Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts tagged inspiration

What a Tree-t!

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Okay, I admit the blog title makes even me groan. But it was either that or Poe-tree, as both leafed friends (yes, that’s trees and poetry books)) have very much been the theme of the past week.

The reason? Well, our MA homework this week was to write a tree poem. Okay, so the precise instructions were a little more specific than that but that was the starting point and for once (poor pun alert) this exercise left me unusually stumped!

It’s not that trees aren’t inspirational – it’s almost the exact opposite.

Stunning tree poems include the examples given as part of the exercise:  Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ ( ), Tomas Transtromer’s ‘The Tree and the Sky’ (which I’ve found online at: ) and John Ashbery’s ‘Some Trees’ ( But then there’s also Don Paterson’s ‘Two Trees’ which open his collection Rain, Michael Symmons Roberts’s ‘To Skin a Tree’ in his collection Soft Keys and a range of ‘tree’ poems in Jo Shapcott’s Costa Book Awards Winner collection Of Mutability. (One of these poems, ‘I Go Inside the Tree’, can be found at: ) I’d also recommend Worcestershire poet Jenny Hope’s ‘Forest Seamstress’ ( ) and ‘Self-Portrait as a Smooth-Skinned Beech’ from her collection Petrolhead.

This is, of course, a very pruned list of the many fine tree poems out there. Add in the fact that I have ‘The Tree Surgeon’ poem in my collection Into the Yell, not to mention others not in Into the Yell (a global warming tree poem, a pregnancy tree poem, myth tree poem and actual tree tree poems, including some of my recent small stone poetic snippets,) and the challenge of trying to find a new approach becomes even trickier. Even though winter/ spring is a time of year when trees seem to particularly make their presence felt –  darks skeletons stark against the skyline, the first green unfurling, birds singing – the way through the poetic forest was far from clear to me.

So did I fight my way through? Yes! How? I kept chipping away at that wooden writer’s block. Will what I’ve written stand any test of time? Probably not but like many early draft ‘poems’ it may, hopefully, bear some seeds for the future.  Certainly, it was worth battling on just for the joy of coming out the other side and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I look to trees for poetic or photographic enjoyment or inspiration.

Anyone with an interest in trees, be it for environmental, heritage or inspirational reasons, may want to check out this stunning online slide show on the ‘Oxford Today’ website at: .

There is also an online campaign against plans to sell off national forests at

Finally, on the topic of trying to protect the world we live in and the animals that live in it, the Tiger, Tiger project website has a new look. This is well worth checking out at: for information about how to help save this endangered species as well poetry, fiction and art reminders of how amazing the tiger is.

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.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, so I thought I’d use ‘silence’ as this week’s prompt. Poetry is, of course, all about silence and its contrast with sounds.

Two things, beyond the obvious, stand out for me about Remembrance Sunday. The first is how important it is that, in the same way as God (or whatever spiritual belief you have) is not just for Sunday, so too remembering those who laid down their lives for us is not just for one set occasion each year. It is something to be constantly remembered and rejoiced through our living. This leads on to the second point for me – the difficulty of finding that right balance between remembering and living, as that is what they ultimately died for.

So today I want to focus on the life, living as a way of remembering.

First, I would like you to close your eyes and listen to that silence. Only, of course, that silence isn’t silence at all, it is full of life and the sounds of life. (I will be posting some other links about this below.) There are distant, or not-so-distant, hums, buzzes, whirrings, clangs… You may notice perceptions start to creep in from other senses – smells, taste, touch. Then, of course, there is the noise of your internal thoughts.

Maybe this exercise will inspire a poem focussing on the senses or those internal thoughts. Or maybe the ‘muse’ will stay silent. If so, then simply enjoy the silence.

You may also want to check out some other links. Silence is certainly not a theme poets are silent about!

Ian Macmillan has an interesting Poetry Archive poet in residence blog post at A google search also brought up the following website with more about, and links for, John Cage’s  4’ 3” ( ) .

Enjoy listening – and hopefully also writing!

This week my writing prompt is a question: What’s your red wheelbarrow?

I am referring to William Carlos Williams’s famous and thought-provoking poem which opens “so much depends” and, first, I’d suggest reading the whole poem, which you can find online here.

What image does this create in your mind? What does this image say to you? How would you write about this wheelbarrow? Would you use the wheelbarrow to create an entirely different poem with eg a narrative? Or would you try to make the point you think Williams is making using a different object?

Why not try writing a poem in a similar concise observational style? Or alternatively perhaps it inspires you to deliberately write in a very different style?

Hopefully, your answer to one or several of these questions will provide you with some creative inspiration.

If not, then try using the following picture for inspiration.

What strikes you most ? Contrasts/juxtaposition can be both inspiration and a useful writing tool and there are plenty on offer in this photo: male/female, large/small, president/common people, shiny/unvarnished surface…

Whatever thoughts this inspires, remember to have fun – or at least more fun that the President doll’s expression suggests!

For this week’s prompt, I’m going to suggest a list of phrases linked with either ‘black’ or ‘cat’ in the hope that you will find something inspiring.

Though I’ve chosen these initial words bearing in mind Halloween and the Tiger Tiger ( call for tiger-inspired writing, where the phrases below take you is entirely up to you and your muse!

black eye, black and white, black out, black-and-blue, black sheep of the family, the pot calling the kettle black

cat got your tongue, be the cat’s whiskers, scaredy-cat, fight like cat and dog, look like something the cat dragged in, cat among the pigeons, while the cat’s away…, not enough room to swing a cat


Reading poetry has been a big part of my week so I thought I’d bring some of that into my prompt this week. So, if you’re sitting comfortably, pick a letter of the alphabet, any letter of the alphabet…

No cheating, now. You need to pick the letter before you read on to see what I suggest you to with it.

So, if you’ve picked a letter, here’s what I’d like you to do next.

1)      Find a poetic form starting with that letter and try writing in that form yourself. Any subject or theme. (Using an internet search engine may help you.)

2)      If you can’t find a form that begins with this letter – though you might be surprised how many different poetic forms there are out there in the world, with all sorts of names! – try searching for a poet whose name starts with this letter. (Again an internet search engine may help and choosing a poet you’ve never read before may prove more interesting than one whose work you’re already familiar with.) Read some of this poet’s work. One poem is enough but more if you like. Then see if you can find something in the style, theme, subject matter, form etc that inspires you.

Happy writing!

For this week’s writing prompt, I’m going to ask you to let go of your ‘home comforts’ (yes, in keeping with the National Poetry Day theme of ‘home’). What do I mean by that and what does the blog title signify? Well, the answers are to push/break free from your usual boundaries with the result that you may feel as though you are left on a surface as fragile/transparent/vulnerable as glass. (If it does, remember that most glass these days is reinforced and stronger than we often think!)

To give you a concrete example – inspired by many of the excellent performance poets I have heard this week, I decided to challenge myself to give performance poetry a try; writing and performing my own poem on the NPD theme of ‘home’.

So if you normally write short stories, why don’t you try a poem? If you have a tendency to use the first person (I), trying writing in the third person (he/she) or focussing on a piece using ‘you’. If you’re a poet, try using a form you’ve never written in before – or a piece for performance. If you’re a performance poet, how about writing for the page?

One of the important parts of this prompt is that in order to do it, you need to first identify a common (perhaps over-used/stale/formulaic?) aspect of your work, in order to break free from it. When it comes to tackling your new ‘type/’style’’ of writing, if you need further inspiration, then try using the blog title ‘breaking glass’ as an additional spur phrase for ideas. But remember that breaking glass can be painful -don’t continue if you find yourself so far out of your comfort zone that it cuts!

Hands up, at this point, I will admit that my own boundary breaking was to the extent of writing and performing my piece for video – not in public. It’s probably a piece I will never share. But breaking free of one’s usual boundaries and being brave enough to experiment are an important part of creativity – and stopping things from becoming stale, clichéd or formulaic. Plus, I found watching myself perform a piece on video was– just like listening to my poems read aloud – a useful learning tool in terms of noticing inflections of tone etc that I might want to replicate – or avoid – on the page.

So whatever your boundary is, instead of being penned in by it, see what you can make it do for you!

What’s in the window? It may seem a simple  question but this week’s prompt can be used in a number of ways.

Option one is to treat this as a descriptive prompt and simply answer the question. The choice of window is yours, of course, and the answer could be what you see from one of the windows in your own house, what you see in a shop window or looking out through a cafe window. The key to this is keen observation using the senses and then selection of detail – deciding what to put in and what to leave out.

Another option, if you fancy making your imagination do more work, is to take an abstract emotion (I’d suggest an emotion you’re feeling at the time of using this prompt) and ask what it is looking out of a window at. (For example, anger might look out onto a fiery scene or a busy street/traffic jam of hooting traffic, whereas calmness might look out onto a sunset, countryside or a still sea. N.B. The suggestions I’ve made are fairly obvious ones just to put across what I mean.) The more you interrogate your own personal emotion, the more unique/imaginative your resulting scene is likely to be. And don’t forget your emotion might look out through more than one window, onto different views.)

At this point, you might want to make things more interesting by suggesting your emotion look out not at the view it finds most natural but at what you would like it to look at. (For example, if you’re feeling lazy, you might make your laziness look out onto a park full of keen joggers!) Note what conflict arises. Is there a poem or story in there somewhere? (N.B. The point of this is to provide you with inspiration and get you writing, not to cause pain. If your emotions are very strong and this exercise causes any distress, please stop and use the first descriptive exercise instead.)

Whatever you try, enjoy exploring words and description without putting any pressure on yourself as to the results. Above all, just write.

Some weeks are so poetically sumptuous that it’s hard to sum them up with any other word – except, perhaps, eclectic. This last week has been one of them!

My brain has been buzzing with limericks for when I go into a local first school on National Poetry Day on Thursday, October 7. Laughter was also a strong feature of another fabulous Phonic Room spoken word evening at the Boston Tea Party in Worcester. And, for once, I could just enjoy listening to others without reading myself.

But I’ve enjoyed being interviewed for Robert Lee Brewer’s fantastic Poetic Asides site at: On Thursday, I also got to chat, read and talk poetry to some lovely people at The All Welcome Drop In Club (for those aged 55+) at the Heriotts in Droitwich.

Meanwhile, I’ve been planning for my guest poet reading alongside the fantastic Fatima Al-Matar and Adele Falconer at Poetry Bites in Birmingham on Tuesday and for a 10-minute slot at the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms as part of the Warwick Words festival on Friday. (More details can be found on my website news page at

What else? A poem in the latest Poetry News and  proofs through for two poems I have coming up in Magma, with a launch reading at the Troubadour in London on Monday, November 15.

Closer to home, plans for next year’s Worcestershire Literature Festival (June) are now well under way. For those who couldn’t make last week’s public meeting, more details about this exciting project can be found on the group’s Facebook page or at the festival website at:

Now all I need – besides a refreshing cup of tea –  is to find some inspiration for this week’s writing prompt ready to post on my website fans’ blog later tonight…


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Join in the Droitwich Salt Day Poetry/Art Display

1) Choose a salt cube.

2) Write your short (three or four lines) poem about salt, Droitwich or ‘home’ (the theme for National Poetry Day on October 7, 2010).

3) Choose where to place your poem on the display. Either:

a) Sprinkle your salt onto the chips. (But remember healthy eating! Too much salt or fat can be bad for you!)


b) Add your cube to the pyramid of salt being poured downwards. How big can we make this heap of salt?


c) Build the pillar of salt upwards (Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back in the Bible story).

Poems may be anonymous. But please feel free to include your name and where you are from. Children may also wish to add their age and decorate their poem.

Poems may be photographed by the organiser for display purposes.

If you can’t make it in person on the day, then please feel free to email your poem to me at, telling me where you’d like it to go on the display. I can then copy it onto a salt cube for you.

Below, I’ve included two of my own short poems written for the display to help get ideas flowing.

Pillar of the Community

It was his wife’s Lot in life, looking back.

A common trait, that left her

thoughts and body frozen in the past, alone,

when she could have been looking forward, with him.

Sarah James


salt chips chunks of flavour

tingling the tip of my tongue

with the taste of town history

Sarah James

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