UNDERTOW - The PTC's polylingual poet development programme

UNDERTOW is the Poetry Translation Centre’s Youth programme that focuses on working with people from mixed heritage and diaspora backgrounds to unlock the creative potential of polylingualism.

When the PTC was set up, our founder, the poet Sarah Maguire, made one of our goals to ‘ginger up’ English poetry with an infusion of creativity from other languages. Today, for over 20% of primary school children English is additional language. There are now more than 300 languages spoken in British schools. Millions of young people live polylingual lives, switching back and forth between languages and cultures. UNDERTOW was created to embrace the massive potential in this group and ignite a passion for poetry in many languages by fostering multilingual creativity.

The UNDERTOW programme was named by the poet Kaozara Okikiola Oyalowo. She sums up the subversive potential of the title neatly, saying 'undertow' makes her ‘think of a body of water - below the surface, moving in a completely different direction from the surface current…there's more to it than what meets the eye’.

Kaozara continues ‘When you speak more than one language there is always something bubbling within you on the surface, you’re calm cool and collected but on the inside, it’s a completely different story.’ The PTC want to foster a creative space, where participants can explore these rich depths, share their experience of living in overlap of many languages and discover a powerful souse of inspiration and strength.

Year One

In 2021-22 the UNDERTOW poets were Reem Abbas, Nasim Rebecca Asl, Liv Goldreich, Lydia Hounat, Charlotte Shevchenko Knight, Phoebe Wagner, Maggie Wang and Fathima Zahra.

In our first year our Polylingual Poets Please course was headed up by Juana Adcock, a Mexican-British poet and translator. She helped an eight-strong cohort of young poets develop their work through a series of online workshops, writing prompts and one-to-one tutorials. As well as the creative aspects of the programme we built up practical skills with talks on ‘Capitalism for Poets’ by award-winning poet Inua Ellams, ‘Playing with Power’ by Theresa Cisneros, Senior Practice Manager Culture Equity Diversity Inclusion at the Wellcome Trust and ‘Your Blank is Political’ on art and activism by the Turner Prize-winning Array Collective.

Lydia Hounat, UNDERTOW participant from Manchester, said:

“Meeting other mixed-heritage poets for me has meant finding people that identify with complex experiences, that feeling of self-imposed division and yet togetherness we embody. Having that safe space to openly converse about that and create has forged unique friendships and offered me a home for thoughts and emotions I’ve felt incapable of expressing since forever.”

Phoebe Wagner, UNDERTOW participant, poet and community artist from London said:

“Emerging out of the various lockdowns into this online and irl space has been joyous. I feel less alone knowing there are other poets like me: who struggle to hold multiple languages as they split and fracture in our mouths.”

Going global

The next iteration of UNDERTOW is looking specifically at poets with Nigerian heritage. Our Lagos - London scheme will bring together Nigerian and Nigerian heritage poets from across the international divide.

The PTC and Book Buzz Foundation in Nigeria are running a poetry competition to find the next set of UNDERTOW poets. The winning poets will be published in the Aké Review 2022 journal and invited to read your poem as part of an international online event before taking part in a year long, fully funder development scheme to supercharge their polylingual creativity.

Find out more and enter our Lagos-London competition here.

Get in touch

Outside of these longer development schemes, UNDERTOW is looking to cheer on polylinual creativity wherever it is found. If you speak or understand more than one language, or you come from a household where several languages are used, or you want to explore your own linguistic heritage, then we want to hear from you. Give the PTC’s Participation Producer a shout at