Quite often when I go into schools to run writing workshops, I get the children writing about objects. This is useful because it’s something that can be done at any level of confidence or ability in writing, but also because there’s something about having the subject of your poem physically in front of you that makes matters easier; if you get stuck, you can just look a bit more closely at your object.

Of course, I don’t just give the children an object and then let them get on with it. That would be incredibly uninspiring. Instead, I give them prompts – ways of examining their object that they might not have thought of before. Usually, we spend quite a while just getting ideas down on paper before we actually think about the ‘poemness’ of our writing.

NB: While I usually do this as a poetry exercise in schools, it can just as easily be a prose exercise, helping you to practise your description, or to give particular weight to an object within a story.

Choosing an object:

Ok, so what sort of object can you write about?

The simple answer is, of course: anything. When I go into schools, I have a bag of objects that I take in with me, most of which are mundane artefacts you’d find in pretty much any household. These include:

  • a candle
  • a fork
  • a ladle
  • a glove
  • a scarf
  • a top hat
  • a claw hair clip
  • a clothes peg
  • a shell

There’s nothing dramatic or special about any of these objects. The only meaning they have is the meaning that the poet chooses to give them. In many ways, this makes them the perfect subjects for poetry, as they’re essentially blank canvases.

Then again, you could choose something that isn’t a blank canvas at all: an object that has particular emotional or historic significance for you. A wedding ring. Your grandmother’s spoons. A ticket stub from the concert where you had your first kiss. Choosing an object like this, that already has its own story lurking inside it, could also really work, giving the writing added depth, and a sense of an entier life behind it.

Why not try the exercise twice, once with a significant object, and once with something random you’ve picked up from around the house.

5 ways to write about your object:

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1 – Physicality

This is perhaps the most obvious way of looking at your object, but this means it’s a good palce to start. Begin by putting your object on the table in front of you, and looking at it. Set a timer, and look at it for a whole minute. Try to notice every detail, as though at the end of the minute, someone is going to take the object away and you’re going to have to conjur it entirely from memory. Think about what colour(s) it is. Does it look hard or soft? Big or small? Comfortable to hold or not? Heavy or light? Think about what shapes make it up. What is it made of? Something natural or man-made, delicate or industrial-looking? Does it look shiny or dull?

Once you’ve looked at it for a good long while, pick it up.

Think about what it feels like, how it sits in your hand. Does it make a sound of its own accord? What about when you tap it against a surface? If it’s safe to do so, see how it smells & even tastes. I’m forever telling children to use all of their senses, but it’s worth remembering that as an adult as well.

This is how your object physically occupies space within the world.

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2 – Uses & Changes

Once you’ve examined its physical properties, exploring it as an artefact in its own right, you can start to think about it in a social context, and within the context of time.

Think about what the object is used for. Does it have a purpose, or is it merely decorative? If it does have a purpose, does it have just one? Maybe it has a primary and secondary use. Maybe it’s an all-purpose gadget. If it’s an ornament with no particular use, then how does it work decoratively? What makes it a piece of decoration?

Then think about how the object might change. For example, a candle can burn, and it can melt (either from being burned, or from being left in the sun). What causes it to change? How does it look / feel / sound / smell / taste in its new form? Is the change reversible? Is it a desired end (such as with the candle), or a problem (such as a fork that might tarnish / bend out of shape, for instance).

From merely being a physical object existing in the world, the object now has context.

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3 – What is it?

This is a great poetry game (nicked from Liz Berry) to get children thinking metaphorically, without using offputting grammar words, like ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’. It’s called: it’s not this, it’s that.

Essentially, you’re trying to get back to your inner child, and to use your imagination. We’re not interested in what the object actually is – we’re interested in what it could be.

So, a candle might be a rocket, or a unicorn’s horn, or a wax crayon, or a skyscraper, or a rolling pin. A top hat might be a steering wheel, or a boat, or a drum.

Don’t be afraid to play with the object. Turn it upside down, or back-to-front. Put it on your head. Look through it. Make it move in some way.

It’s not a scarf, it’s a road leading over the horizon.

It’s not a glove, it’s a spider scuttling across a bedroom floor.

And of course, the richer you can make these metaphors, the better.

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4 – History

From thinking about the object as a general version of its kind (for instance, a fork like any other fork, or a candle like any other candle), now you’re going to think of it as specific.

Every object has a history. Even a brand new one has been bought from somewhere, or given to you as a gift. It has a life before the present moment. Whether it was on the shelf in a supermarket two days ago, or it’s been passed down through the family for generations, think about where this object has been. What journey has it been on? Whose hands has it passed through? Has it changed at all in that process?

Depending on the object, this could be something deeply personal. If you’re writing about your great grandmother’s wedding ring, for instance, then there’s going to be a lot of family stuff going on there. If you’re writing about that friendship necklace you traded with someone when you were seven, who you haven’t seen since you were twelve, then maybe you’ll end up exploring your childhood through the object.

This is the point where your poem opens out, from thinking about the object itself, to thinking about the world beyond – whether through the lens of your own life or otherwise. It’s often (but not necessarily) the point where the poem gains meaning.

And if you’re struggling to think of a historical journey for your object, think about what it’s made from. What’s the history of those materials? Where did they come from? Are they natural or man-made? What was their existence like before they were turned into this object here in front of you? Go as far back as you want. After all, every wooden spoon started out as a seed.

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5 – Who Am I?

One last little prompt, to take you in a slightly different direction: give your object consciousness.

You don’t have to give it agency, like the toys in Toy Story – but imagine it’s aware of the world around it. What does it see? What does it remember? (This is another way to approach the ‘history’ prompt.) Specifically as this object, does it feel to be held? To be used for whatever purpose it’s used for? What does your object want?

Try writing about the object in first person. What you may find, is that the poem becomes a kind of self-portrait, from the perspective of an everyday household object. If that’s the case, roll with it. If not, treat it as a useful exercise in exploring perspective within a poem.

And good luck!

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If you’re looking some ways to expand on these prompts, using the language generated here to create something more, with a rich sound-world, check out Five Poetry Prompts: Generating Material for a Poem.

If May felt like the eye of the storm, then June has been full-on hurricane. But, unlike most busy months, it’s mostly been busy with just one thing: the novel.

On Thursday 6th June, my debut novel, My Name is Monster, was officially released. If you weren’t aware of that, then either you’re new to this blog (in which case: welcome!) or you simply haven’t been paying attention. I’ve been talking about it a lot.

Understandably, the rest of the month has been pretty solidly dominated by that. I’ve just finished a run of talks and readings in libraries and bookshops – mostly around Cumbria, but also straying as far as Lancaster, and even to ‘that London’.

(Side note: when publishers put you up in a hotel that’s right next to a heap of excellent independent bookshops, it can be a dangerous thing…)

But the month hasn’t all been novel-related.

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

This month I also made my Radio 4 debut, with an episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets. The programme aired on 2nd June, during the Sunday afternoon poetry slot. And, for some reason I’m still not entirely sure about – maybe becaue my parents couldn’t get the house radio working properly? – we ended up parked in my driveway and listening to it in the car.

Poet and novelist Katie Hale explores the legacy of early dialect poets in her native county of Cumbria, to discover if dialect poetry is a way of expressing local identity.

Cumbria has a long history of dialect poetry, beginning with poets like Josiah Relph, Susanna Blamire and Robert Anderson, and continuing right up to the present day. Katie finds out more about some of these historic poets and their contemporary counterparts. She also speaks to Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay – and to farmer and writer James Rebanks, trying to understand the connection between dialect, identity and the land itself. How does the place we live in shape who we are and how we choose to express ourselves?

From a ‘writing life’ point of view, this programme is a perfect example of how one project can lead to another. In 2017, I was commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day, in conjunction with BBC local radio. The poem had to be about a Cumbrian dialect word: ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining). As a result, the word ‘twining’ then made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, and BBC Radio Cumbria made a video of the poem.

Because the poem was part of a national project (with 12 poets around the country writing dialect-inspired poems), it was well shared and had pretty good SEO. Which meant that when the production company, Made in Manchester, were googling ‘Cumbria dialect poetry’, my name came up.

At the other end, following the programme’s broadcast on Radio 4, the Lakeleand Dialect Society (who I interviewed as part of the programme) was celebrating its 80th birthday. And so, Radio Cumbria had a few of us on to talk about the importance of dialect – and to give the Radio 4 programme a bit of an extra push. One thing leading to another, leading to another. It often surprises me how much of my career ends up working like that. (Maybe I’ll dedicate a full post to it at some point in the future.)

You can listen to the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets here, till Monday 8th July.

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Under Northern Skies

Back in summer 2018, I worked with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project, as part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants.

The result: three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of an exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

The month in books:

This month has been a bit slower than last month in the reading department. Blame it on all that dashing about between book events! It’s also been largely fiction-based, rather than my usual attempt at balancing fiction with poetry (and a smattering of non-fiction thrown in). Still, that’s ok. I’m on a bit of a fiction bender at the moment, and I’m sure in a month or so that will flip and I’ll be devouring nothing but poetry.

  • The Last, by Hanna Jameson
  • A Roll of the Dice, by Mona Dash
  • Crudo, by Olivia Laing
  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Being Haunted, by Jennifer Copley
  • Fen, by Daisy Johnson

The month in pictures:

With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
– Virginia Woolf

I’ve recently come home from seven weeks away from my own regular writing room (read: my kitchen table). During that time, away from my normal routine and my habitual space, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need in order to write. What are the circumstances that help me, the magical ingredients that go into the mix for creating inspiration?

During my 7 weeks away, about 2.5 of those weeks were spent actively on the road, never in one place for more than a couple of nights. Three of those weeks were spent on a residency at MacDowell Colony, and the rest was spent researching in New York Public Library. The writing circumstances across these weeks were about as varied as I could have asked for over the course of a single trip. And most of the time, I still managed to write.

Ok, so the amount that I wrote varied drastically. As you’d expect, I wrote far more during my three week residency than I did the rest of the trip – but I’m not sure this was entirely about having a room of my own (although my little cabin in the woods was undoubtedly wonderful). I think it was more to do with having the dedicated time for writing, and (that magical ingredient) headspace.

(Let me just make a caveat here: all of the time I was away was technically ‘poetry time’. Even when I wasn’t at MacDowell, I was either at a poetry festival, or in London for a poetry event, or actively dedicating research time to my current poetry project.)

So, building on all of that, what are five things I’ve come to realise about writing on the move?

1 – Writing on the move is just like writing at home

Every writer is different. Consequently, every writer’s process is also different, which means that every writer will require something different in order to feel at their most creative – whether this is nothing more than a stub of pencil and the back of an envelope, or a chaise longue and fourteen daiquiris mixed by a six-foot albino wearing a penguin suit and stilettos. (That isn’t my rider, I promise. Maybe it should be?)

The trick, I found, was to create the same circumstances for writing while I was away that I would normally create at home. For me, this is a quiet space (with plenty of natural light if possible), a notebook and a pen. It’s also about finding a time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything or by anyone.

At home, I need to consciously carve out these occasions from the rest of my life. It’s all too easy to let admin and emails swamp the entire working day, then to get to the end of the week and realise I haven’t done any writing whatsoever. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have to put in the effort. I have to set aside time for the writing.

On the road, it’s no different. I just have to decide that I’m going to get up an hour earlier, so I can write with a morning coffee. Or decide not to browse Twitter for the river crossing on the car ferry, but instead to use that fifteen minutes as dedicated free writing time. Or I have to set aside an hour for a coffee break, during which I work on a poem. The dedication needed is exactly the same.

2 – Writing on the move is absolutely nothing like writing at home

When I was a student, I used to write whenever I could grab a spare moment. Now, I like to lean a bit more into a routine. Ok, so maybe ‘routine’ is the wrong word, as that can vary at a moment’s notice. But I do understand the ways of putting my day together, so that I can choose the optimum time for writing.

When I’m on the moving, all that changes. I found myself aiming to write in the evenings, between dinner and bed time. Normally, this could be quite a productive time slot for me, but what I learned is that this doesn’t work if it follows on from six hours of driving, for example. This might sound obvious, but it quickly became something to factor into my planning. Instead, I ended up stopping en route for coffee towards the start of the day, so that I could write before my brain become too befuddled by all that travelling.

Instead of writing in the privacy of my own motel room, I ended up writing more in public spaces: coffee shops during the latter part of my trip, and, during the first part of the trip, New York Public Library.

Which brings me onto…

3 – Space

Unsurprisingly, the spaces I was writing in changed while I was away. In some ways this is obvious: I couldn’t write at my kitchen table because my kitchen (and the table) was a six hour flight away. So I had to think practically about what sort of space I need in order to write.

While I was at MacDowell, this obviously wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was an idyllic situation, as every day I could walk to my dedicated little cabin in the woods and write to my heart’s content, and where the only disruption to my day was when I had to get up to go outside and see if my picnic basket had been delivered yet for lunch.

But on the road, writing space needed more consideration.

What I found was that I can write in public spaces almost as easily as I can write in private spaces, given the odd caveat – such as nobody reading over my shoulder. I’m also not great with places that play music, particularly if that music has lyrics. I find myself listening to the words or the music instead of listening to myself thinking. Some sort of table (at table-height, rather than a sofa with a coffee table). Coffee helps, but is not essential. Ideally, nobody else there that I know – there’s something about anonymity in a space that helps with writing.

And that’s pretty much it. It turns out that I’m not nearly as picky about writing space as I thought I was. And it took travelling to the other side of the world for me to learn that.

(Of course, now that I’m back at home, I do still love working at my kitchen table. One of the downsides of writing in a coffee shop or a library is that you can’t really read your words aloud to yourself without getting funny looks…)

4 – Inspiration

So far, I’ve talked a bit about the limitations of writing on the move, and how I needed to adapt my writing style to the travelling lifestyle. But of course there are positive sides to it as well. The whole reason I went to the US in the first place was one of these positive sides: to research a poetry collection in the places where parts of it are set.

But travelling can also allow for unexpected inspiration. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of travelling. I’ve written multiple poems that I know would never have existed if it weren’t for travel. Which makes sense: life filters into art, and when we travel we’re more alert to life going on around us. We’re in a place, and often a culture, that we’re not entirely used to, and this makes us pay attention. And, of course, paying attention is exactly what provides quality material for writing.

I often find myself making notes while I’m travelling, so that I have something to look back on. Sometimes this takes the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s literally just a text note on my phone, with phrases and images jotted down in a long list. It sort of doesn’t matter, as long as I have something to look back on.

I rarely write complete poems when I’m travelling – although because of the specific poetry focus of this trip, I did end up writing a few complete drafts of poems while I was away this time. But more often, the travels will filter into the poems once I’m back: my experience percolating through my brain till they drip quite naturally into whatever poem is waiting to receive them.

Either way, writing or thinking about writing while on the move is a great way to inject some variety and freshness into the work.

5 – Managing your expectations

Last, but not least, I learned to be aware of my own limitations. This is probably something I need to think about in my life at home as well, but especially on the road – it’s so easy to create a plan for everything you want to write or to work on, and forget that, when you’re away, things take longer. I mean, getting from place to place always takes longer than the satnav says it will, because it doesn’t factor in stopping, or your slightly slower opposite-side-of-the-road driving pace, or getting lost. Getting fuel takes longer. Doing laundry takes longer.

As well as taking loner, all of these things take more energy, because you’re having to think about them a bit harder. Example: I went to buy shampoo, and whereas at home I would walk into the shop, pick my regular shampoo off the shelf and pay (all in the space of about three minutes), in America, I had to first work out which shop to go to, and then look at all the different brands and prices, and then work out the tax, and all the rest of it. Everything just takes that little bit more time and energy to figure out.

All of this is good in some ways, of course, as it feeds into Point 4, and that added alertness we have when we’re out of familiar territory. But what it does mean is that I had to manage my expectations as to how much I was going to write in a day. With the exception of the MacDowell residency, where I wrote way more than I expected, I generally wrote less while I was away than I would have done at home. But that’s ok. After all, it isn’t all about quantity – and the research and additional stimulation enabled by being abroad was, without a doubt, priceless.

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!