#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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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.


Join our Facebook discussion 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.


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.

One thought on “#14: Work

  1. Sorry for the delay in answering you Helen: they are both in the main timeline. If you search the group for ‘Malika Booker’ I think you’ll find she’s only made one post and that is her reading. If you search for videos within the group, you will find them both. Hope that helps!

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