What I did on the weekend …

Way back in December last year, as I was first wallowing in the delights of Canadian poetry and checking out the magazines that had published poems I particularly enjoyed, I came across something that sounded interesting: the Contemporary Verse 2 Two-Day Poem Competition. Very simple – you sign up, and at midnight on the first day of the contest you would be emailed a list of ten words which you must then use in a new poem. Everyone gets the same words, and you have to use them all, in the exact form provided (so no changing the tense, that sort of thing). And you had two days in which to do it.

One of the things that sold the competition to me was the way they choose winners – a First, Second and Third place (quite usual), plus an Editor’s Choice (ooh, bonus!) and a People’s Choice (double bonus!) and an Editor’s Dad’s Choice. At which point I fell hopelessly in love and decided that I had to give it a go. The fact that you could also get a heavily discounted subscription to the magazine along with your entry was the chocolate sprinkles on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake.

But that was back in December. I had completely forgotten about the competition, so it came as somethig of a surprise when I receieved the first email about it, counting down the last few days to go until it all kicked off. Crikey. A complicating factor was that we were looking at a fine weekend here, after yet another week of heavy rain. My garden needed me in ways that weren’t really easy to put off. Plus we’re in the middle of trying to replace our old logburner, so I was also sending emails off to tradesmen and suppliers and so on. Not an atmosphere entirely conducive to creativity. writingmugBut hey, my students manage to come up with poems in half an hour, and I was going to have two days. Previous years’ words had been really interesting and evocative – salt, becoming, furuncle, bearded, fortune, hinky, animate, fervent, prune, and emerald in 2016; satellite, ham, soaking, lapsed, stencil, mirrored, before, pyrite, faked, and appliances in 2015; and booster, timbres, cramp, unlocked, putative, wolf, barge, versions, probably and tag in 2014. So interesting mixtures of tense and form, with one tricky word thrown in to stretch you. But lots of possibility. (As was proven repeatedly by the quality of the winning poems.)

Yep. Like to guess the words we got, 5 pm Saturday afternoon, New Zealand time? They were:

  • bunk – ok, noun or verb, quite casual;
  • dank – again, interesting word, lots of possibility although likely to head down a slightly Gothic path;
  • stippled – nice adjective, just have to avoid pairing it with ‘shadow’ and miring myself in cliche;
  • begets – cool bananas, lots to do with this one;
  • unroofed – oooh, yes! this is starting to take shape;
  • foundling – hmm, definitely nudging me towards the Gothic (but lets be honest: it doesn’t take much);
  • bombastic – a bit of a challenge. But I can work with that;
  • daguerreotype – hmm, another tricky one,  but againI think I can work with it;
  • copacetic – what? Where did that come from? I don’t even know what it means. (whimper)
  • absquatulated – you’re making this up! WTF?! Abwhatsulated?!!

It was at this point that I started having a small panic attack.

Four stonklingly long, overly-complicatated words. I mean, I could manage bombastic and daguerreotype, but the other two how-the-hell-do-you-even-use-this-in-a-sentence words … no idea. (For those who are wondering, “copacetic” means ‘in excellent order’, and “absquatulated” means ‘buggered off’. Apparently. Although I may be paraphrasing the latter.)

So began two days of writing hell. And vast quantities of avoidance. On the other hand, I did make a new compost heap. And cleaned the toilet. Both toilets, actually. And got a fresh coat of paint on the cupboard doors.

I tried everything. Freewriting (you don’t want to know how many pages were just ARGH!!!!!! and a random assortment of swear words), defining parts of speech and doing a noun-to-noun verb-to-verb substitution into a handy poem by someone else, researching the etymology of the words, coming up with rhymes (good luck with that), trying to use a form of some sort … I just couldn’t find a way in. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, which turned into Sunday afternoon, which turned into Sunday night … the whole time my poor brain was doing a hamster-wheel thing, churning the words over and over – Dank! churn churn churn Bombastic! churn churn churn Copacetic! churn churn churn squeak churn Foundling! churn churn … Eventually Monday morning came, and I was facing something even worse than a blank page: a page with lots of scribble, but nothing even remotely resembling a poem.

I tried to comfort myself with the words of Thomas Edison – I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work – but that didn’t help much. Ultimately I just had to do the hardest thing of all – sit there, and write. And keep writing. And writing. And writing. Brute force and bloody-mindedness. To the accompaniment of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience (a really great piece of music: enjoy!):

Eventually it all did – sorta – work. I ended up needing to break into the Easter egg stash for fuel, but I got something done. Something that could, if you screwed your eyes up and squinted the right way, having first adopted an open, friendly and enthusiastic mood, have passed for a poem. So at 2pm I went outside for the first time since feeding the chooks, and pottered for half an hour. Then came back inside to try and edit some sense into the damn poem, and make copacestic and absquatulated less like the mutt’s nuts. By which I mean I hid them amongst other words of similar bombast, and hoped for the best.

All the time I’m doing this, the clock is ticking down. A fact that I suddenly realised with five minutes to the deadline.

They were not pretty minutes. I had to quickly bang it all into MS Word, check the contest rules for how exactly it was meant to be formatted (and I have a horrible feeling that I cocked at least one of the requirements up … argh), open an email, attach the document, add my contact details and title of the entry to the body of the email, and hit “send”.

I heard the swoosh sound of the email being sent as the clock on my computer ticked over to 5 pm. Immediately after which, my “you’ve got mail!” sound played, and a cheery email from the competition organisers appeared, announcing the competition closed for another year.

I have no idea if I managed to squeak in under the deadline by the narrowest of all possible margins, or if I did the face-palm opposite, and miss by the narrowest of possible margins. Either way, I thik we’re talking Planck units.

So there you have it. My crit groups will have the opportunity to see the carnage for themselves. I think there may be a worthwhile poem in there, somewhere.

But I suspect it won’t include the words “copacetic” or “absquatuated”.

You know those poems with amazing titles


that suggest anything
could be
about to happen,

anything might lie
hidden behind
the words
about to
leap forth

– the soldiers of syntax
marshalled on parade,
the magicians of
warming up their wands –

but which,
like the contents
of a Fabergé egg
or a politician’s promise
or Don Juan’s trousers

add the point
to disappointment
and come
to nothing?


this is one of them.

We’re two fifths of the way through the Poetic Turns class, and so far people seem to be enjoying themselves. Finding poems to illustrate each of the types of turns is an interesting challenge – I could just use the poems from Structure and Surprise (book and website) – and I do. But it feels like cheating if I don’t also come up with some examples on my own. So once again I find my reading getting sidetracked with thoughts of “ooh! This is a great example of a descriptive-meditative / retrospective-prospective / list-with-a-twist / emblem /etc turn!” There are limits to how many poems I can reasonably throw in front of my class though, so I try to keep a rein on it. The fact that so many of the turns are really variations on each other does complicate things somewhat – do you classify Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo as an emblem turn? Metaphor-to-meaning? How about descriptive-meditative? All of the above? It’s a wonderfully rich way of looking at poems. But when you then try to teach these things to other people it helps if you can come to something approximating a conclusion, even if only for your own peace of mind. (Evil thought: maybe you could teach a whole bunch of different approaches … using the one same poem as the example for all of them? Bwa ha ha ha!)

Next class we will be looking at the ironic turn. I’m a bit ambivalent about this one. Irony is a word that is misused, and I personally get very grumpy with the whole post(-post?)-modern reflexive-irony-in-place-of-an-actual-attempt-to-get-a-grip posture. But … the chapter on the Ironic Turn was the thing that first blew my mind in Structure and Surprise. It even persuaded me to continue reading the whole of Larkin’s “High Windows”, and not just reach into the poem and try to give him a thorough slapping …

Maybe a better way of thinking of it is “the deflationary turn”. That links it quite nicely to the use of irony in jokes and puns, which can actually be quite profound. As some of my students do occasionally read this blog, I won’t go into detail about the poems I plan to use. My own little gesture at the beginning of this post is an exercise in the technique, which I hope goes a step or two beyond the punchline. Buggered though if I know how (other than following Scott Wiggerman‘s example – yet another poet/teacher to whom I salaam in gratitude on a weekly basis) I’m going to create an exercise that will get them all to put it into practice. It’s not just a case of saying Do This, much as I wish it was. I have to try and find the key that sets them all (or most of them) (hell, I’ll settle for ‘some’) off with maximum possible enthusiasm.

Catnip in their morning tea?

Poem in progress – a cento for Yogi


Déjà Vu
a cento i.m. Lawrence Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra 

It gets late early out there. It’s
déjà vu all over again.
We have deep depth. He’s amphibious.
If the world were perfect,
it wouldn’t be.

When you come to a fork in the road,
(What time is it? You mean now?) take it.
Pair up in threes. It ain’t the heat,
it’s the humility. (Take it).

Ninety percent of this game
is mental, the other half
is physical. A nickel
ain’t worth a dime anymore.
Little things are big.

You can observe a lot
by watching.We made
too many wrong mistakes.
If you can’t imitate him,
don’t copy him.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Nobody goes there anymore.
It’s too crowded. It was impossible
to get a conversation going,
was talking too much.

Thank you for making this day
necessary. You wouldn’t have won
if we’d beaten you. If people
don’t want to come to the ballpark
how are you going to stop them?

I looked like this when I was young,
and I still do. I really didn’t
say everything I said. Half the lies
they tell about me
aren’t true.

I knew the record would stand
until it was broken.
So I’m ugly. So what? I never
saw anyone hit with his face.
Why buy good luggage,
you only use it when you travel?

I usually take a two-hour nap
from one to four. If you don’t know
where you’re going, you might not get there.
Always go to other people’s funerals;
otherwise they won’t go to yours.

It gets late early out there.
(Déjà vu. Take it.)
It gets late early out there.

Tragedy (when you lose control and you got no soul)

1 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey GI’ve just spent a week trying to work out, to my own satisfaction, the difference between ‘unknowable’ and ‘unnamable’.

I know. It’s simple – the first means ‘you can’t know it’ and the second ‘you can’t name it’. But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s to do with a poem I’ve been working on – it was actually the first poem I managed to write this year. It’s somewhat influenced by an incredibly beautiful and eerie poem by Robert Frost:

The Most of It


He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.


– Robert Frost

Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s a side of Frost that most people don’t realise is there – I think of it as his wild side, his mystical side. ‘The Road Not Taken’ has a hint of it, and so does ‘Acquainted With The Night’. It’s where Mary Oliver takes off from, I think. And it’s a dangerous place, especially in this (cynical) modern world. It’s so easy to tip over into a kind of gnomic pretension. Earning it, is hard.

Which brings me back to my word dilema. I’ll give you the relevant two lines, so you get some sense of context:

and something unknowable
wades out onto the furthest shore.


2 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey G

Part of the problem is that I don’t think of ‘unknowable’ as menacing, but it seems other people do. I’m sure you could
psychoanalyse that fact and derive some sort of insight into the differences between people’s upbringings. But from my considerably simpler point of view, it’s mainly a bugger.

Unknowable, to me, is just simply that – something beyond understanding. Something fundamentally other. Sacred things are unknowable. The vastness of the universe is also unknowable (virtually by definition), but it doesn’t make me feel afraid. To my thinking, ‘fear of the unknown’ is actually a misnomer – you don’t really fear the things you don’t know. You fear they may contain things that are dangerous (which is something you know) or malicious (ditto) or which will harm you (yadda). That will overwhelm you (a feeling you remember from childhood at least, and a state you strive to avoid) or overpower you (ditto yet again). What you fear is the potential peril, and the fact that it’s a sort of existential fog. Which in turn means you can’t see clearly enough into whatever it is to be able to set up appropriate defenses. But the scary part of ‘potential peril’ is the peril, not the potential. And you only feel these fears when you are already in a state of alarm. Your fear reflected back to you, like lights reflecting off a bank of fog. Otherwise it’s an amazing well of possibility. Something to explore. Somewhere you can empty yourself out into.

O-kay, that took a rather more philosophical turn than I had intended. Back to the original point: that I find ‘unknowable’ a numinous thing, not a threatening thing. And the views of all the people who’ve read the poem are (so far) split 50/50 on it, with half saying they find it menacing, and half quite the opposite.

‘Unnamable’ is also problematic. To me, it’s much more menacing – ‘nameless dread’ is the first phrase that comes to mind when I think of it. (We are not going to get into a long, rambling dissertation on the many possible shades of meaning or implication of that phrase, and why it might also be a misnomer. Do that on your own time.)

As you’ll probably have worked out, what I’m wanting for that final couplet is something of the same sense of strangeness and agency as the ending of the Frost poem. I’d assumed that the fact I have the whatever it is (unknowable or unnamable or … thing) wading out onto the furthest shore would have been a release of tension – it’s obviously moving away from the speaker, and therefore (I thought) is not a threat to them. Is probably not even aware of them, in much the same way that Frost’s stag swims towards him, past him, gets out of the water and disappears into the undergrowth – and that is all. Which is why ‘unknowable‘ seemed right to me – it’s so completely other that it isn’t even aware of the speaker. It exists in its own space.

But obviously there were enough other people disagreeing with that assumption for me to have to try and find some other approach. Or at least to consider another approach. Unnameable … unknowable … other? I could use ‘other’, but I would have to italicise it to make people read it properly, and I prefer the level of understatement that I currently have, with the linebreak doing the work behind the scenes. Another suggestion that was made was that I could try and bring some menace into the poem a bit earlier – this was from the people who thought of the ending as menacing – so that it seemed a more natural way of concluding. Except the poem isn’t meant to be menacing.


Argh. Welcome to the world (or possibly ‘ongoing mental breakdown’) of the practicing poet.

Chinese Whispers and Collins-ese Whiskers

One of my (current) favourite writing exercises (and one which will be making its way into the next Reading for Writing workshop – you have been warned!) is based on the old game of Chinese Whispers. You know, the one where you whisper something into someone’s ear, then they whisper it to the next person, then the next and so on until it gets back to you, garbled beyond recognition. But instead of whispering a source text to a line of people, I make use of online translations engines.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. You take the text, enter it into an online search engine, translate it into another language (ideally something quite different to English), then copy that text, paste it into the source box of the translator, and translate it into yet another language, and so on and on, until you finally bring it back to English, full of interesting mistranslations and accidents. Then you take that text and use it to write a poem of your own, wandering as far from or near to the original as you like.

One of the reasons this particular exercise occured to me was because I collect weird bits of language. The most well known example (usually given as part of the reason that you always need to check translations by bringing them back into English) is of someone translating the English phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” as “blind insanity”, which is both entirely logical and completely, wonderfully, wackily wrong. An even better example is apparently from an attempt to translate the phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Russian. The result? “The meat is rotten, but the vodka is good.”

Obviously the main issue is with translating things that are idiomatic. And because poetry makes such strong use of connotations, it falls squarely into this area. The Chinese Whispers exercise does a lovely job of making a text very very strange, and (for me, anyway) full of sparks and points of departure.

And one other thing I’ve discovered – you can get quite different translations if you strip out all the line and stanza breaks. This is what happened when I Whispered Billy Collins’s “Man in Space” in two different ways. First, as a single paragraph of text:

This is a man, heard some women, it is God’s decision, this is what the table, even though the supply is very low, and she trembled as she Laver and science fiction in television or read, have read the painted why not put in your soil, the United States, standing still, with arms in a semicircle, with bare feet is safe to release heart hard plate.

Or if translated in poem lineation:

We will have to listen to them to make the man May pure spouses
Do you remember the plan and said he thought but lower lip began to tremble,
and finally, why women
Movies on their planet
as described by television or read a magazine When the rocket lands
Why stand semicircle
compressed hands, bare feet, leaving a
Hard protective breast plate.

And before you ask, yes, I have written a poem from it. And as a tease, here is the opening stanza of my poem:

Of necessity, and in accordance
with our custom, her mother’s sisters
are singing her a husband.