Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts in Wed Reflections

Reflections/poem biography for Imprints

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“Absence is required at the school gate;
my kisses less than a wisp
of mist on the morning’s
laughter-strung air.”

As a fledgling, this poem did exactly what toddlers often do – dressed up in Mum’s jewellery. For jewellery, read symbols here. I love symbols – metaphors, analogies, conceits – albeit that they don’t seem particularly fashionable right now. Of course, as a mum, I do advise my children not to pay too much attention to fad’s fickle foibles. (Yes, that might also be pushing alliteration past current taste levels!) At the same time, this poem was hugely overdressed in its earlier drafts. I had to let go of some of those embellishments, just as I’ve had to let go of my children, so they can discover their own feathers and flight path.

It’s hard not to see children as tiny birds loosed by tree branches, or a mother’s hug, into the big, cold world. But as well as softness, children do have claws, with which to stand alone and grip on when necessary. As my boys grow older, the love is still there, even if sometimes in a form that has to be looked for in order to be seen (window-sill flowers and claw-mark kisses).

As a mum, I hold onto the good memories for those times when fear has me in its grasp and options seem frozen. I also keep them close for the days when the sky is darkened by those inevitable differences of opinion that exist between teenagers and their parents.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How do the images presented in this poem work together to evoke emotion and hidden narrative?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

What has been the hardest person, habit or desire that you’d had to let go. When and how did you do this? How did you recover afterwards? Write a poem or story about being trapped, letting go and/or freedom. 

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 Evolved

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“Pikawotsit’s an electric creature. This much
I’ve gleaned, I think. I’ve asked –
but Pikadespeak’s faster than light-speed.”

Pokémon is an internet game, a television show, a collector card series and many other things that companies can make money from. It was also a fad that my boys went through – briefly, but intensely. I knew nothing about these cartoon characters, and still can’t claim to be hugely informed about their exploits. What interested me was the language, the fact that overnight my children had started talking in words that made no sense to me.

Of course, now that they’re 12 and 14, this is not uncommon. Only the other day, I learned for the first time about rickrolling – duping people into clicking a hyperlink for something that seems logical and relevant but then turns out to be Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. (On the plus side, it was relief to know that the reason they knew this song from my teenage years was not because they thought it was great!)

But Pokémon was the first time this different language phenomena had happened to me, so I thought I might as well have some fun with it, and language more generally.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Does the use of word play humour in this poem help to stop it from becoming too nostalgic or didactic?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take an area of modern life that has developed its own slang – text speak, tech terms, cool kids’ chatter… Try contrasting this with everyday or even old-fashioned language for humorous effect. Is there a poem or story which can be created from such juxtaposition, or from the space that jargon might leave for confused communication or misunderstandings?

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 Wired Flesh

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“I pick up my machine, black weight
of electronics, and slot myself in.
Electricity ticks unheard, sparks ignite.”

I am wary of nostalgia – though that may not be obvious from this poem about a modern family life.

When my children were toddlers, I limited the television that they watched. As they developed their own minds and opinions, this stance became harder to maintain. That their father also works in I.T. is not the only reason that they now lead fairly high-tech lives, though it does help to have home I.T. support for the many questions which are over my head.

Like it or lump it, we live in a high-tech world. The chances are that whatever career or lifestyle my children’s generation go for when they’re older, it will require them to be au fait and comfortable with technology. And the easiest way to learn anything is through play.

Nearly 15, my elder son has known more about computers than me for years now. My twelve year old isn’t far behind. And, to be fair, though I’m not up on gaming and gadgets, I do spend a fair amount of my own time on my laptop word processor or researching from the internet.

This poem then was inspired by one of those moments when my boys were younger. I suddenly looked up and saw our life from the outside. Instead of talking or playing with toys together as we had a few years earler, we were all hooked up to computers. The boys were still interacting, but through their machines.

Because of this, as a family, we do make an effort to spend some time face-to-face in conversation, old-fashioned board games, at the dinner table. But, yes, we have also been known to call them down using skype rather than shouting up the stairs!

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

There are three people in this poem constructed in three-line stanzas. Is this significant or just coincidence? Consider the different effects that may be created using things in threes (crescendo, uneven completeness…) or twos (balance, stark contrast, sense of indecision…).

Inspiration/Writing Prompts

1) What can’t robots and machines do? Is there a poem or story that can be generated from this?
2) What is the strongest connection in your life? How do you maintain your connections? How and where do you most connect with people? What would happen if you suddenly lost this connection/these connections? Use the answers to these questions as the outline for a poem or story.

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 All the Flowers

In the pink

“As we lick the last meringue sweetness
from our spoons, metal shines

brighter than white bones picked clean.”

The main setting for ‘All the Flowers’ is my parents’ tithe barn in the Forest of Dean countryside near Monmouth. With the help of builders and craftsmen, my father converted the disused family barn into a beautiful home. It took years of work, as did the sculpted gardens. Keeping these in this gorgeous state is not a job I envy, though I’m more than happy to enjoy walking in them and admiring the views! The sequence was sparked by admiring all their flowers and then thinking of the potential symbolic significance of flowers at various stages in my life.

My Nanna died when I was a young teenager. Neither she nor my maternal Grandad were alive to see me marry. Taking my bridal bouquet to lay on her tombstone felt very important. The sudden declaration by my father – one day, out of nowhere, during Sunday lunch – that he simply wanted to be buried on the farmland, partly explains why that I’ve only been back once to my Nanna’s grave. Death is a part of life, particularly in a farming family. It is inevitable and other life does go on.

In the back of my mind too, the lyrics to Pete Seeger’s post-war (1955) song that asks, “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?” Fearing death and loss too much can paralyse. But feeling that fear just enough also helps to remind me of how precious life and time are.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How does the title ‘All the Flowers’ pull the various temporally disparate parts of this sequence together?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose a song that evokes a strong emotional response for you. Why does it have this effect, and where does it take your thoughts? Use this as the basis for a new poem or story.

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 Nomadic

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“Dad’s breath shrinks and expands
the room behind me.”

It feels almost tautology to say that my dad has had a great influence on my life. We haven’t always seen eye to eye – what family doesn’t have its discordances? – but his opinion has always been important to me.

At the time of writing this poem (and still now), my parents live on the Gloucestershire-Wales border. This house wasn’t where I was brought up, but is a converted barn on family farmland. It carries the weight of generations. Every visit to see my parents is not just in some way like returning to my childhood, but like returning to my father’s childhood and the family history before that.

When I am there, various childhood ‘me’s seem to rub awkwardly against the adult ‘me’. Working out how I fit into my family, and the wider world, is a constant state of wondering. And also, wandering, though I’m not sure if the process of firming up identity is helped or made harder by having lived in three different places when I was a child, then two university towns and abroad as a student, and Burton, Lichfield, Bromsgrove and Droitwich after that.

Although brought up in the countryside near Monmouth, my dad went to college in London. Meanwhile, my mum is a Londoner who went to University of Wales, Cardiff. Maybe moving around is in the genes, maybe it’s just part of being human. I guess in some sense, we are all nomads when it comes to life, resting here and there as we’re passing through.

When I feel down, depressed or unsure of myself – in terms of poetry or life more generally – returning to words on paper, the art of creation and the crafting of that creation often helps. But sometimes there are no words, particularly in a numbing period of depression. Then, I have to listen to the silence instead and remind myself that there is always some sound. Also, that the words do come back eventually. Patience and waiting are games I’ve had to live with.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) Does this poem actually answer the narrator’s need to work out their “sense of my place in this”? If so, how? If not, why not?

2) Although there isn’t a single question in this poem, arguably it revolves around a sense of questioning, or unvoiced questions. What different effects might be created by the different techniques of direct questions, rhetorical questions, questionless answers (statements which imply an unvoiced question that they are responding to) and withheld background details (that evoke questions in the reader’s mind which may or may not be in the narrator’s mind)?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take a place you know well and that is important to you, or important to someone who is important to you. What signs (visible or in memory) of your/their presence does the place have? How different would the place feel without these? Will any of this be obvious to future generations? Use this as the starting point for a poem or story.

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 Wanting

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“It’s his hands, always his hands.

How fingertips skip from the keyboard
to play arpeggios along my arm.”

And the man in this poem is           . [Insert fantasy name and physique of your choice. Okay, so I’m only kidding with the names, though reality tv, soft porn and tabloid spilling the beans do seem to have become a solid part of popular culture.]

Originally, this poem was part of a pamphlet-length collection of poems ‘When Sunlight (Swims In)’ exploring a modern relationship, marriage and parenthood. A selection of poems from this were longlisted in the Venture Award 2012/2013, but many didn’t survive the distance to make it into a full collection.
‘Wanting’ is one of the few that did. By focussing on hands, I’m hoping this poem of attraction and lust may have escaped any danger of a female gaze objectifying men. I may lose some of that high ground though, when I admit that this isn’t about any one man, more a mixture of snapshots. All these men’s suggestive hand movements are brought together in one poetry ‘he’.

Form-wise, music played quite a big part in my original pamphlet. In this poem, I wanted the opening piano-related observation to unfold as notes do in a musical scale. The stanza length, therefore, is a kind of poetry octave crescendo, from one line to two lines to three lines…all the way up to an eight-line stanza and then back to a single line again.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How does this poem use structure to set up, reinforce and break expectations? (The crescendoing piano-scale stanza lengths, ‘how’ at the start of 7 of the 8 stanzas, the sudden change in focus for the final single-line stanza…)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Write a poem or story focussing on part of the body. Explore how suddenly changing focus at the end might turn the poem/story on its head, or encourage people to re-read the whole piece in an entirely different light.

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 This Holy Shrine

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“We are not pilgrims. Our feet ache, tempers
stumble in the Venetian heat. We seek…”

Once we were close, then we got closer.

This poem was inspired by a trip to Venice with my husband, our first foreign holiday for just the two of us since our children were born. Inevitably, over a decade filled with nappies, weaning, and parenting early teenage angst, a relationship changes. Setting years of marriage against the honeymoon destination of Venice, and young love’s Romeo and Juliet (those pilgrim palms), this was always going to be a poem of contrasts. But how else does one know how far one has come without placing the journey in the context of its starting point?

For me, nothing in life is so certain that it can safely be taken for granted, not even the longest-standing relationship. Each day, we are in some way foreigners – exploring each other’s geography and mindscapes.

But life and love aren’t just about the things in common, the things enjoyed, the pleasures shared. Perhaps the things that bind us bind as strongly, if not more strongly, for the trials and tribulations survived together.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Is it obvious that this 12-line poem was once a sonnet, with its concluding couplet then removed? What are the dangers of ending a poem with a concluding or summarising couplet? How would you choose to end this poem?

Writing Prompt

Think about a memorable holiday. Write a summarising or concluding couplet that encapsulates the holiday as a whole. Now use this as the starting point for a poem or story with more details, narrative, characterisation etc, focussing in a specific part or aspect of the trip if necessary. When you’ve finished, consider whether you need the couplet at the end or as part of the title. Or can you get rid of it all together?

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 Small Deceptions

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“A leopard that transforms its spots
without using paint, or photoshop.”

Although I’m not a scientist, my husband was a physicist, and I have a curiosity about the world, which can sometimes, if not always, be satisfied through science.

This sequence started with the small observation that masses of water like oceans and seas appear blue, while the actual liquid that trickles through fingers is clear.

From this small deception, due to how sight and light work, into the science of perception of colours. From there, to more deliberate human manipulations of reality, truth and appearance. Also, how words may be used to lie by omission if not outright untruth. This, sometimes as subtly as the change from ‘lust’ to ‘last’ to ‘lost’, where each small alternation in surface sound/spelling actually carries a far greater significance meaning-wise.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

This sequence alternates between parts with straight-forward couplets and parts where stanza breaks occur part-way through lines. Is this use of form effective or distracting? Why?

Inspiration/Writing Prompts

1) Make up a blatant lie about something, something that is obviously untrue – in this world. Now imagine a place where this lie is actually the truth. If you want to develop this a step further, imagine what might happen if characters from these two different worlds met for the first time, both believing their view of the world is the correct one. What if they suddenly found themselves in the place where the exact opposite is true?
2) Create a list of lies poem. Start with a small subtle deception that might pass unnoticed. Gradually stretch the truth further and further, building up to an outrageously blatant fabricaion.

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 On the Brink of Adultery

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“Longing pulls us to sure gaps
between words, hands, lips –
to lunge.”

Temptation, temptation everywhere… I often think that those who have never been tempted, not even the slightest, must either be good at self-delusion or avoidance. Whereas being tempted seems quite natural, following temptation is of course a different, and a potentially altogether more dangerous and hurtful, decision – as this poem explores.

Sex and love are two very different things, though we may often choose to tie them together. Trust is important, and breaking trust is hard for most of us to recover from. I’ve never seen much point in po-faced about real life though; we’re all human and I do believe that relationships have their own unique natural life span – be that several months, years…or whole lifetimes.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

Does framing this poem’s potentially destructive scenario using a conceit (rather than a more ‘real life’ example) narrow or widen its scope? Is a poem harder or easier to read when it allows the reader some distance from strong emotions? Does this change a poem’s potential impact?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take the most important belief or value that you – or a fictional character – cling onto and structure your/their life or relationships around. Think of a real occasion – or create a fictional scenario – in which this is put to the test, or even broken. What happens and how do you/they deal with it?

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 throughrose-tintedglasses/plentymore/Drowningone’sclichés

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“my fingers butterfly
through air; dive from the page –
my mind’s wrecked lake”

Yes, this piece probably wins the prize for my longest ever poem title, and also explains the collection title. ‘Plenty-fish’ was inspired not by the dating agency that I’ve since learned shares this name, but my playing with the phrase ‘plenty more fish in the sea’.

In this case, the wine-fuelled, lovelorn musings take place not by the sea but overlooking a subtropical indoor swimming pool. (Real love should be taken seriously; less so, those experiences that are dressed as love at the time but later turn out to be in drag. We love, we learn, we laugh.)

But a light ironical touch is, of course, partly the joy of not being single. Remembering heartbreak in a poem is altogether a gentler experience than going through it in real life.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

How much work does this poem’s title do? Does it carry too much weight compared to the poem? Ideally, what do you think the best titles should do? (Tease, hint, set the scene, establish an analogy or conceit, pull varied threads together, summarise…?)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

What in your life feels like swimming/trying to swim? Write a poem or story about actual swimming, using swimming as an analogy/conceit or combining both.

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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