On This Day She is the new book from Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland – a page-a-day history book featuring 366 women who have earned a place in history, but haven’t always got it. You can watch a recent event in which the three of us talked about the book and some of the women in it, here.
History is not just ‘what happened in the past.’ It is the story of what happened in the past. Our existing stories need an overhaul, because women have not been fairly represented in them. There are plenty of women who should have taken their place in any accounts of great deeds and cultural change. If they don’t appear in those accounts, that is not because they weren’t there.
Artists and philosophers are downplayed as the ‘muses’ of men for whom they were actually peers – like Leonor Fini or Emilie du Chatelet. World-leading scientists or artists are dismissed as ‘amateurs’ when they simply could not qualify as professionals. Historical women are written off as legends, when contemporary men are hailed as founding fathers on equally fragile evidence. Some pioneers were treated as curiosities – the UK’s first black policewoman, Fay Sislin Allen or the ‘Flying Housewife’ Fanny Blankers-Koen who won four Olympic gold medals whilst pregnant. Some women have been beyond the imagination of a historian who could not believe in female admirals, emperors or explorers – especially not if they were African or Chinese.
Many of these women were unknown to us before we began our research – like Alice Guy-Blache, a towering figure of the early film industry who has been entirely displaced in movie history by her male contemporaries. Some lived a life which put them outside the pale because of their sexuality or gender – the ‘two-spirit’ American chief who lived a fluid-gendered life with four wives, the unabashed Victorian lesbian Anne Lister, the world-beating athlete Babe Zaharias who shared a home with male and female partners. Some women made local changes or campaigned for social reform in a way that had a wider impact – not just suffragettes, but activists who improved public bathing facilities, or safety for trawler crews. Of course, equality is not always uplifting or celebratory. Women may have been freedom fighters and courageous spies, but they have also been mass murderers, terrorists, dictaros or assassins.
Our book brings you 366 people who did amazing, unsettling or unorthodox things, and who deserve to be remembered, every day of the year. Follow our Twitter account @OnThisDayShe for a bitesize reminder every day – and buy our book here.
Greetings to you, poets, on this Christmas Day 2020 – and what a very unusual Christmas it is, with its festive isolation and glittering toilet roll shortages. The cliché would have it that this is a time of togetherness, but many of you are on your own at Christmas for the first time, and feeling it acutely. Some of you would love to be alone, but are trapped with the same damn humans you’ve been looking at all year. Others have chosen to spend this day alone for decades, thank you very much. All of us are bombarded with saccharine images of nuclear families gathered around a plentiful table or a brightly lit tree, when we know that the bitter reality is different for many.
In this extraordinary season, I am indeed going to ask you to meditate on togetherness, but without too much seasonal glitter. If you’re alone and lonely today, I hope this doesn’t seem like a cruel joke but another way to turn your experience into something illuminating.
Scrutinise that concept of togetherness, to see what it means or does not mean for you; and by implication, use it to think about experiences of solitude. You might balance the two ideas of ‘together/alone’, looking at each state in the light of the other. Sometimes togetherness does look much as you would expect, even in quiet moments. Bring to mind a family walk, a day of shared chores, a Black Lives Matter march. But sometimes one feels very much alone, even in a crowd – and when we are separated from our friends or loved ones, how can we meaningfully be together?
Remember, you do not have to speak about these large and abstract ideas explicitly. Make something physical stand for the idea. E E Cummings took a loaded festive image, and made it stand for loneliness and disconnection as well as celebration and togetherness. Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking doesn’t mention togetherness per se, but makes it clear that ‘we‘ shared the adventure and the disillusionment. Minnie Bruce Pratt finds community with her neighbour even though they don’t speak – ‘In the morning and the evening we are by ourselves,/ the woman next door and I.’ You might write about a Zoom call or a rock climb, a music festival when you felt ‘together’ with strangers. You might also look for the shared experiences of all who are spending today on their own – the same stars, the experience of sleep or weather. No matter where or who they are, they will have things in common.
Cliché is not just a turn of phrase, but a way of thinking. We can’t take it for granted that solitude is a trial for everyone, nor that company is an unmitigated blessing. For some, it is a blessed relief to avoid judgmental parents, small talk or the tension of a family Christmas with the ex they are still in love with. If your moment of togetherness takes place at Christmas (or whatever seasonal celebration stands in its place for you) then consider hijacking a seasonal format. Your poem might be a Christmas card message, a humble-bragging round robin or a poetic thank you note for the gift that nourishes a friendship when distance separates the friends.
For me, ‘together’ does bring one festive moment to mind – singing Christmas carols in a Peak District cavern, with friends beside me and snow blowing down around the mouth of the cave. It also, however, brings to mind a spring funeral for a friend I knew from my local pub – itself a place of great community, currently unavailable to us. At the funeral, another friend sang Graham’s favourite song. People who knew each other as drinking buddies or scruffy boaters came together as serious adults in shiny shoes, honouring a lost friend. There are many levels of togetherness in such a moment.
You too may prefer to divest the word together of its festive associations. If so, take that word for a walk. Think about what images or associations it brings to mind, without trying to shape them into a poem too swiftly. It might be a childhood afternoon making mud pies in the woods, or a teenage trip with your best mate to get matching tattoos. You might have run away with a lover– eaten or worked or travelled with friends – got stoned to the point of cosmic togetherness. Think about places where togetherness was shown by banter or eye contact – the library, the pub, the butty van by the A6, the board room or skate park. Touch on the togetherness you noticed only when it was stopped, by death or break-up. Think about family; community; friendship; partnership. Hold the word together in the back of your mind, as a sort of mood music which will influence your poem, even if the word itself never appears.
You may do all this, only in order to reject the pleasures of company. Famous curmudgeon Philip Larkin lamented that solitude was seen as a selfish opt-out. Togetherness is complicated, and your poem might need to acknowledge tension or argument. But life is always complicated. The best poetry finds a way to acknowledge that confusion, without losing focus on one theme or incident. Even the earliest human communities found ways of getting through the darkness together, by a collective act of creation; each individual making a mark which added up to something larger, by dint of shared experience.
Thanks to all those who have joined me since November, in trying to ‘leave something/ upright and bright behind them in the dark.’ There remains a real sense of mutual endeavour, respect and kindness here. We have each been working alone, but every one of you – including the quiet ones who just write privately – is a part of our community. However you spend today, I hope you feel that we are with you in some way.
The Try to Praise the Mutilated World project comes to an end today, as does the second English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.
When this project began one month ago, I promised you an imaginary community with real poets. We built one, raising over £150 for the Trussell Trust in the process. I also promised that you would come out of lockdown with a sheaf of new poems. If that hasn’t happened, be kind to yourself. They will come when they are ready.
Now – it’s the first day post-lockdown in England, and for many of us that won’t make a whole lot of difference. So give yourself a day off from the end of the world. Turn off the damn news and completely relax into today’s theme – which is comfort and joy. You can’t put the pandemic right out of your mind, of course; but today we revel, wholly and immersively, in whatever brings comfort and/or real joy. To get into the proper frame of mind, have a listen to our Spotify playlist, an eighteen-hour mix tape of happy, uplifting or peaceful sounds.
Start with what gives you deep, physical comfort at the moment. Given the circumstances, it’s likely to be private and simple: a hot water bottle, a hot bath, a blast down a hill on a mountain bike, a backyard bonfire with the kids, a book with a happy ending. If your comforts are specific to lockdown, tell me what they are – the city sky uninterrupted by air traffic, the illicit pleasure of having no meetings to dress up for; lazy lie-ins with your partner instead of getting up for work; a towpath walk instead of a daily train journey. These physical comforts remind us that every day won from such darkness is a celebration.
That poem also brings us to another sort of comfort, which is perhaps closer to consolation – the things you tell yourself or others, to make us all feel better. Why not vividly imagine that summer trip you cancelled in 2020, and congratulate yourself on avoiding all its inconveniences? How about planning a future summer, inviting your best mate on a road trip where you will stop at every dive bar and raucous festival on the way? Will you set off fireworks, learn the accordion, wrestle the first person you see to the ground and shag them senseless? Be unrestrained and a little manic in your schemes. Or have you recalibrated your ambitions – are you a lifelong convert to quieter pleasures?
Even in the very darkest times there are curious moments of joy, whose brightness is remarkable precisely because of the black background. Don’t think too hard about what offers comfort or joy;the simplest episode can be enough. In a more general way, think about what has given you joy in normal, pre-pandemical life. Rock climbing, raves, a concert with 1,000 people, a football match with 30,000; a Parkrun, a bikers’ rally, a weekend stay with friends. Any instance that gave you real, deep happiness, and stayed with you. Inhabit it. Remember what it smelled like. Take us there, for no other purpose than to relive it. Explain these past pleasures to a toddler or a teddy bear; retell that hilarious incident when your mate fell into the toilet at Glastonbury and you all laughed till it hurt; relive that wedding or bat mitzvah where the joys of family were best shown in small gestures.Let joy kill you, and keep away from the little deaths.
You don’t have to add ‘and I wonder if we will ever do that again?’ at the end. In fact, when you’ve finished your first draft, have a look at your fresh and twitching poem – with a cleaver in one hand. Best-selling pulp novelist Elmore Leonard famously advised, ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ Leave out the boring bits, in other words. The single thing poets hear most in any workshop (especially mine) is, ‘Can you lose the last two lines?’ The very end of the poem is where we usually explain, once again. everything that the poem has already said – just to be sure that the stupid reader is getting it. The reader is not stupid. The reader is you.
This year has been hard. If you feel bad about feeling bad, then take your comfort from the advice that tortured soul Gerard Manley Hopkins gave to himself; My own heart let me have more pity on. If, like me, you find Hopkins’ syntax unforgiving, hear me reading it here. You can also visit the Poetry Foundation, whose site I have mined so thoroughly in writing these prompts. Start with their fine collection of Poems of Hope and Resilience. But for today’s prompt, we follow Robert Frost’s advice for the poet: ‘Begin in delight, and end in wisdom’. I can’t promise the wisdom – but do, please, unfold into the delight. It will do you a power of good.
Thank you for travelling with me through lockdown. It has been both a comfort and a joy to see so many poets carving something beautiful out of this monolithic lockdown. The work you have written has taken my breath away every single day of this curious month, and it will start to speckle the poetry journals in months to come. Stay safe, keep writing, keep paying attention.
I will see you here on Christmas Day, for one final prompt to keep us writing together. Meanwhile, share one of my own private joys here 🙂
You’re getting off lightly here. I was going to ask you to write about your experience of lockdown, but I took pity on you. It’s hard enough to live it, without having to scrutinise it closely. Instead, I give you a subject which could touch on lockdown if you choose, but equally might take you in an entirely different direction. Write about learning something.
Think first about the physical skills you have learned – throwing a rope, applying eyeliner or building a drystone wall. If this is your subject, focus right in on the experience. Don’t tell us the feelings it produced – the frustration of getting it wrong, the pleasure of getting it right, and so on – show us. Give us that quality of mesmerising, studious attention – a loop of yarn caught by its successor on the knitting needles, or the nuts loosening as you change a flat tyre for the first time. Whether it is touch typing, a sex act or swimming, be precise in describing the process, and the reader will share your concentration. Turn your gaze to the person teaching the skill, to the relationship between teacher and taught, or to the cycle of teaching a skill again and again, through generations. If there is a rhythm or repetitious quality to the activity, remember that this can be used to drive the poem.
At school, did you learn a version of history written by those who colonised your country, and which you later had to unlearn? Perhaps your most valuable lessons in childhood came not from school, but from the Incredible Hulk, or from your parents’ overheard arguments. Incidentally, I have fallen into the trap of assuming that you are always writing about yourself. You might be the teacher here. You might be completely absent. Why not write about Michelangelo learning to paint – Genghis Khan as a child – Helen Keller suddenly getting the idea of sign language – or people who are transformed by learning in uncomfortable ways?
You have also learned life skills like driving, or the language of a new country – go back to the moment of revelation, the moment when it clicked. You have learned things which are entirely useless from the internet, and things which are useful in your working life. Your lesson might have been a deeper one – learning to live with a partner, learning to live after losing a partner, learning the language of a disability. Perhaps you learned something that changed everything – for instance that your unborn child was in danger. In each and every one of these scenarios, you do not need to say ‘and so I learned that….’ Show the reader what happened and trust them to take the lesson on board, as you did yourself.
We’ve seen before that the best way into a subject is sometimes to look at its opposite. What have you never learned? To hold your tongue, to hold your beer, to ride a bike? To sing this irresistible song? Finally – if you choose to go there – what have you learned during this month of lockdown? Has it been a process of learning to sit quietly in a room with yourself, or learning to make 35 different things with sourdough? Have you learned how much you actually need the company of your irritating sister? Whatever you’ve learned, pass it on.
This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good person is. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It contains many of the beliefs I hold dear. I also enjoy what he has to say about cucumbers (we’ll come back to that). The quotation above would be part of my credo, which is your subject for today. A credo is a statement of basic beliefs. If we’re being purist about it, it sets out the principles of your irreducible faith, your moral certainties. But we are not going to be purist about it: we are, as usual, going to bugger about with it mercilessly.
The credo you write might indeed be a serious statement of your moral code. The language of deep faith is absolute – there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet – or I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Your credo might be political or social rather than spiritual, but you will have that sonorous register of language in your mind. Do, however, give concrete examples – as Marcus does with that cucumber. ‘A cucumber is bitter? Then throw it away’, he says wisely. It’s not really about cucumbers. It’s a metaphor instructing us not to sweat the small stuff. So, give your ten commandments for friendship or the twelve articles of a good living – but illustrate them with real incident to make us believe in your authority. The best poems of this sort, like this one from Mary Oliver and this from Max Ehrmann, mix very plain language with grand ideas.
Perhaps you will focus on one specific lesson, rather than a whole catechism. After a workplace bully hung up on me, leaving me furious and powerless, a colleague gave me advice that became part of my own moral code. ‘People are the size they make you feel’ she said. You could focus on a single event like that, and that one lesson, rather than framing a whole philosophy. You might embed your life lesson in your title to make the poem itself lighter.
Then again, you might go fully frivolous or (better still) mix the very serious with the lightweight, as Baz Luhrmann does to great effect here. You will never have a better framework for dogma, so why not decree, with absolute authority, what are the best films made since 1985? We can use the well-worn language of a political creed to mock its own failures. Try this correction, for instance: “We hold these truths self-evident; that all WHITE men are created equal AND OBVIOUSLY NOT WOMEN”. Consider taking off on a flight of fancy to write the credo of a goldfish, a Labrador, a drunk…. even a poet. Write Twelve Articles of Faith in Labradors, for instance.
Feel free too, to take pot shots at orthodoxies which do not hold true for you. You may begin with ‘what’s so great aboutmotherhood and apple pie anyway? I believe in one night stands, jerk rice and Starbucks muffins.’ You can critique someone else’s private belief system. For instance I might tackle this one, a thoughtful poem whose title admits its incompleteness – but which offends me with the embedded sexism of ‘everyone’s wife or girlfriend’. Remember that you do not have to be reasonable as a narrator. You can be angry, drunk, absent minded, a liar. You can be unlikeable, unstoppable, uncertain – or you can find your rambling certainties in the kitchen cupboard.
This exercise is a good place for piety, patriotism and sincere virtue: but the language of sincerity is often borrowed by hypocrites and false prophets, who make it sound hollow. If you do step into someone else’s shoes – be it Elizabeth I or a mushroom – ask yourself how they would speak. If a working collie dog wrote down its guiding principles would they be hectic, unstoppable, unpunctuated? What would be the slow philosophy of the sharp-toothed pike – would it be only THOU SHALT KILL, or would it be slow-slow-fast like the movements of that wily predator?
Write your own Desiderata, or set some other simple framework of what you advise others to do. As you will know if you read all the Instagram posts with hashtags like #veganboater or #YOLO, any statement of belief is also a strong affirmation of identity. Preach!
This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.
The poems we write may be rewarding and full of craft (or exasperating and full of frustration), but they are secondary in importance to that which brings them into being: the simple act of paying attention. An open-eyed approach to the world allows the most mundane things to set off a train of enquiry. Attention is its own reward: poems are a neat by-product.
We’ve done a couple of ‘inside’ prompts – a journey around your room, an ode to the first thing you see. In this last week of lockdown, we step outside with that same quality of attention. I want you to look at something within 200 yards of your front door. There are things in your environment so familiar that you may not have registered them for years. Salute the longevity of the pillar box, revived from decline by all the parcels and cards we are sending to isolated friends. Consider the lamp post, that vital news station for neighbourhood dogs; the camper van that never leaves the driveway; the small gifts of any street. Acknowledge the street named after a tree or a long-dead councillor. You get the point.
When you write from Things, ideas creep in around the edges. We’re aiming for Emily Dickinson’s dictum – tell all the truth, but tell it slant. There may be something to explore in the private object (in my case, the glistening fish head left by a kingfisher outside my front door – in yours, maybe wind chimes or a bird feeder). Just now, you might find special worth in the things that your neighbours see too. Themanhole cover; the corner shop, clogged by school children at 3.30; the crochet rainbow in a bedroom window; the sign saying NO BALL GAMES or IF I CATCH YOU SMOKING IN THESE TOILETS YOU HAD BETTER BE ON FIRE. Even a scrap of roadside verge has merit. Ours is sometimes covered with wild geraniums; the council cuts them down, but they come back.
This is a lens through which to scrutinise your neighbourhood. Behind those locked doors, what is each neighbour living through in lockdown? Who graffitied FREE TOMMY ROBINSON on the wall, and why hasn’t that kerbstone been fixed yet? In asking such questions, remember that Yeats did not finish Leda and the Swan with ‘I wonder if she put on his knowledge with his power?’ but with a direct question – ‘Did she….?’ Likewise, you don’t need to begin with, ‘I wonder who lives in that house?’ The question shows that you wonder it, so you can just get straight in with ‘Who lives there?’ for a much more engaging line.
Finally, consider your own relationship to the things around you. The tree stump that was still a towering beech when you moved in, the gatepost you scarred by backing your car into it; or just a place where you remember an encounter like this happening. Anything can serve as the signpost to a poem – including a signpost. Go and open the door you’ve been living behind so much. At least there’ll be a draught.
This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.
A few days left of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In my working life as an archaeologist, I was once excavating on a featureless hilltop in Northumberland when my trowel flipped up a tiny piece of flint, the size of a milk tooth. I cleaned back the soil carefully and exposed a dozen or more ‘microliths’, each with a clean edge where it had been struck from the mother stone. Eventually I stood back to see a scatter of little chippings like a sunburst. Five thousand years ago someone had sat down on this spot, knapped a flint core into a useful blade, then stood and walked away, leaving behind their Neolithic litter. My initial find was so small I almost missed it, but by the end of the day it had become something very moving.
This may not seem immediately relevant to the image, above, of a Spiny Waterflea on a scientist’s finger. Let me explain. I invite you to write about something very big or very small. In the latter category are the spiders’ eggs in your shed; tadpoles like underwater punctuation marks; punctuation marks like inky tadpoles; musical notes on a score; dust motes in sunshine; the microscopic glitch in your DNA that spells ‘twins’ or ‘deafness’. Auden wrote A New Year Greeting to the many micro-organisms populating his body. You might focus on a prized marble or a life-saving stent; the lost pins that fell between historic floorboards; the earring-backs or toast crumbs swallowed by your sofa; a seed. Even the tiniest items can accumulate on a massive scale. The virus that has humanity on its knees right now is a tiny organism.
If you go big, on the other hand, go Very Big Indeed. In this category we place the blue whale, California, the moon, the Great Wall of China, Apatosaurus, Ayer’s Rock/ Uluru, the Pacific, the Amazon basin, an oak tree, a giant big enough to swallow the earth – and last but by no means least, The Universe. You might explore the contrast between the great and the small; pursue the difference between microscopic Samoa and the vastness of California, or write an American sentence about the Pacific Ocean.
As always, if you are wondering how the hell your poem about drawing pins will have anything to say about the human condition, remember that a poem is seldom about what it’s about. Poet Richard Hugo makes a useful distinction between
the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.
Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town
That first subject (the drawing pin) jump-starts the poem, but it begins a stream of thought which might take you somewhere else entirely (the end of the world, and your part in it). Follow it, and see where you end up – little by little.
We are into the last week of English lockdown #2, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In the olden days, when festivals happened, I was once in a big marquee at Hay on Wye. I was there to speak about LTC Rolt’s book Narrow Boat, on which I considered myself a bit of an authority. As I got ready to go on stage, I was introduced to an elderly woman with a glint in her eye. “This is Jo Bell, the Canal Laureate”, said the person introducing us; “….and this is Sonia Rolt”. LTC Rolt’s widow was a vital campaigner for the canals, and bright as a diamond at ninety-two. She was the very last person I wanted to see in the front row of my talk, and she knew it. She enjoyed my discomfort. We got on like a house on fire.
Our subject today is introducing someone. It needs to be a personal introduction (not an introduction to the works of Rumi, or the third law of thermodynamics) because an introduction is uniquely useful to the poet. First impressions, after all, are based entirely on the five senses. What was that person wearing, and did they flinch at your accent? Did they have dirty fingernails or overpowering aftershave? Did you bond immediately as you both raised an eyebrow at the same lame joke? What did you notice? Noticing everything is the poet’s main job; if you can do that, then you have the raw material for anything.
Introductions set the chemistry fizzing between future spouses or enemies. Think about the moment you were introduced to your spouse, your best friend, your biological mother – and remember that in the poem you can be any one of those people. Here’s a poem which makes a square between a child, her two parents and the poet who introduced them. Some people strike you immediately – the colleague at work whom you instantly hate, the kid at school whom you just know will be your nemesis, the woman who later ran off with your wife. Others barely figure as a backdrop to something more important, or as one introduction in a stream of passing faces. Some people who should have met, never did; introduce your child to its long-gone grandparents, or vice versa.
Perhaps your introduction is a more formal one. You are introducing someone on stage – JB Priestley loved to sabotage speakers before they ever stood up, like this:
“In introducing one or two of the chief speakers, grossly over-praise them but put no warmth into your voice… If you know what a speaker’s main point is to be, then make it neatly in presenting him to the audience.”
JB Priestley, ‘Quietly Malicious Chairmanship’, in Delight
Make a caricature, and let us meet Ms Passive-Aggressive or Mr Brexiteer. Be the go-between who first brings Romeo and Juliet, or Myra Hindley and Ian Brady together. Be the foolish, pompous master of ceremonies who clumsily introduces Shakespeare at a royal audience. Introduce big, abstract ideas by literally introducing them. Introduce us to your God – or introduce yourself humbly to him. (NB If you do introduce yourself, to God or anyone else, be truthful and not too self deprecating. This is not a cocktail party, and we will not think you vain if you say in passing that you have good cheekbones. Be objective; it is impossible, but do it anyway.)
Let the characters of both introduced and introducer show through a gesture, a turn of phrase, a silence. Let us get a glimpse of a new character: after all, we don’t get the opportunity so much nowadays, as this startlingly prescient poem from 2013 shows us.
Lockdown in England is in its last week, and so is our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
November. Everything slows down, it’s pale and cold and…… Right, that’s enough of that. BOOM. SPLASH. CRACK. Let’s get a little more action onto the page.
If there’s one thing lacking from most of the poems we write and read, it’s energy. Writing is a slow and contemplative process, so it’s natural that our poems often have that feeling too. At the moment our lives are on a go-slow, but some of the best things in this mutilated world are the ones that explode or leap or fizz. Let’s hitch our brains to a faster engine today, and see what it brings.
Anything from a snowball fight to a nuclear explosion has energy. As always, be a miner of your own life to bring up something that fits the subject. Bike ride, horse race, roller coaster, bomb blast, car crash, pillow fight; the fall that stopped your heart, the defibrillator that started it again. The all-night dance at Wigan Casino, the boozy tumble from one loud pub to another, the goal that brings the whole stadium roaring to its feet; the private vision that you catch after speeding. There is a wicked energy in a riot or a beating. In nature, consider the huge force of the sea, or the microscopic force that drives the sperm to the egg. A great whale bursts from the fjord; a eagle stoops; a blast of wind knocks you off your feet. Even rhubarb has its own slow energy, popping quietly in the dark and secret sheds of the Rhubarb Triangle. It’s a slower burn, but it still burns.
This topic, more than any other we’ve covered this month, will benefit from a few tricks of the trade. Don’t just describe an energetic event – make your poem itself into one. Any child fresh from the Poetry Destruction Factory will tell you that onomatopoeia gives a poem energy – those words like BOOM and SPLASH and BANG that sound like what they mean. Make verbs into nouns for a little burst of surprise – a leaf-blower hurricaning leaves, or children skittled by a clumsy dog. Select verbs for their power: make things barrel, hurtle, shoot, crash, split or rock. Vary the speed of your poem by exploiting its sounds – short, sharp vowels make things click or stop or bang, while long, slow ones make them ease or brake or fly. Short words are fast – longer and more complicated constructions…. you see? Build up energy very slowly, so that a tantalising build up (like this) is released with great force (like this). Play with punctuation, line breaks and s p a c i n g to build suspense
We are 3/4 of the way through lockdown #2 in England, and weathering it in online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. Prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
We have one week of the current lockdown to go. It ain’t funny any more and to be honest, it wasn’t very funny to start with. In 2020 we have learned that just functioning can be a small act of courage. So today, our theme is courage.
Sometimes, the way into an idea is to explore its opposite. In this case, courage carries its opposite within itself. It isn’t the absence of fear: it is ‘the ability to do something that frightens one.’ Fear is the dark heartwood that gives courage shape. And once the courageous act is begun, what does that feel like? Is it giddy, hilarious, does it turn you on or make you sick? When accomplished, do you feel a little taller, stronger of limb?
If the courageous act you’re writing about had a physical element like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, so much the better (also, well done you). If it was psychological, find the physical in it – flushing with adrenalin, clenching your fists. You may be a teenager stubbornly walking down the street hand in hand with your lover, or engaging in the small domestic braveries numbered here. On a different scale, how did the first Vikings who navigated to North America find their courage to do so? How did Mandela cope with decades in jail? There is bravery even in fanaticism: the bomber, the terrorist, the freedom fighter. If yours is a grand or long-spanning action, you might reduce it to its smallest component – like a Jewish travelling preacher letting go of the door handle. Think too about en-couragement. Thank someone who has given you courageby example, or explore the backstory that pushed your emigrant grandparents out of Pakistan.
If this poem turns out to be about you, beware: that tricky old Self can get right into the machinery of a poem and make it clunky. Modesty makes you underplay your own courage when you left the abuser/ walked into that Oxford college/ walked out of that Oxford college/ walked over a high bridge/ dived in to save the dog. You can get stuck in the brain, rather than showing useful gestures and movements. So – consider stepping into the third person. Tell it like a spectator. If it doesn’t work, you can always step back into your own shoes.
If you’ve fallen off the poetry wagon this month, it doesn’t matter. No-one is looking: get back on. If you’ve been sitting quietly in our Facebook group watching great work roll in, and wondering when you’ll be able to do the same – the answer is, not until you start doing it. Climb on board, there are hundreds of people there waiting to help you. We learn by going where we have to go.
During the English lockdown, we continue our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Mischief is your topic today. It’s defined as ‘playful misbehaviour’; a specific brand of naughtiness that often touches danger or malice. Mischief is entertainment that usually comes at someone’s expense; the child stuck in a tree, the person hit by a hurled egg. Today, you can either write about mischief, or just in a mischievous spirit; either way, play around.
In children, mischief means knock-and-run-away, whoopee cushions, or the toddler working in the medium of tomato ketchup on a pristine wall. My own little brother (hello Kristian) was supremely mischievous as a baby. At the supermarket he would smear the contents of his nappy along the handlebar of our shopping trolley. At home, he dropped sugar cubes with plastic flies into our tea. We spent some evenings in A&E, watching doctors pull surprisingly large things out of his nose. Family pets do similar damage; even the occasion when your dog eats your new walking shoes can be raw material. This poem starts with a ball of yarn and a hill, which can only end one way – and turns into a brief meditation on a playful and cat-like God. The poet can turn any jape into a epic – Alexander Pope famously did it with nothing more than a lock of hair being cut.
In sixth form, mischief became less innocent. Someone put a raw egg into the pockets of the school dandy, then slapped him smartly on the thigh so that the yolk ran into his elegant trousers. It was an act of homophobia, though most of his classmates didn’t see that; a small act of exclusion and mockery. ‘Mischievous’ boys would twang bra straps, or try to grope girls in the corridors. Perhaps you have been the victim – or the mischief-maker – in similar circumstances. From the child smearing jam on your laptop, to the curious cat soaked in a fishtank, mischief creates both entertainment and anger.
In adulthood, it is more loaded. You ‘make mischief’ by telling a man that his wife was seen with someone else last night, or by stirring up an argument. It is a euphemism for the immoral or illegal – some lads were making mischief down by the railway lines last night. In the north of England, Mischief Night was a time of licensed disorder – fireworks in dustbins, cowpats in letter boxes, eggs thrown at house doors, or honey on the door knobs. It was slightly anarchic: just on the edge of damage, just on the cusp of child and adult. Just on the edge of funny.
Many cultures have mischievous deities or demigods, like the Vikings’ Loki, a shape shifter and wise fool. They carve out a safe space for the unorthodox, the genderqueer, the unruly, the in-between or over-the-top. They make mischief; they break rules and challenge authority. You can do the same by cramming the whole pantheon into a punfest like this. Or go dark, but surely not as dark as Ted Hughes did with the greedy Native American trickster, Crow. Joker in Batman is a trickster; so is Anansi, the mayhem-loving spider of West African folklore. Some Anansi stories begin like this, as we might begin a poem:
“We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.”
Akan oral tradition
Take this theme and run with it. We could do with a little playfulness; don’t worry too much about where it takes you. Just let it go.
For the duration of lockdown in England, you can join our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Wash your hands. Have you washed your hands? Good. Now wash your hands. Did you touch the soap while doing it? Oh dear. Wash your hands. Never in our lives have we been so conscious of the need for cleaning, which is your subject today. This year has been a festival of hand-washing, sanitising, disinfecting, wiping and scrubbing. Even for people who are normally scrupulous it has become a chore: for those who are genuinely obsessive-compulsive, it must be a living hell. If you want to look at this time of plague, then go ahead – talk about your cracking skin, your cupboards full of sanitising gel – but there are other ways to tackle the theme.
The tasks of cleaning are physical and mindful. Each task – washing the car, knocking out a pipe, doing the laundry, scrubbing potatoes – involves smell, sensation and the repeated rhythms of a simple task. Wipe surfaces clean of the fine sawdust that gathers in a workshop, scrub away the smell of cat pee or the trace of sticky fingers; polish shoes or clean windows; each chore is full of potential. Describe the job at hand, or follow a string of associations.
The inequalities of cleaning are well-known. Make use of that. Why are you cleaning the toilet again, and how come your partner spills coffee only on the freshest sheets? Does a professional cleaner do the dirty work of your house or your street? In the office, you might clean the hard drive, disinfect a virtual virus. Or look carefully at the vulnerabilities of personal cleanliness – bathing a child or a parent, teaching a toddler to brush her teeth, visiting a Turkish bath or getting your hair washed at the hairdresser; performing wudu in an inappropriate space, or just relaxing in the tub.
If you’re stuck, think about the opposite of cleanliness. The dirt of a teenager’s room, the pithead baths, the garden shed, the attic; each is distinctive. Disgust is a powerful and under-used tool in poetry. You might tackle the bloodstained crime scene, the flooded cellar full of debris, the industrial grime of the railways or the thick filth of a Sheffield smog in the 1950s – this, after all, is not the first time we’ve had to wear masks. Dirt isn’t always a bad thing. My dad, who saw me only at weekends, used to survey the mess in his house and say ‘Cleanliness is next to….. loneliness.’
On goes the lockdown in England, and on goes our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
I don’t normally do this sort of thing. I like to think of my prompts as three-dimensional: each one is a meditation, showing how we can use any given topic as a way in to a proper, solid poem. Knock away the scaffolding afterwards, and the reader should never guess that the poem was started by someone whispering ‘gardens‘ or ‘skin disease’ from the wings. The prompt should be completely absorbed by your poem.
This one might be a little more visible, so bear with me. In a classic starting-to-write way, today I ask you to write about the first thing you see as you look around you – and to write in praise of it. If it is unpromising, don’t cheat by trying to select something more ‘poetickal’; see what mileage you can get out of it. After all, we saw a few days ago what Pablo Neruda came up with on the subject of a pair of socks, and Neruda famously wrote odes (praise poems) to almost any object he came across. An onion, a tomato, even miscellaneous broken things; he didn’t allow the prosaic nature of the thing to stop him celebrating it.
In Neruda’s ode to tomatoes, he lays it on with a trowel – unabated, the unstoppable tomato invades the kitchen. It has benign majesty, amplitude, abundance. It offers itself. It populates the salads of Chile. Even the oil is essential child of the olive. Neruda is enjoying the exaggeration – he’s having a laugh, and why not? Most of the words here, though, are sensual, joyful and simple. ‘The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer‘ – not twilight or winter. Light, juice, ease, butter, living flesh, sun, fragrance, salt, parsley, potatoes, aroma – it’s like a cookbook for Chilean peasant food. Neruda is pressing our most primitive buttons, the ones that say ‘sunshine’ or ‘food’ or ‘plenty’. It’s a cheap trick, and it works.
Look very carefully at your object – the dustpan and brush, the hot water bottle, the bunch of flowers, the rubber duck, the sink plunger. Hold it up to scrutiny. Get right down to loving it. In my case, with no word of a lie, the first thing I set eyes on after writing these words was a haggis. I believe that’s been done already. But there’s the challenge; here is something I would not dream of writing about normally, and must now find a response to. I can’t write a poem to a haggis without invoking Robert Burns – so my poem will have to respond to his. It may become ‘The Haggis Replies’. What else is in sight? My partner’s flat cap could be praised to the high heavens for its bountiful warmth, its comedic Yorkshire style. The IWA canal map on my wall is a passport to a lifetime of adventures. The phone charger, o blessed twine! connects me to my friends in a time of separation.
The ode is not just a poetic form. It’s an instruction to look for joy. Sometimes, in our efforts to be wise, we forget to have fun. Today, let go of ego and live a little. In this difficult month, we are engaged in the business of praise; find something to praise, and praise away.
Our online poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World, lasts as long as the English lockdown. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Some years ago, the author Sarah Maitland wrote A Book of Silence, describing her pursuit of that state. Like Jim Crace’s curious and brilliant novel Quarantine, Maitland explored the search for silence and stillness as a spiritual practice. Today, your subject for poetry is silence.
Thomas Hood reminds us that what we call silence is usually no such thing. It is is an un-thing, an absence of human sound, an opposite. In conversation, it can be comfortable, excruciating or full of tension. Think of the moment of silence when your son came out, or your wife announced the pregnancy test results; the moment after a marriage proposal, before you knew which of two possible futures would happen. There is the silence when you should have spoken but didn’t (why is my neighbour being taken away?) – or the one that fell when you said something unforgiveable. There is the muteness of trauma; the receptive pause of the counsellor; the private prayer; the gap between lightning and thunderclap. Each of these has a quality of expectation or dread.
Silence is longed for by tinnitus sufferers, or by people working at home with a small child. It’s a trial for the hermit, the hostage, or those who can’t hear the same miraculous thing as their companions. It is the normal state of play for the deaf. Consider the stillness of the deep sea around the Titanic, or in a pharaoh’s tomb, or on the moon. In some places we expect perfect quiet (a graveyard, a library, a museum, a waiting room, the cenotaph), and shouting or music would be shocking. At the moment, however, we see many places where noise is expected, and silence itself becomes a shock – like my local pub, standing empty and quiet during the long lockdown evenings.
Billy Collins lists different silences, and leaves us asking why he finds the one at the end of his poem poorer than the one at the start. One writer revisits a single traumatic silence over and over again; another plays with the idea of the last silence; and Timothy Yu mocks the idea of a serene ‘Chinese silence’ to dismantle racist tropes. Read, think, remember what peace there may be in silence; then turn off the radio, find the one quiet space where you can write; and begin.
Lockdown continues in England, and so does our citizen poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Just in case today’s theme sounds a little dry, let me start by showing you a statue. The Russian city of Zheleznovodsk is a spa resort. It is particularly proud of its pioneering role in colonic irrigation – which is why its most famous sculpture (right) shows three little cherubs bearing an enema bulb. Today’s theme can be approached, as it were, from many directions.
I ask you to use a monument as your sparking-off point. It needn’t be the whole focus of your poem, it may be just the backdrop, or a catalyst for a train of thought. It may be a statue, a building of cultural importance, like the Colosseum, a shrine or site of pilgrimage.
Monuments honour the public figures or deities of their time. The unknown soldier, Julius Caesar, the great scientist, or the founding father stands on a pedestal above the city; in other places we revere the Virgin Mary, the god of January, the gift of the gab. Monuments have local meanings too. Some are meeting places – see you at the Monument, we used to say in Newcastle before a night out. Others are outlets for anti-establishment mockery, like Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington, perpetually crowned with a traffic cone. When social values change, monuments fall. Lenin, Saddam Hussein and slave trader Edward Colston have all been knocked off their pedestals.
You can make your poem a monument in itself, for those who have no monument. In this poem Derek Walcott remembers the enslaved people for whom there is no monument but the sea in which they drowned, and in this one Seamus Heaney commemorates similarly unremembered Irish rebels. Or build a monument and make it vivid; a huge beacon on the cliffs of Dover to celebrate the Unknown Immigrant, or a sculpture to the homeless, on a bench in front of the town hall. In this one, the poet shows us the difference between a grandiose monument, and the simpler home where the hero seems much more alive.
You might want to redesign your city, replacing war heroes with domestic abuse survivors or celebrating The Optimist. Why not write a funding application for a 60-foot high statue of Uncle Martin, his racing pigeons at his feet – a museum of absent-mindedness – or for an Indian Army memorial in Leicester? Consider your point of view in the poem. It might be refreshing to write as Nelson himself; as the town planner rejecting another ‘dead white male’ statue; or the knowing spouse of a famous plinth-holder.
In his monumental poem Ozymandias, Shelley looks at a fallen sculpture. The poem is, of course, about a monument – but if that were all it was about, it would be an anecdote. Really, Ozymandias is about hubris, dictatorship and the healing passage of time. As a wise man once said, ‘Your poem must be about left-handed widgets, but also about Everything.’ If your poem is entirely about left-handed widgets/ your childhood holiday then it will be boring. If it is entirely about Everything, then it will be overblown and pompous. The lens of poetry makes you look through the widget, to see Everything. If you are writing about the time you met your partner for a snog around the back of Notre Dame, see if you can’t also glean something about human nature and its environment. Use a real or imagined monument to teach us something about a real or imagined world.
Lockdown in England continues, and so does our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In this time of separation, skin hunger is a real thing. If this prompt is too hard to tackle right now, take a day off and do something that feeds your skin – a hot bath, a foot scrub. But if you feel up to it, your topic today is contact – specifically, a brief moment of physical contact with someone else.
“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough, To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough, To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then? I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”
Walt Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric
Whitman’s poem, like others we’ve seen, has acquired new levels of meaning. We know better than ever how precious that small moment of contact is, and how painful to think of. It will return. Until then, consult your memory. Some moments of touch – a hand held, a handshake – blossom into lifelong partnerships, or express a deep connection between parent and child. Others, so trivial as to go almost unnoticed at the time, are now memorable.
The first time you held hands with a member of the opposite sex (or the same sex); the time your teenage heartthrob ‘accidentally’ brushed against you in the classroom. The first time you shook hands like a proper grown-up; the reflexology session that unleashed tears of emotion, or the tattooist who provoked tears of pain; the physio who clicked your spine into place. The old-time barber, soaping your beard; the optician, arranging those funny glasses on your nose…. Some of these are moments of tenderness and therapeutic care, others deliberate acts of connection. Contact can be accidental, as when you squeeze into a bus seat next to a very fat person; and it can certainly be unwelcome. A kiss on the cheek may be quite continental, but a slap on the bum is not nearly so pleasant.
As with all of these prompts, you needn’t make the contact the focus of the poem – it may be completely incidental. But you will want to convey the nature of the contact, without falling back on abstract words like ‘unwanted’ or ‘delicious’. Think about verbs – a rugby player barrelling into you, a hand whispering against yours, a handshake flopping or grasping. Go easy on adverbs (words ending in -ly), which often weaken an image. Oh, and one other thing. Your poem should be no more than fifty words long. Right now, we can’t reach out to each other physically. But we can write something that reminds us to never take contact for granted again.
We are halfway through lockdown in England, and our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World, continues. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is poet and radio dramatist, Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Today’s work is….. to write about work. I don’t just mean what you do for a living – though your twenty years in software design do count, and if you want to write about that, then fill your boots. Here, ‘work’ means any activity done to get a result, or to make something. Factory work qualifies, but so does a child learning to knit, a man digging in Arizona, a prisoner digging a tunnel; the barista making your coffee, Rembrandt at his easel. If it might involve a tongue sticking out in concentration or a brow being wiped of sweat, then it’s work.
Think visually. Show us where tools are placed; what people are wearing; an old teaspoon pressed into service as a glue spreader; a deft or clumsy gesture. Look at how people work together to accomplish a task, making patterns of movement in an office or wearing a path between barrow and spoilheap. In fact, think of your poem as a snapshot. In his splendid and curious book On Poetry Glyn Maxwell asks, if one thinks of the poem as a photograph, ‘How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet?’ It’s usually too much.
For instance, if you’re writing about your mother building a composting toilet, we don’t actually need to know about you. We don’t even need to know that she’s your mother; that’s another way of putting yourself in the frame. She could just be Woman Building a Composting Toilet. Unless your presence signals something useful in the poem, you can step right out of the frame. Sometimes greater distance brings greater clarity.
Your own job can be mined for its argot and its mindset. Write about one incident you recall (the time when my in-tray included a sample of anthrax amongst the invoices; the time on an archaeological site when I unwittingly played five-stones with human vertebrae.) Use repetition to highlight a daily routine – or indulge in a fantasy of the job you wanted to do, fully imagining yourself digging up dinosaurs or flying a plane.
If it feels pointless or seems to show nothing, look again. Think about the mood you want to create – admiration for the worker, frustration, pleasure – and add detail to convey it. A sound, a flash of movement, the smell of paint? A poem, as the great poet of factory work Fred Voss writes, ‘should turn like an axle/ cut like a drill.’ Make it work. Then clock off, and have a drink. That too is an honourable tradition of the poet at work.
As lockdown continues in England, so does our global poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of the lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson on 22nd November. Join us at any time through November, using the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”
Today we write about healing. Keep this thought in mind: although you will have to touch on sickness or injury to get there, the sickness is not the main point. It is the healing, and the experience of feeling better, that I want you to concentrate on. I don’t mean spiritual healing, or healing from a time of unhappiness like a divorce. These are valid subjects of course, but today I encourage you to write about a recovery from actual illness (including mental illness) or injury – something you have actually healed from, not something ongoing.
Some of you will need to visit dark places to do this, but do so with the fact of recovery in mind. Others, who have been lucky with their health, will not have had cancer or even a broken leg; but you will have had a cold, or a sprained ankle, or a burn from the cooker. Small wounds still give us a chance to talk about healing. The experience of relief after your herpes cleared up is not the same as recovering from chemo, but it has some elements of the same story on a smaller scale.
This is a good opportunity to talk about the beginning and the sequence of a poem. Here’s how it actually happened: you got ill or injured, you had a period of recovery, then you were better. You don’t, however, have to tell it in that order. In fact, the reader will be delighted by a poem that rejigs the narrative. If you are given to telling things in the order they happened, then try one of these suggestions (they are only suggestions, do it your way):
1 You’re healed, you remember how it was to be ill, you’re still healed. Show, don’t tell. Try not to say ‘I remember’ – we know, you’re telling us.
2 Or; you recovered, one step/ boiled egg/ Chaka Khan song at a time. We don’t have to hear about the illness at all; it is implicit in the fact that you recovered, and its magnitude is suggested by the very fact that you aren’t talking about it. Think about the title as a way to give us key information.
3 Or: you were ill. You were so ill. The sheets were soaked, you had feverish dreams, your bones ached. You wallow in description of the illness. And then one day, you smelt toast and felt hungry. Try not to add over-explanation like ‘and that is how I knew I would get better’. The reader has seen that already.
5 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You trace the timeline back, from this moment when you are completely healthy, to the time when you came out of hospital, then back to when you were told you would need chemo, then back to the perfectly ordinary day when you first found a lump in your breast/ testicle. This takes us back to live through the scary bit with you, in the knowledge that there is a happy ending.
6 Or: what? Do it your way. Explore what your recovery shows about those who love you; talk about a trivial childhood illness that seemed immense at the time; go the full Malika, and revisit Lazarus as we did on day 1 of this project. Write about someone else’s illness if that’s where the prompt takes you, but you might get the best value out of this one if you concentrate on your own physical experience of healing. In this case, the happy ending is a given. Even if other illnesses are dogging you now – including the one we are all so aware of – the one to write about is one that you have already gotten over.
As lockdown in England continues, so does our global poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of the lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Kathleen Jamie’s poem,The Way We Live, celebrates what Macneice called ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ – that vivid, unequal mix of good and bad in daily life. The poem’s meaning has changed for me since March: say what you like about lockdown, but it does reduce the chances of death by avalanche. The barmen and waitresses are on furlough; the airports and motorways are quieter than ever before, and we know much more now about ‘waking to uncertainty’. The pandemic is building a distinctive culture of absence and disconnection.
Still, we can and must find ways to talk to each other. Today, I ask you to connect to someone who lives in a different place or time. You’re a poet, for goodness’ sake. There are no walls you can’t see through. Look across your city, country, planet. Find someone to connect with, and write to that person. Think of it as a message in a bottle, a dispatch smuggled out from behind the Covid frontline; a broadcast from the Virus Resistance Brigade.
Who will pick it up? A drag queen with no stage to perform on; a medievalist locked out of the archives, dreaming of Charlemagne; a New York apartment-dweller, his city becalmed after a lifetime of hectic noise; a refugee making his way across the Channel on a makeshift raft; or someone for whom lockdown is a blessed relief from responsibility. Some are desperate or bereaved. Others are taking up fishing, doing DIY, making love until noon. Cancer, childbirth and the family dinner go on, in spite of everything. A terrible beauty is born, as Yeats wrote of a different crisis entirely.
What is changed, since Covid came to town? What endures? Somewhere in the Amazon, there are communities which know nothing of all this. Will your message be airdropped to them, or will it be blasted into space in an Elon Musk satellite for a different audience? Send a tumbling Text Message full of scrambled thoughts about what life brought today – or write to the only person that matters, and call them home. Use your title to take some weight out of the poem itself: ‘Broadcast from 122 Brook Street’ or ‘Message thrown from my window in a time of plague’, or ‘To the residents of this house, one hundred years from now.’
Then write. Don’t think too hard. Allow yourself to drift off topic; by all means, rant about the broken dishwasher as well as the broken world community. If you are bored or scared or furious, let it show. Reassure or confess; ask how to put a shelf up straight. Give some thought to the ending of your poem. Do you want to sound cheerful, cry for help or leave this episode open-ended? Will you enclose a gift? Now – would you care to leave a message?
Lockdown in England continues – as does our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – today it is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
Did you sleep well? Sleep is the hard-earned peace at the end of the day, the time when dreams defragment the brain’s hard drive – and your subject for today.
Sleep is an abandonment, a supremely physical act of letting go. Yours may be triggered by a nightcap, an audiobook – or fever, the motion of a boat, fatigue after running a marathon, the sound ofa Russian woman folding towels. Some of you fallen asleep somewhere you shouldn’t – at a party, at your desk, during sex – or you have you nodded off on the bus, and missed your stop. Think about the room you normally sleep in; how it feels, what sounds or sensations there are, what book is tucked under the pillow. Think too about the most remarkable places you’ve slept. I’ve slept in a Greek monastery and in the bellies of tall ships; on the shores of Ullswater in a sleeping bag; in many anodyne hotels and a few dodgy youth hostels; and at festivals, with distant music booming in my ears. Where have you laid your head down – and where are you sleeping nowadays, when so many options are unavailable?
For most of us sleep is a refreshing ceasefire. Other poor souls wake up at 3am staring doom in the face. If that is you, then tell us what keeps you awake at night. Be specific, because a phrase like ‘worry’ is so generic that your reader will pass by without registering the actual feeling. ‘Ian being a dick again about the car park,’ or ‘the fact that Vanuatu is sinking’ would do it. Night sweats, a prowling cat, a baby that you temporarily want to smother; the aftermath of an argument; a frozen shoulder; a bottle of Merlot; the prompt you are writing for a poetry blog; all of these might keep you awake. If your first instinct is comedic, don’t be afraid to go dark. It’s night time, after all, when most of us crash out.
If you sleep alone, tell us what pleases and displeases; what you miss and what you revel in. If you share your bed with someone, think about the shapes and sounds you make in your dozing and dreaming. There might be a rhythm to your sleeping, or a dance in the way your bodies fit together. Does your other half get up at 4.00 to make a cup of tea, then come back with cold feet? Where do they go when they sleep? Did you sleep differently with a previous lover, with your toddler – or with the chihuahua?
Write a sleep diary, a lullaby, an aubade, a sheep-counting chant, a celebration of the shared or unshared bed. Write about someone else lost in sleep; the homeless, the genocidal, the blackbird singing from next door’s TV aerial. Whatever your subject is, dive deep. Sweet dreams.
As lockdown in England continues, so does our poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winningMalika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
The present circumstances can take away your working life, your social life, the places where you used to conduct both – but they can’t take away the sky. That’s your subject today.
Yesterday we confined ourselves to the four walls of a familiar room. Today, we get outside – literally. Don’t imagine the sky or even look at it through the window – go and spend some time with it. The difference between any thing imagined, and the same thing examined in real time, is usually clear in a poem. The reader knows if you’re faking it.
The sky is endlessly available, constantly changeable and always free to look at. It presents a constantly changing newsroll of weather, birds, planes – and at night, stars and satellites. Sometimes the fast downward arc of a shooting star; sometimes the slow-flashing lights of an ascending plane. It’s a large and airy theme, so look for ways to make it specific. Think of its resident birds, and those humans who just visit; paragliders on Mam Tor, children tugging the sky down towards them on a kite string, Amelia Earhart falling from it 1937, the poor Nairobi stowaway who dropped from it into a Clapham garden last year. Think of those who have made the sky their life’s work – astronomers and meteorologists, comet-namers and cloud-watchers and hurricane-chasers, early balloonists who had no idea what to expect when they first lifted into the skies. The resulting piece may be expansive (surely this poem is one page too long?) or may contain multitudes in three words.
The sky stands for all things uncontainable, and our current straitened circumstances make some feel hungry for it. When did you last stay up till the sky began to lighten? When did you last sleep underneath it? How did it look yesterday, as the sunset turned the council flats pink behind your street? What would you call the constellations if you were in charge of naming them? Given its intangible nature, you will have to work a little to make your sky real for a reader. You could address it directly, or compare it to the sky above your loved ones in Canada or Ghana. You could personify it as innocent, malicious, absent-minded; ask it what it thinks of us.
Throughout the English lockdown, online poetry community Try to Praise the Mutilated World delivers a free prompt here every day. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of the lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In 1790, a young French nobleman called Xavier de Maistre was put under house arrest for fighting a duel. Confined for six weeks in a single room, he went a little stir crazy; and I think we can all sympathise. To pass the time, de Maistre wrote a funny little travelogue in the style of a Grand Tour, describing a Journey Round My Room.
His journey had certain advantages, wrote de Maistre. It had cost him nothing, and it would be a good way for the sick or the lazy to enjoy travel. He was not troubled by bad weather. He would, admittedly, have been happy to give a much shorter account of his room – “but still, alas, I was not my own master in the matter of leaving it.”
“MY room is situated in latitude 48° east, according to the measurement of Father Beccaria. It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round…. when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line. From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner; thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my arm-chair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein…. I go on from discovery to discovery.“
Xavier de Maistre, Journey Round My Room (1794)
You get the gist. Today’s mission is to write about your room; the one room you have spent most time in during this lockdown. You might become a tour guide like de Maistre, identifying points of interest and landmarks, or give a partial description. You could describe a strange incident that happened in the night, or how a particular chair gave you a nightmare. Riff on something in the room that has done good service; the kettle, valiantly making more cups of tea than ever; the boiler, which despite huffing and puffing, has kept you all warm as the days get blustery; the window, which shows you a square of sky even when you feel most confined. Alternatively, have a good old rant within your four walls – curse the bookshelf which offers no useful wisdom, or the clock which insists on counting the slow passage of time. Tell the geraniums that you hate their calm composure in a time of plague. Tell the noisy neighbours to stop having sex. Talk to the spiders. By this stage, you may be talking to the spiders anyway.
Consider forms that might suit the subject. If the room feels repetitious or boxy, use a refrain or a boxy shape. If it feels as if the walls are coming in, make each line shorter than its predecessor. If it makes you calm or anxious, play around with sound or speech patterns to convey that feeling.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said the French philosopher Pascal. He was wrong; but we certainly understand the scale of the challenge. If you want to look at someone else’s room, here are a few – but you will never know more about your own. Take your lead from de Maistre: “No obstacle shall hinder our way; and giving ourselves up gaily to Imagination, we will follow her whithersoever it may be her good pleasure to lead us.”
Day 8 of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winningMalika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In September last year, Naomi Shihab Nye wrote an article for the New Yorker which began with the words, “Sometimes a poem just strikes a precise moment. Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Laméris, feels utterly necessary for our time.” That was fourteen months ago. Laméris’ lines “We have so little of each other now. So far/ from tribe and fire” are still more resonant now.
Yesterday I asked you to write about calamity, as if you hadn’t had enough of it already, and today we turn to its antithesis – the acts of kindness, local and often private, which make us feel better. Shakespeare knew their value: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us.
Laméris’ poem reminds us of the thoughtful gestures that we used to see in public (on a good day). During the pandemic, our kindnesses have become both intimate and distant – shopping collected for a neighbour, a parcel of treats from a friend, a socially-distant birthday party in a car park. You might write about those gestures, or draw on something from decades ago. Some kind actions are intimate, others are public. Take credit for those you have done, as well as those which have been done for you (if that makes you uncomfortable, write in the third person). Think especially of acts with a physical dimension. Here a woman bathes her elderly father, as he bathed her in her childhood; here, a mother speaks to the monster under her child’s bed as she settles him to sleep.
Wordsworth wrote about “that best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/ Of kindness and of love.” Some such acts are intended but not carried out; some are misunderstood; some are done anonymously, like the person who hands in a lost wallet, or puts a coffee on credit for the next customer. Clumsy ones still count – the grumpy old man who does a good deed with bad grace, the child who makes breakfast in bed for mum and destroys the toaster. All of the poems I link to today can be found in a collection called Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, which you can read in full here.
Like most expressions of appreciation, this topic could be cloyingly trite; but that shouldn’t debar us from writing about it. The fact that such actions stay in one’s memory for years, testifies to their importance. You can refresh the subject, for instance, by writing as a spectator, not a participant. ANd if you are really stuck for a kind deed to write about, watch this video of wholesome moments. Sometimes even clickbait can warm the cockles of our hearts.
We are one week into lockdown #2 in England, and also into our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winningMalika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a pandemic on. You probably don’t want to write about it, and you don’t have to. Sit this one out altogether if you need to; but bear with me, there is potential for joy even here. I give you the theme of cataclysm. Tomorrow and in the following days we turn to gentler things. Today, you might find a way to approach the present epidemic – but you might instead tap into a historic disaster to explore turmoil at a safe distance. You could even presage a future catastrophe, to make a parable of climate change or growing dictatorship.
First, choose your cataclysm. The obvious contender is this pandemic, but (oh joy!) there is no shortage of others to choose from, both natural and human-made. Stay away from actual war on this occasion, if you will. There is a ready supply of pestilence,flood, revolution, tsunami, explosions,extinctions, wildfires and massacres. These are vast subjects, and you might want to lessen their daunting scale by focusing on one incident. So, not the whole biblical flood, but the moment Noah looks at the rising waters and says ‘right lads, cast off’; not the whole hurricane, but the moment of total calm as the eye passes over.
Consider setting your poem before or after your chosen disaster. How did it begin? What was happening one ordinary day in Pompeii, when Vesuvius began to smoke – or in Stoke-on-Trent a year ago, before Covid? Looking at the aftermath of a catastrophe can show both its impact and thepotential for recovery. The sea levels rise, and Edinburgh becomes an aquarium; the sun rises on London after the Great Fire to reveal odd survivals, new vistas across the city.
You may wish to get your bleak on; and who can blame you? Show how the present plague has laid waste our high streets. Give Hurricane Katrina a wicked voice of her own. But wherever there are humans, there is humanity. The flooded farmer rows across her fields to a neighbour’s window; Californians hastily dig a ditch to save one house from wildfire. Find one diamond in the ash. Here, of all places, you will want to avoid the big words like hope or fear. In most poems they come across as a lazy shorthand. As someone once said, your job as a writer is not to tell me that it’s raining, but to make me feel the rain on my skin.
We did not choose to be witnesses to this historic calamity; but since we’re here, we can look for joy even in this, as Rupi Kaur does. We can try to praise the mutilated world.
Day 6 of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winningMalika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
In my twenties, I fell in love with a splendid, attractive and funny young man. On our first Christmas Day together, he gave me an unusually shaped gift. It looked something like a beautifully wrapped colander. I opened it carefully, thinking it might be a hand-blown glass bowl or a musical instrument.
Reader, it was a colander. As colanders go, it was lovely: shiny steel, nicely made and, as he indignantly said, a fine example of design. It was not, however, the gift a 25-year old woman expects from her lover. We are still friends, and now I understand how interested he is in design – but Jonnie, what were you thinking of?
Your theme today is gifts. Not the intangible ones that you inherit from your ancestors, like perfect pitch or a bad temper; not the metaphorical ones, like the gift of freedom from an abusive partner; but the actual, physical sort. Some, like that colander, are surprising, but show you something touching about the giver. You may be the giver yourself, delivering the present with instructions. Some gifts are handmade with great care – the delicate lace shawl for a christening, the ghastly jumper that Aunty Mina expects you to wear every winter. Some are simple, but loaded with complex meaning: others are well-intentioned disasters (another pair of slippers, the slinky red underwear you hate). Some are valuable in monetary terms, but meant nothing to the giver. Some might be sinister, misjudged or malicious – the macho books given to a gay teenager, the make-up kits given to a girl who asked for books. Some create a dilemma – oh goodness, I only got her a box of chocolates and she’s bought me a flatscreen TV!
So – gifts. Even the most prosaic can be a rich source: if you doubt that, see what Pablo Neruda did with a gift of handmade socks. Show us the gift itself, and try to resist telling us how the giver or the recipient felt; show us instead. Did their voice shake with laughter or tears? Did they put it immediately in the bin or re-gift it to someone who found the old name-tag on it? The gift will do what the ostensible subject of any poem does – it will stand for something else. It shows a relationship between two people, and it is tied up with tangled associations. You are sufficiently far from Christmas to write this poem well, without fear – and even to embed inside it a cautionary tale for those currently writing their Christmas lists.
Day 5 of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winningMalika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
When you catch the first scent of a theme for your poem, a number of ways to approach it come to mind. Some of them feel clichéd. That is a good sign, because it means you are reading enough poetry to recognise a cliché. Don’t let it put you off. Poetry has a head start of about 4000 years on you, so the chances of you thinking of a whole new approach are slim. You can, however, take some time to think around a subject, and consider it from different angles.
Today’s subject, in fact, is difference itself. ‘Difference’ suggests a relationship between things, in the very act of distinguishing them from one another. One of them is larger, or deadlier, or more prone to hiccups. One of them is your mother’s recipe, and the other your own. One is a cat, and the other a quantum physicist. I’m a pink toothbrush, you’re a blue toothbrush. He’s a Hutu, you’re a Tutsi. And then there are completely different organisms to ourselves. It’s one of the largest possible themes, but here are a few routes into it.
Consider differences brought by time. Has a familiar street changed since your childhood/ the beginning of the pandemic/ the result of the election? Have attitudes changed to your sexuality, or faith? What did your town look like in 1066 – your own face in 1996 – or how did your best friend change over several months, as illness/ pregnancy/ scholarship consumed her? The difference of one place from another matters too. The comfort food of your first family, and of your current one; the dialect, the weather, the architecture in two places. The houses of the rich differ from the houses of the poor in the same village. The differences between people are a rich seam, asthis little jewel from Wendy Cope shows. Your partner washes up in a different order to you: one of your neighbours is Jamaican, the other a redneck. Some people pick up litter, and others throw it out of a moving car. Some people know what it’s like, to be called a c*nt in front of their children, and some don’t.
If these are emotive themes, look at it from a different angle. First-person phrases like I wondered if, I remember that, I have a feeling that, are often unnecessary and can predispose you to misty-eyed reminiscence. One can always step out of the limelight, and into the third person; he wondered if, she remembers that, they have a feeling that… This little trick is an emotional safety catch, enabling you to write about the difference between family members, or Trump and Biden, without using I.
No matter how heteronormative or downright freakish you are, your readership will find something in their own experience to chime with it. I, for instance, am not a gay American man in a locker room – but Tony Hoagland once was, and had that in mind when he wrotethis poem, which explores both difference and the things held in common. The best poem about difference is of course, the most famous. Take your own path, and take comfort from Bukowski’s assertion: the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck.
This is Day 4 of lockdown in England, and of our poetry writing project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here on my blog every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10 and lasts for the duration of this particular lockdown. Join at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
On 11th August 1999, for reasons I won’t go into here, I was being chased across a heather moor in North Yorkshire by 20,000 newly released bees and a farmer on a quad bike. Fortunately for me, this was the very date and time of a significant solar eclipse. The sun dimmed, and the bees simply stopped. The birdsong, the sheep bleating; every natural noise stopped. The eclipse began. The farmer went home. It was all very odd.
Your prompt today is stop. What comes to my mind is that peculiar experience of eclips, but what associations does it have for you? Think about what might stop, and how. A clock; a heart; gunfire; ceasefire; the factory siren; pub culture; the shouting of a schizophrenic neighbour or the barking of his dog. A political prisoner or anorexic teen stops eating. The talking stops, and you understand that the first kiss is about to happen; or a black citizen under arrest says ‘Stop, I can’t breathe’. Your choice might be an imperative stop: stop chewing your nails, stop looking at my breasts, stop spreading the virus, Stop Sniffling, stop right there!
Stopping is not necessarily the same as ending. Stopping implies that something was actively in motion, and is now still or silent. Did it stop immediately, or in small increments so that you didn’t notice at first? Perhaps your car crawled to a stop, abandoning you in rural Wisconsin. Perhaps you stopped believing in God at one specific moment.
A poem doesn’t have to tell the whole story, and is usually more interesting if it doesn’t. Concentrate on the momentary pause – not the urgent rescuscitation, the mended car, the reappearance of the sun. Most of these are implicit anyway. Edward Thomas famously described a perfectly ordinary moment of stoppage, and made it immortal. What happened during your stop? What did you hear, feel, smell?
Punctuation and line breaks are useful tools here. Feel free to disrupt or break up. See what happens if you start with fast, short vowel sounds – click, pernickety, snap – and start to stretch them into long sounds like brake, thrown, acre. You needn’t include the word STOP, just bring in the idea. If this prompt doesn’t trigger an immediate action, just sit with it for a few hours and just turn it over in your head to see what comes. Sometimes an idea is cooking in your subconscious, and doesn’t want to present itself until it’s ready. Then write the poem; and…… stop.
This is Day 3 of lockdown in England, and day 3 of our poetry writing project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here on my blog every day, and free: access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10 and lasts for the duration of this particular lockdown.
I thought twice about offering up this subject so early in our project. It is riddled with booby traps. The road to hell is paved, in this case, with saccharine and well-intentioned phrases like ‘Oh Mr Carruthers, I couldn’t have done it without you.’ What the hell; here it is anyway. Today’s mission is to express thanks. Just now, it does no harm to acknowledge the good in the world.
As writers, we are constantly learning new ways to handle the feelings that can overwhelm a poem. We want to express emotion and work on the reader’s emotions, without being mawkish or self-indulgent. That kind of tenderness without sentimentality is a hard trick to pull off. Example: many years ago, my mum was strapped for cash after a difficult divorce. Her father offered to pay for a holiday in Spain, for her and the children. She refused, seeing it as a question of dignity, until he gave her a compelling argument. “Do you not realise,” he said, “how much it would mean to me that I can help my own child in this way?” We were thankful for the holiday, and for the lesson that receiving, as well as giving, can be an act of kindness.
You see the difficulty? Already this sounds like an episode of the Waltons – and my family, I promise you, are not like the Waltons. I haven’t yet found a way to write this story without hearing the sound of tiny violins in the background. If the thanks you have in mind are likely to land in that sort of register, then tread carefully lest you fall into a pit of honey.
How to work it, then? Strip the poem of obvious statements of emotion. Frisk it for pesky abstracts like grateful, kind, generous – concentrate instead on showing us the act that earned the thanks, and the physical gestures – a glance, a handshake – that expressed it. Resist, resist the urge to make your piece too complete by adding a bow at the end – no ‘and I have never forgotten your act of kindness’ or ‘I think of you every time I eat a sausage roll.’ You don’t have to actually say THANK YOU – though this one by Ross Gay does, and this one by WS Merwin does it repeatedly (eliciting this response). You can take your thanks to a higher plane by talking with God, like Kaveh Akhbar here, or this sassy and empowering piece by Kaylin Haught.
Your thanks may be tinged with sarcasm. The instructor on my advanced driving course told us that women never reverse into parking spaces ‘because they need to leave space for the shopping trolley, am I right?’ and I still thank him as I reverse into the tightest spaces, purely to spite him. Another poet might thank the bully who taught them the value of speaking up, or the Twitter troll who drove them to discover the MUTE button. Thank just one American voter for voting Biden in; thank your greengrocer for always remembering that you like kiwi fruit. You will have someone in mind. Give it your best shot. And…. thank you.
Welcome to Day 2 of a new lockdown poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. Every day of the current lockdown in England, there will be a prompt here which anyone can use as a starting point for writing a poem. Use it for free, to spark off your writing process. If you want to join our closed Facebook group to share work in progress, and to offer feedback on others’ poems, there is a £10 fee – you can sign up via PayPal at the bottom of this page. It’s a lively forum, but private so that your work remains unpublished.
By the time you read this, we should know the result of the US election. As I write, it is unresolved. Millions of people are on tenterhooks, waiting to see what the polls say and what Donald Trump says in response. In real life, as in murder mystery novels, suspense has a powerful hold on an audience. In life we want a quick resolution, but in poetry we might gain traction with a partial reveal – a slow-emerging narrative which may, in fact, never quite resolve. Have a look at Robert Graves’ splendid comic piece, Welsh Incident, which starts mid-sentence and finishes mid-story. We’re open-mouthed, eager to hear the ending that never comes. A very different poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Moose , uses a journey to build a solemn sense that something is about to happen.
In poetry, as in strip tease, you can reveal too much too soon. Think about subjects which lend themselves to a slow, tantalising build-up of tension. A seduction, a civil war? Any wanted or dreaded event brings that feeling of need to know: a pregnancy test, a biopsy, an exam result or a marriage proposal. A Covid-19 test. A car crash.
Perhaps, though, this trick is still more useful when worked the other way round – turning a familiar story into a surprise. Too often the poet knows how the story ends, and the reader can guess. Could you write about an important moment in your life by leading us slowly to a denouement? Think about the ways of doing this. You could save a revelation till the end of the poem, without foreshadowing it. Some of you will know this poem by Elizabeth Barrett (not the Victorian writer but the contemporary one) in which a seemingly ordinary day turns out to have great significance. In my own poem Crates I lead you off at a tangent, before heading back to the main point. In both of these poems, the final phrase sends you back to rifle through earlier lines for clues.
In the Anglo-Saxon story poem Beowulf, we’re constantly led back and forward as our hero battles the monster Grendel, so that we can’t tell what will happen next. Here’s a bit of Seamus Heaney’s translation:
So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, descended from Cain’s clan, began to work his evil in the world.
What will happen next? Come to the mead hall tomorrow night, lads, to find out. And bring a bottle for the bard. Suspense allows us to delay gratification in the poem, and keep the reader engaged.
So: think about stories in your life with an element of suspense, or stories you know so well that they need refreshing. How will you build that sense of tension – by showing it only from one point of view so that the whole picture can’t be seen until the end? By having an unreliable narrator who lies about what happened? A reluctant confession, an interrupted narrative, a slow accumulation of facts, a determined focus on something just over there until you have to confront what is really happening?
This prompt is a little slippery and subtle; but if you try to write a poem that incorporates suspense, rather than giving everything away early, then you are on the right track. As ever, take the side roads if they look more interesting, and see where you end up.
Welcome to a new poetry project from Jo Bell, called Try to Praise the Mutilated World (TPMW). Look at yesterday’s post to see how it works, or if you have ten minutes watch this video. In brief: every day of the English lockdown there will be a prompt here, encouraging you to write new work. Write in private, or share your work in our closed Facebook group (here) where we comment on one another’s poems and have weekly Zoom readings. You can join this group for a one-off fee of £10, using the PayPal button right at the bottom of this page.
We start with a seasonal burn. On November 5th 1605, a maniac called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament. We celebrate this in the UK, perversely, by lighting public bonfires and setting off fireworks. We call it Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes’ Night (depending on how the election count is going, American readers may sympathise with Guy Fawkes.) This year we can’t do that, in England at least, because we are confined to quarters by the pandemic. Are we daunted? Yes, we bloody well are. Many of us are feeling fragile, worn and wary; others are primed like fireworks. This blog hopes to spark off a blaze of new poetry and community, which will keep us warm and keep us together.
In your poem today – whatever form it takes, however long it is – light a fire. Fire can be destructive, indiscriminate, dangerous – but it also gives off heat and light. It clears away the rubbish and old growth, and leaves a dark space in which exotic things can germinate. What do you want to burn away? Who do you want to keep warm? Good writing begins with good reading, so have a look here at a handful of historic poems about fire, including John Donne’s account of sailors jumping from a burning ship or Emily Dickinson’s succinct ‘Ashes denote where fire was’. Or join Malika Booker and ‘Start shout more fire, more fire‘, in her majestic account of Lazarus rising from the dead here.
The fire you write about might be a cosy domestic hearth, a childhood campfire or a gardener’s bonfire. Then again, you could be an arsonist, a zealot like Guy Fawkes, torching something that has hurt you. Light your fire slowly in the back yard and watch it alone. Light a candle and offer up a prayer – or put torch to beacon, burn a statement onto the White House lawn, start off a righteous explosion in your ex-husband’s bedroom. Will it start slowly, with a single match and a few sheets of discarded poetry because you have lost faith in writing – or are you going to put a bomb underneath your Covid-quiet street, and set fireworks off to celebrate in spite of everything?
The fire in your poem might be a real and remembered one, or one that exists only in your mind. You might, for instance, build a pyre fuelled with all the things we’ve lost this year. Those clothes that don’t fit any more because you’ve been eating doughnuts since March; the idea of western democracy; the empty photo album that should have had your holiday pictures; the plans for Christmas, the wedding guest list you couldn’t use this summer; burn them all, and wail. It could equally well be a positive, cleansing burn. Make it a bonfire of the vanities; watch the flames curl around those office clothes you don’t wear now, the minutes of meetings you don’t have to attend, the things that don’t seem important any more.
Keep it physical. Show your reader where this fire is happening – the smell, the sound, the furnishings or natural features of its environment. How does the light move, and what does it show or conceal? The heat from your fire could scorch, but then again it might fuel a glassmaker’s furnace, a crucible for change, the stove to cook a meal for absent friends. Whether it is a scorching wildfire that lights the sky twenty miles away, or a bed of coals for the faithful to walk across, make it real. Choose your verbs carefully – a fire can destroy and consume, but it can also spark and illuminate. What hurts, as poets know well, can also clear the ground.
If you don’t quite know what to do with this prompt, just start writing and see where it takes you. Use whatever memories of fire come to mind – wood smoke, bomb sites, industrial furnaces. A part of writing is making friends with the overwhelm, and seeing if you can snatch a little sense out of formlessness. Light the blue touch paper, and stand well back; then gather round. Today we start a fire.
Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.
This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.
In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now work alongside people all over the world. We can share music or articles; we can work around commitments in our own, too-familiar homes.
Marianne Moore wrote about imaginary gardens with real toads in them; we’re going to build an imaginary community with real poets in it. It’s going to be a safe, vital and vibrant space, powered by the creative friction that happens when hundreds of writers get together to make something happen. You will come out of this, and you will come out of it with a sheaf of new poems.
The main part of this programme is FREE for everyone, and you are already in the right place. Every day there will be a poetry writing prompt, which anyone can access right here at jobell.org.uk. Any one who writes poetry or who wants to will find something useful in this. There will be poems to read or listen to, there will be ideas to work from, and they aren’t too prescriptive. There is no talk of syllable counts or the Petrarchan sonnet. There is no talk of ‘what poetry is’ – there are many other sites to explore that. My aim is that you will go off-piste; use the daily prompt as a starting point, and see where it takes you.
We will be building a Spotify playlist to accompany us, so if you have the Spotify app on your computer or phone, you’ll be able to hear what others are listening to as they write. Sometimes it will be calming – sometimes a kick up the arse to get you going in the morning – sometimes it will be the Brighouse and Rastrick band playing the Floral Dance. Sorry.
So far, so free. There is an added-value version – a Tier 2, if you like. That costs £10 – no matter when you join during the month – which goes towards my time, and to paying other poets who might be involved. This kind of project takes a lot of time to do well. I’m a working poet; writing the prompts and running an online community which feels safe, kind and purposeful is time consuming. So, if you contribute £10, you can join the private Facebook group which I moderate. It’s named after the project – Try to Praise the Mutilated World.
The group is not just a general chat space, it’s a workshop space. It’s a place where you can (if you want) post new poems, written in response to these prompts. You’ll also be reading other people’s poems, which is a superb way to see how many different minds can approach the same issue. And we can all comment on one another’s work in progress, giving the feedback that helps good writers to hone their writing.
Many of you already know how useful this is, and how much it can help to develop your skills as a poet, because you took part in my 52 project a few years ago. To you, I say – welcome back and thank you! You already know how rewarding and productive this kind of community can be, and your help will be essential to make this work. I’m relying on you old hands to show the newcomers around this online village.
For those of you who are completely new to this, WELCOME all the more. It’s a fantastic way to develop as a poet. Posting a poem in an online group is a small act of courage; it gives you a chance to share work in progress, and to see how others are handling the same material. It’s a closed Facebook group, so your work will remain unpublished and invisible to anyone outside of it. The fact that the project ends in a month gives us a useful deadline, and a shared sense of purpose.
The other thing that your tenner gets you is a weekly Zoom reading, by me or others, of poems that relate to the prompts. I’ll be guided by you on when the best time is to do this – at present I’m thinking that Sunday evenings might be good, but once the Facebook group is open (tomorrow, Thursday 5th November) I’ll take advice on what day might work best.
Who can join? Is this only for poets?
Anyone who wants to write better poetry, from beginners to experts. It is poets only – get your own friends, prose writers! That’s only because my expertise is in poetry, and it keeps the group tightly focused with a single purpose. The joy of a group like this is the chemistry that happens when experienced poets and beginners work together and give each other time. My style of running a group like this has been called ‘robust kindness’, ‘gentle bossiness’ or ‘power-crazed mania’; what I aim to do is steer the group, and stop us all wandering off topic.
How do I join?
For the free stuff, you’re already there. Every day there will be a new prompt here at jobell.org.uk. For the workshop group and Zoom readings, you need to pay £10 via a link which will appear here just as soon as I figure out how to do it. Then you request to join the group, which is on Facebook and called Try to Praise the Mutilated World. I’m afraid there is no reduction if you join us a little later; it’s a one-off fee.
Do I have to be on Facebook to join the workshop group?
Yes you do. Facebook is not for everyone, but it’s a good platform for most people. It’s free, it’s easy for me to moderate and for others to contribute to, so it’s the best option.
Do I have to have Zoom to see the weekly live readings?
Yes, you do. Not everyone likes it – but you will need to install the (free) Zoom app on your computer to join the weekly readings. Each one will be less than 40 minutes long, so you only need the free version. If you don’t know how to install it, ask a teenager.
What can we post in the Facebook group?
One thing: the poem you wrote in response to the prompt. You don’t have to write every day – this is not Poetry Boot Camp. If you do write, you don’t have to share your work. But if you do, be sure to start your post with the words ‘Prompt 2’ or ‘Prompt 5’ etc, so that people know which prompt you’re writing to (because sometimes, people will post a poem days after the original prompt, when everyone else is thinking about another one!) No, you are not expected to produce a finished piece within 24 hours – post what you can, when you like.
It’s a poetry community, but it’s not the place to share interesting articles, poetry memes or links to your own events. Keeping it focused on our new poems is what will make this work.
What happens when I post a poem?
When you post a poem, other people in the group can comment on it underneath (if they don’t, remember that this too is a kind of feedback). You probably won’t just get 35 comments saying ‘this is lovely!’. You’ll get courteous, constructive critique and suggestions. The most useful comment is often the one that you don’t want to hear; try not to be defensive. You don’t need to explain yourself, or respond to all comments. Remember that you can just ignore any or all of the suggestions made.
Any guidelines for commenting on poems?
You do not have to comment on every poem you see. Life is short, and there may be hundreds. This is a creative activity, not a job. Comment on poems that move you, or that you can help to improve. Try to be specific and always be COURTEOUS.
Very occasionally, someone will say something foolish or hot-headed. In this group, I will delete those comments. There will be no court of appeal.
I am only one person. I’m setting aside time for this project, every day, and making it part of my paid workload. Try to remember that I have other work, and I won’t be able to reply to private messages asking for feedback or other kinds of conversation. I say this only because the last time I did something like this, there were hundreds of people in the group – and I often got late-night messages asking for personal feedback, intervention or counselling. So if I police this group carefully, that’s to keep it as a safe space for everyone at a time when we all feel a little fragmented and fragile; and to ringfence my own private time. Forgive me!
This is not a revival of the 52 project, but a new community with a new purpose. Our aim is to write well, to write together, and to help each other, as poets, through this insane and curious period of history. We write because it’s who we are. This time, we write as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.
First prompt tomorrow – with details of how to pay, for those who want to join the Facebook group. Take a deep breath; and come on in.
Sometimes when you’re commissioned to write a poem, it’s a mixed blessing. Poetry isn’t copywriting; if you can’t believe in the thing you’re writing about, it will sound fake. In poetry (as in sex) you can fake it, but the other party will know.
But this was different. When the Nationwide asked me to join their new advertising campaign, I expected the usual patter – ‘We are passionate about financial products’ etc. Instead, I found myself talking to people who really believe in the company. Having spent this week at the Nationwide’s conference with colleagues from The Poetry Takeaway, I can confirm that the people who work there seem to love it. They liked my poem too.
Many people have said that they like the idea of ‘the currency of kindness’. The poem was written the day after Donald Trump was elected. Kindness seemed especially necessary and especially valuable on that day, and we surely need it more than ever now.
Not all of my poems are about building societies, in fact only one of them is. Many of them are about friendship,some are about living on a boat, and quite a few are on relationships with all their delights and difficulties. My poetry book Kith is available here. If you’re keen to develop a poetry habit yourself, then you might enjoy my best-selling work book 52: Write a Poem a Week, which does what it says on the tin.