Congratulations to Year 13 student, Amy Beverley, winner of the Oxford University Tower Poetry Competition for 2021 and a first prize of £3,000
On the evening of Wednesday 21st April Amy Beverley, a Year 13 student from St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham, was sitting in her front room taking part in a call over her computer, not an unusual occurrence for a teenager in a year of living virtually. However, the meeting that she was taking part in was anything but usual: it was the prizegiving ceremony to celebrate the best six poems selected by the judging panel for the prestigious Oxford University Tower Poetry Competition for the best young poets in Britain in which, after reading her beautiful poem ‘Dance of the Prisoner’, Amy was named as winner of the £3,000 first prize and praised for her poem which judge and Ghanaian poet Kwame Dawes described as ‘a touching chronicle and chart of our time and for our moment.’
Tower Poetry is an organisation based at Christ Church, University of Oxford, which offers opportunities and resources for young British poets; ‘We aim to develop the role of poetry in education and enable new poets to develop their talents through a series of exciting initiatives ranging from courses, competitions, and workshops to readings and publications.’ The prizegiving ceremony would usually have taken place in the Great Hall at Christ Church, made famous by the Harry Potter films, and though Amy was disappointed to have missed the opportunity to visit Oxford in person, Christ Church have already said that they will try to organise the chance for a visit for Amy and the other finalists.
The theme for 2021, to fit in with Tower Poetry’s 21st anniversary, was ‘The Key’, with entrants invited to interpret this motif in any way they chose. The host of the ceremony and head judge, Peter McDonald, Professor of British and Irish Poetry at the University of Oxford, had the very challenging task of choosing from the 600 entries and praised the breadth of ideas through the competition but particularly from the six finalists as seen in titles which included, ‘A House with Narrow Windows’, ‘Daughter’ and ‘Ode To All The Locks’. Third place was awarded to Ayra Ahmad from Aberdeen for her poem, ‘Victoria Street’ and second place to Victoria Fletcher from London for her intriguingly named ‘15 days in a cage with Charlotte Brontë’ but it was St Leonard’s Amy Beverley who stole the show with her captivating sonnet depicting a clockwork ballerina controlled by ‘the imposition of that wretched key’.
Kwame Dawes loved the allusion to Lockdown and living with Covid in ‘Dance of the Prisoner’ and the struggle that everyone, but particularly young people have had with so many opportunities and freedoms taken away, paying tribute to Amy’s ability to capture this; ‘You had the opportunity to crystallise this and you took it. Poetry is vital. Never stop writing!’
Elise Paschen, American poet and third member of the judging panel was also hugely impressed and described Amy’s poem as ‘…so arresting, with a stunning mastery in the use of the sonnet form. ..a most striking dynamic was established between speaker and object in the turn of every precisely crafted line…’.
Peter McDonald finished the prizegiving in his 21st and final year as judge addressing Amy directly; ‘You have a great gift; a great gift of creating and interrogating a perspective…I feel the better for having read your poem.’
Amy was on screen while this praise was being given to her and it was lovely to see her beaming smile but also her modesty and sense of shock shine through as she was left metaphorically ‘spinning around and around and around’ (but in a much more happy way than her ballerina) at the enormity of her achievement in winning the ‘most prominent prize available for British Sixth Formers writing poetry’.
Head of English at St Leonard’s, Mrs Grehan-Bradley, tweeted immediately ‘Congratulations to Amy from us all; we are so proud of you!’ and was absolutely delighted that Amy’s hard work and talent had been recognised. ‘All year 13 A level Literature pupils every year, as we value the writing of poetry in its own right, but also as a way to improve close reading of figurative texts; Amy is a fantastic student with a real passion for English and …..and within minutes of finding out about her success classmates in her Year 13 English Literature class had arranged to buy a cake to celebrate her success in lessons the following day.
Reflecting on her success and the prizegiving ceremony, Amy said; ‘Ever since childhood, I have found solace in writing. I mainly write in my spare time for my own enjoyment, but I have had so many incredible experiences and successes as a result of my interest in creative writing. In 2020 I was fortunate enough to have my poem ‘The Cold Within Him’ published in an anthology by the Young Writers’ Competition, which was set from the point of view of Ebenezer Scrooge himself. Since then, my confidence has blossomed as I have continued not only to write poetry, but have my work recognised in prestigious competitions.’
It wasn’t always straightforward for Amy though and her poetry journey emphasises the importance of resilience – Amy also entered last year’s Tower Poetry but did not make the shortlist; ‘I was disappointed last year but wasn’t discouraged and was determined to have another go. The invaluable experience of the Tower Poetry Competition provided me with the chance to showcase my work to world-renowned poets and professors, as well as giving me the opportunity to read aloud my poem to attendees of the ceremony. Fortunately, the atmosphere was incredibly welcoming and it was such a wonderful experience to interact with other young poets from around the country. My school teachers, family and friends have been so supportive of this entire journey, constantly pushing me to do my best even amidst the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in. I am incredibly grateful for this honour, and I hope to pursue my interest in poetry further into my career.’
While it would have been lovely to have the ceremony in the Great Hall made famous by Harry Potter, and listen to Amy reading her fabulous poem, it was, nevertheless, a fantastic evening, a great celebration and lovely to see a new generation keeping poetry alive in Britain. And there is something magical about the fact that this fight to keep poetry alive is being so ably led by Amy, a North-East girl at a state Catholic School, from her own front room.
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