Tower Poetry turns 21

Since its foundation in 2000, Tower Poetry has hosted 11 poetry summer schools, run 20 annual poetry competitions for aspiring 16-18 year olds, and awarded over £100,000 in support of young people's engagement with poetry. Over the last two decades, over 120 prizewinners and nearly a further 100 summer school participants have benefitted from Tower Poetry's programmes, many of whom have gone on to become published poets. In that time, Tower Poetry has also produced a number of anthologies, reviews, and pamphlets, all in celebration of poetry.

Christopher Tower Student Peter McDonald reflects on the 2020 competition: 'It’s twenty years now since we launched the first of our Christopher Tower Prize competitions for poetry. That’s a long time, and I’ve been involved throughout – the only thing I wasn’t in on was the Prizes’ conception.  It did fall to me, though, to launch and run the very first competition: to plant that particular tree, if you like; and after then, year by year, to watch it grow. In terms of British poetry and young people, Tower is part of the landscape now, as though it had always been there.  I still don’t know quite how that was done – at the start, it was a close-run thing – but I’m certainly glad that we are where we are.

It’s hard not to feel vicarious pride, every year, in the achievements of the 16-18 year-olds who do well in the competition (though of course all we’re really doing is recognising their talent, since the work done is all their own, and not ours!) This year is no exception in that regard; but what is different – alas – is that I and my fellow judges don’t get to meet and congratulate the poets in person.  We do wish that had been possible – but, as everyone knows all too well, this is one wish among very many these days that simply has to go unfulfilled.  Better times will come, and these pleasures will keep.

We did, at least, manage to defy the mounting difficulties of recent months and carry this year’s competition through to its conclusion.  As a result, we can present the world with seven splendid new poems – varied in their angles and techniques, but all marked by real verbal alertness and invention: with keen eyes, sharp ears, and human hearts.  Beyond these winners, there were many more fine entries, which gave all three judges both enjoyment and food for thought.  As usual, I feel distinct gratitude to every single entrant, and to the teachers who (as we should remember) so often provide the encouragement and inspiration for young people to find their voices.

Getting to this point was indeed challenging in the circumstances of 2020; and it’s no surprise that the challenges fell to and were met by more hard-working people than just the judges.  The Tower Poetry administrator, Emma-Jane Hampsheir-Gill, in truth made it possible for all this to happen: for the entries to come in and be logged, for the judges to see things at the right time, for the virtual ‘meetings’ to take place successfully, and for the wider world to be kept informed about what was going on.  She deserves a prize of her own – a small tree to plant, perhaps.

Anyhow, it’s a pleasure to be showing these poems to the world – and it would be nice to think that Tower Poetry played some part in bringing them into existence, even if we can claim no credit for the quality of the things themselves.  But I shouldn’t be calling poems ‘things’, for a good poem is more than just an object: it develops with re-reading, it allows different moods to be seen at different times, it starts thoughts and chains of thoughts that take a long time to finish, and it seems to grow with time. To have seven more good poems in the world is to make the world that tiny bit richer.  So, to the poets, the truest address is the simplest one – thank you.'

People and Poets

The growing number of Tower Poetry ‘alumni’ from twenty years of competitions and poetry residentials have gone on to write and work in a variety of creative disciplines, with a select few featured below:

People and Poets

Caroline Bird

Caroline Bird read English at Oxford University, where she was president of the Oxford Poetry Society. She was highly commended for her poem, The Softness of the Morning, in the 2004 Tower Poetry competition. Bird was a Foyles Young Poet of the Year in 1999 and 2000, and a winner of the Peterloo Poetry Competition for three consecutive years (2002-4). She has published five collections of poetry, with a sixth due in February 2020. She currently leads poetry workshops in primary and secondary schools, in addition to teaching at the Arvon Foundation. She is also a writer-in-residence at the charity First Story.

Penny Boxall

Penny Boxall studied English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She attended the 2006 Tower Poetry Summer school, and her poems are published in the resultant anthology, Parachute Silk: Icarus Poems. In 2016, Boxall was the winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Elmet Prize; in 2018 she won the Mslexia/PBS Women's Poetry Competition. She has published two collections of poetry, Ship of the Line (2014)and Who Goes There? (2018). Boxall was poet-in-residence at Merton College, Oxford, in 2019; in the same year she won a Northern Writers’ Award and was shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship.

Annie Fan

Annie Fan is in her final year of reading law at Oxford University, where she was president of Oxford's Poetry Society. She attended the 2018 Tower Poetry Summer School, and was a Tower Poetry competition prizewinner in 2017 and 2018. Her first pamphlet is forthcoming with Verve Press in 2021, and her recent work appears in Poetry London, PN Review, and The London Magazine, among others. She is a Barbican Young Poet, and a shadow trustee at MPT Magazine.

Sarah Fletcher

Sarah Fletcher won the 2012 Tower Poetry Competition with her poem Papa's Epilogue, and also won second prize the following year with her poem Kraut Girl. Several of her poems from the 2014 Tower Poetry Summer School are published in the anthology, Something to be Said. Her poetry has also been published in The Rialto and The London Magazine. She is a previous Foyle's Young Poet (2012), and was also a winner of the New Poets Prize 2016-7. Fletcher published her pamphlet, Typhoid August, in 2018, and is currently working on her first full-length collection.

Theophina Gabriel

Theophina Gabriel is an award-winning published poet from Slough. She graduated from the University of Oxford in 2019 with a BA in Philosophy & Theology. A previous Foyles Young Poet, her poetry has been commissioned by the BBC, featured in The Linden Avenue Journal, and published in numerous other journals and publications. Gabriel attended the 2018 Tower Poetry Summer School, with her poems published in the anthology Hatch A Blue Sky. She is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of her award-winning independent publication Onyx Magazine, which champions Black creatives. The magazine was invited to 10 Downing Street and the House of Commons in 2019 to consult on diversity within the publishing industry. Having recently completed an internship at Stormzy’s publishing imprint #Merky Books at Penguin Random House, Gabriel now works as a published freelancer, writer, poet, and artist. 

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore attended the 2006 Tower Poetry Summer School; her poems are published in the resulting anthology, Search Engine. She has also published poems in Poetry London,The Rialto, and the London Review of Books; her work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Galleymore was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the Seamus Heaney First Collection Prizefor her debut anthology, Significant Other; which won the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize in 2020. She is currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.

Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis won the 2002 Tower Poetry Competition with her poem Into the Distance; her poetry is also published in the 2003 Tower Poetry Summer School Anthology, Parachute Silk: Icarus Poems. She is a winner of the G.S. Fraser Prize (2013) and the Robin Reeves Prize (2008). In 2012, she published her debut poetry collection, Other Harbours. Lewis currently writes short fiction, winning the 2010 Orange/Harper's Bazaar short story competition, and works for Writing East Midlands.

Sophie Mackintosh

Sophie Mackintosh was highly commended for her poem, On illumination and reasons to Fly, in the 2007 Tower Poetry Competition. Her poetry is published in the 2007 Tower Poetry Summer School Anthology, Jitterwhirring. In 2016 Mackintosh was the winner of The White Review short story prize, and Virago's short story prize. She is now a fiction writer; her debut novel, The Water Cure, was published in 2018, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2020 Mackintosh published her second novel, Blue Ticket, and was featured in Vogue UK as ‘a face set to define the decade ahead’.

Helen Mort

Helen Mort read Social and Political Sciences at Christ's College, Cambridge, and is now a published writer and accomplished poet. She was highly commended in the 2004 Tower Poetry competition for her poem Matins, and attended the 2006 Tower Poetry Summer school; her poems are published in the resultant anthology, Parachute Silk: Icarus Poems. Mort  won five Foyle Young Poets awards and, in 2008, the Manchester Poetry Prize for young writers. In the same year she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Mort was a guest judge for the 2015 Tower Poetry competition, on the theme of 'Cells'. She is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Richard O'Brien

Richard O'Brien, a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2006 and 2007, was commended in the 2008 Tower Poetry competition for his poem Texting in Church. After attending the Tower Poetry Summer School in 2008, his poems were published in the resulting anthology: Seasick Blue. Since then, O'Brien has published two poetry pamphlets, The Emmores (2014), and A Bloody Mess (2015); his work has also featured in Poetry London, The Literateur, and The Salt Book of Younger Poets. Winner of an Eric Gregory Award in 2017, he became the Birmingham Poet Laureate in 2018, and is currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University.

Charlotte Runcie

Charlotte Runcie read English at Cambridge, and is now a published author and journalist. She was the winner of the 2007 Tower Poetry Competition with her poem Flying Fish, and is also a former Foyle Young Poet of the Year. Runcie currently works as a radio critic for the Daily Telegraph, and writes monthly for Prospect Magazine. Her debut novel, Salt on Your Tongue, was published in 2019.

Chloe Stopa-Hunt

Chloe Stopa-Hunt was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2003 and 2004. She read English at New College, Oxford, serving as head of Oxford University Poetry Society, and won the English Poem on a Sacred Subject Prize in 2010. Her poems have appeared in various magazines, including Magma and Oxford Poetry, and she has reviewed for Asymptote, Poetry Matters, and The Oxonian Review. Four of her poems also appear in The Twelve – the anthology of poems written during the 2010 Tower Poetry Summer School. Stopa-Hunt won an Eric Gregory Award and read at Ledbury Poetry Festival in 2014; her debut pamphlet White Hills was published in 2016 and was selected as the LRB Bookshop's Pamphlet of the Year.

Andrew Wynn Owen

Andrew Wynn Owen is an Examination Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, currently researching epic poetry of the Romantic era. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2015 and Oxford’s Newdigate Prize in 2014, after being longlisted in the 2011 Tower Poetry competition. Wynn Owen was a tutor on the 2016 Tower Poetry Summer School, and co-edited the 2018 Tower Poetry Summer School anthology. His first collection, The Multiverse, was published in 2018.