Sunday, March 30, 2008

It's almost the end of the month... thanks very much for the poems you've posted in the previous weeks. I'm about to start printing them all out so I can read them on the page.

As I've already posted 4 prompts this month and the 31st is upon us tomorrow, I won't add another prompt this weekend, but in case you have some time to write this afternoon or tomorrow, try this notebook exercise:

Free write (that is, write without editing and pre-judging what you should or shouldn't say) about the conditions of your life over the years and how you think they may have affected the form and content of your writing. Think about times when you have been more or less productive. What have been, and what still are, your ‘interruptions’? Often our ‘intrusions’ are what gives our writing its substance.

Write for at least 15 or 20 minutes. Don't worry if you find yourself going off at a tangent - follow the energy you discover in your writing. If you feel really stuck then write the following phrase - what I really want to say is... - and carry on writing from there.

There's also still time to post other poems to any of the March prompts. I'll make sure I pick up any late arrivals.

I might be a day late in announcing the Prize Poem. I'm completing on a house in Antibes, South of France, on Monday and the procedure's a little more formal here than in the UK. It's all very exciting though. Apart from the house, which is quite beautiful (expect a lot of poem prompts about houses!) there are palm trees and orange trees in the garden. I can't quite believe it's all happening!

See you in April.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Happy Birthday to Billy Collins

That's not today's Poem Prompt! Although if you feel inspired to write a poem with that title, then please go ahead.

But today is Billy Collins' birthday, as announced on The Writer's Almanac. Follow the link (it's the 22nd March entry in the archive if you look it up after today) or read the text below. My suggestion for your own poem follows.

Today is the birthday of poet Billy Collins, born in New York in 1941. Collins is both a critically acclaimed and popular poet, a unique combination in the world of modern poetry. Collins began writing poems at age 12. He devoured all the poetry he read, especially the contemporary poems in Poetry magazine. In an interview, Collins explained, "I remember reading a poem by Thom Gunn about Elvis Presley, and that was a real mindblower because I didn't know you could write poems about Elvis Presley. I thought there was poetry — what you read in class — and then when you left class there was Elvis. I didn't see them together until I read that poem."

Collins began selling his poems to Rolling Stone for $35 a pop in the 1970s. He married Diane Olbright in 1977 and published his first book of poems, Pokerface, that year, but it wasn't until the publication of Questions About Angels in 1991 that he began drawing critical attention. His other major poetry collections are The Apple that Astonished Paris (1988), The Art of Drowning (1995), Picnic, Lightning (1998), Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), Nine Horses: Poems (2002), and The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005).

Collins' style is light, humorous, and fond of extended metaphor. He uses mundane situations as diving boards into the larger philosophical questions of life. His poem "Forgetfulness" starts this way:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Collins said, "Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

Any my challenge today is to write a poem using The Collins Approach: use a mundane situation as a diving board into the larger philosophical questions of life.

Looking forward to reading your work.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

March Poem Prompt 3 - Warnings

Did you know that today is the infamous Ides of March?

Write a poem that's a warning to someone, or some people, about something you believe is dangerous or is going to happen. Free write around the word 'Beware', either in a linear fashion, or by making a 'bubble map' or 'mind map'. The latter can help us break free of ordered or logical thinking and allow the mind to wander more freely or imaginatively.

Your 'warning' can be based in reality or fantasy. It can have public or private significance. It can be serious or light-hearted. List topics that people might need warning about e.g. deep water, words uttered in anger, sugar.

If you're still feeling uninspired after all this free-writing, try one of the following words or phrases as a kick-start:

This is what can happen in the dark
Careful now
Beware of snakes

You will find a poem, something that matters to you, if you keep writing, if you go deep enough.

Friday, March 07, 2008

March Poem Prompt 2 - A Simple Wish

It's easy in our sophisticated, fast-moving world to overlook the simple things, and that includes writing too, and we can often read too quickly over what appears rather simple and straightforward. I have to remind myself to read differently when I pick up a book of poems, not to be in a hurry to turn the page, to find out what it has to offer. If I slow down, with the right poems, of course, then there is more of a chance I will uncover riches.

I've had Kate Barnes' collection, Kneeling Orion, for some time now, but I can't remember reading the following poem. I was obviously in too much of a rush. But before you read it, have a go at the following exercise first.

1. You wake up and hear something. What is it?
2. The sound reminds you of something. Describe it using precise concrete language.
3. Make a wish for someone or something. Someone connected to that memory or event.

Once you have the first draft of your own poem, read Kate Barnes' 'Wishes'. Look at how she's shaped her poem on the page, her line breaks, her lovely rhymes - both internal and line end that add music to her poem - and work with the shape, lineation, and rhythms of your poem to reinforce your theme and emotional tone.


Waking before dawn, I hear
first one shot, then
three or four, and it isn't even
light yet. I think of how, at night,
the deer lie down in the big field, of their beds
in the rowen hay, the way
they turn their heads when anyone enters
their wide, starry chamber;
................................and I wish that buck
a whole skin, and no luck
to hunters.

Kate Barnes
from Kneeling Orion

Buy now at The Book Depository

Monday, March 03, 2008

March Poem Prompt 1 – Landscape

Firstly, my apologies for being a day late in announcing the February Prize Poem - check out the post prior to this one to read the winning poem by Leatherdykeuk.

I spent 1st March driving up the length of France, from Antibes on the Mediterranean to Calais on the English Channel watching the landscape change along the way: the snow-peaked Alpes Maritimes, mimosa trees in full bloom, blossoming peach trees, the sun setting behind a swathe of white wind turbines, the dark terrils (slag heaps from old coal mines) of Nord Pas de Calais.

Landscape affects us all. The sea always has a profound effect on me. Mountains too. And when I spend time in the mountains in Wales there’s a part of me that feels ‘connected’ that I don’t think I feel elsewhere.

My first poem prompt of the month is to write a poem that has its roots in some aspect of landscape.

Before you begin, brainstorm around the word ‘landscape’. What can it mean, suggest, and apply to? Landscapes might be physical, emotional and intellectual. They carry moods. They change with time. Let yourself write freely, don’t judge what your mind tosses out.

Look for ‘landscape’ poems in collections and anthologies. Are these poems about more than one aspect of landscape? What ideas do they make you think about? What themes emerge from the details?

Here are a couple more specific ideas that you might like to work with, but feel free to wander off along your own track, or paved road, too.

  • Write a poem about yourself, or someone else, which combines the physical landscape of a particular environment with the landscape of the human body.
  • Write a poem that explores/juxtaposes two contrasting landscapes: e.g. past and present, natural and industrial, lush and barren, physical and emotional

I look forward to reading your work.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

February Prize Poem

Many congratulations to Leatherdykeuk for the poem, 'Stark Reality'. The conscious use of repetition* is effectively handled in this poem, reinforcing the ideas behind dreams and illusions. The concrete detail illuminates a particular family and creates a strong sense of place to convince the reader of the authenticity of the story being told.

The poem might not be to everyone's taste - there's a hopelessness to it, no real redemption - but I believe that the strongest poems are the ones that engage truthfully with life, and no-one will argue that this poem is not 'true'. When I say true, I mean emotionally true, not necessarily factually true, though the details here will be familiar to a lot of people too.

The narrator of this poem does not feature strongly: he or she observes, but does not judge. Even the last line of the second stanza, which is the closest to any sense of subjective opinion, still retains an element of distance through the formality of the language elsewhere in the poem. It's important to be aware of how 'present' we make ourselves in a poem about other people's lives, and to be careful that we do not use their experiences to aggrandise ourselves in any way. This poem successfully avoids that.

Stark Reality

Albert’s second marriage brought him
a devoted younger wife.
He bought her an ivory dress and a golden ring
and promised her a dream house
of turrets and battlements.

The council flat brought her
the sudden reality of life.
Two stepchildren of indeterminate age
who were legally nine (girl) and twelve (boy)
but cynical beyond their years.

The dream they shared brought them
hope beyond the stained tea cups.
But the sudden fall from grace
when the factory closed down
brought them money for whisky instead.

The postman brought them
letters from Social Services.
Brown paper envelopes and the
termination of supplies and,
ultimately, the last dream they had.


* Some notes about repetition: The term for the same word or phrase repeated in a poem, usually at the beginning of successive lines, is anaphora. A word, phrase or line, that recurs in a poem, only partially, or only at irregular intervals is called a repetend. The term refrain refers to a line, or group of lines, repeated at regular or irregular intervals in a poem, especially at the end of each stanza, e.g. the repeated lines of a villanelle.