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Poetry Live! has its origins in large conferences Simon Powell used to organize in the UK for A-level English students. At first, distinguished academics and critics gave talks about novels, plays and poetry but then the idea emerged that it might be better to have the writers themselves talking about their work. Soon after, large audiences of A-level students were seeing and hearing regular contributors such as Beryl Bainbridge, Hanif Kureishi, Martin Amis, Jim Crace, Andrew Davis, Doris Lessing, Edna O’Brien, Richard Eyre, Willy Russell, Arnold Wesker, Alan Bleasdale, Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer, Peter Hall and Margaret Drabble. However it was the poets who really struck a chord with the huge (2000 plus) audiences. The next step was to offer days with poets such as Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, James Fenton, Tony Harrison, U A Fanthorpe, Benjamin Zephaniah, Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell, Gillian Clarke, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead and Andrew Motion.
GCSE Poetry Live! grew from this. While it was pleasing that so many A-level students wanted to see and hear poetry for themselves, they were students who were already committed to studying literature and poetry in depth. It was interesting to see if live poetry on a large scale could work for fifteen-year-olds. Almost everyone of that age takes a GCSE in English so potentially it meant getting to a very wide audience, not just the academically successful.
If teachers feel up to bringing a whole year group (and they do) it means that everyone gets the chance to hear poetry rather than just read it. And from the hundreds of letters and e-mails we get every year, we know that in every audience there are budding poets who wonder “Could I do that?” But the main thing is that a seemingly high proportion of young people, who, according to their teachers, ‘couldn’t stand poetry,’ now realize that they quite like it. That makes it much easier to start thinking about poetry afterwards in the classroom and at home. Now some 75,000 pupils a year come to about 50 events all over the country. All this has been achieved without a penny of public subsidy and is run from a small office in north Wales with four full-time employees. [GCSE Poetry Live] is now well-established in many school’s academic programme.
Poets reading at the 2009/2010 events across the UK include: [Carol Ann Duffy], [Simon Armitage], [Gillian Clarke], John Agard, [Imtiaz Dharker], Grace Nichols, [Daljit Nagra] and [Moniza Alvi]