Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.
This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.
In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now work alongside people all over the world. We can share music or articles; we can work around commitments in our own, too-familiar homes.
Marianne Moore wrote about imaginary gardens with real toads in them; we’re going to build an imaginary community with real poets in it. It’s going to be a safe, vital and vibrant space, powered by the creative friction that happens when hundreds of writers get together to make something happen. You will come out of this, and you will come out of it with a sheaf of new poems.
The main part of this programme is FREE for everyone, and you are already in the right place. Every day there will be a poetry writing prompt, which anyone can access right here at jobell.org.uk. Any one who writes poetry or who wants to will find something useful in this. There will be poems to read or listen to, there will be ideas to work from, and they aren’t too prescriptive. There is no talk of syllable counts or the Petrarchan sonnet. There is no talk of ‘what poetry is’ – there are many other sites to explore that. My aim is that you will go off-piste; use the daily prompt as a starting point, and see where it takes you.
We will be building a Spotify playlist to accompany us, so if you have the Spotify app on your computer or phone, you’ll be able to hear what others are listening to as they write. Sometimes it will be calming – sometimes a kick up the arse to get you going in the morning – sometimes it will be the Brighouse and Rastrick band playing the Floral Dance. Sorry.
So far, so free. There is an added-value version – a Tier 2, if you like. That costs £10 – no matter when you join during the month – which goes towards my time, and to paying other poets who might be involved. This kind of project takes a lot of time to do well. I’m a working poet; writing the prompts and running an online community which feels safe, kind and purposeful is time consuming. So, if you contribute £10, you can join the private Facebook group which I moderate. It’s named after the project – Try to Praise the Mutilated World.
The group is not just a general chat space, it’s a workshop space. It’s a place where you can (if you want) post new poems, written in response to these prompts. You’ll also be reading other people’s poems, which is a superb way to see how many different minds can approach the same issue. And we can all comment on one another’s work in progress, giving the feedback that helps good writers to hone their writing.
Many of you already know how useful this is, and how much it can help to develop your skills as a poet, because you took part in my 52 project a few years ago. To you, I say – welcome back and thank you! You already know how rewarding and productive this kind of community can be, and your help will be essential to make this work. I’m relying on you old hands to show the newcomers around this online village.
For those of you who are completely new to this, WELCOME all the more. It’s a fantastic way to develop as a poet. Posting a poem in an online group is a small act of courage; it gives you a chance to share work in progress, and to see how others are handling the same material. It’s a closed Facebook group, so your work will remain unpublished and invisible to anyone outside of it. The fact that the project ends in a month gives us a useful deadline, and a shared sense of purpose.
The other thing that your tenner gets you is a weekly Zoom reading, by me or others, of poems that relate to the prompts. I’ll be guided by you on when the best time is to do this – at present I’m thinking that Sunday evenings might be good, but once the Facebook group is open (tomorrow, Thursday 5th November) I’ll take advice on what day might work best.
Who can join? Is this only for poets?
Anyone who wants to write better poetry, from beginners to experts. It is poets only – get your own friends, prose writers! That’s only because my expertise is in poetry, and it keeps the group tightly focused with a single purpose. The joy of a group like this is the chemistry that happens when experienced poets and beginners work together and give each other time. My style of running a group like this has been called ‘robust kindness’, ‘gentle bossiness’ or ‘power-crazed mania’; what I aim to do is steer the group, and stop us all wandering off topic.
How do I join?
For the free stuff, you’re already there. Every day there will be a new prompt here at jobell.org.uk. For the workshop group and Zoom readings, you need to pay £10 via a link which will appear here just as soon as I figure out how to do it. Then you request to join the group, which is on Facebook and called Try to Praise the Mutilated World. I’m afraid there is no reduction if you join us a little later; it’s a one-off fee.
Do I have to be on Facebook to join the workshop group?
Yes you do. Facebook is not for everyone, but it’s a good platform for most people. It’s free, it’s easy for me to moderate and for others to contribute to, so it’s the best option.
Do I have to have Zoom to see the weekly live readings?
Yes, you do. Not everyone likes it – but you will need to install the (free) Zoom app on your computer to join the weekly readings. Each one will be less than 40 minutes long, so you only need the free version. If you don’t know how to install it, ask a teenager.
What can we post in the Facebook group?
One thing: the poem you wrote in response to the prompt. You don’t have to write every day – this is not Poetry Boot Camp. If you do write, you don’t have to share your work. But if you do, be sure to start your post with the words ‘Prompt 2’ or ‘Prompt 5’ etc, so that people know which prompt you’re writing to (because sometimes, people will post a poem days after the original prompt, when everyone else is thinking about another one!) No, you are not expected to produce a finished piece within 24 hours – post what you can, when you like.
It’s a poetry community, but it’s not the place to share interesting articles, poetry memes or links to your own events. Keeping it focused on our new poems is what will make this work.
What happens when I post a poem?
When you post a poem, other people in the group can comment on it underneath (if they don’t, remember that this too is a kind of feedback). You probably won’t just get 35 comments saying ‘this is lovely!’. You’ll get courteous, constructive critique and suggestions. The most useful comment is often the one that you don’t want to hear; try not to be defensive. You don’t need to explain yourself, or respond to all comments. Remember that you can just ignore any or all of the suggestions made.
Any guidelines for commenting on poems?
You do not have to comment on every poem you see. Life is short, and there may be hundreds. This is a creative activity, not a job. Comment on poems that move you, or that you can help to improve. Try to be specific and always be COURTEOUS.
Very occasionally, someone will say something foolish or hot-headed. In this group, I will delete those comments. There will be no court of appeal.
I am only one person. I’m setting aside time for this project, every day, and making it part of my paid workload. Try to remember that I have other work, and I won’t be able to reply to private messages asking for feedback or other kinds of conversation. I say this only because the last time I did something like this, there were hundreds of people in the group – and I often got late-night messages asking for personal feedback, intervention or counselling. So if I police this group carefully, that’s to keep it as a safe space for everyone at a time when we all feel a little fragmented and fragile; and to ringfence my own private time. Forgive me!
This is not a revival of the 52 project, but a new community with a new purpose. Our aim is to write well, to write together, and to help each other, as poets, through this insane and curious period of history. We write because it’s who we are. This time, we write as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.
First prompt tomorrow – with details of how to pay, for those who want to join the Facebook group. Take a deep breath; and come on in.