Finding Our Way Out
I don’t believe in ‘writer’s block’. There: I’ve said it.
As poets, I don’t believe we ever ‘start from nothing’. Or rather – I think that there’s a huge potential in every nothing we encounter. Our lives and lived experiences – although rich and vital components of our work – are also only one approach to writing.
My little bureau under the stairs is dedicated to what Don Paterson calls the ‘wild red eye’ stage of writing: where you play, experiment, set out to see how you might surprise yourself. (I edit upstairs at my desk, where I welcome the ‘cold blue eye’ of my Inner Editor).
Some mornings, the Muse rings the doorbell and leaves a parcel – or pops in for a cup of tea (they’re non-corporeal, so we don’t need to socially distance). Other mornings, there are no deliveries: I am there, with a notebook and a desk. But that desk is covered in decks of cards – including Fashion and Art Oracles, some home-printed ‘Oblique Strategies’, some new ‘votive cards’ which encourage embodied writing, the ‘Don’t/Do This Game’ of ‘thought experiments for creative people’.
There are fridge poetry words, and shelves of books of prompts. I’ve also got the Parrot Random Word generator app and several sets of story dice – real and digital (my favourite are the actions Story Cubes, which are great for getting writers to consider their verbs…). Sometimes, I’ll explore news articles – especially around environment – and then muddle up some phrases with found words to invite my response. You get the idea.
An aside: my late Granny Joy was a toy collector and serious hoarder (she actually had a box labelled ‘Bits of string too short to be useful’) and my late Granddad Eric, a toy designer and maker: I’m in a lineage of tinkerers and gatherers. All this creative ‘stuff’ is my way of embracing that inheritance. You might be an aesthetic anti-clutter minimalist – but keeping in mind that we can always ‘invoke the Muse’ is, I think, helpful for everyone. Which toys, games, ways of reinstating your playfulness, might work for you?
The video below is from a series of introductory writing for wellbeing sessions I recorded for Cheltenham Festivals, during Lockdown 1.0. This session invites viewers to create ‘recycled poetry’ – encouraging us to play, experiment, have fun and enjoy the material quality of words, to become their curators.
In the video, I use some straightforward approaches to cutting out headline words from various publications and colliding their ‘word hoards’ together in pairs. These pairs can become a poem in their own right, or you can use them as inspiration for a longer piece of writing (for example, the ‘Mallard Requiem’ or ‘Angel Opticians’ are crying out for a poem). You can use the Philip Gross ‘What if, what then?’ question and keep saying ‘Yes’ to that idea…
I also introduce blackout poems, especially in the form of Tom Philips’ ‘A Humument’ – which is an entire treated Victorian novel. Blackouts are a great way of answering back to a text – so you might enjoy finding an article on something you feel strongly about and ‘curating’ the words to alter the meaning. You can also simply highlight the words you want to keep. For me, there’s wellbeing value in feeling like you’re speaking truth to power through transforming things like articles, official documents, bureaucratic texts. I’ve done this before with school policy documents and it can feel subversive and empowering.
If you’re an experienced poet, you might well have tried these before. So here are some found poetry activities to challenge you:
Try out one of Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘coupling’ form. Take excerpts from an existing text – perhaps something ‘non poetic’ – and then intersperse your own lines between. You can try to make it follow on, or have the existing and interjected texts on two sides of the page. If you want an extra challenge, try to mirror the rhythm and maybe half-rhyme your own words, with those you’ve adopted. There’s a more detailed blog post on Couplings, here.
Try a ‘Find and Replace’ poem. With thanks to Claire Collison – who invented this form in a workshop of mine late last year! Copy a chunk of text from somewhere online, then use Word or similar to Find a particular word (ie a key noun, such as ‘President’) and then Replace all instances with something else (ie change that to ‘Volcano’). Then continue finding and replacing all the key words, those which crop up regularly, to other words – perhaps in the same type of word (ie verb, noun, etc) and keep going until the text is entirely transformed.
I hope you enjoy these approaches and that they’ll remind you, next time you sit down to write, that the Muse wants to join us – we sometimes just need to give him/her/them an invitation. And the world is one huge invitation, if we view it as such.
LAUNCH EVENT: 13th February 2021
My debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow, is out with tall-lighthouse in February, LGBT+ History Month. There’s an online event – with a small number of open mic slots – happening on the 13th February. You can book the event and pre-order the pamphlet, here: https://tall-lighthouse.co.uk/caleb-parkin/
Caleb Parkin, Bristol City Poet 2020 – 22, has published widely in journals including The Rialto, Poetry Review, Magma, Poetry Wales and Butcher’s Dog, and has won or been shortlisted in major competitions, including second prize in the National Poetry Competition 2016, shortlisted in The Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition 2016 and first in the Winchester Poetry Prize 2017. He tutors for Poetry Society, Poetry School and Cheltenham Festivals, and holds an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. His debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow is published with tall-lighthouse in February 2021 and his debut collection, This Fruiting Body, with Nine Arches in October 2021.
Twitter @CalebParkin | Website: www.couldbethemoon.co.uk