Stephanie

Stephanie

I blew it, said Stephanie,
picking Weetabix clods from her hair
in the light of the burning bureau
as the cat smoked.

I should have listened, she said,
as the threads of her lawn unknitted
and the house found a new equilibrium
behind Tesco.

Of all the people, she said,
to be trusted with this decision!
The crust shrugged and heaved.
Magma rose.

 

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Geranium

I thought I had better write a tribute to the only flowering plant that consistently survives my “gardening” – bruises, amputations and all.

A geranium in my garden

Geranium

We understand each other,
me and this ballsy bloomer,
roots as deep as a cheap sandwich,
leaves all thick fists down the alley.

It thrives on my perennial neglect,
dies every day in a new ugly,
screaming ‘Cut off my head, you big nelly!
Pass me a pickled egg and slap me.’

Sneering down at reedy violas –
Bosh! It steals sunlight from the needy,
coming again and again like a prop forward
throwing up to make space for a bevvie.

Red-faced, white-faced, pink-faced,
fat cheeks every colour of pushy,
broken nose flourishing with hubris,
it mocks every nibbling beastie.

Oh, but it is beautiful,
bruising through each new lobotomy,
a rolling maul of carousal.
A lover. A fighter. A softie.

 

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Three Tricks to Beat the Themed Submission Brain Freeze

tumbleweed
Actual footage of my brain when presented with a themed prompt

Three Tricks to Beat the Themed Submission Brain Freeze

Maybe I’m the only poet who finds this, but when I see that one of my favourite journals is running a themed submission window, I panic a bit. Because when faced with a theme to write to, my mind always goes completely blank. Themes are often just one word which is either very specific (“Playing Cards!” “Cauldrons!”) or quite ethereal (“Sustenance!” “Longevity!”) and my mind just doesn’t know where to go with them. The result? Brain freeze.

But themed prompts can be quite useful ways of writing poems I never would have thought of. Plus – cynically – there’s probably more chance of publication in a themed issue, since the issue ie likely to attract less spurious submissions. So here’s three tricks I’ve used to turn the prompt into a poem.

  • Recycle

Have a look through all those random lines, couplets and starters  you’ve scribbled down and done nothing with. If you had to incorporate the prompt into them, what would you do? This is quite a good way of prompting connections you might not have otherwise thought of – and reviving lost ideas!

So I have found in my phone:

They made a crisis out of looks and sellotape,
Hung it on a headline to air,
watched the panic germinate.

Adding in the “cauldron” prompt sparks me to carry this poem on:

They threw some news into a cauldron,
s
tirred it up with a brand new slant
and folded it into paper…

A start maybe?

Or maybe I could have added in the “Longevity” prompt

They cultivated it with jealous fingers,
drew out the flowering as long as they could…

…and so on. Maybe if it was the sustenance prompt, they would have ended up eating news cucumbers. Who knows.

  • The random adjective trick

My favourite trick – pick a random adjective. Stick your finger in a book, look round the room and describe something, or or just pick the most mismatched adjective you can think of! Then pair it with the prompt. Suddenly you have something specific to work on. Picking adjectives randomly from George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones to pair with my example prompts above gives me a few phrases which immediately set off more ideas. Don’t hold me to the lines, they’re just what came into my mind!

Empty-eyed playing cards

“On Thursdays, she plays solitaire / gazing at empty-eyed playing cards”…

Guilty cauldrons

“Only the cauldrons and the cats / know what they have made / but the cats don’t care, or else, they don’t say…”

Reassuring sustenance

“And thank god for the biscuit that flops into my tea like the best and worst of friends”

Dark longevity

“I swear, each moon, the night lasts a little longer…”

Now there’s a bit more to get my teeth into!

  • Google Images

Ah, good old Google. If in doubt, and if you’re a fairly visual person. just google the word and click on images. Have a scroll and see what inspires you. Even googling “playing cards” gave me a few ideas:

“I started seeing eyes in the playing cards,
not kings or naves, but the people I have lost.
Unlucky as black sevens,
stark as deuces,
they grew from the pack like impossible houses…”

So there you go! Three tricks to get your themed submissions singing! Now, where did I put my three poems on the theme of caustic soda…

 

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Hallelujah

Fire and Ice

This was last year’s attempt at a Christmas poem, and it didn’t exactly come out very jinglebellsy – although it does use the word “Christmas”! With this in mind, I’m keeping it well away from Christmas and posting it in May. Enjoy!

Hallelujah

The angel stood on the patio,

his feathers buttered and heavy.

He was not the angel we’d had in mind.

He was winter with a blown halo.

 

He was the sum of our moods – hot and popping,

spitting in fire like pigskin.

He was white ash and burnt marshmallow,

crick-cracking. His smile was an ice-flow.

 

He turned once. He kept turning.

He was a Christmas fairground.

We threw roasting-nuts. We won nothing –

just the sizzle-spin of his eyebrow.

 

Round and round, wings greasy,

muscles strained, steaming and sallow,

he yelled like a Mexican wrestler

until the hail came. Hallelujah. 

 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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Mother to Mother

It’s surprising how often one or two words can spark a whole poem. In a workshop, I was encouraged to think about or research some wonderful words to do with the shore. It was actually the words “chert and flint” which sparked this poem – and no, they’re not a pair of 1970s detectives, they’re the materials found in pebbles such as these in Seatown, Dorset.

The resulting poem, “Mother to Mother” is told in the voice of that great mother, the sea. She is speaking to a human mother, who may or may not be me. 😉

Beach at Seatown, Dorset

Mother to Mother 

At my shore, where you are drawn to grow lighter,
I load my spring currents with new stones to shine.
I grab steely chert,
pale flint with pleasing speckles,
nuggets of crumby sea-wall.
They are mine. They are mine.

As you lift your teary son from his waterlogged wellies,
you smile at how weighted his jacket now is
with stripey-lined feldspar
and palm-ready axe-heads:
soothing jewels to line his bed with.
They are his, they are his.

Some days, I admit, I take swipes of red cliff-mud,
with or without a caravan thrown in.
But I am a caretaker,
a guardian of mixed treasures.
I smooth jagged edges.
We are kin, we are kin. 

This poem was first published by Reach Poetry (Indigo Dreams Publishing).

The workshop that inspired this poem was run by the very inspiring Anna Saunders.

Photo by me, at Seatown in 2021. One day later, the cliff you can see behind the rocks collapsed in an enormous landslip, hence the “swipes of red cliff-mud”. The boy on the rocks belongs to me 😉

 

 

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“BUT THEY MIGHT THINK I’M A DICK!” Seven words which stand between me and writing success

Writing is easy. Well, OK, it’s not. But for most writers, writing is easier than the other side of being an author – selling books.

This year, amazingly, wonderfully, I have a book coming out. It’s my first. During a workshop last night, I was forced to address the question: what is it that makes me so nervous about publicising it?

Much overnight soul-searching later, the answer is clear. BECAUSE PEOPLE MIGHT THINK I’M A DICK.

Let me give you some examples.

I need to approach journals, blogs, podcasts, in-person events and festivals to try to get myself, and my work, out there. But might think I’m too forward!

I need to organise a launch event, or maybe two, but what if, like, five people come and two of them are my Mum?

I need to get myself out to some poetry nights and open mics, and this will probably involve initially turning up on my own, since not many of my friends are into poetry. But what if they all think I’m Billy No-Mates? What if I fluff it on stage?

I should probably get the sales ball rolling by getting some friends to buy and review the book. But a lot of the book reveals the inner me! There is anxiety and nerdiness and weird humour and sex and oddness! What if they’re all talking about me behind my back?

In summary: BUT THEY MIGHT THINK I’M A DICK!

My challenge to myself: to spot those words in my head. To put them away. To run every doubt through the BUT THEY MIGHT THINK I’M A DICK filter, call it out and have none of it. I don’t think any other author putting their work out there is a dick, so neither am I. And if let these seven words stand in my way… well then, I really am a dick.

 

Last night’s workshop was run by the fabulous Elizabeth M Castillo. https://www.elizabethmcastillo.com/

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Photo by Geralt on Pixabay

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I Think, Therefore I Write

Whether we think in words, images or concepts, does this affect the type of poetry we write? 

 

What’s it like for you when you think? What about when you read? Do you hear words in your head? See images? Both? Or do you experience something else?

 

I love discussing this, particularly with those who are only just realising that it’s not the same for everyone. Frankly it freaks people out. Someone who has a noisy inner monologue, for instance, is often quite shocked when they realise that another person just thinks in wordless concepts. Or that a third person practically watches a movie in their head when they read. 

 

But what about how we experience, and indeed write, poetry? Recently it struck me that perhaps the type of poetry we create may be very influenced by our thinking style. 

 

For example, I’m a very word-based thinker and reader.  I don’t really picture anything at all when I think – it’s all a big chitchat in my head, and all in my own voice. Reading is almost the same, although there is sometimes a little mental “picturing”.  So a poem for me is a platter of sounds, throwing up ideas, connections and the odd fleeting, fuzzy image. 

 

And what type of poetry do I write? Well, I love soundplay and very passionate about sounds that meld and clash. They are a very important part of the poem for me. Not all my poems rhyme, but rhyme is a great love of mine. I enjoy half-rhymes and not-even-that-close rhymes, I love alliteration and I cannot get enough assonance and dissonance. Likewise, I’m slightly obsessed with rhythm, and even if a poem doesn’t have a classic rhythmical structure, I usually need the rhythm to have some kind of shape in order for me to find writing the poem satisfying.

 

Which is all a long winded way of musing: do I write like that because for me the experience of a poem, the way I process the ideas, is almost nothing but words? That, for me, hearing an inner rhyme is as satisfying as looking at a sunset? That I cannot disconnect the meaning of a poem from the sounds that frame it? And, a big question – if I didn’t think like that, would I find wordplay to be just an irritating? A noisy and unnecessary distraction? 

 

Or maybe not. Maybe this is just all nonsense. But if it is, it’s nonsense that sounds awfully good to me. 

 

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It’s National Poetry Writing Month – Need Some Prompts?

National Poetry Writing Month is approaching fast! Here’s a little self-prompting technique that might just help you to write (or at least start) thirty poems in April.

There are three reasons why writing poetry in April is a good idea.

1 – It’s spring!

2 – It’s always a good idea to write poetry

3 – It’s National Poetry Writing Month

National Poetry Writing Month – or #NaPoWriMo* will see thousands of poets challenging themselves to write a poem a day.  For me, the main issue with this is having thirty ideas, when normally, I have a good idea for a poem once every week or two. Thirty in a row is going to be TRICKY!

There will be daily poem prompts up at www.napowrimo.net to help – but I don’t know about you, I’m a bit contrary and find the idea of a thousand other people writing on the same theme off-putting.

So I thought I’d share my most failsafe self-prompting technique, which I’m planning to use when stuck. It’s really simple, and it really has worked for me in the past!

1.  Choose a novel with a similar feel to poems you like to write

If you like fun poems, choose a fun novel. Romantic poems… you get the drift. I like writing surreal poems, so I chose “The Lefthanded Booksellers of London” by Garth Nix.

2. Randomly extract an adjective, then randomly extract a noun

Stick your finger somewhere random in the book, then read on until you find the FIRST adjective. Repeat, but with a noun. Write them down. My first effort brought me “minor path”.

3. Write a couple of lines inspired by that little phrase. 

It can be as directly or indirectly about it as you like. Don’t think about it too hard. Just give yourself a minute or two.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 four more times

That’s it! Ta-da! You now have a little pot of five poem starters, rather like this:

You don’t have to use them all, and you can repeat the exercise with all kinds of different books through the month – maybe include some non-fiction books as well.

I’ve already got most of a poem from my “minor path” prompt. Actually the poem ended up completely going away from the idea of paths at all but… it got me started.

Good luck and happy writing!

 

* This always reminds me of that joke about what Edward Woodward would be called if the letter D hadn’t been invented. #EWarWooWar

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Oxbow

This poem was written for a “Geography” themed issue of the poetry journal Allegro Poetry. And so, living the dream, I was able to write about the profound sadness of a relationship break-up, whilst drawing metaphors from my GCSE Geography days. Awesome.

Oxbow

We meet by the river
on a Wednesday lunchtime,
to the disapproval of your dry wife.

Sandwiches are eaten
from square lunchboxes,
and we talk about the shapes we used to make –
but not all of them.

“Do you remember,” you say,
“how you used to come out with my words
before I’d even thought them?”

And I think about the river, and how,
when it curls round and finds only itself,
there is a reckoning.
A cutting of the slack.

 

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Autumn in a Call Centre

 

Just an everyday workplace tale…

Autumn in a Call Centre

 

When the boss gave out autumn in home-made envelopes,

sour yellow and sellotaped,

the Success Team withered.

“But we stuck to the script,” they choked.

 

The boss said nothing, but stood

scratching her back against the photocopier,

her breath a hot slug of paprika.

HR looked up a policy, then shrugged.

 

When they opened the envelopes, November knifed them 

with its stiff north-easterlies,

red maple leaves spreading from their chests.

They dropped to the floor, rotting.

 

The boss stepped over them in her wide-fit stilettos,

her face waxy, like a butternut squash.

“The shoes,” she hissed. “You all wore the wrong shoes,”

and she walked out into the April sky, wheezing. 

 

 

An earlier version of this poem (then called “Autumn in an Envelope”) was published by Snakeskin Poetry.

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