Poetry teaching in schools has received sustained criticism in recent years. In 2011, academics from Reading University called for more proactive teaching methods to combat students’ declining interest in poetry as they progress throughout their school lives. A 2017 Ofsted report said that poetry teaching was too limited, particularly in primary schools and at GCSE, which was putting pupils off poetry.
Karen Leeder’s project was devised as a public engagement intervention, bringing modern German poetry to young UK audiences. ‘Far from being something difficult or inaccessible’, Leeder says, ‘German poetry can reach large and enthusiastic audiences, especially of young people’, and her Fellowship demonstrated this. In collaboration with the Southbank Centre and a number of poets and translators, the Fellowship started out as a series of events at the Southbank exploring the writing and reception of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Contemporary poets came to London to discuss their relationship with Rilke and to read from their own work - some of these poems were commissioned for the workshop, and were then published in the journal Modern Poetry in Translation.
A later masterclass, which was attended by school students and member of the public, focused on poetry translation. The project has grown substantially since its beginnings at the Southbank, and has brought German poets to the UK to speak at events including the Aldeburgh International, Cork, and Reading Poetry Festivals, and the Cheltenham, Hay, and Edinburgh Literary Festivals. Further collaborations with Lancaster, Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham Universities have led to additional workshops, translation classes, and multimedia performances across the UK.
These events have been hugely successful - audience feedback included comments like ‘You’ve certainly redefined the possibilities of poetry in our minds’, and some of the work produced by schoolchildren in the workshops has gone on to be published. Several of the German poets who were involved with the project have been awarded various prizes and cross-cultural commissions as a result. Karen says that key to the project’s expansion has been championing ‘innovative ways of targeting new audiences.’ Ticketed events were complemented by free associated foyer discussions, and ‘translation duels’ were scheduled at Cheltenham and Winchester Festivals to encourage engagement among bilingual communities.
Another key strategy to engage new audiences has been through commissioning - Karen emphasises that some commissions aimed to bring poetry ‘into dialogue with film, music or visual art’, to reach out to audiences interested in these media. Five years after its inception the project is still expanding, and Karen is continuing to work with poets across the UK and abroad.
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