Welcome to a new poetry project from Jo Bell, called Try to Praise the Mutilated World (TPMW). Look at yesterday’s post to see how it works, or if you have ten minutes watch this video. In brief: every day of the English lockdown there will be a prompt here, encouraging you to write new work. Write in private, or share your work in our closed Facebook group (here) where we comment on one another’s poems and have weekly Zoom readings. You can join this group for a one-off fee of £10, using the PayPal button right at the bottom of this page.
We start with a seasonal burn. On November 5th 1605, a maniac called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament. We celebrate this in the UK, perversely, by lighting public bonfires and setting off fireworks. We call it Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes’ Night (depending on how the election count is going, American readers may sympathise with Guy Fawkes.) This year we can’t do that, in England at least, because we are confined to quarters by the pandemic. Are we daunted? Yes, we bloody well are. Many of us are feeling fragile, worn and wary; others are primed like fireworks. This blog hopes to spark off a blaze of new poetry and community, which will keep us warm and keep us together.
In your poem today – whatever form it takes, however long it is – light a fire. Fire can be destructive, indiscriminate, dangerous – but it also gives off heat and light. It clears away the rubbish and old growth, and leaves a dark space in which exotic things can germinate. What do you want to burn away? Who do you want to keep warm? Good writing begins with good reading, so have a look here at a handful of historic poems about fire, including John Donne’s account of sailors jumping from a burning ship or Emily Dickinson’s succinct ‘Ashes denote where fire was’. Or join Malika Booker and ‘Start shout more fire, more fire‘, in her majestic account of Lazarus rising from the dead here.
The fire you write about might be a cosy domestic hearth, a childhood campfire or a gardener’s bonfire. Then again, you could be an arsonist, a zealot like Guy Fawkes, torching something that has hurt you. Light your fire slowly in the back yard and watch it alone. Light a candle and offer up a prayer – or put torch to beacon, burn a statement onto the White House lawn, start off a righteous explosion in your ex-husband’s bedroom. Will it start slowly, with a single match and a few sheets of discarded poetry because you have lost faith in writing – or are you going to put a bomb underneath your Covid-quiet street, and set fireworks off to celebrate in spite of everything?
The fire in your poem might be a real and remembered one, or one that exists only in your mind. You might, for instance, build a pyre fuelled with all the things we’ve lost this year. Those clothes that don’t fit any more because you’ve been eating doughnuts since March; the idea of western democracy; the empty photo album that should have had your holiday pictures; the plans for Christmas, the wedding guest list you couldn’t use this summer; burn them all, and wail. It could equally well be a positive, cleansing burn. Make it a bonfire of the vanities; watch the flames curl around those office clothes you don’t wear now, the minutes of meetings you don’t have to attend, the things that don’t seem important any more.
Keep it physical. Show your reader where this fire is happening – the smell, the sound, the furnishings or natural features of its environment. How does the light move, and what does it show or conceal? The heat from your fire could scorch, but then again it might fuel a glassmaker’s furnace, a crucible for change, the stove to cook a meal for absent friends. Whether it is a scorching wildfire that lights the sky twenty miles away, or a bed of coals for the faithful to walk across, make it real. Choose your verbs carefully – a fire can destroy and consume, but it can also spark and illuminate. What hurts, as poets know well, can also clear the ground.
If you don’t quite know what to do with this prompt, just start writing and see where it takes you. Use whatever memories of fire come to mind – wood smoke, bomb sites, industrial furnaces. A part of writing is making friends with the overwhelm, and seeing if you can snatch a little sense out of formlessness. Light the blue touch paper, and stand well back; then gather round. Today we start a fire.