Invisible Mentors: British Poetry in Partnership, 1960-2020

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Humanities


Effective mentoring is central to growth, innovation, and leadership in the creative industries, yet there are few established means for measuring its value. Arts and humanities researchers have had little to say about its impact on creative work, despite its interdisciplinary scope, and models and methods are primarily drawn from outside the sector. This project uses 20th and 21st-century British poetry as a case study to establish an arts-specific critical language for mentoring, drawing on interviews with practitioners and hitherto-unavailable publishing archives.
Recent decades have seen new mentoring initiatives for both poets and reviewers, an upsurge in commercial mentoring services, and a heightened focus by national arts funders on mentoring as a means to stimulate creative and economic development across the UK. The vitality and success of these projects suggests a creative culture eager for formal mentoring, in part to offset the exclusionary potential of edited magazines, creative writing programmes, established presses, or coteries formed around educational privilege. However, mentoring's long history and practice within the literary community is rarely acknowledged or explored, leaving a gap between practice, evaluation, and theory, and limiting the effectiveness of existing schemes.
This project will uncover the history of mentoring in British poetry since 1960, chronicling its development alongside the growth of creative writing courses in HEIs, the informal networks of independent poetry presses, and schemes supported by literary festivals, publishers, and arts organisations. It will use the insights of cultural, literary and archival history to address recommendations and reports from the creative industries, and economic and structural critiques of the sector. It will contend that mentoring's hidden history has not only shaped our notions of authorship, creative practice, and the professional artist, but our expectations of the institutions and funders that support them.

The project will be organised and delivered through three themed workpackages:

i) Measuring Mentoring: the PI will work with a literature development agency and a national poetry festival as they develop a new 'ground-up' mentoring network for young people: the framework developed through the project will also be used to assess existing mentoring schemes. Young poets will be paired with a professional writer, and share their insights at a project symposium.

ii) Shaping Forms, Techniques, Identities: the PI will deliver a monograph, developing a new language to describe mentoring and its methods, and create a podcast series on poetry and mentoring, exploring how unacknowledged mentoring cultures have shaped genres, traditions, and literary communities.

iii) Transforming Cultures and Institutions: the PI will co-author a national report with project partners on best practice in mentoring in the creative industries, assessing its personal and collective benefits.

The project will further our understanding of poetry as a communal, networked process, and allow the commercial, cultural and voluntary sectors the opportunity to benefit from arts-specific approaches to mentoring. In parallel, it will deepen our knowledge of mentoring as an embedded and interdisciplinary arts practice, bringing together insights from social science, cultural policy, business mentoring, and the creative industries. While the AHRC Leadership Fellow scheme supports a broad definition of leadership, management training often yokes together leadership and mentoring in uneasy collocation, eliding a human capacity with a diachronic practice. By attending to mentoring's lived history in the arts, this project has the potential to reshape how we consider both terms. More broadly, the research will demonstrate how mentoring has the power not just to inform individual practice, but drive wider artistic, social, and organisational change.

Planned Impact

The project has the potential to impact on the work and practice of a number of different sectors and professional bodies:

i) Funding councils and arts policy units
Arts Council England have indicated their interest in commissioning more research in creative mentoring, and have been in regular dialogue with the project partners, as outlined in our Pathways to Impact document. Our academic research aims to inform effectiveness in arts-specific mentoring practice, but also to assess the institutions and organisations that fund it: this would enable funding councils and arts policy units to draw directly on the research to inform future policy or practical guidance. Arts funders have recently prioritised mentoring schemes as a way of sharing expertise in particular sectors (e.g. Institute of Fundraising's RAISE: Arts, Culture and Heritage programme) or supporting organisations through particular milestones (e.g. ACE's Museum Accreditation Mentor scheme). This project, by examining mentoring as a history as well as a process, allow insights to be shared across different parts of the arts sector, and to inform future iterations of existing schemes.

ii) Professionals in the Creative Industries
The 2017 Bazalgette independent review of the creative industries noted the importance of developing more specific mentoring schemes in the arts. The project report and research monograph will further understanding across the creative industries of how individual mentoring relationships work, and in particular what kinds of insights or models are generated during the process aside from business advice specific to a particular field. The research will also allow professionals in the creative industries offering mentoring for the first time to learn from contemporary examples: a 2015 NESTA report identified the lack of mentoring opportunities and the absence of training for new mentors.

iii) Schools and teacher networks
The Durham Commission's 2019 report argued for 'better research and evaluation' for creative education and training. The project's research insights could be of substantial benefit both as a practical guide for teachers of creative writing in the classroom and as a tool for driving change: evidence which shows the benefit of mentoring in the creative arts will enable educators across the sector to make a clearer case for creative education in the classroom. The research monograph includes a chapter on creative mentoring in HEIs, as well as an assessment of the new mentoring scheme, Young Wordsmiths, based on an existing summer writing programme for 16-19-year-olds.

iv) Festivals, promoters, and literature development agencies
This project brings together two partners - a regional literature development agency and a international arts festival - who will extend their working relationship beyond the project's life-cycle, helping to develop a long-term regional literary ecosystem. The expertise they will gain in collaborative working, audience development, and mentoring could be shared widely across the sector, helping other organisations across the UK.

v) Poets and creative writers
The research will allow poets and writers to reflect on their own practice as mentors, and to situate it within a wider historical, institutional, and policy context. While this will be of most benefit to participating poets and mentees, the published outputs will offer useful advice to writers working in and outside the UK.


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