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Birmingham Young Poet Laureate - Helen's Diary 2005-6

Helen Monks was the first Young Poet Laureate for Birmingham.
Here she tells us about a year in the life of a very busy poet!
Helen Monks


6 October National Poetry Day

Today is national poetry day. I was announced as Birmingham's first young poet laureate in Starbucks coffee house in the town centre!

I'm so excited to be Young Poet Laureate and can't wait to see what the year will bring...

25 October Young Poet Laureate celebration event

Yesterday, 24 October, was the event with Benjamin Zephaniah, Richard Grant (Dreadlockalien), Birmingham 10th Poet Laureate, and all the runners up for the Birmingham Young Poet Laureate post. Other people who entered were invited but not everyone could come!

It was a great event! Lots of people got awards such as certificates and I got my trophy and check for £100 worth of books! We had lots of pictures taken for the paper and then went over to the library theatre where Richard hosted a small event at which lots of people read poems (including me) and Benjamin Zephaniah said a speech.

At the end, Richard talked to the young people who had come about a Birmingham Slam team which he would be setting up and would be meeting the first Wednesday of every month!


Helen Monks at the mic

7 December Poetry slam

It was the first Wednesday of December and Richard Grant, Birmingham's 10th Adult Poet Laureate, was hosting a slamming event at the library theatre space where lots of poets were invited to come and share their poetry and young people were more than welcome to come as Richard was hoping to create a Birmingham young slam team.

Lots of people read poems, including me, and a few other young people. Richard obviously performed some of his poems. Then there was an interval in which people could have a drink and afterwards there was a more adult second half.

10 December - Bandstand event at the German market

Lots of schools were playing musical instruments at the bandstand in town by the German market which comes up every Christmas. There was a selection of singing, brass, rock band, gospel choir and more. It was a very busy lively event, and I was asked to read a poem there. I wrote a poem called Music especially for it. It was a very special event and I did very much enjoy doing it, but it was quite hard as lots of people were just passing and buying things at the Frankfurt market below me so I did not necessarily have the best audience. But this was ok, as it was mainly being there and seeing the music event that was the main thing!


3 January - Meeting at library

I went, with Richard, to a meeting at the Library with Patsy Heap. There we talked about what we wanted to achieve from the year and what our goals were. We have lots of challenges that seem a little broad minded like to get on Blue Peter! But I'm sure we'll manage it!!

After we discussed what we wanted to do, we took a walk up to Peter's book suppliers where I was allowed to have £100 worth of books! It was heaven! It was like Charlie and the Chocolate factory only with books. And you'd be surprised how many books you can get in £100! I bought Jacqueline Wilson's trilogy of 'Girls in Love' and lots and lots of poetry books!

4 January Poetry Slam

Today was the January slam event. I couldn't come to the first part of this, but Richard worked with some of the young people on their poems so that they were polished up for performance. It was a smaller gathering as it was just after Christmas but more people started turning up as the evening wore on. I did some poems and my dad did some poems and of course Richard did some poems!

It was really good actually and next time I'll try to get some friends together who maybe be interested in then joining the slamming team.

5 January Poetry Society event

Me, Richard, Anu and Nikki went down to London for the day to meet with lots of different poet laureates. We each said a little bit about what we did to contribute to the poetry world in our areas of the country! I talked a bit about how I got the post of young poet laureate and how many entries there were, showing a thriving sense of poetry around young people in Birmingham, also in schools as over 60 schools entered the competition, I think that's something Birmingham should be really proud of. Anyway, I also read two poems, 'I blacken a stone on the fire' one of the poems I entered to become poet laureate, and ‘Music’ the poem I had read at the bandstand event. However, I was the only poetic contribution to the event as it was mainly discussing finance and whether we think that there should be more happening with the poet laureate post etc. It was a good trip out to London though and I really enjoyed meeting all the other poets and seeing their views on poetry!

29 January – Holocaust Memorial Day event

This was a very moving event celebrating the end of the holocaust and the triumph over the Nazi Germans. It was very sad at times as many people were badly affected during the war, losing family and being split up from people very close to them. There was a Jewish prayer which was very beautiful and three candles were lit at the beginning, one by me. I then read my poem, 'My Brother'. The theme of the event was that one person makes a difference. I think this was a very inspirational topic and I tried to make my poem follow that theme well. I thought it would be a good idea to base my poem on a man who had in fact been in the concentration camps who had acted very noble by deciding to look at things in a completely different way. He would be really polite to everyone, even the guards, and no one would understand why he acted like this, he explained ‘they can take my clothes, my wedding ring, they can strip me naked but they can never take my dignity or what’s inside me.’ These became very inspirational words, and everyone then took to his way of thinking. Lots of people would go and see him for advice, even some of the guards would talk to him about their problems. I think this is a really good example of one person making a difference. And so I used this in my poem. I explained at the beginning who the man was and I think it went down well!

Don Barnard, last year's poet laureate, was also there and read a very moving poem sequence that he’d written there too. This was very good!


1 February – Poetry Slam

This was a good event with lots of people. At the beginning there was a workshop with Richard Grant (aka Dreadlockalien) where a few young people, including me, practiced their writing skills and learnt different skills and ways to write performance poetry. There were a range of poets and everyone was informed that at the next slam event there would be the London slam team (‘The Slambassadors’) coming down from London to share their ideas and work with us.

13 February – Poem for The Ambridge Voice

I was given the task to write a poem for The Ambridge Voice, the magazine for Radio 4’s The Archers. I was also interviewed by Jo Toye, one of the writers of The Archers and this interview was also put in the magazine. My poem had to be related to the lifestyle of farming and animals, as The Archers is based on a farming village. So I chose the animal the cockerel and wrote a poem called 'The Cockerel' which is available on this website.


10 March – International Women’s Day

For International Women’s Day I was given the opportunity to go down to the Young People’s Parliament at Millennium Point to read some poems for the event being held there, and also read some other poems as a female poet in Birmingham. It was a good event with lots of schools participating and watching, including my school (Swanshurst Secondary School). There were other speakers at the event and we all took a quiz about women through the different years on the interactive board.

23 March – Collegiate Event

This was an event to launch an anthology of poems, called Chain Reaction created by schools in south Birmingham (part of the Oaks Collegiate). It was a brilliant event, held at Midlands Arts Centre, where lots of young people were getting up on stage and reading their poems. It was hosted by a Birmingham writer who had gone into schools and worked with all the children on poems to go in the anthology. The anthology was launched by Michael Collie from BBC Midlands Today. It was a brilliant event and was so successful it should, with any luck, be happening again next year.

30 March – British Heart Foundation

This was an event through my school to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. There was a live band, free goodies and drinks and all the money raised went to the British Heart Foundation. I was asked to write a poem to read at the beginning of the event. I wrote a poem about exercise and how staying fit could help the heart. It was a really good event and a lot of money was raised for a good cause!


1 April – Radio WM

I went to the BBC studios in Birmingham at the Mailbox to be interviewed live for BBC Radio WM (a radio program broadcast throughout the West Midlands). I was asked all sorts of questions about being Birmingham’s First Young Poet Laureate and I read two of my poems; ‘ I Blacken A Stone On the Fire’, and ‘ Music’ both of which you can find on this website. The radio interview was to promote the event ‘6 of the best’ which is a series of 6 events, each with 6 poets performing their work. I will be one of the first performers at this event, along with 5 other great poets! It’s being hosted by Dreadlockalien (Birmingham’s Poet Laureate).


20 May - Young Readers Launch

This was a fantastic event launching the Young Readers Festival coming up. There were loads of people involved in writing, education and other medias there; Jacqueline Wilson being one of them. She then officially launched the event. There was a meal at the Icon Gallery in Birmingham city centre and afterwards me, Jacqueline and a few others went to the Adrian Boult Hall where she gave a talk about her work and did a question and answer with an audience of hundreds of keen young readers, me sitting on the front row. At the meal I met Janice Long and she asked me if I would appear on her radio show for Radio WM in a week’s time.

27 May - The Janice Long Show

I arrived at the BBC Mailbox (where they do the radio WM shows from) bright and early for a morning slot on the show. It was a lovely interview and I got to slip in some poems and a lot of ideas and opinions I had on writing. I managed to advertise the Big Book Bash and promote my school! Afterwards I went with my mum for a cup of tea in Cafe Rouge outside the Mailbox.

28-29 May - The Big Book Bash

A busy end to a busy week! Richard Grant (Dreadlockalien – the current Birmingham Poet Laureate) had three slots in one day, all of which I was to appear in, and in between all those I went up to the main building to talk to other young writers about my year and try to interest some of them in entering for the next Young Poet Laureate. In Richard’s events I read some poems and we tried to tell a story together using 5 words picked by the audience – taking a word each. And miraculously we seemed to pull it off pretty well! It was strange because I’ve been going to the Big Book Bash for quite a few years now but never did I imagine actually performing in it!


2 June - West Midlands Regional Slam Final

This was a great event held at the Library Theatre in Birmingham involving a friendly competition between some of the West Midlands best young performance poets. There were three judges, one of which was me, and it was a pretty tough decision but in the end a boy won with a poem about places in the world, but also how no matter what it came down to, there was no place like home! There were also two runners up and all three of them got prizes. I think it was a really good event and these young people will now be forming the West Midlands Regional Slam Team. I’m also really happy that a guy won something for once!

24 June 24 - Queen’s Birthday

This was quite a hard event to write a poem for. I had to write a poem for the Queen’s 80th Birthday and, as you can probably imagine, it was really hard to know what to write. I needed it to be appropriate and something really special. In the end I did come up with something that I was pretty proud of and I went down to the Birmingham Central Library to read it and have it sent off to the Queen. It was a small, fun event held in the Centre for the Child consisting of crown making, story telling and a lot of strangely dressed librarians (they were all dressed up like story book characters). I read it to a group of people and it seemed to go down pretty well. The poem was put in a nice frame and sent off to the Queen a day or two later.

27 June - A Creative Future

A Creative Future is Birmingham’s Strategy for children, young people and the arts 2006-2009. It was an event held at Symphony Hall in Birmingham and both myself and Richard Grant went and read (or in his case performed) some of our poems. It was a sweet event with lots of performances of young people dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, talking about how they were involved in the arts etc. A man there who worked at Symphony Hall asked me if they could print my poem ‘Music’ in one of the programs. He gave me his card and I went home and e-mailed him the poem. Now we’ll just have to wait and see.


July 7 - Inspire

Inspire is a Strategy carried out in many schools in Birmingham. Its main aim is to get parents, teachers and children all working together to make children’s education better. They set up the facilities to enable parents to go into their child’s school for half a day and do an activity with them. It was a nice event where lots of certificates were given out to schools taking part in the strategy. I read ten minutes worth of poems.


19-28 August – Edinburgh Book Festival

During August I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival performing in a play. While I was up there I popped into the Edinburgh Book Festival where, although I did not perform, I saw lots of people. Jacqueline Wilson was in fact performing there but I didn’t see her this time. While I was in Edinburgh I was reading all the entries for the second poet Laureate!


9 September – Birmingham’s Second Young Poet Laureate

As my time is coming to an end, Birmingham Libraries has been searching for Birmingham’s next Young Poet Laureate. While I was in Edinburgh I was reading all the entries and giving the poems marks out of 10. The other judges were also doing this and all the marks put together showed us who the 10 finalists were. On September 9, as part of ArtsFest, an event was held at the Library Theatre so that we could meet with these 10 young people and watch what they were like performing. I read some poems, and so did Richard Grant (Birmingham adult Poet Laureate), and then the 10 finalists all read a poem each. I was extremely happy when I knew that my role would be carried on so well, as all 10 of the finalists were of an extremely high standard. There were judges scattered around the audience who were all judging the poets' performing abilities and I really can’t wait to meet with them all and decide who will be Birmingham’s Second Young Poet Laureate!

After the main event many of the finalists stayed behind to do a workshop with Richard. After the workshop they could either perform the material that they had written in the session or read a poem they’d already created. I was then asked to judge who was the best Slam Performer. It was very hard to choose but a really fun afternoon!


5 October – End of Poet Laureate

Today I officially stopped being Birmingham’s Young Poet Laureate. I am very sad but it’s been a fantastic year and I think that Jennifer Brough, Birmingham’s Second Young Poet Laureate, will do a brilliant job and I really hope that she gets as much out of it as I did.

What happened afterwards …

Although my year as Birmingham Young Poet Laureate was over I was still kept very busy. On November 7 there was a handing over event where the 10 finalists, Jennifer and myself celebrated Birmingham’s Poetry achievement in having a Young Poet Laureate for the second year.

Also I finished writing a poem for the Brook Advisory Centre. On Friday November 17 at 5pm, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Brook, I performed at Borders bookshop in Birmingham’s Bullring along with other poets, including Birmingham’s 11th Adult Poet Laureate, Giovanni Esposito. And from January 2007, two of my poems were on the BBC Jam website in a section called Benjamin’s House. This is named after Benjamin Zephaniah, who launched my year as Young Poet Laureate back in October 2005, so that was quite a neat way to round off what has been a fantastic time for me.