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Beyond the comfort zone

Jean Sprackland on a five-day course with the Foyle Young Poets of the Year. WHISK.

The most I've ever whisked is ten at a time.

My ambition is to trap an eagle but I'm not big enough, the most I can fit is a couple of grey mice which don't have a wing span between them.

I'm scared that there will be no eggs or cream and my value will fall to less than subsistence level.

My favourite colour is grey; I'm colourblind.

No, I'm not religious, if there was a God he'd have made me into a birdcage.

Ruth Yates

Whatever their expectations, this group of 16 to 18-year-olds may be a little surprised to find themselves chatting away about an egg-whisk, a tree or a cushion. It's Wednesday morning, day three of the five-day residential course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire taking place in the 18th century mill-owner's house once owned by Ted Hughes. We are engaged in the latest in a series of activities aimed at encouraging these already promising young poets to extend their writing in new directions.

The course takes place every February, the main prize for the 16 winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards. These students are already writing successfully; my co-judge Matthew Sweeney and I selected their poems from a dazzling postbag of over 5,000 entries. But all writers have their "safety zones", where they are comfortable with the subject matter, the perspective and the tone. One of the tasks facing us as tutors is to encourage them to be ambitious and experimental outside that zone, to inhabit in their poetry other personalities, other worlds. Interviewing objects is one very effective way of tackling the challenge of writing in other voices. Through discussion with the group, prepare a list of questions in advance, before the students know what they're going to be asked to do. You're looking for the sort of question you would ask if you were meeting someone for the first time: how old are you? Where do you come from? What's your greatest ambition?

Then send the students away to find an object to interview. Their poems are made of the answers the object might give. With younger children, it helps to bring in an object (I've used a shell, a boot, a top-hat etc) and model the writing in a collaborative group poem first. This gives you an opportunity to talk about extending imagery and stretching an idea beyond the obvious. The results are often richly surprising and original.

The students also conjured up a few of those alternative worlds I hinted at earlier. Using postcards, they were invited to imagine the conditions, invent laws which operate there, and write monologues spoken by the citizens. After making laws, the students seemed to relish breaking a few.

Using Mandy Coe's poem "When the Earth Let Go" as a model, they took a law of nature and imagined this law broken or disrupted, and wrote - again in the first person - about the consequences, good and bad.

At the end of the week, following a well-established tradition, the students organise themselves into producing an anthology of poems, Zitherdance, they've written. The poems published here may have had their origins in exercises set around the long oak table in the dining room; they may have been drafted in 20 minutes and been read out nervously to the group. But by the time they arrive in print they've grown through thinking and redrafting, and it's not always easy to remember how each one began.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2003 is organised by the Poetry Society and supported by The TES. Any writer between the ages of 11 and 18 can enter by sending their poem or poems on A4 paper with their name, address and date of birth written clearly on the reverse of every sheet, to 2003 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, The Poetry Society, 22, Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX or email: If sending emails, please include name, address and date of birth. Poets can enter as many poems as they choose, on any theme and any length. Closing date is July 31 2003."When the Earth Let Go" appears in Mandy Coe's new collection, to be published by Shoestring Press later this year.

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