May 2015 Prompt: Over the Moon

Hi Everyone. Sorry this is a few days late – my Mum and Dad were up visiting for the weekend.

I’m going to start with a shameless boast about past prompts! You might remember that David Tait wrote a response to my February prompt called “Three Dragon Day” (https://lizvenn.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/david-taits-three-dragon-day/). I’m really thrilled that not only is it going to appear in his prize-winning pamphlet for the Poetry Business, but that it’s going to be the title poem. The pamphlet comes out in May and it’s available to pre-order at http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/895/three-dragon-day. I’d love to claim that this is due to my brilliant prompt-writing. Sadly, it’s much more a reflection of David Tait’s general amazingness and that incredible Frances Leviston poem that I used for the prompt. I’m still proud though!

So – this month’s prompt (practically guaranteed to give you the title poem of your future prize-winning pamphlet) is from Imtiaz Dharker’s poem “Speech Balloon” http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/speech-balloon.

I’ve chosen this one for two reasons – firstly because I’m feeling cheerful, and secondly because I heard Imtiaz Dharker read this poem at one of the Carol Ann Duffy & Friends events and it brought the house down.

I’m a great believer in the rehabilitation of clichés and “poetry words” – a halfway house approach to the dictionary. What I love about Imtiaz Dharker’s poem is how she affectionately pokes fun at the language of clichés in the media – interviews and the news – and how the same phrases get picked up and used over and over again, sometimes in very inappropriate contexts. She also plays with the idea of language inflation, how people are no longer just happy or cheerful, but are more and more over-the-top in their descriptions. She has so much fun with the ridiculousness of it.

So, this month you get a choice of two different prompts. Either:

  1. a) Adopt a cliché and give it a new life. Like Dharker, why not show it being used and then build up to it being literally true – picture the world that would be created

or

  1. b) Write a poem on the theme of language inflation and the way that the words we use get more and more extreme. For another very funny take on it, you could look at the Victor Borge song Inflationary Language (you can find it on YouTube)

Have fun! Liz x

April 15 Poetry Prompt: Cleaning Up

Happy Easter! I’m writing this at home with Poldark on in the background (pretty boys, pretty girls, pretty Cornwall – and probably some kind of plot, but that’s mainly a cunning plan for showing off the pretty things).

March has been quiet, with lots on at work. I went back home to see Mum in Essex for Mother’s Day – her birthday is in March as well, so it was two daughterly birds with one weekend-shaped stone. April’s going to be exciting. I’m reading at Manky Poets in Chorlton, which I’ve been to before and I’m a big fan – I was really thrilled to be invited.

If anyone’s around on Friday 17th April, it would be amazing to see you there. It’s on at 7.30pm in Chorlton Library. Copland Smith has sent me a flyer (see picture) with my big face on it.

Manky Poets Leaflet
The writing prompt for April comes from a Jacob Polley poem called Smoke:
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/smoke

I love the low key way that Polley builds the story of his father clearing out the stove. It’s full of great detail – the stove with “dog’s legs” or the “grey whittled coals”. Somehow, in describing the stove and clearing it out, you get a picture of the whole house and something of the man clearing it. I love the description of carrying the ash pan “like dynamite through the dark house” – I remember doing that when we were cleaning up the fireplace at home.

There’s a real mystery to Polley’s poem. We never find out exactly why his father burnt his diaries and there’s a real darkness to the image of the unborn narrator hanging in his mother’s body like a dead bird in the flue.

This month’s poetry prompt is a cleaning up or a clearing out and putting things back in order. It could be inside or outside, clearing out a garage, opening up a chimney, or clearing an old well of rubble. Or you might want to write about clearing out somebody else’s space: the difficult job of going through somebody else’s house after their death and sorting their things.

Like Polley, concentrate on the details and think about more senses than just the visual (e.g. the icy morning and the warm flanks of the stove). Be really precise in creating the scene.

Once things have been cleaned or cleared, then put things back in order again. Like the father relighting the fire – do you re-hang the curtains, stack something new in the garage? In Polley’s poem, there’s the completely unexpected and disturbing image of the father burning his own diaries. As you re-fill the cupboard / lay out the house ready for sale (or whatever it is!), is there something surprising and unexpected that you can use to take the poem to another level as it ends?

March 2015 Prompt: Famous Names

Hello everyone. Hope everyone’s okay. I’ve had a ridiculously busy February (went to Berlin – it’s amazing), and suddenly we’re nearly in March, so I’m getting up this month’s prompt a couple of days early.

Two of my friends have written amazing poems about the same person: Emily Davison, the suffragette who was killed by the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. John Foggin wrote Camera Obscura which won the Lumen Camden competition and is in his new prize-winning pamphlet, Larach. You can read it here: https://camdenlumen.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/john-foggin-wins-lumencamden-poetry-competition/. John’s poem reminds me of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts – taking an image and showing how everyone turns away from the tragedy.

Kim Moore has written about Emily Davison as well. It was published in Poetry London and you can read it on her blog here: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/poem-for-emily-davison/ – Kim is a master story-teller, building these relentless rhythms that sweep you deeper and deeper into the poem.

If two people can both write such successful poems about the same historical figure: one prize-winning, the other published in Poetry London, then it’s definitely time that I published a prompt for writing a poem about a real person.

I think that what works so well for both of the Emily Davison poems is that they centre around a particular event. They’re not just trying to write in abstract about a whole person’s life, but picking moments and details to ground the poem in an exact time and setting. Kim has chosen a whole series of events and campaigns, each one really startling or unusual, while John has focussed in on the frozen moment when she fell in front of the horse. Through those moments, they reveal the life.

Another great example of this is Rita Dove’s poem about Hattie McDaniel. I didn’t really know Dove’s work before I found her on the Poetry Archive. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar (please be impressed by how topical my prompts are!), for her role in Gone With the Wind.

Rita Dove’s poem is called Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove and you can read it at: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/hattie-mcdaniel-arrives-coconut-grove. Like Kim and John, she’s found a single event to place at the heart of the poem. She shows Hattie walking up the red carpet to the Oscar ceremony, then lets herself open up to include so much of Hattie’s life and career, the assumptions and prejudices that she faced. What I love about the poem is that it feels big and generous, like the picture of Hattie herself. It’s got these amazing details that put you in a place and a time, my personal favourite being “Mr. Wonderful Smith”. I can’t claim to know much about Hattie McDaniel, but somehow I feel like the poem catches her – the good and the bad. It isn’t a hagiography, but it’s a celebration.

For this month’s prompt, pick a famous figure – somebody historical or from right now. Maybe they could be somebody fighting for their rights, facing prejudice. Pick a key moment in their lives: the moment of triumph, or defeat, the moment they died, or fell in love, or perhaps just a quiet moment with nothing special about it. Set your poem in that moment and let a single event reflect their life, like a sort of fun-house mirror.

And if you’ve got a spare minute, take a look at this one too, a poem by David Musgrave which has one of the best titles I’ve seen: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/inevitable-decline-mediocrity-popular-musician-who-attains-comfortable-middle-age

David Tait’s Three Dragon Day

Hi Everyone,

The fantastic David Tait e-mailed me this week with a couple of poems that he produced from my February prompt “Things not meant to be seen”. David’s an amazing poet – he won the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition a few years back and his first collection Self Portrait with The Happiness was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014 (it’s amazing, I can’t recommend it highly enough).

I love his response to the prompt, and he’s very kindly let me post one of the poems here. One of the things that I’ve always found difficult is trying to write poems about my experiences in other countries – somehow I can’t seem to get them into my voice, but David’s been writing some amazing poems about his life in China (where he teaches English). I think that what makes them work is that he often manages to combine China, the richness of its culture with the realities of 21st century city life and somehow also a hint of Britain (Monet’s London in this case) and weave all those different influences together. He also uses incredibly strong images for the poems, and I love the conceit of this poem – the idea that air pollution comes from dragons.

Thanks, David. Liz x
Three Dragon Day by David Tait

Forget the particulars of particulate matter,
air pollution comes from dragons.

On a blue day the dragons are far from the city.
On a day like today the air scratches and growls.

Imagine them, out there, wrapped around skyscrapers
shrieking to each other through blast furnace throats,

their scales buckled steel, eyes deep as mineshafts,
grey wings rippling with varicose veins.

Putting on my face-mask, a five year old girl
looks out at buildings made as vague as Monet’s London.

“Today is a three dragon day” she says, then steps out
onto the street, oblivious to their shadowy wings.

February 2015 Prompt: Things Not Meant to be Seen

Guys, seriously, it’s February already? What happened to January?

I’m really well, sitting in my little, warm house in Glossop and looking out at the melting snow. It’s been a busy, but fun January. My holiday in Fuerteventura was really lovely, even if the weather didn’t cooperate and we had a great Carol Ann Duffy and Friends reading (the 30th event is coming up in March).

On Wednesday this week, I was reading at Poetry by Heart, which is a great event – if you live anywhere near Leeds or Headingley you should go along (sadly I can’t normally make it because of the difficulties of getting back to Glossop by public transport). It was a pretty eventful evening, I nearly got both Michael Brown and myself lost (I think we were half way to Buxton by the time we realised we were walking in the wrong direction) and I was watching the snow all night, worried I wouldn’t be able to get back home. Mike Conley was reading too and very kindly gave me a lift home – he didn’t even complain when we got stuck in a queue of traffic near Mottram at 11pm at night.

It’s Valentines Day in a couple of weeks, but I thought it would be nice to buck the romantic trend with my poetry prompt, so I’ve gone in the other direction. My prompt for this month is a poem by Frances Leviston, called Humbles: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/humbles.

This is such a clever poem. The way it builds is brilliant, from shivering on a cold night, to building images of the internal organs starting with the almost beautiful parachute silks, through the clock spring and royal veins to the ugliness of the burst bowel and blackness and then, unexpectedly, to the human image of Judas. The final line “still tethered to earth / by all the ropes and anchors of his life.” is just drop-dead fabulous.

The poem is tight-packed and every word carefully chosen, but I love that she’s gone for everyday words: “cannily”, “unputbackable”, “gizzard” and of course the title, “Humbles” which is a fantastic choice and a word that I’m definitely going to end up using in a poem some time soon.

My prompt is inspired by a line from the poem: “then you have seen what is not meant to be seen”.

We all encounter things that aren’t meant to be seen: the inner workings of a clock or car, butchering a chicken or gutting a fish, finding something broken with its insides spilling out. There are also events that aren’t meant to be seen – the child spying on something they can’t understand, or, as an adult, catching someone you love unawareness and finding out something they didn’t want you to know. I’m currently trying to write about some fossils I saw when I was on holiday and I’m caught by the way that their broken insides are on display, fixed in rock, so that somehow their privacy is being violated.

For February, think about the time you’ve seen what was “not meant to be seen”. There are some techniques you can use from Frances Leviston’s poem. Why not try to borrow the way that she grounds the poem at the start with a concrete scene, so easy to imagine with its cold, the steaming body of the deer, the detail of the curse. As you develop the poem, can you use the same kind of evocative, very physical imagery that she achieves? Anyone using the word “gizzard” gets extra points!

If you’ve get something out of the exercise, do let me know. I’d love to see what people produce, even if you’d prefer me not to publish it here.

January Poetry Prompt: Forgetfulness

Me? Accidentally post my January blog as a page instead of a post so it appears in completely the wrong place? Don’t know what you’re talking about. My January poetry prompt is re-posted below…

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas. I’ve been back in Colchester visiting my family. Grampa is going to be 100 in a few weeks time, so we managed to get all his grandchildren, and his great-grandson together for a family lunch on Boxing Day. Grampa’s health isn’t great, but his mind’s still crystal sharp, so my brother and I were talking parallel evolution with him, and early humans crossing to populate the continent of America. Plus there was Chinese food…

I’m so glad I made the decision to go down to four days a week in 2014. It made a huge difference to my writing – it was one of those quiet, good years, if you know what I mean. Not sure what 2015 is going to be about yet – I’ll be back to working full-time and I have lots of ideas and plans, but they’re all up in the air at the moment, so who knows what I’ll be doing in another 12 months. In the meantime, though, Happy New Year to all of you.

Lots of friends have been sharing their Facebook 2014 albums and remembering the last year, so I’ve decided to kick-back and give a January poetry prompt that’s all about forgetfulness, instead.

You can read Billy Collins’ poem Forgetfulness at: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/forgetfulness.

I first fell for this poem because I so completely recognised the first verse. My memory is awful. I forget names, faces, books and films. I’m the only person I know who can read the same Agatha Christie four or five times and still be surprised who the murderer is every time. It drives me nuts that I can never remember the title of the poetry collection that I read two weeks ago, so I love the quirkiness of this poem and the humour that runs through it. To me, there’s a sense of possibility about it: when you forget everything, then anything (like the moon) could carry a significance, importance, or romance that has just slipped away from you for the moment.

Forgetting doesn’t have to be completely a loss. It can be a kind of healing e.g. getting over a bad relationship (or a good one). For all the disadvantages, I do love being able to go back to a good book or film and enjoy it as though I’ve never seen it before. When you’ve lost something important to you, is it a tragic thing to start forgetting the details, or is it also a sign of moving on with your life? Memory tends to distort as well – I have at least one childhood memory that I’m fairly sure isn’t actually real!

For this month’s prompt, write a poem about forgetting something. You could use false memory (unreliable narrator), write about having something slip away from you as you try to remember it, or (a bit like Billy Collins’s moon) an object that reminds you of something, but you can’t quite remember what.

Over the next few weeks, I’m also going to be posting up a couple of poems written in response to my December prompt by Carolina Read and Elly Nobbs. They both sent me their poems during December and they are fantastic – they kindly gave me permission to publish them. If anyone does get something from the January prompt, I’d love to see it. If you don’t already have my e-mail address, you can get in touch using the contact page on this site.

Right… I’m off to take down my Christmas decorations.

Carolina Read: There is every which way to say hello

Hello everyone!

A short post from me today after a bit of a hectic week. A fantastic Carol Ann Duffy and Friends reading on Monday night, with star turns from all three of our student readers: Robert Harper, Justine Chamberlain and Michael Conley (I read his pamphlet Aquarium, from Flarestack, and it’s great). The guest poet was Ann Gray and she gave a knock-out reading – just incredibly powerful. The next one in the series will be 9th March, with Lachlan MacKinnon, so I’ve got plenty of time to recover and prepare.

This is the second of the “Glad of These Times” poems that I’m posting this month. Carolina Read sent it to me and I really liked the quiet celebration of it, the very strong sense of place that she produces and the way that she talks about responsibility for the world without it becoming too heavy-handed or lecturing. The use of praise and celebration, gratefulness, works so well and I particularly like “the privilege of these times / I find myself in.” – the way that it underlines the luck, the accident, of being born in the modern world.

Thanks Carolina – I’m so thrilled that the prompt worked for you (and I now really, really want to get a heated chair with dipped lights…)

By Carolina Read

There is every which way to say hello

I have the language to share,
be understood
anywhere;

I can research the world
at any hour, sit back
in a heated chair with dipped lights,

fragrant air –
sip tea from anywhere
I choose, and so I buy;

I want to find out about
the lives of those whose
harvest it is,

know what contribution means, 
serve this vast world
of wholeness and circumstance,

give back
for the privilege of these times
I find myself in.