We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.

I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)

I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)

All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.

So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:

Arts Award Discover workshops

Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:

There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.

So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:

1 – It’s supposed to be fun.

Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.

But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:

  • Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
  • Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
  • Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
  • Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
  • Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.

And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:

  • Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
  • Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
  • Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
  • Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.

Creative writing workshop in school for Beneath The Boughs poetry exhibition

2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.

If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.

Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)

3 – Treat the writer professionally.

There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.

When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)

Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.

Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.

Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.

But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…

But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)

Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.

Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)

5 – The children should be present in the sessions.

If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.

A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.

I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.

But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.

But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.

And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.

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Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers

Summer’s pretty much over, and the nights are drawing in.

I always find this time of year vaguely comforting. Maybe it’s something to do with getting to light the fire now and again in the evenings, or digging the warm jumpers out of the bottom of the drawer, but I often feel very content on the cusp of autumn. And often very productive, too – possibly because I still associate it with beginnings and the start of a new school year, or because it’s a time when I end up harvesting a lot of vegetables from the garden. Or maybe just because the hectic summer is over and September tends to be a slightly quieter month: one for getting back into a routine before the year rushes too quickly towards its end.

Whatever the reason, I love it.

A Few Good Things:

Edinburgh Book Festival:

Following on from the epic library / bookshop tour of My Name is Monster straight after it came out, I’m now into a more leisurely spattering of book festivals, averaging at around one a month for the rest of the year. I said ‘average’, because this month there were two.

The first was Edinburgh Book Festival: a wonderful festival, which, in its own words, ‘welcomes around 900 authors from over 60 countries in more than 800 events for adults and children each year’. This year, two of those events were mine – or at least, partially mine.

The first was a discussion of My Name is Monster, chaired by novelist Angela Meyer, and followed by a book signing. The second was a special recording of Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, which aired on Radio 4 the following Sunday, and which you can listen to here. The programme was a discussion of what young people are reading and writing – and covered both YA fiction and millennial writers & readers. With such a broad topic, I felt like we barely even scratched the surface – and I don’t think I was the only one on the panel who felt we could have gone on discussing it for hours! (And a couple of us did just that afterwards on the benches in the authors’ area. So you know, if anyone fancies commissioning me to write an opinion piece on it…)

As well as the events, the festival also runs the First Book Award, which is awarded to a debut novel whose author appears at that year’s festival, and which is decided by public vote.

Vote for My Name is Monster here!

Tidelines

August’s other festival was a much smaller affair: Tidelines Festival, in Grange-over-Sands.

A new festival this year, Tidelines is a two-day festival run by Thornleigh Hotel in Grange. I was invited to give a talk about My Name is Monster in the evening, followed by a signing. But I also spent a good chunk of the day there, listening to the other talks and soaking up the atmosphere.

Also at the festival were some of the Dove Cottage Young Poets, running an open mic and busking with typewriter poetry: poetry written quickly on request to anyone willing to make a donation. Matt Sowerby also debuted his incredible one-man poetry show, about young people in politics, climate change, and mental health, which had the entire audience utterly rapt. If you see him performing anywhere near you, go and see it!

Writing

I’ve actually got back to writing this month. After a much-needed post-book tour break, I’ve started writing poetry again. Honestly, I couldn’t not. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: I felt that itch to write, and I couldn’t ignore it.

Occasionally, I go through phases where I wonder what my life would be like if I weren’t writing – if I just chanelled those energies into something else instead. Blogging, for example, or travelling, or orchestrating arts projects to facilitate other people’s creativity. These are all things I do anyway, but things that I try and force to take second place in my life to writing. For a while, though, I let them come out on top. After all, you can’t write all the time.

A Few Thoughts On: The Writers’ Productivity

In doing this, I got my answer: if I stopped writing altogether, I’d only start again. Either that or be totally unsatisfied all of the time.

What is it that makes me constantly yearn to record things, to interpret them, to think my way through the world by putting pen to paper? I don’t really know – but whatever it is, it’s definitely there. And finally, this month, I gave in to it. And I wrote.

The Month in Books:

I’ve read a lot more this month than I did in July. Partly because I’ve had a lot of free evenings, which I’ve been using to curl up on the sofa and read. I’ve also been snatching those rare sunny moments to sit with a book in the garden – not to mention the train journey up to Edinburgh and back (including a packed out train where the only available seat was on the floor, but never mind).

Surprisingly (at least, to me), I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction this month. I wanted to read books by Patrice Lawrence & William Sutcliffe before appearing on Open Book with them, so that explains three of the YA novels, but I’ve also been rereading Anthony Horowitz (for pure escapism that doesn’t involve a screen) and Philip Pullman (in advance of The Secret Commonwealth coming out soon, not to mention the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials). I love reading YA, because I love the way it can be well written and ‘literary’ without sacrificing story or character, and because of the way it doesn’t pull its punches where you might expect it to. Honestly, it isn’t something I read often enough.

  • Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin
  • Primers: Volume 4, by Lewis Buxton, Amelia Loulli & Victoria Richards
  • The Gifted, the Talented and Me, by William Sutcliffe
  • Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver
  • Until the Flood, by Dael Orlandersmith
  • Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
  • Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith

The Month in Pictures:

After the post-publication whirlwind of June, July has slowed down a pace – which I’m hugely grateful for. It’s quite fitting that my only blog post July blog post was about writers’ productivity, and the need to take a break. True, I have been doing the odd bit of writing, but most of that has been in-situ descriptions of Cornish beaches, or jotting down thoughts, or just playing around with forms and ideas. The sort of stuff that will probably never be anything finished, but is just a sort of practice. I think of it like practising scales for a musical instrument: not a finished piece, but necessary for honing skill.

So if I haven’t been writing anything fixed, what have I been doing? What does the writing life involve when there’s no fixed writing project?

Port Eliot Festival

Although my crazy 3 weeks of post-publication book events finished at the end of June, I’m still promoting My Name is Monster, at an average of roughly one festival a month. July’s festival was the wonderful Port Eliot, in Cornwall.

As well as my own event (talking alongside Yara Rodrigues Fowler, author of Stubborn Archivist), I got to enjoy the whole weekend of fantastic literary, music & comedy events. Not to mention the most amazing mussels & chips from a stall by the river. Highlights included: Robin Ince’s impression of Brian Cox as Alan Bennett; Antosh Wojcik’s incredibly moving poetry/drum show, How To Keep Time; fellow WriteNow mentee Elizabeth Jane-Burnett talking about The Grassling; Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon; and hearing Patrick Gale talk about his writing process.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I decided to stay in Cornwall for a few extra days. The idea was to soak up the sunshine and spend some time sitting on the beach reading books. In reality, there was a violent storm the first night and it poured it down the entire next day – which meant I got soaked on my walk into town, and spent most of the day eating Cornish pasties & looking round the shops & museum instead. Neither of which were bad ways to spend the day, obviously.

The second day was a bit more what I’d had in mind: a 5-mile walk along the coast, past Polridmouth Beach (the inspiration for the beach in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) and along the cliff-tops; followed by an afternoon on Polkerris Beach (snoozing and people-watching as much as reading, really); and a bracing dip in the sea.

Tidelines workshops: ‘the moon’

Speaking of festivals – I’m appearing at Tidelines festival in Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, and in the run-up to this, I ran poetry workshops in two local primary schools: Grange and Cartmel. Tying in the Usborne poetry competition about the moon, and with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, these workshops were moon-themed. As always when I run workshops, I was bowled over by some of the things that the children came up with.

One of the exercises I gave them was to create similes & metaphors for their poems (we did this through games, and through imaginative play). Some of my stand-out favourites were:

  • ‘the moon cold as a frog’s skin’
  • ‘earth spinning like a lazy Susan’
  • Neil Armstrong’s footprint as ‘a maths lesson of parallel lines’

Some of the children will be reading their poems at Tidelines on the morning of the 17th – and I can’t wait to hear them again.

Actively not working

Last but not least, I’ve been actively not working. This goes back to what I was talking about in my previous post, about the need to take a break. Sometimes, the brain just needs a rest. The body, too – particularly after a period of non-stop busy-ness. And let’s be honest, the last time I actually stopped and spent long periods just sitting, and being, and doing very little, was probably sometime before Christmas.

And now?

August is still less hectic than previous months have been, but I’m shifting firmly back into productivity mode. For a start, I’ve got a whole heap of admin to get on top of. Not to mention a dangerously tall pile of books on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Then, of course, I could do with getting back into writing mode – even if it is just doing fragments / little bits of observation that never go anywhere.

And I’m appearing at two festivals in August.

The first I’ve already mentioned, which is Tidelines at Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, where I’ll be talking about My Name is Monster and doing a Q&A.

The second is Edinburgh Book Festival, where I’m doing two events:

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: an author event, talking about My Name is Monster, on Sunday 18th August, and

OPEN BOOK WITH MARIELLA FROSTRUP: a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, alongside Michelle Paver, William Sutcliffe & Patrice Lawrence.

You can also VOTE FOR ME for the Book Festival First Book Award!

The month in books:

As I’ve already mentioned, July has been a slow month in a number of ways – and this has included in terms of books. Only 5 of them this month: four (very) contemporary novels, alongside more of a classic from the 60s – Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was recommended to me by Julia Armfield and which I thoroughly recommened in turn!

  • Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton
  • Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Tentacle, by Rita Indiana
  • Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Here’s to a more productive reading month in August.

The month in pictures:

A stone cabin in the woods. Outside, the snow is falling in big wet flakes. This is probably the last snow of the season, although it’s impossible to tell for sure. It settles on the bare open ground between the edge of the cabin and the beginning of the trees, and on the dirt road that leads back to the main house. The trees are still and unusually silent.

Inside, the cabin is cosy and warm. On the red brick floor, spilling from underneath the enormous plush rug, are the blackened patches marking where the cabin burned down in the 70s, and the floor was the only thing able to be saved. The wooden table you have been using as your desk is a wide stretch of possibility, covered with books and page markers and bits of leaf you’ve brought in from the outside to try to describe. Your poems are laid out in neat rows on the rug behind you. You twiddle your pen between your thumb and forefinger. You listen to the clicks and taps as the heating reasserts itself. You begin to write.


For three weeks, I was an artist in residence at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Every morning after breakfast, I would walk from my room in the shared house, along the dirt road through the woods, to my studio to write. While there, I was writing poetry, working (very very gradually) towards a full collection. I would sit in my studio, in the most peaceful surroundings, writing or reading or collecting ideas, until my lunch was brought to me in a little picnic basket. At which point I would stop, eat lunch, then carry on in the afternoon. Sometimes I would stop to go for a woodland wander and some fresh air. Sometimes I would try to figure out chords on the studio’s Steinway, for no other reason than that I enjoy using my brain in that logical, pattern-based way now and again. In the evenings, I would go to Colony Hall with the other artists in residence – up to 24 of us in total. Afterwards we would listen to someone present work, or I would read in the library, or we would watch a film. This was my life for three incredible weeks.
The days themselves were hugely productive. Even on the days I didn’t actually write very much, I did so much reading and thinking and pulling together ideas for the collection. It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a week when you don’t have to worry about cooking / buying groceries / ploughing through admin.  MacDowell Colony’s motto is ‘Freedom to create’, and it definitely lives up to its name.

What MacDowell provides: 

  • Accommodation, either in a bedroom in a shared house, or in a live-in studio
  • A studio (aka a cabin in the woods)
  • 3 meals a day, including cooked breakfast, lunch delivered to your studio in a picnic basket, and communal dinner
  • Access to the collections in the James Baldwin Library – one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever worked in
  • An optional lift into town twice a week
  • Coffee (or tea) available all the time – such an essential for writing!

You can also apply for a stipend to help fund your time away from regular life, and for a travel grant.

What I liked most about the residency: my top 3:

  • My cabin in the woods: let’s be honest, what writer out there hasn’t daydreamed about getting to work in their own little studio surrounded by beautiful trees?
  • Meeting other artists: MacDowell accepts residents in all art forms, so the range of interests and practices at MacDowell was such a treat to immerse myself in – and wonderful to hear the other artists sharing their work.
  • Time: I’ve already said this, I know, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it was to have that time to write, with absolutely no other commitments. Such a luxury, that meant I was able to eat, sleep and breathe the project I’m working on.

Special mention also has to go to Frisky (the director’s gorgeous dog, who popped into breakfast every morning for a scratch behind the ears, and to check if we’d dropped any bacon on the floor) – and to the cat we nicknamed Baldwin (after the James Baldwin library). Baldwin eventually turned out to be a missing cat from a house down the road, but in the time it took to figure that out, she’d already become a firm friend, and followed me around the campus.

The only problem? Three weeks definitely didn’t feel like long enough. I could have spent so long there, revelling in the opportunity to be creative with no distractions from the outside world!

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

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In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

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1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

image

2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

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3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

image

4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

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5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

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And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

I arrive in Grasmere on one of the coldest nights of the year. The stars are already growing crisp and cold in the sky, and the car park is an ice sheet worthy of Torvill and Dean. Cut to three weeks later, and I’m outside in the sunshine overheating in my t-shirt and jeans. My residency at the Wordsworth Trust has been varied to say the least.

I was living on the top floor of one of tall the Victorian houses in Town End, owned by the Wordsworth Trust. (There was some discussion over whether we were calling this my ‘garret’ or my ‘penthouse’, which mostly seemed to depend on how cold the weather was being at the time.) From my bedroom, I could see a sliver of the edge of the lake, and the fells rising beyond. From the bathroom, I could see Dove Cottage itself.

The residency lasted for four weeks, which seemed to go unbelievably quickly – perhaps because there was a lot to fit in during that time. Some of this was work connected with the residency: I ran poetry workshops in 5 schools, gave a poetry reading at the Wordsworth Trust itself, and did two reading / workshop events with other poetry groups connected with the Trust. Then there were the other things, which weren’t a structured part of the residency in the same way, but which I was desperate to fit into my four weeks: the walks, the visits to Grasmere’s wonderful cafes, the many writing-based chats with Polly Atkin & Will Smith (not to mention sampling Will’s delicious baking). And of course, the poetry.

As with most things, before I started the residency, I had a plan. I would write a number of poems during my stay in Grasmere, and read a whole host of poetry collections.

Also as with most things, it didn’t quite work out the way I planned. Some of this was because of all the other things that ended up being factored into the residency weeks, but some of it was also just because I ended up changing my practice once I arrived on site.

Part of the beauty of the residency was the lack of pressure to produce anything. For the first time in a long time, I could just play with poetry, and experiment without having to necessarily complete anything. This might sound counterproductive, but it was actually an enormous creative luxury. I started to think about it like an artist’s sketchbook. Rather than forcing myself to create full watercolours, I could create sketches, ideas and studies for poems.

At the moment, most of these are still sitting in my notebook, waiting for me to do something with them – or not, depending on how each idea grows or diminishes over time. It’s a hugely invigorating feeling, to know that my notebook is positively bristling with keys that could unlock poems. It’s the kind of concentrated exploration that I never normally get time for as an artist.

I may not have come out of the residency with a huge body of poems as I was expecting, but what I gained was something more: a chance to focus on the practice, and to connect with the part of myself that all the poetry stems from.

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

One of the perks of the residency was getting to engage with some of the Wordsworth Trust’s extensive collections. There’s a whole host of incredible things in their archives, but one of the things that most fascinated me was the first edition copy of Frankenstein.

It lives in the Reading Room in the Jerwood Centre at the Wordsworth Trust, behind a glass door with hundreds of other books, in its own little non-descript-looking cardboard box, with FRANKENSTEIN scrawled on the side in pencil. Appearances can be deceiving, however, because not only is this box custom-made to fit the book exactly, but inside is a first edition of what, for me, is one of the most fascinating novels in the English language: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Getting to hold this – to carefully unwrap it from its cardboard box and then from the older box inside that, and finally to pick up and open one of the volumes – was easily one of the highlights of the residency. My debut novel, My Name is Monster, is in part inspired by Frankenstein. Holding that first edition brought it right into the present for me. It felt as though I were in conversation with Mary Shelley and with the original text across the decades – part of a literary heritage through prose as well as through poetry.

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

The night before I arrived at the Wordsworth Trust to begin my residency, I spent the evening in Manchester, where I was shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize! It was a really great night, with a reading in a room filled (as you might expect) with incredible writers – on the shortlists, on the judging panel and in the audience. The winner was Molly Underwood, for a truly beautiful selection of poems based around books of the bible. You can read the full shortlist here.

Plough Short Poem Prize:

And continuing the theme of prizes – during my Wordsworth Trust residency, I learned that my poem received 3rd place in the Plough Short Poem Prize, judged by Pascale Petit. You can read the poem here.

The residency month in books:

As with writing, I ended up not reading as many books as I expected to this month. What I did get a chance to do, though, was to read poetry in-depth. I rarely get the time to sit and really pour myself into a collection of poetry: to sit and read a poem, then put the book down and think about it for a while, then to pick the book back up and read another one. This kind of slow, thoughtful, deep reading isn’t generally conducive to the hectic freelance lifestyle. But during a residency, particularly when the weather’s beautiful and you can walk up a hill and stop every few minutes to read a poem? Perfect!

  • Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector
  • Zaffar Kunial, Us
  • Sally Rooney, Mr Salary
  • Suzannah Evans, Near Future
  • Haruki Murakami, Birthday Girl
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
  • Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf

The residency month in pictures: