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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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

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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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#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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#8: No kindness is small

Day 8 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.

In September last year, Naomi Shihab Nye wrote an article for the New Yorker which began with the words, “Sometimes a poem just strikes a precise moment. Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Laméris, feels utterly necessary for our time.” That was fourteen months ago. Laméris’ lines “We have so little of each other now. So far/ from tribe and fire” are still more resonant now.

Yesterday I asked you to write about calamity, as if you hadn’t had enough of it already, and today we turn to its antithesis – the acts of kindness, local and often private, which make us feel better. Shakespeare knew their value: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us.

Laméris’ poem reminds us of the thoughtful gestures that we used to see in public (on a good day). During the pandemic, our kindnesses have become both intimate and distant – shopping collected for a neighbour, a parcel of treats from a friend, a socially-distant birthday party in a car park. You might write about those gestures, or draw on something from decades ago. Some kind actions are intimate, others are public. Take credit for those you have done, as well as those which have been done for you (if that makes you uncomfortable, write in the third person). Think especially of acts with a physical dimension. Here a woman bathes her elderly father, as he bathed her in her childhood; here, a mother speaks to the monster under her child’s bed as she settles him to sleep.

Wordsworth wrote about “that best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/ Of kindness and of love.” Some such acts are intended but not carried out; some are misunderstood; some are done anonymously, like the person who hands in a lost wallet, or puts a coffee on credit for the next customer. Clumsy ones still count – the grumpy old man who does a good deed with bad grace, the child who makes breakfast in bed for mum and destroys the toaster. All of the poems I link to today can be found in a collection called Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, which you can read in full here.

Like most expressions of appreciation, this topic could be cloyingly trite; but that shouldn’t debar us from writing about it. The fact that such actions stay in one’s memory for years, testifies to their importance. You can refresh the subject, for instance, by writing as a spectator, not a participant. ANd if you are really stuck for a kind deed to write about, watch this video of wholesome moments. Sometimes even clickbait can warm the cockles of our hearts.

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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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#7: It’s the end of the world as we know it

We are one week into lockdown #2 in England, and also into 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.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a pandemic on. You probably don’t want to write about it, and you don’t have to. Sit this one out altogether if you need to; but bear with me, there is potential for joy even here. I give you the theme of cataclysm. Tomorrow and in the following days we turn to gentler things. Today, you might find a way to approach the present epidemic – but you might instead tap into a historic disaster to explore turmoil at a safe distance. You could even presage a future catastrophe, to make a parable of climate change or growing dictatorship.

First, choose your cataclysm. The obvious contender is this pandemic, but (oh joy!) there is no shortage of others to choose from, both natural and human-made. Stay away from actual war on this occasion, if you will. There is a ready supply of pestilence, flood, revolution, tsunami, explosions, extinctions, wildfires and massacres. These are vast subjects, and you might want to lessen their daunting scale by focusing on one incident. So, not the whole biblical flood, but the moment Noah looks at the rising waters and says ‘right lads, cast off’; not the whole hurricane, but the moment of total calm as the eye passes over.

Consider setting your poem before or after your chosen disaster. How did it begin? What was happening one ordinary day in Pompeii, when Vesuvius began to smoke – or in Stoke-on-Trent a year ago, before Covid? Looking at the aftermath of a catastrophe can show both its impact and the potential for recovery. The sea levels rise, and Edinburgh becomes an aquarium; the sun rises on London after the Great Fire to reveal odd survivals, new vistas across the city.

You may wish to get your bleak on; and who can blame you? Show how the present plague has laid waste our high streets. Give Hurricane Katrina a wicked voice of her own. But wherever there are humans, there is humanity. The flooded farmer rows across her fields to a neighbour’s window; Californians hastily dig a ditch to save one house from wildfire. Find one diamond in the ash. Here, of all places, you will want to avoid the big words like hope or fear. In most poems they come across as a lazy shorthand. As someone once said, your job as a writer is not to tell me that it’s raining, but to make me feel the rain on my skin.

We did not choose to be witnesses to this historic calamity; but since we’re here, we can look for joy even in this, as Rupi Kaur does. We can try to praise the mutilated world.

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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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#6: Bearing gifts

Day 6 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.

In my twenties, I fell in love with a splendid, attractive and funny young man. On our first Christmas Day together, he gave me an unusually shaped gift. It looked something like a beautifully wrapped colander. I opened it carefully, thinking it might be a hand-blown glass bowl or a musical instrument.

Reader, it was a colander. As colanders go, it was lovely: shiny steel, nicely made and, as he indignantly said, a fine example of design. It was not, however, the gift a 25-year old woman expects from her lover. We are still friends, and now I understand how interested he is in design – but Jonnie, what were you thinking of?

Your theme today is gifts. Not the intangible ones that you inherit from your ancestors, like perfect pitch or a bad temper; not the metaphorical ones, like the gift of freedom from an abusive partner; but the actual, physical sort. Some, like that colander, are surprising, but show you something touching about the giver. You may be the giver yourself, delivering the present with instructions. Some gifts are handmade with great care – the delicate lace shawl for a christening, the ghastly jumper that Aunty Mina expects you to wear every winter. Some are simple, but loaded with complex meaning: others are well-intentioned disasters (another pair of slippers, the slinky red underwear you hate). Some are valuable in monetary terms, but meant nothing to the giver. Some might be sinister, misjudged or malicious – the macho books given to a gay teenager, the make-up kits given to a girl who asked for books. Some create a dilemma – oh goodness, I only got her a box of chocolates and she’s bought me a flatscreen TV!

So – gifts. Even the most prosaic can be a rich source: if you doubt that, see what Pablo Neruda did with a gift of handmade socks. Show us the gift itself, and try to resist telling us how the giver or the recipient felt; show us instead. Did their voice shake with laughter or tears? Did they put it immediately in the bin or re-gift it to someone who found the old name-tag on it? The gift will do what the ostensible subject of any poem does – it will stand for something else. It shows a relationship between two people, and it is tied up with tangled associations. You are sufficiently far from Christmas to write this poem well, without fear – and even to embed inside it a cautionary tale for those currently writing their Christmas lists.

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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#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.

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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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#4: Full Stop

This is Day 4 of lockdown in England, and of our poetry writing project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here on my blog every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10 and lasts for the duration of this particular lockdown. Join at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

On 11th August 1999, for reasons I won’t go into here, I was being chased across a heather moor in North Yorkshire by 20,000 newly released bees and a farmer on a quad bike. Fortunately for me, this was the very date and time of a significant solar eclipse. The sun dimmed, and the bees simply stopped. The birdsong, the sheep bleating; every natural noise stopped. The eclipse began. The farmer went home. It was all very odd.

Your prompt today is stop. What comes to my mind is that peculiar experience of eclips, but what associations does it have for you? Think about what might stop, and how. A clock; a heart; gunfire; ceasefire; the factory siren; pub culture; the shouting of a schizophrenic neighbour or the barking of his dog. A political prisoner or anorexic teen stops eating. The talking stops, and you understand that the first kiss is about to happen; or a black citizen under arrest says ‘Stop, I can’t breathe’. Your choice might be an imperative stop: stop chewing your nails, stop looking at my breasts, stop spreading the virus, Stop Sniffling, stop right there!

Stopping is not necessarily the same as ending. Stopping implies that something was actively in motion, and is now still or silent. Did it stop immediately, or in small increments so that you didn’t notice at first? Perhaps your car crawled to a stop, abandoning you in rural Wisconsin. Perhaps you stopped believing in God at one specific moment.

A poem doesn’t have to tell the whole story, and is usually more interesting if it doesn’t. Concentrate on the momentary pause – not the urgent rescuscitation, the mended car, the reappearance of the sun. Most of these are implicit anyway. Edward Thomas famously described a perfectly ordinary moment of stoppage, and made it immortal. What happened during your stop? What did you hear, feel, smell?

Punctuation and line breaks are useful tools here. Feel free to disrupt or break up. See what happens if you start with fast, short vowel sounds – click, pernickety, snap – and start to stretch them into long sounds like brake, thrown, acre. You needn’t include the word STOP, just bring in the idea. If this prompt doesn’t trigger an immediate action, just sit with it for a few hours and just turn it over in your head to see what comes. Sometimes an idea is cooking in your subconscious, and doesn’t want to present itself until it’s ready. Then write the poem; and…… stop.

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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 (I can’t link to it here, but the link to the group is 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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#3: You shouldn’t have

This is Day 3 of lockdown in England, and day 3 of our poetry writing project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here on my blog every day, and free: access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10 and lasts for the duration of this particular lockdown.

I thought twice about offering up this subject so early in our project. It is riddled with booby traps. The road to hell is paved, in this case, with saccharine and well-intentioned phrases like ‘Oh Mr Carruthers, I couldn’t have done it without you.’ What the hell; here it is anyway. Today’s mission is to express thanks. Just now, it does no harm to acknowledge the good in the world.

As writers, we are constantly learning new ways to handle the feelings that can overwhelm a poem. We want to express emotion and work on the reader’s emotions, without being mawkish or self-indulgent. That kind of tenderness without sentimentality is a hard trick to pull off. Example: many years ago, my mum was strapped for cash after a difficult divorce. Her father offered to pay for a holiday in Spain, for her and the children. She refused, seeing it as a question of dignity, until he gave her a compelling argument. “Do you not realise,” he said, “how much it would mean to me that I can help my own child in this way?” We were thankful for the holiday, and for the lesson that receiving, as well as giving, can be an act of kindness.

You see the difficulty? Already this sounds like an episode of the Waltons – and my family, I promise you, are not like the Waltons. I haven’t yet found a way to write this story without hearing the sound of tiny violins in the background. If the thanks you have in mind are likely to land in that sort of register, then tread carefully lest you fall into a pit of honey.

How to work it, then? Strip the poem of obvious statements of emotion. Frisk it for pesky abstracts like grateful, kind, generous – concentrate instead on showing us the act that earned the thanks, and the physical gestures – a glance, a handshake – that expressed it. Resist, resist the urge to make your piece too complete by adding a bow at the end – no ‘and I have never forgotten your act of kindness’ or ‘I think of you every time I eat a sausage roll.’ You don’t have to actually say THANK YOU – though this one by Ross Gay does, and this one by WS Merwin does it repeatedly (eliciting this response). You can take your thanks to a higher plane by talking with God, like Kaveh Akhbar here, or this sassy and empowering piece by Kaylin Haught.

Your thanks may be tinged with sarcasm. The instructor on my advanced driving course told us that women never reverse into parking spaces ‘because they need to leave space for the shopping trolley, am I right?’ and I still thank him as I reverse into the tightest spaces, purely to spite him. Another poet might thank the bully who taught them the value of speaking up, or the Twitter troll who drove them to discover the MUTE button. Thank just one American voter for voting Biden in; thank your greengrocer for always remembering that you like kiwi fruit. You will have someone in mind. Give it your best shot. And…. thank you.

egg-cosy-3

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#2: Left hanging

Welcome to Day 2 of a new lockdown poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. Every day of the current lockdown in England, there will be a prompt here which anyone can use as a starting point for writing a poem. Use it for free, to spark off your writing process. If you want to join our closed Facebook group to share work in progress, and to offer feedback on others’ poems, there is a £10 fee – you can sign up via PayPal at the bottom of this page. It’s a lively forum, but private so that your work remains unpublished.

By the time you read this, we should know the result of the US election. As I write, it is unresolved. Millions of people are on tenterhooks, waiting to see what the polls say and what Donald Trump says in response. In real life, as in murder mystery novels, suspense has a powerful hold on an audience. In life we want a quick resolution, but in poetry we might gain traction with a partial reveal – a slow-emerging narrative which may, in fact, never quite resolve. Have a look at Robert Graves’ splendid comic piece, Welsh Incident, which starts mid-sentence and finishes mid-story. We’re open-mouthed, eager to hear the ending that never comes. A very different poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Moose , uses a journey to build a solemn sense that something is about to happen.

In poetry, as in strip tease, you can reveal too much too soon. Think about subjects which lend themselves to a slow, tantalising build-up of tension. A seduction, a civil war? Any wanted or dreaded event brings that feeling of need to know: a pregnancy test, a biopsy, an exam result or a marriage proposal. A Covid-19 test. A car crash.

Perhaps, though, this trick is still more useful when worked the other way round – turning a familiar story into a surprise. Too often the poet knows how the story ends, and the reader can guess. Could you write about an important moment in your life by leading us slowly to a denouement? Think about the ways of doing this. You could save a revelation till the end of the poem, without foreshadowing it. Some of you will know this poem by Elizabeth Barrett (not the Victorian writer but the contemporary one) in which a seemingly ordinary day turns out to have great significance. In my own poem Crates I lead you off at a tangent, before heading back to the main point. In both of these poems, the final phrase sends you back to rifle through earlier lines for clues.

In the Anglo-Saxon story poem Beowulf, we’re constantly led back and forward as our hero battles the monster Grendel, so that we can’t tell what will happen next. Here’s a bit of Seamus Heaney’s translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell, descended from Cain’s clan,
began to work his evil in the world.

What will happen next? Come to the mead hall tomorrow night, lads, to find out. And bring a bottle for the bard. Suspense allows us to delay gratification in the poem, and keep the reader engaged.

So: think about stories in your life with an element of suspense, or stories you know so well that they need refreshing. How will you build that sense of tension – by showing it only from one point of view so that the whole picture can’t be seen until the end? By having an unreliable narrator who lies about what happened? A reluctant confession, an interrupted narrative, a slow accumulation of facts, a determined focus on something just over there until you have to confront what is really happening?

This prompt is a little slippery and subtle; but if you try to write a poem that incorporates suspense, rather than giving everything away early, then you are on the right track. As ever, take the side roads if they look more interesting, and see where you end up.

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#1: A world lit only by fire

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.

Join our Facebook workshopping group

A one-off payment of £10 gives you access to our Facebook group, where we share feedback on one another’s TPMW poems. Click on the PayPal link below to pay. Then find Try to Praise the Mutilated World on Facebook, and ask to join (I can’t link to it here, but there’s a link in the first paragraph of this post). When asked ‘Have you paid the membership fee?’ – just answer YES to be let in. If you have problems, let me know in the comments below.

10.00 £

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