Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts in Prompts/resources

Reflections/poem biography for Bewitching

“The porch collects birch twigs, cats
and a spellbinding past…”
Night lines 2smaller“the giant stride of our electric men,
their wired arms flying heat and light
into these cold, dark landscapes.”

Another not strictly autobiographical poem, ‘Bewitching’ was inspired by staying with family in the grounds of Muncaster Castle at Halloween. The crucifix lodge is real but the specific details of cats and mushrooms added to strengthen the poem’s overall thrust.

For me, this is a poem not about magic but perspective. There is the way that unfamiliar countryside traditions might seem strange to outsiders, to the point of herbal cures being labelled magic or sorcery. By contrast, isn’t electricity, which we all take now as an everyday fact, just as magical in its own way? And what about all the phenomena that science and logic still can’t explain?

More about electricity as inspiration and imagery can be found in my Wellcome Collection commisioned feature Creative Energy: how electromagnetic therapy inspired me.

flashes2Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How necessary is the footnote in this poem? What are the potential benefits and disadvantages of footnotes in general? When would or wouldn’t you use them?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

1) What does your/a fictional character’s porch collect? Are there any secrets hidden in the dark corners, beneath the roof tiles or behind cobwebs?

2) Choose a modern invention that has become so much of your/a fictional character’s everyday that you/they take it for granted. What happens if this lost? And if it had never been invented at all? How would life change? How do you/they adapt? What might be invented instead?

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 The Hummingbird Case

hummingbirdsmaller“This case shimmers with lives
spun from sun, textured
with oceans, forests, skies…”

This poem was inspired by an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London. I was torn between awe at how beautiful these birds are and horror at them being killed and stuffed simply for decoration.
Mostly, we live in a different world now, though it would be a mistake to think that animals aren’t still slaughtered in some areas of world simply for greed and people’s need to own something beautiful.

To do nothing seems wrong, yet it isn’t always easy to know how to change things. Words are my best tool, though these are nothing without people on the ground actively working to make a difference.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

This poem was published in a Magma issue considering ‘beauty’. What other abstract qualities does this poem illustrate or make you think about? How and why?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Visit a museum – for real or online. Pick an exhibit. Describe it and why you chose it using as many senses as possible. Imagine how it ended up there, the stories it might tell and what wisdoms it might reveal?

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 Museum Offering
seed fern sarah james smaller

“This fossil alters the shape of my palm.
Flesh moulds to its mineral coldness,”

The simple but beautiful seed fern fossil is a key example of something that puts the smallness of each individual life into perspective. More of it remains, and recorded so beautifully in stone, than is ever likely to be found of me that many millions of years later.

In some ways, this poem also echoes back to ‘Elliptic’. Cold stone set in contrast to warm, loud, continuing current life; the holding of mankind or personal history in the hand as a reminder of the importance of life, and making the most of that life.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

This poem is structured in 4-line stanzas with a final concluding couplet (all non-rhyming). Does this change in structure at the end of the poem work? Why? What are the general advantages and pitfalls of a concluding couplet, or a final stanza that is half the length of a poem’s other regular length stanzas?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Close your hand to a fist. Now open it. Imagine something is revealed in your palm, be it a physical object, your lifeline, a scar… What inspiration, narrative or insights might this imagined ‘thing’ evoke? How? Why? Where did it come from? And what do you do with it 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 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
pied smaller
“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

shells 2 smaller

“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.

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