Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts in Prompts/resources

Reflections/poem biography for through glass
line 54 pic 54 through glass smaller
“That changeling inside her,
its stained-glass feathers clinking…”

This sequence is another third-person narration which is not strictly autobiographical yet is based on my personal experiences with depression.

The chapel in the fourth part is actually the chapter house at Worcester Cathedral, where that section of the poem was written in response to a Worcester Cathedral Poets workshop.

Again in this poem, there is my pull towards water, and purpose.

Discussion Point

Does this poem successfully focus on two things (glass and water) that reappear significantly at various points in the main character’s lifetime?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Imagine that instead of living in the world directly, you see and experience everything through something else. This might be water, glass, rose-coloured spectacles, cellophane, mist, a mirror… How does this change you/your experiences?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Pied
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“Night digs at the sun, buries its dirt
in her nails. The music’s bruise turns…”

One of the few good things about diabetes is that it has made me wary of drugs. Low blood sugars (hypos) are unpleasant enough without the worry of substances that might bring on a hypo, make the experience worse or mask the important symptoms of a dangerously low blood sugar level.

That said, I’ve been to Amsterdam, have had my fair share of alcohol over-indulgence, watched ‘Trainspotting’ and also read articles and real life accounts of sex trafficking/exploitation. A drug-toxic abusive, squat-set relationship seemed perfect, therefore, for a contemporary poetry version of the Pied Piper tale.

Outside of the poem with its bleak antecedent, I’m almost sure that the heroine eventually escapes, though inevitably not without the experience leaving its traces on her character and outlook on life. I have great admiration for all the individuals, human rights campaigners and charities that offer practical help to those in such situations.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Does using myth/folklore as a framing backdrop for this contemporary scenario add depth and weight? Does referencing this fictional element distract from the gritty reality or add a necessary protective/distancing layer for anyone reading it who has experienced something similar?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take a traditional fairytale/myth/urban legend and create your own modern real-life version. For an extra layer/twist, consider giving the main role to a character who only plays a minor part in the original.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Van Gogh’s Other Mistress

Van gogh van goghed triple smaller

“she hears his ear unspiral;
her teeth crunch on bone.”

This poem started as a play with ideas and images. On the one hand, the intrigue of imagining if Van Gogh had had a secret mistress undocumented by history. On the other, the fact that an obsessive artist’s art often claims as much time as any lover would. Painting is the queen of all mistresses.
Obviously, Van Gogh’s ear had to play a role – it would be betraying his artistic myth/celebrity to leave it out. The images I chose are a mixture of details from some of his most famous pieces and synaesthetic indulgence of my own. This is a poem that I really enjoyed writing.


Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How acceptable is it to mix fact and fiction in a poem about a real person, even if they’re dead? What are the moral obligations when presenting such work to readers? How does a writer balance imaginative freedom with factual accuracy?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose a painting or series of paintings by a dead artist. Research the painter’s background. Imagine the undocumented daily details of their life. Can you write a poem/story combining factual details about them, actual aspects of/images from their art and how you personally imagine their life?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Shells

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“Now he is hunched emptiness,
face buried in their bed.”

Sometimes, when I’m adopting an unfamiliar character’s perspective in a poem, I will use the first person to help me get close to that experience. Likewise, when I am dealing with things that are very personal, I may use the third person to distance me and provide some objectivity. The ‘sometimes’ is very important here, as it would be a mistake to think every ‘she’ in my poems is me, or vice versa.

‘Shells’ is very much inspired though by trying to look at myself from the outside, when suffering with depression. As I had started considering myself from others’ viewpoints, it seemed important to also consider the effects my depression might have on people around me. I can’t begin to understand how hard the worst times must be for my husband, though he is always so strong.

The practice of putting on a bright face while suffering inside my shell is partly a coping mechanism – habits give life a structure when all other structure seems lost. Paradoxically though, there is a freedom too in letting impressions, feelings, life flow around me without trying to capture them.

A shell is fixed by its own rigid shape if not its contents. Water’s fluidity is dictated mainly by the forces applied to it and the shape of the space left open to it. When I’m with people I trust, there is safety and relief in letting negative emotions flow. Also, a sense that there is still something of me there, albeit very hard to hold still in one fixed state.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Is this more a narrative sequence, a sequence based on contrasts like brittle fixedness and soft fluidity, a conceit…? If you feel it has various different elements, which is strongest overall? Do the different parts of the sequence perform distinctly different functions? How do these parts work within the whole?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take an existing poem or short story you’ve written. Keep one word from each line/sentence/paragraph. Let these words work as the shell for a new poem/story. Now fill in the rest. (If you can, give yourself permission to just follow the flow of thoughts and inspiration as they arise. If you’d like extra structure, try a theme such as the sea/beach/holidays/water.)

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for His Wife
Hall of Clocks
“The psychologist stares; tick.
As if eyes are glass openings,
and he’s trying to lift the catch;

click…”

In contrast to the preceding poem, ‘His Wife’ is full of serious intentional attention and gaze.

The plotline is imagining what it must be like to be married to an over-worked psychologist. The conceit this is explored through is the mind resembling a clock in its inner workings and the care taken in observing and tinkering/fine-tuning these.

Conceits aren’t to every readers’ taste, and don’t seem especially popular at the moment. But this one also gave me plenty of scope for word play – such as the line about the brain’s pendulum ending in an exclamation mark before this pendulum is described as like an exclamation, its movement then stopped in a line ending with a full stop. The poem is also full of –ick, -ock sounds. But these don’t sound as regularly as you’d expect from a clock’s normally functioning tick-tock.

Meanwhile, on the narration front, as the psychologist is examining his wife’s mind, the narrator (like the wife, perhaps) is also examining the psychologist’s inner workings.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Do you notice the –ock, -op, -ick, -its sounds as you read the poem? Do they work effectively to illustrate and enhance the contents?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

You/a fictional character are running out of time to do something important. What is it? Why does it matter? What will happen if it doesn’t get done in time? Use this as a poem/story outline. Alternatively, try imagining your/ a fictional character’s bucket list. What is on there and why? What does the list reveal about personality/lifestyle? Does it suggest a narrative plot? 

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for In the Ointment

In the ointment
“…Always a fly,
the smallest of things,
this full stop with wings”

This poem was directly inspired by a Verse Kraken prompt and call-out for pieces related to The Tantalizing Fly, featuring Max Fleischer’ silent cartoon character Koko the Clown.

My thoughts flew from one film/literary fly to another with as much wordplay as possible in between. This is not a poem that wants or needs to be taken too seriously, more one to be enjoyed for the momentary buzz and dance of language.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

What kind of poem is this? Comic linguistic word play? Whimsy? Or are there more serious observations about language and life underlying it?

Writing/Inspiration Prompts

1) Take a punctuation mark. Think of real things that resemble it in some way. Can these be combined to construct a narrative, create a humorous poem or make a point?
2) Take an existing poem or story that you’ve written which isn’t quite working. Choose one type of punctuation mark in it. Try re-writing the entire poem/story using only that one type of punctuation mark. Alternatively, re-draft the whole piece without using that type of punctuation mark in it at all.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Re. Composition
P1160355boost and crop ant smaller“Light shifts. I see a French knot,
legs unpicking silk stitches,”

This poem about the perfectness of a small ant was directly inspired by a Magma submissions call for poems about beauty. It is about an ant, but also the nature of beauty itself and what the arts consider beauty.

Based on a real instant in my life, I no longer have the photo that inspired it. (The picture wasn’t a prize-winner but both the poppy and ant were striking.) As it’s not a moment that I’ve ever re-created in any of my later photos, it exists now only in this poem.

However, the pictures here maybe capture an essence of what it is to focus in almost microscopic detail on small creatures easily overlooked or dismissed.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How do you think/feel/react to the jagged mix of long and short lines? Why?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Remember/Imagine either an attempt at something that fails or when a big plan goes wrong. What happens? How do you/ your fictional character(s) deal with it? What unexpected good things might result from this?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for White
frost landscapesmaller

“It clutches ghosts while we sleep,
brittles grass, fragments paths,
corpses leaves.”

In contrast to its name, ‘White’ was written as a poem about the darkness of my winter mood. Concentrating at surface level on the effects of a frost, it is also about how depression distorts everything – how I see the world sometimes changes overnight.

Over the years, my depressions have taken different forms. Depression, like more physically manifested illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, seems to be classified more by a wide range of different symptoms than anything that may or may not be in common as a cause. It is a wide umbrella, under the brim of which I have had bouts of extreme anguish, agitation, emotional pain…. At other times, more numbness, tiredness and lethargy.

None of this is pleasant, though I’ve always been lucky enough to still function and carry on regardless. But, I have come to wonder if the latter type of depression is also necessary, my body’s way perhaps of telling me that I am working too hard and need to take a step back. It is a delicate line to balance between enforced recuperation of energy and slipping into utter pointlessness. But, if I heed the signs and take that step back soon enough, it does give me space to see the light kicked up from weary trainers and then help my body to rebuild some verve.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How far through the poem do you get before you realise what ‘it’ might be? What are the effects of not stating this directly at the start but instead creating a delayed revelation through small hints?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Imagine overnight something happens to you/a fictional character while you’re sleeping. Or that something happens to the world around you/your fictional character. What do you wake to? How do you know that something is different? What happens next?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Meditation on/with/for a Buzz
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“That winter I hang with the bees
above hibernation and frost.”

For me, this poem is about the almost impossible task of concentrating solely on the senses. With every sound, smell, taste, sensation, sooner or later thoughts follow.

The types of meditation I have tried either concentrate on the senses or on repeating a mantra as a focus. When the thoughts come, I try to just observe them and let them go, but this letting go can only happen once I become aware that I am already in the grip of thoughts or imagination…by which stage I might be half-way to the moon, planning the weekly shop or worrying about bills.

Outside of meditation itself, come thoughts about thoughts, these thoughts framed in language. Separating experience from language is hard, even when focussing directly and with as much concentration as possible on the senses. Set against this, the irony that if I examine any word closely enough, it falls to pieces in some way.

I don’t want to even try to paraphrase the work of linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure, simply ask how alike is the word ‘apple’ to things we experience as an ‘apple’? The word itself has no taste, no colour…yet hear someone use the word and I’m able to tap into memories of a certain tang and texture on my tongue. At very least, I have some concept of what they are talking about. Or I think I have. But what is the precise essence of appleness in all the different varieties – Cox, Pippin, Pink Lady – that we might use the word ‘apple’ for?

Thoughts and questions could chase each other round and round for days. Language is a representation, not the actual thing. There is always an arbitrary element to it. Or, as Shakespeare put it in the often paraphrased lines from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose | By any other name would smell as sweet.”

As for the buzz, well, meditation can bring me a great feeling of inner peace, light and clarity. But, by tuning into the senses and things around me, I can also come away from meditation feeling suddenly more awake and alert – almost buzzing, though not in quite such an overly energetic or noisy way.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How easy is it to follow precisely what this poem is describing? Does any potential confusion help to actively demonstrate the arbitrariness of words?

2) If you read this aloud – feeling the sounds in your mouth and on the tongue, as well as the ear – do any of the words start to feel like physical objects in their own right rather than merely noise/symbols in a system (if language)? How and in what way?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Focus first on an object. Then focus on the word that you’d use for that object. Try saying the word aloud, again and again and again. Does the word change the more you say it? What, if any, actual direct similarities are there between the object and the word for that object? Imagine this word was the word for an entirely different object – perhaps that feels more suited/similar in some way to the word. What kind of journey/nightmare/experiment/transformation would be needed to turn the first object into this second object? Is there a poem or story in these observations? Or in the possible reasons behind attempting such a change? (For an example of an existing fictional transformation, consider the pumpkin that becomes Cinderella’s coach.)

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Some Prayer

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“Forget gravity, forget north –
this force is in all directions.”

With depression, I’ve found that there are many cruel months, many hard days. But focussing on the senses and paying attention to the small, very real details of life can help. This kind of mindfulness tends to work best for me when applied to observing things in nature. Even in its changing seasons, there is something constant and reassuring about how the natural world continues no matter what.

The notion of osmosis here ties back into viewing the world as one whole made of many (moving) parts, including me. Also the sense of going with the flow, ‘que sera sera’ (whatever will be, will be). For me, there is a sense of ease in accepting the small part that personal pain plays in a much bigger picture. Most things have silver linings or work out in some way in the end, so long as I allow myself to see the good as well as the bad.

One of the things I try to remember with writing is that the joy is in creation and crafting. Whenever I get a rejection, a piece doesn’t work out as well as I thought, or I feel low about the publicity and promotion side of things (not an introvert’s favourite part of writing for publication), I can dwell on it and feel bad. (This happens and I do feel rubbish.) Or I can throw myself back into writing – either editing the rejected piece to create something even stronger or working on a completely new and different idea.

Publication, performance and prizes can give a much-needed outside perspective. This is particularly valuable to me in an anonymous setting where my work stands on its own right, separated from me, uninfluenced by networking or friendships. But, at the same time, even these are perspectives. One of the hardest things for me on my creative masters course was accepting that there really is no hard and fast this-is-good/bad line. Reaction to art isn’t a science, there is no ph. test. But this subjective aspect of creative appreciation also creates space for a great range.

Art involves an implied relationship or communication between creator and viewer/audience, so there would be no point at all in writing for publication if I wasn’t interested in connecting. But, as an introvert, a lot of the paraphernalia that surrounds publication tends to take energy. It is returning to creation itself, the writing, the crafting that gives me pep. I’ve come to realise that balancing these two differing aspects, along with life’s other energy demands, is very important for me.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

What emotions and sensations does this poem evoke? Which particular words invite an emotional response rather that just giving a basic relatively factual description?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

What everyday activities or objects have a prayerlike quality for you? Where do you/an imaginary character derive energy and inspiration? These might be things that are part of your own daily routine, rituals you’ve observed in others or an imaginary character’s habits. What happens if something interrupts or changes these?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

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