Cecilia Knapp – My Year as Young People’s Laureate for London


This is Cecilia Knapp’s last blog as Young People’s Laureate for London. The Spread the Word team and Trustees would like to thank her heartily for her extraordinary work in the most challenging of years.  At the end of this blog, we summarise the extraordinary work Cecilia has done as Laureate. Her tenure has culminated in the publication of #WriteThroughThis, a digital anthology featuring 15 young poets. 

I can’t believe my year as Young People’s Laureate is already at an end. When I first sat down to write this, it felt as though the year had hurtled by in a flash. How was it that I was already writing my final blog? It seemed to have all been over so quickly. I’m grateful for this opportunity to look back over the year and remind myself of all we’ve managed to make happen in often trying circumstances. 

Throughout my year, I have delivered four residencies with partner organisations, working in tandem with them and Spread the Word to deliver workshops to young people. Historically I’ve worked with young people who either find poetry intimidating and inaccessible or are completely switched off and disinterested for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps the poetry on the curriculum doesn’t interest them or speak to them; perhaps the image of what a poet is, is not how they see themselves; perhaps they have been put off by expected poetic tropes that feel difficult or limiting. I can empathise with this. It was a chance encounter with a poetry workshop when I was a teenager that lit the fuse for me and changed my mind. Before that I’d seen poetry as something entirely peripheral which had no bearing on my life. Perhaps though, one of the projects during my tenure could be that chance encounter for a young person. Perhaps it will allow them to change their mind about poetry, to see that they can do it on their own terms, that they are entitled to it, and that they should be able to access the benefits of reading poetry and expressing themselves. 

My overarching ambition during my year was to bring poetry to groups who might not have experienced it before. Being Young People’s Laureate afforded me the opportunity to reach more young people and choose who these groups were. Therefore I tried to partner with organisations whose groups of young people had never tried their hand at writing but who would hopefully benefit from exploring the vast and joyful world of poetry. 

My first residency was with Young Roots and the Refugee Council, working with their young women’s group. This was deep into the third national lockdown and so each week, we met online. Through conversations, provocations and exercises we got to know each other and wrote as a group. We talked about the power of writing and the impact it can have on us, as well as the transformative impact of sharing our unique perspectives and questions for our world; how writing can challenge and breed empathy. The poetry created during the six-week project was illustrated beautifully by the artist Jess Nash.

My second residency was at the South London Gallery with their Art Assassins group of young curators. The project was exciting for me because it was cross disciplinary; we worked on creating original poetry but we worked very visually too. We created poetry inspired by the gallery’s rich archives; particularly the photography of the artist Phil Poleglaze. We discussed the gallery as a place of community and a space for the residents of Peckham to access creativity throughout the many years of the gallery’s history. We wrote in response to a provocation: why should art be for all? We spent a whole session walking around the local area, pausing to write in various locations, capturing the utterly unique corners of South London and discussing the group’s feelings about their hometown. The group are all talented visual artists and we decided that the best way to showcase their poetry would be a handmade ‘zine which they created and designed themselves using photography, collage, sketches and illustrations. We launched the ‘zine in the gardens of the gallery in July and it remains on sale in the on-site book shop.

My third residency was a real first for me. I partnered with the football charity Street Soccer and the mental health charity CALM; working with a group of 11-15 year old young footballers to create their own poetry. Out of all the projects, this was the one which I felt brought poetry to a group of young people that hadn’t really experienced it before outside of a classroom. In truth, it sometimes felt challenging to engage a room full of teenagers who were itching to get out onto the pitch for their post-workshop game. But they worked hard on their poems and it was truly beautiful to see them each create a piece of work they were proud of. Most of their poetry ended up being about football, and how it felt to play. There was something so special, bonding and affirming about the whole group agreeing that when they’re playing, nothing else matters, and to see this idea reflected in their poems; their similarities drawn out and concretised through the synergy of the workshop space. It was great to have CALM in the room, who talked to the group about mental health awareness and what to do if you or a friend is suffering. I wanted the ethos of this project to be about doing the things that make you feel good; whether that’s football or creative writing or just reaching out and talking to your friends. I’m glad that we were able to bring this focus on wellbeing to the group. The project culminated in a photoshoot of the participants playing football which we showcased alongside their poems.

My final residency was with the Royal Court and a group of young people who had an interest in playwriting but hadn’t necessarily written poetry before. As with all my residencies, I wanted to break down the barriers to poetry and help them see it as a practice of freedom and discovery. Over nine weeks they each wrote brilliant pieces, each one totally unique. With the help of the fantastic director Masha Kevinovna, we took their poems and devised a 30 minute theatre piece, set in the wild and sprawling world of the internet. It was the perfect context for poems that explored young people’s changing and growing identities, their rites of passage, their frustrations, the questions they have for society, as well as the moments that bring them joy. 

These four residencies form just a part of the activity I delivered over the last year. I’ve been lucky enough to talk about poetry on radio stations such as BBC London and Radio 4 and hopefully raise the visibility of poetry for more young people. I’ve written articles for the Independent and Young Poets Network and taken part in IGTV chats with other writers such as former Young People’s Laureate Theresa Lola and Croydon Poet Laureate Shaniqua Benjamin. I interviewed some amazing writers as part of my series of ‘in conversation with’ videos which I called ‘Knapp Chats,’ videos which I hoped would highlight each writers’ positive relationship with poetry as well as show a range of paths that writers take to get where they are.

I’ve chatted to my USA counterpart Alexandra Huynh for an online event about what it means to be a young laureate. I’ve spoken about the power of poetry on a panel with Mercury winner Arlo Parks. I’ve judged poetry competitions and been approached to write original commissions for organisations like the Royal Society of Literature. I’ve taught workshops in schools, in St Pauls Cathedral and for Singapore Poetry Festival – online of course due to the pandemic. So much of my work has had to be online due to Covid-19 restrictions, but it’s been endlessly positive in that it has ensured such a wide reach and accessible activity for so many young people. I’ve enjoyed travelling all over the world and the country without leaving my house. 

One of the things I’m most proud of is my campaign #WriteThroughThis, series of online webinars designed to reach young writers and offer them community, writing time, and a chance to express themselves during a challenging year. We had hundreds of participants from all over the UK coming together to write and to feel good and learn new poetry skills. 

To celebrate this online work as part of #WriteThroughThis, we published a digital anthology to showcase the wonderful work produced by some of our participants.

The year has undoubtedly changed me. It has compounded even more for me the transformative potential of poetry and the fact young people should be able to access that power. In my projects, I have centred writing for joy and discovery, hoping that the young people I work with can explore themselves thorough playfulness, rather than through feeling stressed or challenged by poetry. This has felt imperative during these strange times. I’ve focussed on writing into our uncertainties and using writing to ask questions and this has in turn changed my own relationship with poetry. I am writing in a more playful and joyful and uncertain way, because that’s what I have been asking my students to do.

My language for discussing poetry has developed and is more focussed and intentional. I think when you’re trying to bring poetry to people for the first time, you have to come with a clear idea of how to communicate what poetry can do and how it can do it. I’ve spent so long talking about poetry to so many different groups, whether that’s on the radio or in the classroom, I feel so much clearer now. As someone who suffers with imposter syndrome, I am slowly starting to become more confident, and this role and the huge plethora of experiences it has offered, has played an enormous part in that.

An enormous thanks must go to Tom MacAndrew and the team at Spread the Word for rolling out a busy year of intense activity during a global pandemic and supporting me so brilliantly throughout.

I am looking forward to having some more time now to use all I have learnt to finish my poetry collection and to continue with teaching new projects. I’ve been so lucky to have met some absolutely brilliant organisations who are diligently committed to sustaining the arts, as well as being able to get to know so many young people and hear their words blossoming. I have had some of the most fun workshops of my life with some of the smartest most fascinating and brilliant young Londoners. What an honour it has been. 

I’ve written a new poem inspired for each residency I have worked on which has been a wonderful way to reflect upon and round off each project, finding new ways to capture each unique residency experience. The final two poems are inspired by my time at Street Soccer and The Royal Court. 

A note on the poem inspired by my Royal court residency; one of the songs we used in our final showcase was The Pixies Where is my Mind?, which the group felt really captured the themes that the group were looking at in their work. So in homage to them, I’ve written a Golden Shovel where the lyrics of that song are embedded into the poem.

Cecilia Knapp, September 2021

Reaching and engaging young people

During her tenure, Cecilia led four residencies and produced four commissioned residency poems, the residencies were with:

  • Young Roots and the Refugee Council – working with their regular support group for young female refugees, exploring the theme of home.

  • South London Gallery – engaging their Art Assassins group of young curators and publishing a ‘zine ‘Honey Locust Baby’

  • CALM and Street Soccer – delivering combined poetry and football sessions for young people on Black Prince estate in South London

  • Royal Court Theatre – running a three-month series of sessions for young writers building to a showcase performance at the theatre

In addition, Cecilia led the #WriteThroughThis online campaign, engaging young people with writing during national lockdowns and during the periods of uncertainty and anxiety as society started to reopen. During this, Cecilia led monthly online webinars, and edited the #WriteThroughThis anthology of work produced by participating young writers.

Cecilia undertook many other engagements during her tenure, which include:

In her year as Laureate Cecilia has:

  • Provided workshops to 990 young people

  • Performed to audiences of over 3,250

  • Delivered online campaigns and activity reaching 120,500 people

The Young People’s Laureate for London programme is undergoing a consultation before returning in 2022.

Published 11 October 2021