National Poetry Day Blog

Poetry Summit 2020

Laura Mucha, the former lawyer turned poet and author, kindly steps into our blog with a review of The Poetry-Digital Connection: what can poetry and digital do better together? a joint Forward Arts Foundation & Inpress Poetry Summit, which was held on Wednesday 11th March 2020 at the CLPE library.

It never ceases to amaze me that a collection of words from someone in a different time and place can provide so much connection, clarity and hope. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always turned to poetry in times of crisis. When I was hit by a car at the age of 29 and left virtually bedbound for years, it was poetry that helped me stay sane.

So, against a backdrop of the brewing global pandemic, I was delighted to attend the Poetry Summit 2020 last week, held at one of the best libraries in London, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. Surrounded by the CLPE’s brilliant books and exquisite illustrations, people who care about poetry congregated to hear how it was doing and how we could be moving it forward. And, in a time where people are having to isolate themselves from others, we learnt about the power of digital to keep us connected.

Poetry, finally, has been coming back into fashion over the last few years. According to Nielsen BookScan’s figures, poetry sales have increased massively since 2017, with giant spikes thanks to National Poetry Day and Christmas (but, surprisingly, not World Book Day…). Admittedly, last year’s growth wasn’t huge (0.41% value increase), but it’s pretty impressive to see that poetry has maintained its sales given the extraordinary rise in previous years.

And book sales are likely to be much larger than Nielsen numbers suggest as these figures don’t capture self-published books and sales at events, which are particularly relevant to poetry. But there’s another, arguably more significant, limitation of looking at Nielsen figures (or book sales more generally). They don’t capture an increasingly popular way of consuming it – digital.

Ariel Bissett, a Booktuber who was brave enough to travel from British Columbia for the sake of poetry, told us that on Instagram, the hashtag poetry (#poetry) had 39.7 million posts. It will probably be more than 40 million by the time you read this. People – and poets – often think of poetry as a niche market, but the success of Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur shows that it’s not. However, it does need to be repackaged for the digital world.

Bissett’s suggestions on going digital were to commit (i.e. don’t bail – longevity is the real secret) and to decide on a consistent approach (i.e. your brand and timing). She suggested being a part of the community you’re joining, focusing (there’s no need to try and be on every social media platform) and having fun.

The amount of time, commitment and creativity required to share poetry digitally might seem intimidating, but there’s a commercial incentive as it can have a mega impact on book sales. Over 80% of Instagram accounts follow a business and more than half of Millennials admit that Instagram influences their purchases. So making poetry digital could have a big impact on those Nielsen figures.

It also goes beyond commercial considerations and speaks to a wider involvement in poetry as an art form. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Bissett, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”

It can be daunting to invest the time and effort required – particularly if longevity is key. But Fiona Morris, CEO and Creative Director of The Space, provided more insights on how to go digital. She suggested thinking about:

● your audience (what do you want to say, who do you want to say it to and how are you going to keep them engaged?);
● who can be advocates for your work (leverage your networks, fans, supporters, and people who already value your work, the themes and beliefs that you hold);
● how you are going to encourage people to participate;
● how your project is relevant to what’s going on in the world; and
● how to make it sustainable (don’t plan for one project – you’re going to have to follow up…).

Digital doesn’t have to mean setting up a social media account and posting content every day. Gyles Brandreth described his project, Poetry Together, which encourages schools and old people’s homes to get in touch and get the young and old to learn a poem by heart. Then, around National Poetry Day, they meet to have tea and cake and perform the poem together. The project is about connecting people in person, people that might not otherwise meet. But it was only possible by going digital – social media was used to get schools and teachers involved and the poetrytogether.com website helped people understand how to take part. In doing so, Brandreth’s project reaches people that often aren’t on social media or particularly digitally literate.

Why all this fuss about poetry, you might ask. Well, it has enormous benefits. Neuroscientific research demonstrates that if you speak rhythmical poetry to newborn and unborn babies (in the last three months of pregnancy), they will learn to speak, read and write sooner and better. It’s also a great way to keep dementia at bay.

Aside from neuroscientific benefits, poetry can create a moment of calm in otherwise chaotic times. A small, albeit carefully crafted, collection of words can cut through the noise and panic to provide clarity, connection and hope.

So that’s why I’m turning to poetry in the current crisis. And if the data is correct (“more people write poetry than play cricket…”), I won’t be the only one.