Hidden things/Looking closer (August 2020)

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For this month’s prompt, I’m going to invite you to select five objects (or creatures) – from indoors, outdoors or a mixture of both. Examine each closely from different angles and note down what they look like, what they sound and smell like, their texture and any other impressions that they make on you. Is there anything about them that you hadn’t noticed before? What is, or might, be hidden if the object not observed closely from a range of angles? (If this isn’t flowing automatically, then try just free-writing for around 5 minutes after using as many senses as possible to consider each object in turn ie write the first things that come into your head for each object, writing without stopping for around five minutes.) Look back at what you’ve written and underline any striking descriptions or ideas in these notes/stream-of-consciousness. If there’s a flow or link between several of them, use these as the bones and construct your poem around them. If they don’t link together well, then pick one or two and explore their possibilities as a poem title, opening line, closing line or simply inspiration line into a new poem.

H(ear) H(ear) (July 2020)

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The theme for this year’s The Poetry Society Stanza competition is ‘Hear’, so I thought I’d borrow this for this month’s prompt. (Full details of the competition, entry requirements and deadline can be found here.) Start by closing your eyes wherever you are, and listening. What can you hear in the room/space immediately around you and what can you hear outside or further away? Can you identify what all the sounds are? If you didn’t know where you where, but had only the sounds to help identify the place, where might you think you are? If this alone prompts some inspiration, great. If not, maybe try doing the same thing in different parts of the house, garden or elsewhere outside. Do these produce any interesting contrasts? Could you use these observations to create a soundscape in words instead of a visual scene? Another way into this prompt is to think about any real or imagined incidents involving unheard or misheard noises or words, and any confusions resulting from that? Alternatively, can you collect a selection of short overheard words or phrases from different places/conversations and then weave them into an entirely new poem? Or take just one or two overhearings and see if you can apply them in/to an entirely different context to create a surreal or humorous effect. If you’re into political protest and writing, maybe you could focus on a message that needs to be heard. Or how about a poem entirely in slang or a particular dialect? Other possibilities for exploring hearing and sound might be to choose a piece of music and see how listening to it inspires you. The mechanics and science of hearing, and how the ear works, is also a potential source of inspiration. Perhaps pick an animal that interests you and consider how important the sense of hearing is for that creature, whether it hears different pitches (like dog whistles) compared to humans or if it uses sound for navigation, measuring distance etc (eg bats)… I look forward to hearing where the prompt takes you!

Masks (June 2020)

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masks - in the black & white light of dayFace masks may never have been more in the news than with covid-19. There have probably never been more kinds/designs either, from those made at home from scrap material and bra cups to those being sold like fashion items. Some are for safety of others. Some are safety of others and the wearer. It’s been hard watching some protestors in America out there without masks, and worrying for them on so many counts. For this prompt, you could take inspiration from current masks in the current context or masks worn more generally – in hospitals perhaps, but also by those working in some industries that require facial protection. You could also think about masks in a more historic or metaphorical context. What masks/personas/social appearances do we put on? Why? When? And what are they designed to hide? Or, perhaps in a period of ‘virtual signalling’, what are they designed to demonstrate? You might think about the mystery and appeal of glittery masked balls, the masked face as a symbol of protest in the film V for Vendetta, masks used in theatre https://www.britannica.com/art/mask-face-covering/Theatrical-uses or masks worn for modesty, for ceremony or to make people laugh. (Why is it that clown faces are sometimes more frightening than they are funny?) You might use tension between the mask and what lies beneath to power the poem, perhaps with a dramatic moment of revelation. Or the mask might be a symbol that grows to greater strength than what lies behind it, with no reveal or a revealing that turns out to be a disappointment. Have fun!

Winning (May 2020)

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Winning is the current The Poetry Society members-only Poetry News competition (deadline 4 May 2020). I don’t know what the competition judge is looking for, but it’s an unusual and interesting theme to use as the prompt leading up to our May meeting. What would like you like, or not like, to win – and why? (For those who want to try a humorous slant, the choice here could be particularly useful in tipping a poem that way, if it were, for example, the smelliest socks contest or an award for the worst Dad joke.) What might you win, and how would you feel about it? How would you (or your poem’s narrator) feel if you/they didn’t win? What motivates the wanting to win, or not wanting to win? Who supports you in this and how? Who doesn’t support you, or maybe even actively tries to sabotage your chances? How does the notion of winning affect your enjoyment/experience of whatever it is that’s entered/competing? Alternative viewpoints might include writing this as an audience member or judge rather than from the entrant/winner/loser’s perspective? It could even be written in the voice of an object entered into a competition. It might also be fruitful to consider what happens if your re-frame the notion of ‘winning’ slightly to eg ‘success’, ‘achievement’ or even simply ‘fulfilment’/’satisfaction’. Have a play with the theme, and if nothing immediately catches your attention, simply start by free-writing (writing continuously without stopping) whatever comes into your head on that theme for 5 minutes. Then pick a phrase or idea in this that really appeals to you and use that as the starting point for you poem, which may then not be about winning at all but something completely different. Enjoy!

Other Worlds (April 2020)

Given the strange world we’re living in at the moment with Covid 19, I’d like to invite people to step out of this world into another one, inspired by one or several of the photos here. Pick a photo and allow yourself to feel fully immersed in its world. The photo tells you what the scene looks like but how does it sound, smell, feel, taste…? What might be happening just off-camera? Once you feel you’re really experiencing this other world, start writing. (And if you end up with a short positive poem (12 lines maximum) that you’d like to send to LitWorld2, submissions guidelines are here.)

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Living underwater (March 2020)

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This prompt includes various options. The first is to think about the recent local flooding. You might choose to focus on your own direct experience or on something you’ve seen or read in the news. Think about the effects of people’s daily routines and lives. What are the effects on wildlife and landscape, and are temporary or permanent? If you want to widen this out further, maybe consider how this might fit with climate change or look at other world natural disasters from tsunamis to forest fires and bushfires. What happens if you end up cut off by water and isolated? What kinds of damage feel the worst and why? (Fences blown down, trees blocking roads, impassable flood water, buildings and homes being flooded…) How do people/wildlife/the landscape recover from this?
An alternative to the flooding prompt might be to create a more imaginary underwater scene or narrative – you could take on the viewpoint of a current marine creature, explore past and new myths featuring water nymphs/sea deities or visualise the world in the future dealing with the effects of climate change.
A third possibility is to choose a favourite sea or river memory. This might be from a holiday, somewhere near to where you live or somewhere you’ve seen in a painting or photo.
Whichever option you choose, try to explore it using as many senses as possible to make your poem as vivid as possible. Happy writing!

A Sense of Identity (February 2020)

multiple mes3This month I’m going to suggest exploring the theme of identity. This could be individual identity, group or national identity. Or you could pick an object and write about its identity. What are the essential (physical and non-physical) characteristics of the identity you’ve chosen to look at? (What makes you you? Or it it?) Does how the individual/country etc sees themselves differ from how other might see them? How do heredity and history, memory and past experience fit into the current identity? How much would have to change for the person/country/object to no longer be that person, country/object? Is all sense of identity a fluid and continuously changing thing? Does the person or object that you’ve chosen adopt a different identity or seem different if placed in a different context or surrounded by different people? How does this identity change and why? Are there things that you as poet-narrator would like to change about this identity? What, why and what mind happen if these changes did take place? Finally, if you’d like an extra consideration, what happens to your draft poem’s own identity as you write it? Does the poem’s form and structure affect its identity, or does its identity dictate its form and structure? Do they work well together in complementing combination or react against each to create poetic tension? Happy writing!

Waste Not, Want Not (January 2020)

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One side of Christmas that we may not always think about is the potential wastage. Meanwhile, the new year is about new beginnings and making things new. January’s prompt is aimed at combining the two by thinking about what may go to waste over the festive period and how we might re-purpose them creatively. These might include wrapping paper, unused food, Christmas cards, realisations of wasted time. List a few things that you typically waste, or might waste, over the festive break. Spend a few minutes making notes about each of these. Think about how you might avoid wastage, re-using or re-purposing, whether you throw it away, recycle it, turn it onto art, donate or give it to someone else. What do you hope will happen to the things that you don’t need? What do you fear might be the reality? Free-write about these without worrying about poetry or editing, just jotting down the thoughts that occur. Afterwards, look back over these notes to see if you can find the seeds for a new poem/poems within them.

One thing I like to do with old magazines, cards and wrapping paper is use them for artistic collages. If anyone fancies an extra challenge/structuring technique, try choosing details from several different items that you’ve thought about and see if you can piece them together into a poetry collage – either as one poem or as a sequence.

In many ways poetry forms/structures, palimpsests, inspiration from reading/art etc, literary allusions, erasure poetry, cut-up techniques might be considered types of word/poetry recycling/re-purposing. So, if you’re looking for an extra focus/inspiration, maybe consider using some of the techniques – just remember to attribute and reference appropriately.

Food, glorious food – and other interesting tastes or scents! (November 2019)

DSC_0726 stanza food promptHalloween is trick or treat sweets and pumpkin pie. Bonfire Night is toffee apples and candyfloss. Christmas is mulled wine, roast turkey, cranberry sauce and brandy snaps. School is stewed cabbage and sweaty sports halls. Or are they? Think about the strongest or most distinctive smells and tastes that you’ve experienced and what memory or memories they take you back. Explore where these thoughts and memories lead you. Hopefully, there will be the seeds of at least one poem in this prompt. (If your memory needs more nudging, find a scent that you have around the house today – such as shoe polish, a deodorant, perfume, bubble bath, soap, talc, cleaning product, old shoes, a peeled orange or open jar of food. Start writing, even at just a simple descriptive level about the object in front. Keep writing for 2-5 minutes without stopping and without thinking too much about what you’re writing as long as words are going down on the paper/screen. Then reread this and see if there are any phrases or ideas that might become the door into a new poem.)

IMG_8957How old? How young? (October 2019)

For this month’s prompt I’m going to ask people to think about aging. This could be aging of a person, an animal, a plant, a tree, a landscape or an object – real or imaginary. Have you chosen someone or something young, old or middle-aged? What are the tangible characteristics that give away that age? Maybe think first of things like skin, bones, voice, texture, speed…then also about outlook, interests, worries and foci. Perhaps outer appearances are deceptive. What would we be surprised to know about that person/thing? What might the future bring? What are their strongest memories or highlights from the past? What are their hopes and regrets? If you kept things like the hopes and fears etc the same but changed their age and interests dramatically, would the poem be more interesting? Or less believable? (Another approach, may be to choose two distinctly different age characters or objects and go through these questions for both, then mix and match between the two to create a poem with striking contrasts, or striking similarities despite great differences.)

P1100631 smallThese boots/shoes/slippers… (September 2019)

These boots were made for walking. Or running, or… My suggestion for this month’s prompt is to choose a pair of shoes – yours or someone else’s, old or new. What do the shoes tell you about their wearer? (In terms of their job, or hobby and in terms of how they look after this particular pair of shoes etc.) How many miles have they walked or run or limped or skipped or danced? Where have these shoes been and what stories might they have? (If you’re a Poetry Society member, this year’s stanza competition deadline is approaching fast. If you haven’t yet entered, could you combine shoes with the theme of ‘Lies’ to come up with a poem for the competition?)

 
 

City Lives and Reflections (August 2019)

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This month’s prompt is mainly a photo one – though if my words about take you in a completely different direction, then follow that rather than the photo.

I’m just back from Edinburgh, and one thing that always surprises me when I visit is the secret places and hidden lives just off the main streets in sheltered alleys and squares, or viewable only from the windows in tall buildings. What hidden lives does the photo, or the city/town around you reveal when you look closely or from an unusual perspective? (In Worcester city centre, I love looking upwards to the windows, roofs and building details above street level.)

If you’re looking at the photo or through a window, what’s reflected in the glass? How do the city’s inner and outer worlds merge, or collide? Once you’ve done this, you might want to consider who or what might be trying to escape this part of the city? Or, alternatively, to get into this secret place/hidden life? And why? Is this a narrative worth exploring?

If the above prompt doesn’t provide enough inspiration, then try the alternative image below of The Writers’ Museum that I discovered in on such ‘hidden square’ in Edinburgh. Create your own imaginary Writers’ (or Words) Museum. What sort of exhibits does it have? Why? What kind of building is it housed in and why? Who visits it, and what do they visit it for? Do they find what they’re looking for, or are they disappointed?

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The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth (July 2019)

This year’s National Poetry Day (Thursday, 3 Oct 2019) theme is truth. It’s also the theme for the latest The Poetry Society Members’ Poems competition (for The Poetry Society members only and free entry). It’s a topic with plenty of scope. For this writing prompt, I’m going to suggest starting small and focussed by thinking about the past 24 hours of your life. In this time what is the most important truth that you’ve felt or that has happened to you? It might be sudden sunshine, a flower or bird that you’ve noticed. It might be recognising the truth behind a cliché or well-used phrase. It might be realising what love, anger, or any other emotion really means or feels like. Once you’ve decided what your truth is, zoom in on it in detail, using all the senses. Jot down as many notes as you can to start. Then try to hone in on which of these are the most important, the most essential elements of that description (and your truth) in terms of allowing others to experiencing that truth as vividly as you did. Alternatively, if this doesn’t work for you as a way into the topic, maybe write about that absence of truth(s) – what that looks and feels like. Do you feel a need for truth()s even if you can’t find any? If so, what is the search for truth(s) like?

Using the camera lens as a poetry focussing tool (May 2019)
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Use your mobile phone camera to take a picture that features two extremes, two contrasts or a striking juxtaposition. This might be light and shadow, curves and straight lines, starkly contrasting colours, something solid and something flowing, something clear and something blurred or another contrast that catches your eye.

Once you’ve taken your picture, consider how you might ‘translate’ this opposition or tension into a poem. If you’d like more structure, think about the possibilities of turning this into a haiku or haiku-influenced poem. The two contrasts or extremes might have a cutting word/turning point on which the ‘epiphany’ hangs in the second line, with the two contrasts either being given the same or an unequal weight on either side of this. Alternatively, the first line might be used for one contrast/extreme, and the second line for the second contrast/extreme. The conclusion or epiphany flowing from these is then either the third line or the end of the second line and the third line – depending on whether you wish to give the two contrasts/extremes an identical weight (number of syllables) or allow a heavier weight to the second contrast/extreme by giving it the whole of the usually longer second line of the poem.

More about this exercise and haiku can be found at the end of this tension-themed worksheet. (NB If the contrasts part of this exercise feels too constraining, then just take a picture of something that catches your attention for whatever reason and then use the poem to explore this.)

Design your own dream-catcher (April 2019)

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Use this prompt either to write about yourself and your dreams in life or a fictional character’s hopes and aspirations. What are your dreams? Which is your most important dream/hope/aim? Imagine you’re building a dream-catcher to inspire or net this dream/these dreams. What might you use instead of the traditional feathers and why? What other things would be suspended from it? These might be objects but they could also be sounds, smells, tastes and textures that evoke your dream. Where would you hang this dream-catcher and why? What falls through the gaps in the pattern/netting? (Or what compromises and sacrifices might be necessary to make your dream reality?) What happens if the dream-catcher breaks or starts to disintegrate? How does it feel? (Freeing or painful or…?) Are you likely to ever make your dream reality? Does it matter if not? How do all these questions and this brainstorming make you feel about your original dream? Would you change it anyway? And if so, how and why? How much of this detail goes into/remains in the final poem and how much is just part of the writing process and background setting to the final poem is up to you. (The same prompt questions could also potentially be used to generate a story. And another alternate source of inspiration might be to consider the cultural appropriation and historical aspects of how dream-catchers are used now compared to their origins. Wikipedia has an article on Dreamcatchers here.)

Water, water everywhere (March 2019)

water prompt picHaving been caught in rain, floods and then sunshine recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the wet stuff. But does all water taste/smell/sound the same? What are your strongest memories or associations with water? A lake, a river, the sea. Or something for drinking, washing, cleaning, survival. Have you ever been flooded? Do you enjoy swimming, sailing or surfing? If you swim or dive, being underwater changes sound and light, does it also change how you think or see the world more generally? If nothing from personal experience is sparking inspiration, try googling and researching something that interests you – the biggest lake, deepest ocean, strangest water animal (or invent your own), water nymphs or gods…

 
 

What are shelves for? (Feb 2019)

IMG_6517 smallerOrdering, storing, holding. Archiving, placing out of reach, displaying proudly. Or gathering souvenirs, dust and cobwebs…In some ways, this prompt follows on from last month’s about furniture and rooms, but with an even closer/narrower focus. You might start with the shelf’s form, its contents or its purpose/meaning. (Substitute poem for shelf in the following and yes, three main elements of/approaches to poetry. Whichever takes the main or initial focus, the others will hopefully reinforce this.) Whether it’s a real or imaginary shelf, see where the description – words, ideas and emotions – take you. Is it a shelf for prized possessions, laundered linen or cupboard clutter? If it’s a shelf of spices, jams, preserves… is there anything else more unusual hidden between the jars? And if so, how and why did that unexpected item end up there? The three different elements of approaching the shelf/poem (form, content and purpose) might be used to help structure the poem draft. Or you could return to them in the editing to check if there’s something else needed to support, balance or deliberately unbalance the poem’s initial outline structure…

(Not) Part of the Furniture/Making Yourself at Home (Jan 2019)

Table, armchair, desk, curtains, carpet, tiles, wardrobe, mirror, cupboard, sideboard… So, my new sofa that was supposed to delivered well before the January stanza meeting hasn’t yet arrived. Instead, we will be making do with several throws across the torn leather that’s currently spilling the old sofa’s guts. Life’s ironies and my irritation aside, can this #21stcenturytrauma be turned into inspiration. Picture a piece of furniture, real or imagined, and the room that it’s in (real or imagined). What might the piece of furniture tell you about its owner and the people, lives and relationships that it has witnessed? What does its appearance reveal about its own story? Does it fit with the rest of the room? How and why? And if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the room, why not, how do you know and where does it really belong? If this isn’t enough inspiration, maybe consider what furniture, atmosphere, people and ornaments you need before you can really feel at home in a strange place, or how you’d make your ideal home? A further alternative way in might be to choose a room you know well and think about what’s most striking about that room and/or feels most unusual or out of place to you in the room? This might be a piece of furniture, an ornament, or even a person…

Faces (Dece 2018)
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In Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, he imagines faces as petals. For this month’s prompt, I’d like to link travel and faces by thinking about the face, or whole human body, as a map. This could be one particularly well-loved (or hated) face or a number of faces in contrast and/or similarity. Start with one face, maybe even your own in the mirror. What do any scars or wrinkles give away about the face/body/person’s journey through life up to this point? Are their traits or characteristics that say something about family history or inheritance? How do expressions change this face? What might these expressions suggest about the person’s general personality and their current feelings, fears, hopes, ambitions? Where else have you seen a similar expression? Does this face remind you or anything else in nature or the world more generally? How does it change if viewed from a greater distance? Or if you zoom in on just one part of the face only? Could this lead to more surreal metaphors? Explore any of the ideas and see where it takes you – happy writing!

Write a postcode/street poem (Oct 2018)
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Pick a place, any place – real or imaginary, somewhere you know now or a place that’s lodged in your memory. What do you like, or hate, about it? If you were blindfolded, how might you tell where you are? Does it have distinctive smells or sounds? What kind of language or style might suit this place? Is a formal, informal or slang kind of place? Would a long chatty poem fit it best or one with clipped or spare lines? What are the people like? Whom or what might you see or meet here? Is there anything you’d like to change about this place – and why? If it’s a place you’re used to at a particular time of day, how might it be different at a different time of day? Does it have hidden stories, past history, or secrets that only come out at night? How does being in this place make you feel? Happy, uplifted, anxious, buzzing, grey, energyless, angry, peaceful… Hopefully, one or more of these questions will evoke something interesting.

Make a change (September 2018)

This year’s National Poetry Day (Oct 4) theme is Change… The NPD website has some poems on the theme, some quotes and also this – https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk/celebrate-national-poetry-day/poetry-writing-for-national-writing-day/. Although the latter is a resource aimed at teaching in schools for National Writing Day, the questions look could be combined with a theme of change for writers generally. What about you, your life or the world would you change and why? Is there a past change in you, someone else, life, or your circumstances that has had a big effect on you? What and how? Is it still affecting you now?