.”
Chief Executive of Literature Wales, Lleucu Siencyn said: “These two ambassadorial posts are essential for the development of poetry in Wales and in showcasing the best of Welsh writing around the world. Both Ifor and Sophie are poets and performers at the top of their game and we look forward to seeing how they develop these initiatives further as they embark on their new roles.”
The activities of the National Poet of Wales and the Young People’s Laureate can be followed on the Literature Wales website and on Twitter.
It’s taken me a while to write this post about my visit to Palestine in August 2015. I was contributing to the Bet Lahem Live Festival. Bet Lahem Live is a four festival in Bethlahem promoting peace and non-violence, and celebrating cultural exchange. I was very foirtunate to have the opportunity to contribute to the festival as part of the international presence of YPL Wales.
It was a long way from Bethesda. The wet grey slate of Gwynedd was replaced with dessert scrub land and hot sweating city paement stones rubbed smooth by thousands of years of passage. The pebble dash of Bethesda High St was switched to the amcient sandstone buildings of Star Street Bethlahem, and my way of life as a Welsh Citizen was thrown into sharp relief.
Despite Bethlahem being a modern 21st Century city, in some ways, it was like taking a trip back to medieval Wales. Where Norman English Lords where taking land for their own estates and subjugating the Welsh people into second class citizenship in an occupied homeland. Visiting Palestinian refugee camps, meeting families whose homes had been bulldozed by the Israeli Authorities, and seeing the strength in the eyes of farmers whose right to work their ancestral farms was being disputed in law by the Israeli Governement, were all powerful and moving experiences. Particularl, as I was in Palestine at the invitation of Holy Land Trust – a Palestinian organisaton committed to non-violent resistance of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
To see people responding to conflict and the resulting anger with a commitment to peaceful action was a profoundly moving experience for me, and in the days that I toured Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlahem and the Jordanian dessert I felt a more universal comnpassion than I have experienced before and for that experience I am grateful.
Grateful for the privilige of living where my home is not under threat of theft and destruction
Grateful for the freedom of speech that allows me to dissent without fear of state sanction
Grateful for the right to move around the country of my birth without military prohibition on my movement
Rather than feeling guilty for my priviliges, I feel that I have learnt their value. And have come away with an awareness of the duty I have to use those priviliges constructively for more than my own personal gain. And for that, Iam also grateful.
At Bet Lahem Live I facilitated creative workshops for young people at the Bethlahem Peace Centre, and performed poetry and music on a few of the stages at the festival. I was there as part of a tour organised by Amos Trust, a London based Human Rights Organisation, who support the festival. Mor info is available at the links below;
Year 9 Set 3 English in Ysgol Caergybi has some very vocal learners in the group. We approached their theme of Social Media through a group discussion.
md – who here likes social media?
lots of hands up around the room
md – what’s good about it?
L1 – it’s good to watch videos and talk about them with your friends
L2 – there’s this man….
And we were in.
The young people shared stories of videos they watched and I typed up what they said on the board.
This was a lively discussion that touched on cruelty to animals, violence against humans, non-violent resistance, the cult of celebrity, compassion, empathy and the power of spectacle.
A brief edit using the hook Good to Watch and we created a group list poem that we performed by sharing different lines among the learners.
“Click Bait” has been left as the prompt for the next section of the piece which could be a list of short, punchy, phrases associated with youtube.
We had come to the end of an interesting and creative lesson. What I didn’t get to ask the learners was
What effect do you think watching these videos is having on you?
Having been at the North and South Wales Slam Cymru Heats it was no surprise to me that the Garfield Weston Foundation supported Slam Cymru Final at St David’s Hall on Saturday was so Amazing, Inspiring, Powerful, Accomplished, Beautiful… all the things that we are when we are at our best… So Intelligent, Coherent, Funny, Honest, Innovative, Unified… I’m so proud to be a part of this movement. And it is a movement, not a project. We are sowing the seeds of a new generation of poets to take out great traditions forward. It’s so powerful to see our Welsh Young Poets being inspired and inspiring.
The event began with a workshop led by y Bardd Plant Cymru Anerin Karadog and myself with the young poets from the teams that were competing in the final. We did a writing exercise using the prompt “We are the ones….” and I asked the poets to focus their writing on being in Slam Cymru. The pieces they wrote were amazing. Here is a memorable excerpt from one of them
We are the victors, the liars and the victims
We are the children and our voice is the key
We are the ones who stand together
We are the ones who are quiet, who are alone in the crowd, we are the forgotten
We are the screaming silence that refuses to be heard
We are the cracked pavement drawings to be awed at, stepped on and then washed away
We are the brave, the stupid, we’re only people, we’re only human
Muffled tunes of Y Geiriau Cryf and we refuse to be silent
What a vibrant and dynamic commentary on Wales and Welshness. One of our aims in Slam Cymru is to generate exactly this type of discourse around our nationality, and who better in the “Gwlad o Beirdd a Chwantorion” than poets to take it on? And out of all the poets in Wales, who better than the young ones to envision future Cymru. Another aim for Slam Cymru is to encourage an organic and inclusive bi-linguality as part of a wider movement to develop dialogue between (and in) our national languages. As a Welsh Learner, both of the language and the wider meaning of what it means to be Welsh, this is a passion of mine and I am genuinely inspired to see how beautifully the poets combined Welsh and English in their work.
Round two was an open round. Any subject you want. Here are the video links:
At the end of the second round the scores from both rounds for each team were added up and the two top scoring teams went through to a final head to head round to decide who would be the 2015 Slam Cymru Champions. The two teams in the final round were Ysgol Penweddig and Blackwood Comp. Penweddig did their “Ffaberystwyth” piece and Blackwood did “Sticks and Stones”. It was a brilliant final round, and I do think they were the two strongest pieces in the whole competition, marked out particularly by the quality of their team work in group performance.
And the winners and Slam Cymru Champions 2015 are ………
Llongyfarchiadau / Congratulations to YSGOL PENWEDDIG. Very well done to Blackwood Comprehensive, Maes y Gwendraeth and Coleg Cambria. The final round was decided by 0.1 of a point. It literally could not have been closer.
The competitive part of Slam does through up some issues, because as well as celebrating the excellence of the winners, we are also creating losers, and I have to say that the faces of some of the losing teams showed real disappointment. It’s a tough call, but I still think the benefits of the competition outweigh this one negative. The process is the most important thing, and that would be the same if we were creating a youth poetry event that is not competitive. The event itself benefits hugely from being competitive because it adds edge, structure, and allows the audience to invest in the narrative through supporting their team. The creation of a winning team also allows us to develop the Slam Cymru brand. Ysgol Penweddig now have the title of National Youth Slam Champions and that really helps them and us to promote the work we are doing to wider audiences. I honestly don’t know how we can create the atmosphere and buzz of these amazing events without the competitive element. It just would not be as exciting. What we can do is develop a culture that doesn’t prioritise victory over participation, and we try hard to minimise the importance of the result because everyone who participated is a Solid Slam Cymru Winner.
Through April, May and June 2015 12 amazing groups of young people have been working with Literature Wales to create Slam Cymru – Wales’ first ever National Youth Slam. After creative sessions with our brilliant Slam Cymru Tutors the young people have slammed together for the first time in their regional heats.
First up was the Gogledd Cymru Heat, staged in the excellent Un Deg Un Art Space in Wrecsam. Teams from; Powys young Carers; Ysgol Maes Garmon, Mold; Ysgol Caergybi; Ysgol Penweddig, Aberystwyth; Ysgol Tir Morfa, Rhyl; Coleg Cambria, Wrecsam shared their work in one of the most vibrant, exciting and honest events I have ever been to in Wales. All of the groups excelled, creating a perfect crucible of youth voices that fulfilled and exceeded any expectations I might have held about the quality of the Slam. every participant, teacher, youth worker, tutor and coordinator involved should feel real pride at what we created. Well done to each and every one of you.
After three rounds the winners were Ysgol Penweddig, with Coleg Cambria coming in second. Those two teams have qualified to represent Gogledd in the National Final on July 4th. Well done to those two, and well done to the four teams who didn’t qualify.
The Gogledd Heat was the culmination of a lot of work for me. From the first envisioning of the project; the selection of the tutors; the training events for the tutors; tutoring three teams myself; helping to produce and host and video the event, it’s fair to say I was involved to a large degree. Any one who was there will probably be able to give testament that I was a very excited and happy person to see all our work coming together so brilliantly. Some video of pieces are posted on the links below. Enjoy.
Having edited Dylan’s great Poem together with Aneirin Karadog it was really exciting to bring the piece live to the Elmley Foundation Stage at the Hay Festival. The bi-lingual poem featured lines submitted by different young poets from all over the world, and as Aneirin and myself stood arm in arm together and read the poem off his phone, I could feel all the voices of the poets speaking through us.
The audience was a full house and very receptive to our work. A show of hands earlier on had shown us that about half of the audience were Welsh speakers and would be able to enjoy all 100 lines of the Great Poem to the fullest. All of us in the room could enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of Aneirin’s Welsh language edit of the Cerdd Fawr and for me it was a particular pleasure to perform the English lines alongside, and inside, the Welsh lines. This was the greatest part of performing the Great Poem for me: the interplay and blending of our two national languages through the shared medium of poetry.
I’m proud to have worked on this poem as a fitting tribute to the legacy of Dylan Thomas and the 2014 celebrations of his centenary.
Full House at The Hay Festival Elmley Foundation Stage
It was a real bonus meeting up with my friend Sarah Edmonds at Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Sarah was at the fair with fellow illustrator Nanna Koekoek, freelancing their illustrations to publishers and agents. Sarah has posted her own blog on the Book Fair, full of beautiful shots of her sketchbook, at http://sarahedmondsillustration.tumblr.com/
Sarah Edmonds with fellow illustrator Nanna Koekoek
Hanging out with Sarah has always been a pleasure, but it was especially rewarding to share the Laureates trip to Bologna with her, as Sarah was the project coordinator for YPL back in April 2013 when I began working in the role.
When I started as YPL Sarah welcomed me into the role with her characteristic mix of intelligence, laughter, kindness and acute strategic insight. It’s no surprise that she is doing so well through bringing those same qualities to promoting her work as an illustrator with the added bonus, for her, of it being her own work she is promoting, rather than other people’s.
I feel very fortunate to be a professional poet and educator, and it gives me happiness to share the journey with friends who resonate my passion and commitment for creativity. Sometimes it can be lonely travelling so many different places, but sharing Bologna Book fair with old friends like Sarah, new friends like Nanna, and comrades like Aneirin, helps turns the happiness to joy.
And then I was standing in the huge dining hall of a medieval palace in the middle of Bologna’s dreamlike city centre. The hospitality would not have embarrassed the grandees of any era, and can only be described as lavish. It was the Bologna book Fair bash by Scholastic Books, a big publisher who put on a cracking spread for the assorted great and good of children’s publishing. Grateful as I was to my hosts, in truth, I was feeling a little outside the book industry professionals discreetly grazing the anti pasti, gently burnishing the chandeliers with book network chatter.
Not one to prop up the wall, I resolved to get my extrovert head on and meet some people. The crowd were grouped up into small copses that felt like guest list only so I went looking for someone standing by themselves, someone who would return my eye contact with a smile. So I got talking to Tim, a literary agent from London. I asked him whether he represented any poets and Tim was refreshingly businesslike and honest
No offence, but I’m really not interested in poetry at all. Even if I thought I might be able to sell it, I wouldn’t be able to get behind it properly because I wouldn’t have a passion for it.
It’s no surprise then that among the Children’s Laureates at the summit Aneirin and myself are the only poets. Practitioners of the craft of the bard are always gonna be pretty thin on the ground at an industry fair like Bologna where the main drive is to sell books. I can name four poets who are here; the coordinator of the Irish Laureate na nOg programme is poet Nessa O’Mahoney, and I also met Stina Kokum, a Swedish poet who was working at the fair as a translator, and that’s about it for the poets – but like I always say, it’s about quality not quantity with poetry!
I was at the Scholastic do as a result of having bumped into the Irish Children’s Laureate na nOg, novelist Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl), and him then inviting Nei and myself to tag along. The disparity between our book sales could not really be more extreme. My poetry anthology ‘Skintight the Sidewalk’ has sold about 500 covers, mostly at performances I have done in the UK. Not much, but about average for a decent book of poems. By contrast Eoin Caulfer has sold in excess of 20 million books worldwide! It’s a testament to his character that he is putting so much of his time and energy into promoting reading and creative writing among the young people of Ireland. Chwarae teg Eoin.
The UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman is another best selling author who has chosen to put her time and energy into supporting literature, reading and writing among young people. I have genuinely found these two super talented, huge selling authors to be some of the most intelligent, articulate and down to earth people I have had the pleasure of working with. It’s inspiring to find that we share the same passion for culture and it’s power to socially engage young people.
At present my conversations with Malorie seem to gravitate towards political discussions of her experience of speaking with Government Ministers about education policy, and my experience of Teachers telling me that creativity is being squeezed out of the curriculum by government. It’s hard to keep smiling when you’re talking about library closures; about teacher’s not having any curriculum time to teach creatively; speaking of children being educated in increasingly rigid and statistically driven ways. I guess it’s hard to statistically measure the success of creative activities, but I believe human’s have always defined, maintained and refined their communal and individual identities through creative cultural practice – so I wanna ask a minister
why are you rejecting all those millenia of wisdom when you create our communities of learning?
Y Bardd Plant Cymru Aneirin Karadog and myself are in Italy to contribute to the Children’s Laureate Summit – a meeting of children’s laureates from all round the world at the Children’s Book Fair 2015 in Bologna. The countries representing alongside us at the summit are Australia, Sweden, Mexico, Finland, Ireland, UK/England, Netherlands and New Zealand.
It’s a HUGE honour to represent Wales at International meet ups like the Children’s Book Fair 2015. I’ve been YPL Wales for 2 years now, but sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I find myself sitting in conversation with World Famous Authors – people whose books I’ve read and loved – and these same people take a genuine interest in my work, and the more importantly the wider work YPL Wales and Bardd Plant are doing to engage our young people in their creativity.
One of the highlights of the summit for me has been meeting Malorie Blackman – the UK Children’s Laureate. Malorie is a great advocate for young people, for reading, writing, and empowering young people to create a strong representative voice for themselves. It’s very affirming to meet such a strong, intelligent, person who has drawn so many of the same observations and conclusions as myself on the value of literature, spoken word and cultural engagement in young people’s lives.
IT’S OBVIOUS – USE THE ARTS TO EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO DEVELOP THE SKILLS THEY NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THE SOCIAL ANS EMOTIONAL DEMANDS OF EDUCATION SO THEY ARE BETTER ENABLED TO ENGAGE WITH MORE FORMAL AND TECHNICAL SUBJECTS.
That’s a quote from me, not Malorie, and sorry about the caps lock shouting – but sometimes it’s hard to be heard over the grinding machinations of government edu-speak and the clanging of taxi doors as disenfranchised teachers leave the profession. Here’s a quote from Malorie:
You don’t like reading? You just haven’t found the right book for you yet!
Aneirin also pointed out the value of himself and me being here in representing Wales alongside the UK Laureate. The mainland UK would have been represented solely by English voices if we hadn’t been here, and that in itself has made it worth the journey.