#18: Ode to whatever

On goes the lockdown in England, and on goes 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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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 Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

I don’t normally do this sort of thing. I like to think of my prompts as three-dimensional: each one is a meditation, showing how we can use any given topic as a way in to a proper, solid poem. Knock away the scaffolding afterwards, and the reader should never guess that the poem was started by someone whispering ‘gardens‘ or ‘skin disease’ from the wings. The prompt should be completely absorbed by your poem.

This one might be a little more visible, so bear with me. In a classic starting-to-write way, today I ask you to write about the first thing you see as you look around you – and to write in praise of it. If it is unpromising, don’t cheat by trying to select something more ‘poetickal’; see what mileage you can get out of it. After all, we saw a few days ago what Pablo Neruda came up with on the subject of a pair of socks, and Neruda famously wrote odes (praise poems) to almost any object he came across. An onion, a tomato, even miscellaneous broken things; he didn’t allow the prosaic nature of the thing to stop him celebrating it.

In Neruda’s ode to tomatoes, he lays it on with a trowel – unabated, the unstoppable tomato invades the kitchen. It has benign majesty, amplitude, abundance. It offers itself. It populates the salads of Chile. Even the oil is essential child of the olive. Neruda is enjoying the exaggeration – he’s having a laugh, and why not? Most of the words here, though, are sensual, joyful and simple. ‘The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer‘ – not twilight or winter. Light, juice, ease, butter, living flesh, sun, fragrance, salt, parsley, potatoes, aroma – it’s like a cookbook for Chilean peasant food. Neruda is pressing our most primitive buttons, the ones that say ‘sunshine’ or ‘food’ or ‘plenty’. It’s a cheap trick, and it works.

Look very carefully at your object – the dustpan and brush, the hot water bottle, the bunch of flowers, the rubber duck, the sink plunger. Hold it up to scrutiny. Get right down to loving it. In my case, with no word of a lie, the first thing I set eyes on after writing these words was a haggis. I believe that’s been done already. But there’s the challenge; here is something I would not dream of writing about normally, and must now find a response to. I can’t write a poem to a haggis without invoking Robert Burns – so my poem will have to respond to his. It may become ‘The Haggis Replies’. What else is in sight? My partner’s flat cap could be praised to the high heavens for its bountiful warmth, its comedic Yorkshire style. The IWA canal map on my wall is a passport to a lifetime of adventures. The phone charger, o blessed twine! connects me to my friends in a time of separation.

The ode is not just a poetic form. It’s an instruction to look for joy. Sometimes, in our efforts to be wise, we forget to have fun. Today, let go of ego and live a little. In this difficult month, we are engaged in the business of praise; find something to praise, and praise away.

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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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#17: Silence please

Our online poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World, lasts as long as the English lockdown. 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 Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

Some years ago, the author Sarah Maitland wrote A Book of Silence, describing her pursuit of that state. Like Jim Crace’s curious and brilliant novel Quarantine, Maitland explored the search for silence and stillness as a spiritual practice. Today, your subject for poetry is silence.

Thomas Hood reminds us that what we call silence is usually no such thing. It is is an un-thing, an absence of human sound, an opposite. In conversation, it can be comfortable, excruciating or full of tension. Think of the moment of silence when your son came out, or your wife announced the pregnancy test results; the moment after a marriage proposal, before you knew which of two possible futures would happen. There is the silence when you should have spoken but didn’t (why is my neighbour being taken away?) – or the one that fell when you said something unforgiveable. There is the muteness of trauma; the receptive pause of the counsellor; the private prayer; the gap between lightning and thunderclap. Each of these has a quality of expectation or dread.

Silence is longed for by tinnitus sufferers, or by people working at home with a small child. It’s a trial for the hermit, the hostage, or those who can’t hear the same miraculous thing as their companions. It is the normal state of play for the deaf. Consider the stillness of the deep sea around the Titanic, or in a pharaoh’s tomb, or on the moon. In some places we expect perfect quiet (a graveyard, a library, a museum, a waiting room, the cenotaph), and shouting or music would be shocking. At the moment, however, we see many places where noise is expected, and silence itself becomes a shock – like my local pub, standing empty and quiet during the long lockdown evenings.

Billy Collins lists different silences, and leaves us asking why he finds the one at the end of his poem poorer than the one at the start. One writer revisits a single traumatic silence over and over again; another plays with the idea of the last silence; and Timothy Yu mocks the idea of a serene ‘Chinese silence’ to dismantle racist tropes. Read, think, remember what peace there may be in silence; then turn off the radio, find the one quiet space where you can write; and begin.

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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 hundreds strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.

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#16: Monumental

Lockdown continues in England, and so does our citizen poetry project, 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 Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

Statue celebrating the enema, Zheleznovodsk

Just in case today’s theme sounds a little dry, let me start by showing you a statue. The Russian city of Zheleznovodsk is a spa resort. It is particularly proud of its pioneering role in colonic irrigation – which is why its most famous sculpture (right) shows three little cherubs bearing an enema bulb. Today’s theme can be approached, as it were, from many directions.

I ask you to use a monument as your sparking-off point. It needn’t be the whole focus of your poem, it may be just the backdrop, or a catalyst for a train of thought. It may be a statue, a building of cultural importance, like the Colosseum, a shrine or site of pilgrimage.

Monuments honour the public figures or deities of their time. The unknown soldier, Julius Caesar, the great scientist, or the founding father stands on a pedestal above the city; in other places we revere the Virgin Mary, the god of January, the gift of the gab. Monuments have local meanings too. Some are meeting places – see you at the Monument, we used to say in Newcastle before a night out. Others are outlets for anti-establishment mockery, like Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington, perpetually crowned with a traffic cone. When social values change, monuments fall. Lenin, Saddam Hussein and slave trader Edward Colston have all been knocked off their pedestals.

You can make your poem a monument in itself, for those who have no monument. In this poem Derek Walcott remembers the enslaved people for whom there is no monument but the sea in which they drowned, and in this one Seamus Heaney commemorates similarly unremembered Irish rebels. Or build a monument and make it vivid; a huge beacon on the cliffs of Dover to celebrate the Unknown Immigrant, or a sculpture to the homeless, on a bench in front of the town hall. In this one, the poet shows us the difference between a grandiose monument, and the simpler home where the hero seems much more alive.

You might want to redesign your city, replacing war heroes with domestic abuse survivors or celebrating The Optimist. Why not write a funding application for a 60-foot high statue of Uncle Martin, his racing pigeons at his feet – a museum of absent-mindedness – or for an Indian Army memorial in Leicester? Consider your point of view in the poem. It might be refreshing to write as Nelson himself; as the town planner rejecting another ‘dead white male’ statue; or the knowing spouse of a famous plinth-holder.

In his monumental poem Ozymandias, Shelley looks at a fallen sculpture. The poem is, of course, about a monument – but if that were all it was about, it would be an anecdote. Really, Ozymandias is about hubris, dictatorship and the healing passage of time. As a wise man once said, ‘Your poem must be about left-handed widgets, but also about Everything.’ If your poem is entirely about left-handed widgets/ your childhood holiday then it will be boring. If it is entirely about Everything, then it will be overblown and pompous. The lens of poetry makes you look through the widget, to see Everything. If you are writing about the time you met your partner for a snog around the back of Notre Dame, see if you can’t also glean something about human nature and its environment. Use a real or imagined monument to teach us something about a real or imagined world.

egg-cosy-9

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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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#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.

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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

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#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.

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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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#13: Getting better

As lockdown continues in England, so does our global 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 the 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 on 22nd November. Join us at any time through November, using the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

Proverbs 16:23-25

Today we write about healing. Keep this thought in mind: although you will have to touch on sickness or injury to get there, the sickness is not the main point. It is the healing, and the experience of feeling better, that I want you to concentrate on. I don’t mean spiritual healing, or healing from a time of unhappiness like a divorce. These are valid subjects of course, but today I encourage you to write about a recovery from actual illness (including mental illness) or injury – something you have actually healed from, not something ongoing.

Some of you will need to visit dark places to do this, but do so with the fact of recovery in mind. Others, who have been lucky with their health, will not have had cancer or even a broken leg; but you will have had a cold, or a sprained ankle, or a burn from the cooker. Small wounds still give us a chance to talk about healing. The experience of relief after your herpes cleared up is not the same as recovering from chemo, but it has some elements of the same story on a smaller scale.

This is a good opportunity to talk about the beginning and the sequence of a poem. Here’s how it actually happened: you got ill or injured, you had a period of recovery, then you were better. You don’t, however, have to tell it in that order. In fact, the reader will be delighted by a poem that rejigs the narrative. If you are given to telling things in the order they happened, then try one of these suggestions (they are only suggestions, do it your way):

1 You’re healed, you remember how it was to be ill, you’re still healed. Show, don’t tell. Try not to say ‘I remember’ – we know, you’re telling us.

2 Or; you recovered, one step/ boiled egg/ Chaka Khan song at a time. We don’t have to hear about the illness at all; it is implicit in the fact that you recovered, and its magnitude is suggested by the very fact that you aren’t talking about it. Think about the title as a way to give us key information.

3 Or: you were ill. You were so ill. The sheets were soaked, you had feverish dreams, your bones ached. You wallow in description of the illness. And then one day, you smelt toast and felt hungry. Try not to add over-explanation like ‘and that is how I knew I would get better’. The reader has seen that already.

4 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You hint, in the title or somewhere in the poem, that you didn’t expect to see this day. That hint will cast a sense of escape and relief across the whole piece.

5 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You trace the timeline back, from this moment when you are completely healthy, to the time when you came out of hospital, then back to when you were told you would need chemo, then back to the perfectly ordinary day when you first found a lump in your breast/ testicle. This takes us back to live through the scary bit with you, in the knowledge that there is a happy ending.

6 Or: what? Do it your way. Explore what your recovery shows about those who love you; talk about a trivial childhood illness that seemed immense at the time; go the full Malika, and revisit Lazarus as we did on day 1 of this project. Write about someone else’s illness if that’s where the prompt takes you, but you might get the best value out of this one if you concentrate on your own physical experience of healing. In this case, the happy ending is a given. Even if other illnesses are dogging you now – including the one we are all so aware of – the one to write about is one that you have already gotten over.

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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 over 300-strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.

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#12: Only connect

As lockdown in England continues, so does our global 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 the 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.

Kathleen Jamie’s poem, The Way We Live, celebrates what Macneice called ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ – that vivid, unequal mix of good and bad in daily life. The poem’s meaning has changed for me since March: say what you like about lockdown, but it does reduce the chances of death by avalanche. The barmen and waitresses are on furlough; the airports and motorways are quieter than ever before, and we know much more now about ‘waking to uncertainty’. The pandemic is building a distinctive culture of absence and disconnection.

Still, we can and must find ways to talk to each other. Today, I ask you to connect to someone who lives in a different place or time. You’re a poet, for goodness’ sake. There are no walls you can’t see through. Look across your city, country, planet. Find someone to connect with, and write to that person. Think of it as a message in a bottle, a dispatch smuggled out from behind the Covid frontline; a broadcast from the Virus Resistance Brigade.

Who will pick it up? A drag queen with no stage to perform on; a medievalist locked out of the archives, dreaming of Charlemagne; a New York apartment-dweller, his city becalmed after a lifetime of hectic noise; a refugee making his way across the Channel on a makeshift raft; or someone for whom lockdown is a blessed relief from responsibility. Some are desperate or bereaved. Others are taking up fishing, doing DIY, making love until noon. Cancer, childbirth and the family dinner go on, in spite of everything. A terrible beauty is born, as Yeats wrote of a different crisis entirely.

What is changed, since Covid came to town? What endures? Somewhere in the Amazon, there are communities which know nothing of all this. Will your message be airdropped to them, or will it be blasted into space in an Elon Musk satellite for a different audience? Send a tumbling Text Message full of scrambled thoughts about what life brought today – or write to the only person that matters, and call them home. Use your title to take some weight out of the poem itself: ‘Broadcast from 122 Brook Street’ or ‘Message thrown from my window in a time of plague’, or ‘To the residents of this house, one hundred years from now.’

Then write. Don’t think too hard. Allow yourself to drift off topic; by all means, rant about the broken dishwasher as well as the broken world community. If you are bored or scared or furious, let it show. Reassure or confess; ask how to put a shelf up straight. Give some thought to the ending of your poem. Do you want to sound cheerful, cry for help or leave this episode open-ended? Will you enclose a gift? Now – would you care to leave a message?

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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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#11: Sleepyhead

Lockdown in England continues – as 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 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 – today it is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

Did you sleep well? Sleep is the hard-earned peace at the end of the day, the time when dreams defragment the brain’s hard drive – and your subject for today.

Sleep is an abandonment, a supremely physical act of letting go. Yours may be triggered by a nightcap, an audiobook – or fever, the motion of a boat, fatigue after running a marathon, the sound of a Russian woman folding towels. Some of you fallen asleep somewhere you shouldn’t – at a party, at your desk, during sex – or you have you nodded off on the bus, and missed your stop. Think about the room you normally sleep in; how it feels, what sounds or sensations there are, what book is tucked under the pillow. Think too about the most remarkable places you’ve slept. I’ve slept in a Greek monastery and in the bellies of tall ships; on the shores of Ullswater in a sleeping bag; in many anodyne hotels and a few dodgy youth hostels; and at festivals, with distant music booming in my ears. Where have you laid your head down – and where are you sleeping nowadays, when so many options are unavailable?

For most of us sleep is a refreshing ceasefire. Other poor souls wake up at 3am staring doom in the face. If that is you, then tell us what keeps you awake at night. Be specific, because a phrase like ‘worry’ is so generic that your reader will pass by without registering the actual feeling. ‘Ian being a dick again about the car park,’ or ‘the fact that Vanuatu is sinking’ would do it. Night sweats, a prowling cat, a baby that you temporarily want to smother; the aftermath of an argument; a frozen shoulder; a bottle of Merlot; the prompt you are writing for a poetry blog; all of these might keep you awake. If your first instinct is comedic, don’t be afraid to go dark. It’s night time, after all, when most of us crash out.

If you sleep alone, tell us what pleases and displeases; what you miss and what you revel in. If you share your bed with someone, think about the shapes and sounds you make in your dozing and dreaming. There might be a rhythm to your sleeping, or a dance in the way your bodies fit together. Does your other half get up at 4.00 to make a cup of tea, then come back with cold feet? Where do they go when they sleep? Did you sleep differently with a previous lover, with your toddler – or with the chihuahua?

Write a sleep diary, a lullaby, an aubade, a sheep-counting chant, a celebration of the shared or unshared bed. Write about someone else lost in sleep; the homeless, the genocidal, the blackbird singing from next door’s TV aerial. Whatever your subject is, dive deep. Sweet dreams.

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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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#10: Chin up

As lockdown in England continues, so does our 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.

The present circumstances can take away your working life, your social life, the places where you used to conduct both – but they can’t take away the sky. That’s your subject today.

Yesterday we confined ourselves to the four walls of a familiar room. Today, we get outside – literally. Don’t imagine the sky or even look at it through the window – go and spend some time with it. The difference between any thing imagined, and the same thing examined in real time, is usually clear in a poem. The reader knows if you’re faking it.

The sky is endlessly available, constantly changeable and always free to look at. It presents a constantly changing newsroll of weather, birds, planes – and at night, stars and satellites. Sometimes the fast downward arc of a shooting star; sometimes the slow-flashing lights of an ascending plane. It’s a large and airy theme, so look for ways to make it specific. Think of its resident birds, and those humans who just visit; paragliders on Mam Tor, children tugging the sky down towards them on a kite string, Amelia Earhart falling from it 1937, the poor Nairobi stowaway who dropped from it into a Clapham garden last year. Think of those who have made the sky their life’s work – astronomers and meteorologists, comet-namers and cloud-watchers and hurricane-chasers, early balloonists who had no idea what to expect when they first lifted into the skies. The resulting piece may be expansive (surely this poem is one page too long?) or may contain multitudes in three words.

The sky stands for all things uncontainable, and our current straitened circumstances make some feel hungry for it. When did you last stay up till the sky began to lighten? When did you last sleep underneath it? How did it look yesterday, as the sunset turned the council flats pink behind your street? What would you call the constellations if you were in charge of naming them? Given its intangible nature, you will have to work a little to make your sky real for a reader. You could address it directly, or compare it to the sky above your loved ones in Canada or Ghana. You could personify it as innocent, malicious, absent-minded; ask it what it thinks of us.

If you are furloughed, you may be counting clouds no bigger than a man’s hand instead of doing the accounts, or envying seagulls their journeys while your own are postponed; waiting, as we all are, for a change in the weather. This present tragedy will eventually/ turn into myth and when it does, perhaps everything under the sky will be changed.

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.

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#9: Journey round my room

Throughout the English lockdown, online poetry community Try to Praise the Mutilated World delivers a free prompt here every day. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of the 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.

In 1790, a young French nobleman called Xavier de Maistre was put under house arrest for fighting a duel. Confined for six weeks in a single room, he went a little stir crazy; and I think we can all sympathise. To pass the time, de Maistre wrote a funny little travelogue in the style of a Grand Tour, describing a Journey Round My Room.

His journey had certain advantages, wrote de Maistre. It had cost him nothing, and it would be a good way for the sick or the lazy to enjoy travel. He was not troubled by bad weather. He would, admittedly, have been happy to give a much shorter account of his room – “but still, alas, I was not my own master in the matter of leaving it.”

MY room is situated in latitude 48° east, according to the measurement of Father Beccaria. It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round…. when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line. From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner; thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my arm-chair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein…. I go on from discovery to discovery.

Xavier de Maistre, Journey Round My Room (1794)

You get the gist. Today’s mission is to write about your room; the one room you have spent most time in during this lockdown. You might become a tour guide like de Maistre, identifying points of interest and landmarks, or give a partial description. You could describe a strange incident that happened in the night, or how a particular chair gave you a nightmare. Riff on something in the room that has done good service; the kettle, valiantly making more cups of tea than ever; the boiler, which despite huffing and puffing, has kept you all warm as the days get blustery; the window, which shows you a square of sky even when you feel most confined. Alternatively, have a good old rant within your four walls – curse the bookshelf which offers no useful wisdom, or the clock which insists on counting the slow passage of time. Tell the geraniums that you hate their calm composure in a time of plague. Tell the noisy neighbours to stop having sex. Talk to the spiders. By this stage, you may be talking to the spiders anyway.

Consider forms that might suit the subject. If the room feels repetitious or boxy, use a refrain or a boxy shape. If it feels as if the walls are coming in, make each line shorter than its predecessor. If it makes you calm or anxious, play around with sound or speech patterns to convey that feeling.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said the French philosopher Pascal. He was wrong; but we certainly understand the scale of the challenge. If you want to look at someone else’s room, here are a few – but you will never know more about your own. Take your lead from de Maistre: “No obstacle shall hinder our way; and giving ourselves up gaily to Imagination, we will follow her whithersoever it may be her good pleasure to lead us.”

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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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