#5: The Difference Machine

Day 5 of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

When you catch the first scent of a theme for your poem, a number of ways to approach it come to mind. Some of them feel clichéd. That is a good sign, because it means you are reading enough poetry to recognise a cliché. Don’t let it put you off. Poetry has a head start of about 4000 years on you, so the chances of you thinking of a whole new approach are slim. You can, however, take some time to think around a subject, and consider it from different angles.

Today’s subject, in fact, is difference itself. ‘Difference’ suggests a relationship between things, in the very act of distinguishing them from one another. One of them is larger, or deadlier, or more prone to hiccups. One of them is your mother’s recipe, and the other your own. One is a cat, and the other a quantum physicist. I’m a pink toothbrush, you’re a blue toothbrush. He’s a Hutu, you’re a Tutsi. And then there are completely different organisms to ourselves. It’s one of the largest possible themes, but here are a few routes into it.

Consider differences brought by time. Has a familiar street changed since your childhood/ the beginning of the pandemic/ the result of the election? Have attitudes changed to your sexuality, or faith? What did your town look like in 1066 – your own face in 1996 – or how did your best friend change over several months, as illness/ pregnancy/ scholarship consumed her? The difference of one place from another matters too. The comfort food of your first family, and of your current one; the dialect, the weather, the architecture in two places. The houses of the rich differ from the houses of the poor in the same village. The differences between people are a rich seam, as this little jewel from Wendy Cope shows. Your partner washes up in a different order to you: one of your neighbours is Jamaican, the other a redneck. Some people pick up litter, and others throw it out of a moving car. Some people know what it’s like, to be called a c*nt in front of their children, and some don’t.

If these are emotive themes, look at it from a different angle. First-person phrases like I wondered if, I remember that, I have a feeling that, are often unnecessary and can predispose you to misty-eyed reminiscence. One can always step out of the limelight, and into the third person; he wondered if, she remembers that, they have a feeling that… This little trick is an emotional safety catch, enabling you to write about the difference between family members, or Trump and Biden, without using I.

No matter how heteronormative or downright freakish you are, your readership will find something in their own experience to chime with it. I, for instance, am not a gay American man in a locker room – but Tony Hoagland once was, and had that in mind when he wrote this poem, which explores both difference and the things held in common. The best poem about difference is of course, the most famous. Take your own path, and take comfort from Bukowski’s assertion: the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck.

Join our Facebook workshopping group

Join our closed Facebook group at any time in November, for feedback from other poets and access to weekly readings. Pay £10 by PayPal below, then find Try to Praise the Mutilated World on Facebook and ask to join (use the link in the first paragraph above). We are already 300 strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.

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Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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