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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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

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 almost 400 strong: 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.

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