21st August 2020
Poetry By Heart is part of an international family of related poetry reciting competitions: Poetry Out Loud in the USA, Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, Talk the Poem in Jamaica, Poetry Aloud in Ireland, Poetry for Life in South Africa, and, as teacher and competition organiser Antony McDermott reports here, Poetry By Heart France.
We love all these international connections and this year we’re taking a first step, with Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, towards a future international competition too. That will take time to develop but for now we’re hugely excited that one state school finalist from key stage 4 or 5 in the 2020-21 competition will be invited to Toronto in 2021 to perform alongside the Canadian Poetry In Voice competition winner at the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.
More news about that soon, but here’s Antony on what these international connections mean for Poetry By Heart France.
Our Poetry by Heart adventure began back in 2015. As an English teacher and poetry-lover, I was looking for ways to bring poetry to life in the classroom and to move students away from thinking that poetry was just about studying a small number of poems for a final exam. One question kept coming back to me: how could I encourage my students to develop a true love of poetry – a feeling they would hopefully carry with them after they had left school? When I came across the UK Poetry by Heart project, I knew straight away that this was a project that had so much to offer: it allowed students to discover a vast range of poetry; it emphasised student choice; and it encouraged students to develop a personal relationship with a poem and to express that through the power of voice, tone and intonation. The competition was also a reminder to all of us of the simple joy of hearing a poem being recited and how wonderful that can be.
And so it was, that with the support of ELSA (English Language Schools Association) and the kind encouragement of Tim Shortis and Julie Blake, we managed to set up our first competition in March 2015. Ten schools, mainly from the Paris area, took part and from the off the response to the competition was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, competition day was a wonderful event – a moment when students stepped onto the stage and were able to share their love and appreciation of poetry with a rapt audience. The wide impact that the competition had was also expressed by all of the teachers there – many referred to the way it had helped to raise the profile of poetry in their schools; the way it had encouraged their students to begin to think about what sort of poetry they liked and why; and the way that it had also allowed different students to shine, with many discovering a talent that they had not known they had, a talent to move people and transmit a feeling just through recital.
The success of the 2015 competition and the positive feedback on the day made it clear to us all that we had to do everything possible to continue the competition each year, and make it a permanent fixture of the school calendar. With some pride we can say that it is mission accomplished as the competition has continued each year since 2015 and the number of schools participating has increased from 11 to 17. The competition is also interesting for us here in France as it attracts students with differing relationships to English: some have an Anglophone parent and so speak English at home; others are bilingual and juggle two languages both at home or at school; some are French students who have developed a strong bond with the English language and English literature through their studies; and others are students for whom French and English are not their first languages. What all of these students do share is a love of poetry and a desire to share that love of poetry through the power of voice – the Poetry by Heart competition in France gives them the opportunity to do that.
Since 2015 the Poetry by Heart UK organisers have always been extremely encouraging, giving us support and advice from across the Channel. It was therefore with much excitement (and some nerves) that we were lucky enough to welcome Tim Shortis and Julie Blake to our 2017 finals here in France. It was a truly magic moment for everyone (teachers and students) to hear Julie tell us about the UK competition, how it had started and its evolution, and to receive encouragement from her and praise for our students’ recitals. Not only did the visit give validation to Poetry by Heart France, but it also felt, in a small way, as if we were building bridges and making connections (through the power of poetry) at a time when links between the UK and Europe seemed to be particularly fraught.
The excitement continued as our 2017 winner was invited by Tim and Julie to attend the British finals in the magical setting of The British Library in April that year. What an honour it was for our winner, Eléonore, (a student at the Institut Notre Dame school in Paris), to find herself reciting The Galloping Cat, in front of a packed room of UK finalists. As well as reciting her poem, she was treated like a true celebrity, being interviewed by the UK team about her experience as a Poetry by Heart competitor, and she also got to meet the actor, Freddie Fox.
Eléonore meets the British actor, Freddie Fox, one of the guest speakers at the event
Eléonore being interviewed by the UK organisers about her love of poetry
The Poetry by Heart France competition continued smoothly and successfully in 2018 and in 2019, and so by 2020 setting up the competition all seemed very simple. Everything was in place and we were all raring to go: the date of Saturday March 14th had been confirmed; the 16 participating schools had chosen their students; the venue was ready; the judges had been found and most importantly, the refreshments had been ordered – what could possibly go wrong? Of course, this was without taking into account the arrival of the Coronavirus. Just a week before the competition, we were told that for safety reasons it was no longer possible to organise large gatherings of people – Poetry by Heart France had to be cancelled. For the many students who had prepared their poems and who were ready to recite them, it seemed like a terrible shame but not much could be done.
A few weeks into lockdown though and once online teaching and learning had become the norm, it seemed more and more obvious that something could and should indeed be done to revive the 2020 competition. A message was sent out asking if students would be willing to film their recitals and the response was positive – yes, students were indeed keen to still take part. At a time when everyone was adapting to a difficult situation, poetry offered us all the chance to escape into other worlds and be transported by the beauty of other voices. The students taking part all managed to do just that through their delightful recitals. In the end, 29 enthusiastic students took part from 14 different schools in France – and the 2020 competition (version française) had been saved.
So what lies in the future for Poetry by Heart France? We will definitely continue with the English version here in France in 2021 and aim to encourage even more schools to get involved. We will continue to develop our middle school Poetry by Heart competition, which has been running now for a few years (and which has been a big success helping to enthuse younger students with the excitement of poetry recital), and we are looking into the possibility of creating a primary school competition as well. Our next big project though is to set up a bilingual version with the possibility of allowing students to recite poems in both French and English – this really would be a lovely way to celebrate poetry from different cultures. We’ve come a long way since everything started in 2015, but what has become evident along the way is the positive impact that the adventure has had on us all: it has allowed us to create a stronger sense of community amongst the participating schools; it has allowed us to promote the love of poetry in the classroom in a profound way; and most importantly, as listeners it has also given us so many magical moments hearing the emotion and passion of young voices reciting their favourite poem.
2020 Poetry BY Heart France Winners
Alexander Gliott (Josephine Baker Finds Herself) – First Prize – LISG American Section
Morgan Distler (God, A Poem) – Second Prize – Collège Sévigné
Matteo Joyce (Porphyria’s Lover) Lycée Camille Sée and Emma Georges (The Cleaner) Institut Notre Dame – joint Third Prize
Honorable Mentions to Emma Cowen (Dusting the Phone) LISG British Section and Joseph Hanlon (The Journey of the Magi) SIS Sèvres