Monday, June 23, 2008

June Poetry Prompt 2 - Poetry of Witness

In a sense all poems are poems of witness: they record what it's like to be alive, record what has passed, what is passing. They bear witness to the imagination, the capacity for human invention; they witness our ability to wonder. But let’s look at ‘witness’ in a more particular way.

A poem of witness looks out from the self, towards the world, its social, political and historical aspects. It witnesses other people’s lives.

One of the risks of writing about what we know, about ourselves, our lives and experiences, is that we can become trapped by our own self-importance, our own viewpoint of the world as defined by race, gender, values, beliefs.

However, I’m not saying that a poem about a world event has any more value than a poem about our grandmother. We need to write from our own experience, and some poets do that almost entirely, but it’s good to remind ourselves that experience can be imaginative as well as physical. We can write about lives and events that are beyond our direct experience, the link to them being that we care, and what we care about we tend to put into writing. And if we care enough, other people will care too.

Here’s a poem by the wonderful poet, editor and children’s picture book writer, Mara Bergman. Some of you might remember the news-story from a few years ago.

Little Tricks

Two babies in one,
fused at the spine, joined
at the abdomen, their limbs
ramrodded at right angles.
Nine months in the making.

And then a second trick –
in less than a day, a team of experts
separates bone, flesh, a body
from its heart, and magically

the girls are free, apart for an instant
before one is able to live
without having to pump blood
for two, breathe for two, drag

her sister’s body. She’ll survive
through little tricks: the first,
to ease the strain of being alone,
one cold mirror
placed beside her.

Mara Bergman

I remember Mara bringing this to a workshop, and I remember being so moved by it. It’s deceptively simple. The straightforward language disguises the amount of craft that has gone into its making, e.g. the weight of the words fused, joined and ramrodded in the first stanza, the ordered progression of the stanzas which complements what’s happening in the poem, the line and stanza break at magically/ which gives me the sensation of the magician’s cloth being suddenly pulled away, and the image in the last two lines which manages to be both cold and caring. I particularly like that closing image for the contrasting ideas it suggests. Magic is often accomplished through the use of mirrors, though historically a mirror was also used to check to see if someone was breathing. There’s so much to say about this poem I could probably write a short essay about it!

So here’s your challenge:

Find a news story, or remember a story (or an image) that has affected you, and write a poem based around that. Try and stay ‘invisible’ as Mara has done in her poem. Bear witness to the event without commenting on yourself. Let your description be significant too: let the images carry ideas and meaning, and work consciously with form: ask yourself how what the poem is about, its emotional drive, can be communicated in your line lengths and breaks and in the stanza formation.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Notebook Idea: Three Beautiful Things

If you don't know Clare Grant's life affirming blog Three Beautiful Things then please check it out as Clare is the inspiration for this prompt.

Every day for the next 7 days write three things in your notebook that make you feel good, that bring you joy or make you smile. They are there in our lives. Sometimes we forget to look.

You can keep them private, or you can post them here in the comments box. I'll post mine too.

Have a great week.

Friday, June 06, 2008

June Poetry Prompt 1 - Words and Image

There’s a strong poetic tradition of poems written in response to works of art, and I have a great book, Voices in the Gallery (sadly out of print but available second-hand on Amazon), edited by Danny and Joan Abse, that’s an anthology of poems and their corresponding paintings and sculptures.

The first prompt this month is to write a poem in response to Van Gogh’s painting above. There are several ways of ‘entering’ a visual image in order to write a poem and here are a few suggestions that might get you going. But please respond to the painting in any way you'd like:

1. You can describe the picture. You can say what it makes you think and feel. But remember description is not just about decoration, it needs to be significant too i.e. it needs to mean something, it needs to carry ideas and themes.
2. You can let the picture act as a ‘trigger’. It might remind you of something in your own memory and you take that journey and leave the picture behind.
3. Voice 1 – You can become one of the characters in the picture and give an account of your experience, your pre-occupations and dreams.
4. Voice 2 – You can adopt the voice of someone or something that’s outside of the painting, e.g. a character’s mother, their next-door neighbour, or even the artist himself.

I look forward to reading your work.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

May Prize Poem

Thanks to everyone for posting poems this month. The ‘tanka-like’ prompt was the most popular, and, I think, the most challenging. Finding an image that will inform the subsequent statement without exactly repeating the same idea takes a lot of thought.

There were two poems that stood out for me in this section: John Kenny’s ‘Lilac lifted’ and Charlotte Segaller’s ‘a roofless house’. Both use images that have strong emotional connections with the statement that follows: the sweet scent of spring flowers that causes sadness or grief in the heart of the narrator, and a half built house that prompts the narrator to consider her own safety.

And it’s Charlotte’s poem that I’ve chosen for the May Prize. The first three lines echo the unfinished nature of the house with the way the words knock into each other and across lines: half built, here above, inside and outside and the image of looking down on something unfinished, and having such a complete view of it (inside and outside at once), is so authentically echoed in the self-questioning. I also like the unusual line break after I’ll/ which, for me, adds an element of emotional hesitancy or trepidation to the poem

Many congratulations, Charlotte. If you email me your postal address ( I’ll put your small ‘prize’ in the post.

And here's Charlotte's poem again:

a roofless house half-built
viewed from here above
inside and outside at once
I wonder if I’ll
ever feel safe again

Charlotte Segaller