Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts in Workshop/prompt/resources

I’m absolutely delighted to be able to share some of the wonderful work created as part of my first From Anguish to Art/ From Pain to Poetry Workshop at St Paul’s Hostel, Worcester, on July 1.

Chosen item: Green marker pen by Claire Badsey

Glow in the dark green, head of black
When you’re extremely sad there’s no coming back.
It leaves an indelible, unshakeable mark
It remains as a permanent scar upon your heart.
It leaves a stain that you cannot ever clean
Unlike the colourful glow in the dark fluorescent green.

I suppose life is like a permanent marker
We`re always searching for a permanent happy ever after.

Claire Badsey’s questions based on a bottle of perfume:

-Do you enhance a lady’s charm?
-Do you have to caress a wrist, neck & arm?
-Do you look elegant on the dressing table?
-Are you a favourite scent of Auntie Mable?
-Are you a sleek, elongated shape?
-Do you settle & nestle on the neck’s nape?
-Do you exist if nobody can smell you?

Claire Badsey’s Questions based on the Rubik cube:

-Is that shade of orange the only one you could have had?
-Do nine squares on each side make sense to you?
-How is it to be cuboid?
-Are you comfortable being mixed up?
-Do you feel like a toy or a puzzle?
-Is it puzzling to twist & turn?
-For what Rubik cube do you yearn?

P1010961Claire Badsey’s thoughts on a reindeer tea light holder

Things that get left out long after they are needed
Stuff around, has to go up the stairs
Reindeer tea light holders smoulder
Scrunched up dove pictures
Tea towels with holly on shouldn’t be there
Not now, not in July.
Let me breathe before Christmas comes again
Let me learn & grow & forget before I remember it all.


Rubik cube chosen by Adam:

It’s confusing
A Brain teaser
1 in 5 people
Solve it.
Spend hours
Twisting squares
Finding combinations.

P1010962Paul: A Gift Bag

Gift bag to me is a way of expressing
Joy & happiness
And to say thanks.
And it`s made someone’s day
By making it as a design.

Paul: The glass

The glass it’s a control on my behalf
If I want to go down that road
Or not down that road
That’s how I see the glass
Whether I want to put beer in it or not.

Paul: Questions on a Pen

-Would the doctor think I’m mad speaking to a pen?
-Is it best to be half full or half empty?
-Does the actual pen know the actual power it holds within human beings?
-Why can’t you ever find one when you want one?

Paul’s Poem:

The Pen

What I would mean “Is a pen mightier than the sword?”
A very famous saying, but what does it mean?
Is it in relation to my definition?
Is it best to be half full or half empty?
I’d leave that up to personal opinion.

P1010787croppedPhil’s response to the gift-bag question ‘What do you want to be when you get recycled?’

Answer: Artist’s paper for an exhibition
When the artist’s finished the painting & done creating someone will buy & be appreciating.

Phil’s thoughts based on a Rubik cube:

Rubik cube is very simple yet so complicated. A logical game that challenges you. Has a celebrity status that’s created celebrities because a lot of people love the Rubik cube.

Phil’s Questions based on a glass

-Are you heavy?
-How much drink can you hold?
-How did you get that shape?
-Why are you shiny?
-How are you clear?

Tom: Poem on a Balloon

Blow, blow the balloon blows
The intake of air
The stretching of rubber
The pressure of life
In a small little bubble.
Bang, there she goes
No one knows
Up into space
Vanished in a trace.
Let’s all say grace.

Nathaniel’s Thoughts on a remote control:

A remote control, it can take you to people. discarded lives & how they suffer.
It can take you on your travels to far flung places of the world from the comfort of your sofa, & I can take you under the sea to see plenty of fish without getting wet.

Tony’s Thoughts on a pen:

It’s a bit like my life at the moment
As in it’s all mixed up & not fully stable as my life at this moment
As I have a lot going on.
It’s like a PC hard drive
All full of fragments & it takes time to apply & sort out. But it all dries in the end & turns into a hard fresh surface.

Tony’s Questions based on a pen:

-What is it like being a pen?
-What do you do to pass the time?
-Do you go out much?
-Do you have partners?
-Do you work?
-Do you have a hobby/
– Do you drive?

Gerry’s poems:

The Pen

The pen, creator of happiness & misery
A tool so powerful it can sway minds & emotions.
What pain have I caused by my gift of writing?
I can only guess & imagine & wish the hurt away.
Once written, never forgotten.
We live in a world of the instant
Facebook, email & technology
Instantaneous regrets
Ah – the message has gone
Never to be undone!
Can I explain, will they understand fully
What I meant to say, what I meant to reveal?
All will be settled one day in the final score.


You pulled your heart out in your poetry
Inspired by images from the news
Of young lives blighted by the horror of Aids
Long before treatments were discovered.
You were all heart & feelings & love for everyone
With special love for children who adored you in return.
You had so much potential, born one of twelve children
Sharing shoes & taking turns to go to school.
Passing the 11+ to go on to higher education
Not able to, like so many of your generation.
Unable to fulfil your potential
You brought all your energy, love & enthusiasm
Into bringing up your children
Ensuring they had the best possible chances you could give them.
You wore yourself out & left us too soon
A void impossible to fill, a heartache too big
Unending after all these years.

Charley’s poem based on a starfish:

I’m shining up in the sky
Way up above nice & high
Twinkling like a shining star
Just like the fame of my lyrics
That have come from afar
That I’m a lyrical magician
Cus I’m a unique person with a unique personality
That rises up from tragedy.

The Power of Pain

I have been thinking about pain a lot lately. Physical, mental and emotional pain, I’ve felt them all – but then, who hasn’t. Welcome to the human race, I hear pain say.

In particular this week, I’ve been thinking about pain in terms of the Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art writing workshops I am running as part of The Magnetic Diaries ACE-funded tour. But I’ve also been thinking more widely – about pain and purpose, about pain as both universal yet also very personal.

I should probably caveat my thoughts first by saying that there is no medical basis, they are simply my thoughts – some drawn from personal experience, others from watching and trying to help people in pain.

Long-term pain, of any sort, is energy-draining and can make people close down/narrow the world and become more self-centred. This partly because of the energy pain takes and sometimes also the importance that escaping pain at all cost can take on. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious, as also with noting that the levels at which pain strike are very personal. Women’s stories of labour are a prime example for me of how different the same/similar experience can be felt by different people.

So, if these are obvious, why state them? For me, remembering that we all have different pain thresholds, different pain triggers even, is important because it highlights the value of compassion, understanding and open-mindedness. What is a blip to one person may seem the end of the world to another. This is okay, it is part of what makes us wonderfully human, and part of what makes us beautifully individual within our shared humanity.

Using Pain

But, back to the power of pain or, more importantly, its purpose. Physical, mental or emotional pain is a signal. It tells us there is something wrong, something that needs attention, something that needs to change. This is as true of emotional and mental pain as it is of physical pain caused by burns, broken bones or blisters. The cause may be less obvious, but the pain is still there to wake us up, make us pay attention, jolt us into finding the problem so that we can fix it. In other words, it can make us take action where we might otherwise fail to do so.

Now, I’m not a masochist or a sadist, I don’t search out pain and I wouldn’t ascribe to any thwarted genius school of writing that might glorify pain as an essential means of attaining anything. I don’t believe suffering is necessary to achieve great art and would happily dispense with pain altogether wherever possible. (And, of course, some types of pain – such as long-term physical conditions, grief or loss – have sadly unchangeable causes.) But I do believe that where pain is unavoidable, it might as well be used, the silver lining found within the grey coating. Some of the most painful things in my life have ultimately turned out to bring important insights and changes – not by wallowing in the pain, but by listening to it, then acting on it to make life better.

Brene Brown has some great TED talks that not just touch on pain, but also vulnerability (it is not weakness but courage and “the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”), shame, the danger of bandaging over pain without finding the root cause (trying to avoid pain can cause more harm long-term)… She puts all these aspects better and more entertainingly than I can. (Maybe try her talk on vulnerability or shame for starters.)

We all feel pain, and most of us probably also cause our fair share, though hopefully unwittingly. Truth is pain is not something for guilt or shame, it happens, use it, learn from it, grow from it.

And if you think writing might be a way of using pain for a purpose, then please do look out for my Pain to Poetry or Anguish to Art writing workshops or check Lapidus for other writing facilitators in your area.

The past month or so I have been sifting for the Booktrust/BBC Young Writer’s Award. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that with any kind of editing, feedback or competition judging, comes clearer insight too into my own practice.

I’ve not written much about fiction on my blog, so thought I’d share a few thoughts about what makes for good fiction. Of course, I’ll also caveat this by saying straight off that none of these is unbreakable or stone-set – it is, as ever, the exceptions that prove the rule.

Short Fiction Tips

1. A dramatic situation is not the same as story/plot.

2. A story/plot is more than just an anecdote or string of incidents.

3. Good characterisation alone doesn’t make a story, though it might be a large part of one.

4. Show not tell. (Yes, we all know it, but it’s worth being reminded.)

5. Good dialogue can be a good way of hiding a certain amount of telling.

6. Background is useful but tends to work best when seamless and drip-fed into the action rather than forced at readers in large chunks.

7. Choose details carefully – both in terms of action and background. We don’t need to know everything that happens or has happened, only those details that keep the action flowing, strengthen characterisation and keep the piece vivid.

8. Balance! Striking metaphors/description/adjectives are great tools. Using too little of these can lead to writing that feels flat, unless a piece is deliberately spare/edgy (where other unusual or striking features might be used instead to raise the piece above the ordinary – such as playing with syntax,varying sentence lengths, strong verbs). But cram too many of these in (or use metaphors linking to too wide a range of different realms) and it can feel try too hard or merely decorative. It is also potentially distracting and may feel like a loss in focus, dissipating a piece’s intensity and energy.

9. Enjoy the writing! (There is great energy in the enjoyment of the creation, and if that is there during the writing, some of it will inevitably and naturally filter into the piece.)

Other Snippets of News

‘Atlased’, a sequence of 12 21-word flashes, published on Jellyfish Review.

New Pamphlet Launch!!!

COVER HIGH RES JPEGLampshades & Glass Rivers (Loughborough University’s Lamplight Press)

Lampshades and Glass Rivers is Sarah’s winning sequence from the 2015 Overton Poetry Prize.

From the book cover:

Lampshades & Glass Rivers follows a young woman’s love, marriage and attempts to conceive. Ada’s experiences are set against the background of her grandmother’s fleeing from Poland during the war. That suffering is always present, although unvoiced, along with her grandmother’s strength and endurance.

“A ‘red-throated song’ full of rooms containing relationships and rhythms that both comfort and disrupt the reader, as a family gathering might, one where tales are told in muted light, alternately sombre and heroic. These are tales of new life, old life and the edge of life – a heart-full and tender collection.”
Sarah Kelly

“A carefully controlled sequence full of a woman’s half-told stories. There are fragile surfaces of glass and skin, but there is also an energy which finds anagrams and half-rhymes to play with. Twenty moments of experience and memory, rich in striking imagery.”
Kerry Featherstone

WINNER of the 2015 Overton Poetry Prize

The pamphlet will be launched at Loughborough University, Evernden Studio on Tuesday, March 15 from 7pm -8.30pm. Free entry.

Lampshades Launch

Other News

The Fibonnacci Shell: published in the fib review;
Hospital Glass published in Salopeot;
Holidaying and Beautiful accepted for PN Review;

Hearth reviewed in Under the Radar – “…achieves considerable breadth and grace…The two poets manage that rare thing, looking back to childhood with feeling but not sentimentality…the echoing topics (including fires, pianos, pins and buttons, music, and, most importantly to the English, tea) fit snugly as good dove-tail joints…an ideal gift…” Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Under the Radar, issue 16

A new Editorial Services/Workshops page on my website for anyone looking for feedback on their poems or poetry workshops.

Last month I blogged about what a wonderful time I’d had at Chawson First School in Droitwich, sharing some of my poems in the school assembly. The children were amazingly receptive and enthusiastic, so much so that some of them went away and wrote their own poems after the visit.

One of the things that I particularly enjoy as a writer when I go into a school is the freedom to explore imagination and creativity outside of the usual curriculum demands and to simply have fun with words, sounds and ideas.

I’m absolutely delighted to have permission to share one of the resulting poems on my blog. This imaginative and humorous poem from Emily-Grace in Year 4 really demonstrates what I love about this kind of work.

Waiter, there’s a slug in my soup, it’s slithering.

Waiter, there’s a snail in my soup, surly you don’t think I’m French?

Waiter, there’s a dog in my soup, now I’ve got fleas!

Waiter, there’s nothing in my soup, it’s perfect!

Emily-Grace, Year 4, Chawson First School

A video version of one of the poems that I shared at Chawson can be found below and here is a link to the link to a pdf of my poem Animal Soup.

It’s been a while since I posted a writing prompt so here’s one I’ve had squirrelled away for a sunny day!

Squirrels are notorious hoarders, of course. But so are humans. For this exercise, I’m going to suggest you consider the following questions and see if they inspire anything.

What do you hoard? (These could be physical objects or emotional ones.)

Where do you bury the things you ‘hoard’ and why? Do you bury them for safe keeping? To try to hide them or to pretend they don’t exist?

Who do/would you share them with?

If someone/something stole one, how would you feel?

Do you like hoarding this thing/emotion? Or would you prefer to hoard something else and, if so, what?

And when/why do you dig them up?

If these questions don’t inspire you, then you could try going back to the squirrel picture above. Start with physical, factual description of this animal and see where that takes you.

The link between love and poetry is a long-standing one. So, with tomorrow being Valentine’s Day, my prompt this week is one that will hopefully get to the ‘heart of the matter’. Or the ‘dark of the matter’, if that’s what you prefer!

On Friday, I received a marketing postcard from featuring a picture of a bottle with what looks like notes inside and a quotation from ‘Night at the Met’ in 77 Love Sonnets by Garrison Keillor:

“Not all dark thoughts need to be expressed.
“Know that I love you. Forget the rest.”

Whether you feel romantic or anti-flowers and hearts, whether you’re inspired to write a ‘love’ poem or the maybe the opposite, hopefully there is something for you in this quotation. If not love itself, perhaps the theme/notion of expression and communication, dark matter or dark thoughts, forgetting – or not forgetting – that might start you off.

Alternatively, suppose the sold or captured love in a bottle, what would it look, smell, feel, taste and sound like? What would, or should, the bottle itself be like?

Hopefully, something in this post will prove inspirational and that everyone enjoys a love-ly day tomorrow!

I’m sure we’re not the only household that gets fed up with junk mail. Sometimes it seems like we’re forever recycling unsought letters – but I want to recycle it in inspirational way for today’s writing prompt.

Take the last piece of junk mail you received. (Or the next if you’ve already binned the last piece you received!)

Have a read. Instead of looking on it as just rubbish, you might see if there’s a found poem hiding in the words on the page. Or perhaps there’s something in there that might work as the theme for a new poem or short story – home, insurance, credit, banks…? Alternatively could junk mail provide a theme in itself? Or just the general theme of rubbish?

What junk is there in your life? What is the first thing you would throw out if you could, and why? Is there’s something you know you really ought to get rid of but can’t quite bring yourself to clear out? Why not? What does your junk say about you as person? Are there emotions, habits, personality traits etc that you would throw out if you could? And, if you don’t want to apply these questions to your life, how about applying them to someone else you know or a character in one of your poems or stories.

Of course, chucking out the junk is also something you can apply to your work when editing…

Whatever it inspires, hopefully this prompt will turn plain junk it into a writing junket  – so that, for once, reading your junk mail has not been a completely wasted exercise!

I’ve been enjoying reading Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, so I thought I’d use her ‘Poet’s Work’ as inspiration this week – not so much as a prompt for a new poem from scratch but for redrafting.

You can read Niedecker’s beautifully concise poem about the art/work of condensing in poetry at: .

Of course, if this poem on its own sparks you into writing, so much the better. If not, my suggested challenge this week is an editing one.

Choose a poem that’s not too recent, that you don’t considered finished and that you’re not too attached to in its present shape.

The challenge is to try and reduce – or condense – this poem to half its original word count. If you can manage this straight-off then that’s great.

But if you get stuck, you might consider making a copy of your original poem and cutting out every other line. Take what’s left then and see what happens if use this as a starting point for either a different version/draft of your original poem or even as the framework for an entirely new poem, preferably without referring back to the original.

By the end, you may decide there’s very little you actually want or need to change in your original, in which case enjoy its strengths. Alternatively, you may find you end up keeping only one or two lines from your original giving you a new draft or entirely new poem to have fun with.

Snow Snippet

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It’s been a ‘white’ fantastic end to 2010, what with the festive snow, family, food and, yes, the odd glass of mulled wine.

But, of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas round here without a sprinkling of words and some snowy pix to share:

Before It Snows

spread wings tick the autumn skies
air sings closed beaks
her boyfriend eyes the bird across the street
migrating songs
race winter’s snowfall

That’s one my last poetic flakes of the year. So looking forward to 2011, writer Fiona Robyn is launching a special project for writers and non-writers to kick off the new year.  NaSmaStoMo. National Small Stone Month starts on January 1 and invites people to write daily stones – small snippets based on close observation. You can check out the details here: .

Wishing everyone a very peaceful, happy and – of course – poetic New Year! 😉

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