A Writer’s Advent – Day 31

On being unpleasant – and a new project for 2023

It’s the last entry in A Writer’s Advent, and it comes with deep thanks to all of the poets, novelists, dramatists and others who have given us so much good advice throughout December. Here’s the last tip, from me, with a plug for my new project. I do hope you’ll support it, because it will allow me to do more things like this. More on that below.

I’ve been building online poetry communities for a long time. Now, in 2023, I want to build something large, lively and enduring. This time I’m using Patreon, a simple subscriber service. I want it to be very low cost at your end, so that anyone can join. For £3 per month (which you can cancel any time), you get content delivered to your inbox every month.

The Poetic Licence (sorry, US friends, for the English-English spelling) will give you a monthly poetry prompt full of ideas, poems and suggestions, like the ones you may have seen in 52 or Try to Praise the Mutilated World. There will be giveaways, competitions, video tips… The more subscribers, the more I’ll be able to offer. I hope that we’ll soon be adding a closed feedback group, and online workshops for subscribers. The Poetic Licence will be the spine and heart of my practice in 2023 and beyond. Join me if you can; and whatever the new year brings, I hope it brings good things for you and your writing.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 30

Sarah Jasmon – channeling Nike at the gym

Our penultimate writer’s tip is from novelist, lecturer, boat dweller, weight lifter and (clearly) capable role-juggler, Sarah Jasmon. I don’t know anyone who makes better use of their time to squeeze in writing, work, personal stuff and other components of a life well lived.

Sarah’s most recent novel, You Never Told Me, can be found here. Poets think of 45 lines as a long piece of work, so I’m astonished by how novelists can hold plot, narrative and character in their minds and work doggedly towards a finished piece of 90,000 words. Sarah’s short video gives us an insight into how it’s done – and as she speaks quietly into the camera in a gym changing room, she makes her point clearly. Carpe diem, writers. And don’t go out in the cold with wet hair.

Just do it, eh? It’s a great thought to carry with us into the new year. Find Sarah on Twitter and Instagram, or on a towpath somewhere in the north of England.

It’s been a joy to share the words and ideas of my favourite writers here in the past month. There have been gems, surprises, giggles and moments of recognition, plus a lot of really good nuts-and-bolts advice. I hope you’ve enjoyed them all. They will remain here for you to watch again whenever you like. The final entry in A Writer’s Advent will be from me tomorrow, closing down 2022 and looking forward to 2023; when I hope you’ll join me at The Poetic Licence, my new subscription for those who want a monthly prompt and poem.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 29

Giselle Leeb – write from the outside in

Giselle Leeb is a writer of fantastical, thought provoking fiction and the assistant editor of Reckoning, a journal of writing about environmental justice. Her debut collection of short stories, Mammals, I Think We Are Called is published by Salt: hear her reading from it here.

Like me, Giselle is a fan of Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing. It has much good advice in it for poets, as well as longer-form writers.  I particularly like his maxim, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Giselle starts from a different point to give us her hint:

Follow Giselle Leeb on Twitter, or buy her book here. We’re in the last few days of A Writer’s Advent, which ends on New Year’s Eve. If you want to hear from me monthly, with a poetry prompt of the sort that hundreds have found vital to their practice, then sign up for The Poetic Licence which begins in January.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 28

Kate Noakes on unsticking yourself

Kate Noakes is a prolific poet who has more poetry books under her belt than most of us – she is about to rack up number eight. Published variously by Eyewear, Parthian and Seren, her new collection Goldhawk Road sees her returning to Reading’s Two Rivers Press. It’s out in February: pre-order it here.

Kate is also a great traveller, and her contribution to A Writer’s Advent is a low-resolution, high-quality tip filmed in Thailand a few weeks ago. If you want to know how she manages to keep producing new poems given the challenges of work, travel and other obstacles in life – it’s partly because she knows how to unstick herself. Here’s one method:

Keep an eye on Kate’s Twitter or Facebook feeds to learn more about the forthcoming book. And do subscribe to my new project The Poetic Licence if you want to get a monthly poetry prompt and a poem to discuss, starting in January 2023.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 27

Why doesn’t poetry rhyme nowadays?

Indulge me. Today’s tip is barely a tip – although there is one, buried in this short clip. It’s more of an exasperated reply to the single question poets are asked again and again. It is asked by sincere people who love poetry of a particular kind, and who are honestly mystified to find that it is seldom published nowadays.

I understand that appetite. Good poetry with strong rhymes and rhythms can stay in the mind and the heart for a lifetime. But so does the other stuff, if you let it in.

As a supplement, I add that the poetry you learned at school reflects the times in which you went to school. We need poetry to approach or confront us in more than one voice; we need to hear from people unlike ourselves in their experience of nationality, race, sexuality and justice. Some of our old favourites will have to make way for those voices, if poetry at school is to reflect the world that readers will find outside the school gates.

The Writer’s Advent will continue until New Year’s Eve; after that, if you want a monthly hit of prompts and poems, you need to sign up for The Poetic License. I hope you will!


A Writer’s Advent – Day 26

Jonathan Davidson on fresh air and sticks

I don’t remember exactly when I met Jonathan Davidson, but he is one of my favourite people in the world, and a light to navigate by in my landscape of friends. He is wise and selfless and funny, and will like me saying so but pretend to hate it. He often hides his own light under a bushel, saving the limelight for his excellent writer development work with Writing West Midlands; but his poetry and radio dramas are thoughtful, experimental, understated and large in scope. Jonathan is a great advocate of listening to poetry, as well as reading it; an internationalist, with a keen interest in Eastern European poetry; and a generous supporter of others in their own writing endeavours.

His tip is a simple, short and refreshing one – perfect if you’re trapped under a pile of mince pies, with a mulled wine hangover and a house full of relatives.

Jonathan’s latest book is A Commonplace: Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems, but all of his books are wonderful, including this strange and joyous sequence of poems about a missing Tudor squire in search of WiFi. He’s on Twitter and Facebook.

In case you missed this announcement, The Writer’s Advent will now continue until New Year’s Eve, so there is plenty more to come.. After that, of course, you will want to sign up for monthly prompts from my new project, The Poetic License. Now get your coat on, and go in search of sticks.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 25

Ailsa Holland on writing and caring

Merry Christmas, dear writer. You are a writer. You are also a family member, a child or parent, a carer, a person who has Other Stuff to deal with. You worry that you won’t get time to write; you feel guilty if you do find time to write. We know. We get it. All of this stuff may come to a head at times like this, when you’re immersed in your other life.

Today’s fairy on top of the writerly Christmas tree is poet, publisher, and my dear friend and co-author, Ailsa Holland. Her great mind applies itself to all kinds of creative, activist and social projects; and her great heart applies itself constantly to the business of family life, with all its responsibilities and pleasures. Her tip today (from out-of-print book Taking Reality by Surprise) is one that all writers should take to heart, in the chaos and tinsel of Christmas Day.

The pamphlet she waves here is her risograph-printed collection Twenty Four Miles Up, available by emailing moormaidpress@gmail.com. Ailsa and I (with co-conspirator Tania Hershman) are also the authors of On This Day She, an almanac featuring a noteworthy woman from history for every day of the year.

A Writer’s Advent will carry on until New Year’s Eve, and my new project, The Poetic Licence, will begin in January 2023. Sign up for £3 a month to get a vivid, stimulating poetry prompt and a poem to make you think, wonder or grimace. It supports my work, and gives you something to navigate by in your writing life. Now, whatever you do on Christmas Day, go and do it with a glass of sherry in one hand. I send you all good wishes for the holiday.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 24

Jo Bell – the initiating subject, and the real one

Over the past three weeks, you’ve heard from many different writers about their favourite quotes or source books. One of mine is The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo. “I don’t know why we do it. We must be crazy. Welcome, fellow poet” he says. It’s full of useful insights into writing and teaching poetry.

For me, the one that chimed most clearly with my experience is explained in the video. The thing you think you’re writing about, may just be a way in: as I often say, your job as a poet is to get out of the damn way and let the poem come through.

A Writer’s Advent will not stop tomorrow, like a proper advent calendar. I’ve had loads of great submissions from writers I wanted to include, so we will carry on until New Year’s Eve. After that, of course, you will want to sign up for my new project The Poetic Licence, which will give you a prompt and a poem to react to every month. Or perhaps you fancy a five-week online course with me – in which case, click here.

Now, shouldn’t you be wrapping presents?


A Writer’s Advent – Day 23

Helen Cross on the meaning beneath the meaning

If you’re a Radio 4 listener, Helen Cross‘s name may sound familiar, because you’ve heard it in the credits of more than one afternoon drama. You may not have realised that she is the author of My Summer of Love, now a BAFTA-award winning film starring Emily Blunt. You can hear Helen’s five-part audio drama English Rose here.

In short, she knows what she is talking about when it comes to plot, narrative, character development and all the things that keep the reader reading, or the listener listening. Helen is a writer to her core, and her tip will keep you focused on your real purpose as you write:

Helen Cross also runs an excellent five-week Zoom course on how to write for radio, which I’ve done myself and can vouch for. The next course takes place in February, and is to be found here: not too late to buy it for a last-minute Christmas present? Or sign up for her newsletter, with details of other courses here.

If you’re enjoying A Writer’s Advent and you want to a) support me b) support your own writing practice, sign up for my new monthly prompt service, The Poetic Licence at a princely £3 per month.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 22

Cat Weatherill on helping your future self

Yesterday, Jill Abram told us to bop the internal editor on the nose: but once you’ve got past that troublesome figure and put some words down on paper or a screen, then you will definitely need to revisit them with an editorial eye. This tip from Cat Weatherill takes you to that next stage.

Cat is a mesmeric storyteller and author. Whatever she writes is driven by the old, old instinct to tell a tale. Her tip, however, is fresh and practical. It’s particularly useful for those of you writing in long form, like novelists. This hack is a great and insightful way to accommodate the bad days that all writers have, without fear that they will drag down the quality of the finished object. Here she is to explain:

Find Cat on Facebook or Instagram; and find her books here.

If you’re enjoying A Writer’s Advent; if you miss my earlier poetry communities like 52 and Try to Praise the Mutilated World, which changed the writing lives of hundreds; or if you just want a creative kickstart every month starting in January, please sign up to The Poetic Licence, my new subscriber-only stream.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 21

Jill Abram on defeating the internal editor

Jill Abram is the quiet, determined force behind many of the UK’s best poetry events. With years of experience as a studio manager for BBC Radio, she has the dogged attention to detail that make her interviews and panel events polished and professional. Until recently she managed Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, the London collective founded by Malika Booker and Roger Robinson, which has nurtured many of the UK’s best known talents.

Oh, and she’s a poet. Obviously. Her pamphlet Forgetting My Father will be out with Broken Sleep Books in May 2023. Here is Jill’s tip, which you’ll find reassuring because – like every other writer in the world – you know all about that pesky internal editor.

Find more about Jill on her website here, or sign up to her monthly newsletter. She’s on Twitter and Instagram too.

If you’re enjoying A Writer’s Advent, and you want a monthly poetry prompt and chosen poem sent to you, here’s my new Patreon page. It helps to make my work sustainable, at very little cost; and it kicks your Muse up the backside once a month. What’s not to like?


A Writer’s Advent – Day 20

Jo Bell on stop-motion writing – and Patreon

Here, from a drowsy me, is one of my favourite writing hacks.

Playing around with different kinds of writing can release all kinds of useful things; but in my case, writing a play only showed me that I really don’t want to write plays. I didn’t get the same creative pleasure out of writing for the stage, that I get from chiselling poetry or non-fiction into the right shape. However, I did take away this very useful piece of advice from dramaturge Kevin Dyer, which I have returned to many times in writing poetry. This, I think, is a tip that works for all kinds of writing.

In other news: today I launch my Patreon account. This is a soft launch (which means that I expect you to bear with me for a few days while I get used to the platform, and bugger things up every now and then). Patreon is a subscription service; you pay a small subscription, and you get content that only subscribers see. The money supports projects like A Writer’s Advent, which are useful to writers, without taking lots of money from individuals. It keeps a personal relationship between me and the people who use my prompts – and it allows me to respond to what subscribers are most interested in.

There will be more tiers and more content as time goes on. For now, here’s the deal: subscribe for £3 per month, and get a monthly poetry prompt from me – in the style that you may know from the 52 project (now a bestselling book), or from lockdown project Try to Praise the Mutilated World. My prompts are deep and wide and as challenging as you want them to be. They aim to release your own memories, your own stories, your own political or personal insights. You also get a poem that will keep you thinking, and show you something more about technique. Think of the prompt and poem together, as a monthly shot of Red Bull for the Muse.

If you want to begin this new chapter of poetry making with me, then find my Patreon channel, The Poetic Licence, here. If you are buying a subscription for a friend or partner, put their email address in – and let me know so that I can send a downloadable gift certificate. It’s early days, but I hope this will grow into something permanent, nourishing and really exciting for the poetry community.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 19

Bex Sherwood on delivering your work in public

One of the most professional outfits in poetry at the moment is Edinburgh’s I Am Loud Productions, who hosted me in Edinburgh and Dundee earlier this year – click here to see my infamous duck poem, recorded by them in Dundee. One of the team is the splendid Bex Sherwood, who demonstrates in this video the production skills that make that team so special. Whether or not you call yourself a ‘performance poet’ – in fact, if you ever read your work in public at all – you need to hear Bex’s tips for making the best of your moment in the limelight.

Find Bex on Twitter or Facebook – and find the YouTube channel for I Am Loud, with so many fine examples of performers getting it right, here.

And tune in tomorrow, dear writers, for news of a Patreon channel coming soon, from me – which will give you a chance to support me in my own work through 2023, with poems and poetry hacks throughout the year.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 18

Mari Ellis Dunning – stick with it

If there is one thing better than sound writerly advice, it’s sound writerly advice with a silly hat on and a cute baby in one arm. Thanks then, to Welsh poet and today’s guest, Mari Ellis Dunning, for making the proper seasonal effort. Mari writes poetry, short stories and children’s books.

Mari shares a quote from Sylvia Plath to help you persevere in your writing. Several of our contributors have shared favourite quotes from other writers. If you have a totem quote that you hold in your mind when writing – one that sticks in your mind and informs your writing practice – do let us know in the comments here. Find Mari on Twitter here or on Facebook here.

Buy Mari’s first collection Salacia here, or her new one, Pearl & Bone – exploring motherhood in a pandemic – here.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 17

Kathryn Bevis: one secret and three golden rules

Kathryn Bevis’ poetry is on a roll. Last year’s Hampshire poet laureate, her name has recently appeared in innumerable prize lists and journals. Kathryn’s new short collection Flamingo is a stunner, full of insight and warm humanity. Her video here is a great one too, squeezing in one great secret (which incidentally, I share) and three very useful rules for editing your work. I particularly like the second one.

She also runs The Writing School, an online poetry retreat running digital courses. Find Kathryn on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: or order her pamphlet Flamingo here.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 16

Chaucer Cameron: get clean away from the page

Chaucer Cameron is a thoughtful, experimental presence in poetry world. She is a film maker, who curates and creates poetry films. Her short collection In An Ideal World, I’d Not Be Murdered is a collection of poems in the voices of sex workers in 1980s London. Chaucer often works collaboratively, and she runs online poetry-film workshops and courses. 

Her tip is not just about where she chooses to do her own thinking, but rather about stepping away from the usual writerly environment. You don’t need a desk, a screen, a page: just your own head and a few ideas.

Buy Chaucer’s pamphlet here: find her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 15

Jo Bell on making a good start

In my first ever writers’ group, a novelist friend arrived one afternoon, with the first three chapters of a work in progress. They were full of names, information, backstory and detail. They were, in fact, very boring. We said so as politely as we could. ‘But you need to know this stuff, in order to make sense of chapter four!’ she said. Another member pointed out, ‘We don’t need to read it at all. If it were a book I’d bought, I would have put it down by now.’ Today’s tip is about remembering to start well:

Today I saw a very good opening line in this Tweet: and writing this post has made me remember many others. What’s your favourite first line?

Find me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (where it’s mainly about knitting).


A Writer’s Advent – Day 14

Sean Lusk: stories that want to be novels, and vice versa

One of the best books of 2022 is Sean Lusk’s novel The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley. I have loved every page of this intelligent, lively historical mystery. It’s full of vivid characters and curious automata, set in eighteenth century London and Constantinople. If you like the Essex Serpent, Philippa Gregory, Sarah Waters or Madeline Miller, this will be right up your street. It was a BBC Between the Covers Book Club pick and was the Sunday Times’ Historical Fiction Book of the Month. Here’s Shaun’s advice regarding novels, short stories – and the pitfalls of the sentimental sentence.

Find The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley here: find Sean Lusk on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 13

Bean Sawyer on handling rejection

Bean Sawyer is a poet and craftswoman, whose Welsh hideaway includes ‘the giving tree’ . Here she is, giving some advice on how to get over rejection. Like everyone else, writers dread rejection. Unlike everyone else, we actively seek it out by sending our most precious, exposing works to complete strangers whose good opinion we crave. Here’s Bean on what happens when they say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

Bean is not only a poet, but a stained glass artist. I was very touched to receive this panel from her – full of references to my boat life, my former work in archaeology and specific details from poems of mine. If you want to join her in Cardigan for a stained glass session in February, have a look here. For my own tried, tested and now widely taught method for keeping track of submissions and rejections, look here.


A Writer’s Advent -Day 12

Paul McVeigh – good intentions

Paul McVeigh is a writer full of explosive energy, spilling over with words. Those words have found an outlet in his many award-winning short stories; into his surprising and memorable novel of the Troubles, The Good Son, and lately into a one-man play, Big Man, which featured at the Belfast International Arts Festival. He’s now writing a series of short stories for Radio 4. He’s also a fabulously handy crew member on a narrowboat, as it happens.

Paul’s tip for writers is a thoughtful and wise one, which serves equally well for poets, novelists or short fiction writers. It goes to our basic impulse in creating new work. This, it seems, is the secret of what got him up to write at 5am for years, and which now still drives his work ethic. Here he is to explain it:

It’s been a joy to see him again. While waiting for those Radio 4 stories, do yourself a favour and buy The Good Son; you will see why people have so often booked Paul McVeigh to speak about ‘The Killer First Page.’


A Writer’s Advent – Day 11

Jo Bell – Ian McMillan’s ‘one word’ advice

Today’s video explains a very simple way of looking at a work in progress. It’s one I’ve often used to see my way clear, when struggling with several possible routes through a poem. Tomorrow you’ll hear Paul McVeigh express his surprise (nay, even scepticism) at poets who claim not to know what they’re setting out to write: they just figure it out as they go along. Paul, it’s horribly true for some of us,. That’s part of the magic.

The poem I reference in this clip is Severn, from Purton. You’ll find it in my book Kith, which obviously you are keen to buy for everyone you know this Christmas. While you’re waiting for the delivery, here’s the poem (right) against a backdrop of the lovely pothos plants which have colonised my boat.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 10

Rishi Dastidar on daily writing habits

Rishi Dastidar is one of those poets whose supportive and active presence is felt across the UK poetry community; an editor, a teacher, and a playful writer whose work can be seen from the BBC to the New Scientist, and many other places. Here is one of them. Rishi’s tip belongs to the same school as this piece of advice from Stephen King:

‘Construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.’

Stephen King, On Writing

Rishi’s tip is a classic one, used by many writers to keep their writing tools sharp and ready for use. If you don’t practice it, don’t beat yourself up – it doesn’t mean that you are not a proper writer. But it might just help you to get immediately to work when the opportunity presents itself – with a reservoir of good material immediately to hand.

Rishi Dastidar’s new collection Neptune’s Projects will be out in May 2023. In the meantime you can console yourself with The Craft, the third in the best-selling series of ‘how to’ books from Nine Arches Press. This one brings together many new essays and thoughts on poetry life in the 21st century, under Rishi’s lively editorship.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 9

Holly Hopkins – keep a personal treasure trove

Holly Hopkins has made deep inroads into the UK’s biggest poetry prizewinner lists in recent years. Her first collection The English Summer was shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and you might have seen it named this week as one of the Guardian’s best poetry books of 2022.

Like everyone else, though, she has days when the Muse refuses to get her lazy backside out of bed and do the business. Holly’s tip, therefore, is one of those valuable ‘ways to get started when you’re stuck’ suggestions:

Click on the image to order The English Summer – ‘a lacerating and truly lovely debut’ according to Clare Pollard.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 8

Ninety-one pages of shit: Ernest Hemingway’s magic ratio

My quote today is from Ernest Hemingway, giving robust advice to his friend F Scott Fitzgerald. If you suspect that other writers get it right straight away, while you yourself are hammering out thirty two drafts, you might find it consoling. Admittedly, elsewhere in the same letter Hemingway says, ‘You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time,’ which might have been less encouraging.

I like what he says about the elements that the writer takes out, but which mysteriously survive in the finished piece. I recently went through a poem of mine with a reading group. Readers showed me that the phrases I had taken out really did leave some trace behind. Think of excised words as the bay leaf in your writing – something that adds a bit of flavour, even when removed.

My book with Jane Commane is called How To Be a Poet, not How to Write a Poem, because it tackles subjects that go beyond drafting and editing. We cover public performance, submitting to journals, different approaches to refresh your writing – but we do also give a lot of advice on strengthening your own work. Find it here.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 7

A.F. Harrold on jeopardy at the breakfast table

A.F. Harrold is a very popular children’s writer, whose books include The Imaginary and the Fizzlebert Stump series. His funny, splendid cautionary tales and poems in the tradition of Hilaire Belloc have been illustrated by Emily Gravett, Sarah Horne, Chris Riddell and now, with his Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, by Mini Grey. Here is his tip on how to build a new poem for children – or anyone with an appetite for silliness.

Visit A.F. Harrold’s website here to see all of his books – subscribe to his children’s poetry podcast here – or find him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 6

Natalie Shaw – Being something else

Natalie Shaw is a poet whose quiet, calming voice is like something from an ASMR video. In today’s video she gives poets a quick tip for getting a new perspective. I suspect this would also work for short story writers or even the braver novelist.

The pamphlet Natalie mentions here is out in January from Broken Sleep Books: it includes a space pig and a talking grapefruit segment. If you can’t wait, you can find her poetry in a previous collection, oh be quiet. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books says that it is ‘full of surprising poems which could delight, disturb or knock you sideways.’ She has also recently been working on Medusa and Her Sisters, poems written in reaction to the art of Natalie Sirett.

Find Natalie on Twitter or Facebook.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 5

Jo Bell on the empire of habit

I like a bit of Stoicism, me. My tip today comes from a Roman of that ilk called Publilius Syrus. Like many of our tips here on the Writer’s Advent, this one is about giving your usual writing practice a slight, refreshing jiggle to see if new things come out of it.

Speaking of habit, if you want to get into the habit of writing a poem a week, you’ll be in good company. My online workshop group 52 did just that, becoming a global cult and generating a great many new books, MA enrolments, and improvements in the work of hundreds of poets.

The workbook (containing all 52 prompts, and a fine selection of contemporary poetry to illustrate them) is a bestseller. A lot of people buy it to start writing more poems at the beginning of the year. Think of it as a gym subscription for the Muse. Click on the image to buy it.

Find Jo Bell on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 4

Kit de Waal – Listen up

If Kit de Waal’s name sounds familiar you’ve probably read her novel about a young boy in a foster family, the international bestseller My Name is Leon, or seen this summer’s BBC film of it. This week the Guardian chose Kit’s latest book, Without Warning And Only Sometimes, as one of the best memoirs of 2022.

Her voice is warm and generous, in person as well as on the page; so it’s appropriate that Kit’s tip is all about how your writing might sound in another person’s voice. The advice she gives here works for all kinds of writing. I can vouch for its effectiveness in spotting the glitches in a poem. The book she namechecks, by the way, is Cathy Retzenbrink’s Write It All Down, a guide to writing your own biography.

Kit de Waal

Find Kit de Waal on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: and buy the books using the links in the text above.


A Writer’s Advent – Day 3

Rosie Garland on turnip farming in fourteenth century Devon

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a festive garland, and here she is: rebel, a survivor and wise, funny human, Rosie Garland. You may know her as cabaret artist Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen; as the poet whose collections touch on everything from queer love to surviving throat cancer; or as the award-winning novelist who wrote Vixen, The Palace of Curiosities (‘A jewel box of a novel’, says Sarah Waters) and The Night Brother (‘A delight….with shades of Angela Carter’ according to The Times). Her novel-in-progress is equally compelling.

For twelve years she hauled her novels from publisher to publisher, until at last she entered the new Mslexia First Novel competition in 2011 – and won. As a writer and musician (with Goth-rock band The March Violets) she refuses to be pigeonholed, allowing herself to roam between genres, doing what the hell she likes.

Rosie’s tip today is for anyone who likes to embed a bit of research into their writing – whether that is in grand, sweeping historic novels, poems with a hinterland of science jargon, or any text that involves some background study. Here she is:

Order The Night Brother here

Find Rosie Garland on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


On This Day She

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.

On This Day She: a typical spread

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.


Together, alone

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.

Image ©Bless Yee 2020


#28: Comfort and joy

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 🙂


#27: Lesson learned

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.


#26: Credo

“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 about motherhood 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.


#25: Open the door

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. The manhole 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.


#24: Little and Large

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.


#23: Introducing…..

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.


#22: Energy

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


finish with a BANG!!!!!


#21: Courage, mon brave

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 courage by 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.

Courage, mon brave. Onward.


#20: Making mischief

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.


#19: Cleaning up

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.’

Now wash your hands.


#18: Ode to whatever

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.


#17: Silence please

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.


#16: Monumental

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.

Statue celebrating the enema, Zheleznovodsk

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.


#15: Contact

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.


#14: Work

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.


#13: Getting better

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.”

Proverbs 16:23-25

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.

4 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You hint, in the title or somewhere in the poem, that you didn’t expect to see this day. That hint will cast a sense of escape and relief across the whole piece.

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.


#12: Only connect

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?


#11: Sleepyhead

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 of a 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.

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