Each poem owes gratitude to other poems and poets that went before it.

Poetry is a communal, collaborative act. Sometimes we fall into the trap of spotlighting the individual, whoever’s creative genius steals our breath. And yet we know that everything exists in a continuum. Each poem owes gratitude to other poems and poets that went before it. No matter how solely invested in their own voice any poet or performer might be, everyone is inspired by someone or something.

Much of my work has been leveraged on the basis of this sense of connectivity, and how a life in poetry can involve cultivating the spaces that allow people to come together to write, perform, discover, express, facilitate, challenge, critique, and cross national or even international distances. Word Cup is one such space. 


I have a terrible memory for factual details, so forgive me if I skimp on the timeline. I can tell you with confidence that our first Word Cup was in 2006. As an independent artistic director and facilitator, I had been running youth slam programmes since the early 00s. Over roughly the same span, Apples & Snakes had evolved out of its long-established London base into an organisation with national connections. 

The core concept for Word Cup was a national youth poetry programme, bringing teams of young people together through a series of workshops in their respective locations to a final weekend celebration and showcase event. It was loosely timed to coincide with the World Cup, cycling every four years. How the football connection came about remains a mystery to me. Beyond a childhood fascination with Panini football stickers, I can state without shame that I’m one of those strange people who doesn’t have a football bone in his body. I lay the blame and praise for that particular aspect of the programme squarely upon Lisa Mead’s shoulders. More about Lisa Mead later. 


Some aspects of Word Cup have remained pretty consistent over its varied iterations, but as with any living, breathing enterprise, other aspects have developed and shifted. Each time we deliver the programme, groups of young people meet in different parts of the country for a series of workshops with a lead facilitator (“poet coach”) and a supporting facilitator (“assistant”). Through these workshops, participants work on poems and performance, preparing for the final weekend.

The final weekend typically begins on Friday, with all the teams converging on our central venue. This year we landed at Manchester’s Poetry Library, set within Manchester Metropolitan University. Having surmounted the various logistical challenges that arise from cross-country travel, teams are shuffled into their first workshop for the weekend.

These workshops are designed to complement whatever participants have gleaned from working with their coaches, but also to cultivate connections that extend beyond their teams. Pairs from each team are grouped with other participants they don’t yet know. Friday’s closing event is a “Manager’s Match”, showcasing poet coaches and assistants for what they do as writers and performers. 

Saturday typically disappears in a blur. More workshops in the morning. Rehearsals and opportunities to get comfortable on the main stage before the main event. And then the main event itself. Each team gets to showcase two group poems, one in each half of the event. In previous years, Word Cup has been modelled as a youth slam, with judges, scoring, and prizes for the highest scoring teams.

Having supported and developed countless youth poetry slam programmes over the years, I stand by the impact those programmes can have. But I have no qualms about the way that Word Cup has evolved from a slam to a more relaxed celebration of what youth poetry can do. We didn’t have judges this year; we had celebrators (with many thanks to Shirley May, Danez Smith and Joelle Taylor). There was no spotlight on any one “winning” team. Completely unprompted, the audience (largely consisting of Word Cup participants, facilitators, teachers, family members and staff from various project partners), responded to each performance with a standing ovation. There was no singular victor. Everybody won. 


I’ve already admitted that I have a terrible memory for specific details. But there are a couple of milestone moments that characterise Word Cup for me. The first, from a team that arrived at the Contact Theatre for Word Cup 2010. They thought at first they might not fit in or have anything to offer when they compared themselves to all the other styles and voices represented that year. When they finally took the stage at the final event, the chorus from their poem (“What are you to Dracula? You are just a snack, you are!”) reverberated throughout the venue and has continued to ring out over the years as evidence of the fact that there is no single, dominant vision of poetry, and that there is space for all voices in Word Cup. 

The second moment already holds a similar place in Word Cup lore, and the fact that I’m not the only person to mention it is evidence of how special it is. On Sunday, before our teams head back to their respective parts of the country, we have time to round things up. Some evaluation (as always needs to happen with programmes like this). Words of wisdom for each team from celebrators. Our last moment all together this year came in the form of an open mic.

A participant stepped up to share a popular song, but as can happen when emotions run high with all eyes on you, they faltered. A voice rang out from the audience, carrying the next line of that song. The solo performance became a duet. Two young people who hadn’t met before the weekend, two voices from different parts of the country, came together. They finished in strength. And provided a powerful reminder of what Word Cup is all about. Surmounting challenges. Supporting each other. Sharing something of yourself through poetry and performance.


If you’ve read any of the other blog posts in this Word Cup series, you’ll have picked up on a theme of legacy. Antosh Wojcik‘s journey from assistant coach to lead facilitator between Word Cup 2014 and Word Cup 2023. Rebecca Abbott‘s journey from young producer for Shake the Dust (another Apples & Snakes youth poetry performance programme) to creative producer at Suffolk Libraries; how she was able to create an opportunity for others to participate in the kind of programme she’d experienced and benefitted from a decade before. The young people involved have much to gain, but the halo effect is large and extends in beautiful ways. 

I’ve mentioned Lisa Mead, who in 2006 (when we began the Word Cup journey) was Apples & Snakes’ Education and Training Manager, and a creative producer herself. Since then, and under her stewardship, Apples & Snakes has grown to unparalleled heights, and continues to develop and deliver this vital, much-needed work. I serve as an artistic director for programmes like Shake the Dust and Word Cup, but it must be said that without people like Lisa, these programmes simply would not happen. 

Word Cup rules apply. When we commit to creating brave spaces for people and poetry, there is no singular victor. Everybody wins. 

Written by Jacob Sam-La Rose

About Jacob Sam-La Rose

Jacob Sam-La Rose is a poet, facilitator, programme leader, artistic director and editor. He’s been responsible for a number of renowned poetry programmes, most notably Barbican Young Poets, which he established in 2009 and continues to lead. Among other appointments, Jacob has served as the inaugural Poetry Fellow for English Heritage, Poet-in-Residence at Raffles Institution (Singapore), and poetry professor at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His collection ‘Breaking Silence’ was shortlisted for Fenton Aldeburgh and Forward Poetry prizes and is studied as an A-level set text. His poetry has been translated into Portuguese, Latvian, French and Dutch. 

Photo credit: Naomi Woddis
Heading image credit: Amaal Said