7th February 2016
There have been some tearful farewells in the PBH Office just recently as we have had to say goodbye to Tom Boughen who has been a highly regarded member of our team specialising in administration and marketing. Tom will be moving to London and working for the British Council. Happily he is returning briefly to us at the finals in March. You might have thought we would just let him enjoy watching the finals this year but we’re making him work too! Below you can read some lovely reflections from Tom on his three years with PBH.
I’ve recently accepted a new job in London and will be leaving Poetry By Heart. I’d like to share my thoughts on this competition, having been part of it for nearly three years and directly involved in the highs and lows and laughs and searing frustrations which accompany the life of any arts organisation.
Hopefully I can neatly sidestep any self-indulgence because I feel as if this project has been a success not simply because we’ve worked hard on it, but because teachers, librarians and students wanted it to be. I’ve enjoyed being the voice of the email inbox, the Twitter account, the newsletter and speaking directly to just about everyone who wanted to speak to us.
This is Poetry By Heart’s fourth year. The first year, so I’m told, succeeded on a wing and a prayer. I joined in the second year when everything was a little bit smoother, the budget was a bit bigger and Julie Blake, our great leader, could mould the competition into something that had the potential to really reach people. It’s not our place to say it has, but I like to think so anyway (so much for lack of self-indulgence!).
My defining memory of the second year is catching trains and visiting county contests. I was train-hopping across the country in the bleak midwinter, staring at drowned fields from a fly-encrusted window and staying in identical Travelodges. It was often very cold and very dark except for the evenings where I could step into warm libraries and arts centres and theatres and watch young people making the most of their talent and their voice. The 2014 national final is my defining PBH memory because it felt like the culmination of something big. I realised that this was an exciting place to be and it was actually making some difference to even just a few hundred teenagers who felt strengthened by being able to move an audience with words alone. Matilda Neill was the winner that year and I’ve never heard such silence in a room filled with so many people as I did during her recitation of In Memoriam by the poetic giant Michael Longley.
I was train-hopping far less in Poetry By Heart’s third year thanks to our wonderful regional development team. It’s very rare you ever meet a group of people who are so creative-minded and friendly, and yet simultaneously so practical and resourceful that they can put together a competition like this. The national finals moved to their present location at Homerton College and became infused with a great sense of support and camaraderie fuelled by everyone who works there.
Speaking freely, this competition gets an amount of flak from some quarters. Is it worthless? Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I speak only for myself, not on behalf of the competition, not on behalf of my employer. I’ve got an absurd sentimentality for the project and I’m ridiculously biased but I think it’s a bloody fantastic thing at its best. I’ve seen so many students become invigorated with a palpable sense of confidence right there on stage as they successfully reel off a Keats or a Zephaniah. I’ve watched video footage of an interview in which a student from a West Midlands state comprehensive declared, totally unprompted, “this has made me think I could go to university! I could actually do that!” as if he had surprised himself with the realisation. Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I personally reject the idea when I’ve seen so much passion from so many young people who are approaching the form for the first time, and are taking the voices of great poets and moulding them in their own style. These words mean something to them.
Incidentally I’ve picked up two poems by heart myself. One is ‘Ozymandias’ (Shelley), the other is the hymn of every disillusioned teenager: ‘This Be The Verse’ (Larkin). If nothing else, it’s an exceptional icebreaker.
Now I’m winding down and I feel like I’m talking more than an Oscar winner. I’m going to self-consciously mumble my thanks to Julie Blake, Kath Lee and Tim Shortis for giving me a shot after a job interview on a grey September afternoon in 2013. Thousands of History university graduates were let loose from university during that month into a frightening world of dwindling employment opportunities. They sat in job interviews, wearing badly-fitted suits and tremulously making a case for themselves. I was a lucky one.
About the Author: Tom Boughen was born in Hull and now lives in Bristol, having worked in administration and marketing for Poetry By Heart for three years, and will begin working at The British Council in London in early February. He has a History MA from the University of Bristol, and wrote his thesis about Indian soldiers in the First World War. During his downtime over the summer he likes to go globetrotting, his 2015 jaunt taking him to the USA, Mexico and Cuba. In his spare time in Bristol, he likes to read, write and watch deliberately obscure films.