Sunday Writing Challenge #2

I wanted to write about daffodils, my favourite flowers, but I couldn’t quite get it right. I was thinking of yellow stars and blazes of pollen like comet trails, or maybe an orchestra of silent trumpets. Anyway, that didn’t work out. Next I returned to an image from a short story I once wrote and came up with:

Branches a black scrawl
till the first buds pop
colouring in spring

I also wanted to try writing haikus with even fewer syllables. Simple, silent, calm – that’s what I was going for:

Bridges cast off
the sea har
reflect the sun

Sun lingers
Points of light
on the Forth

Did anyone else write a spring/autumn haiku this week?

For next Sunday I’m going to try writing a poem in terza rima. The simplest form, I believe, would be five lines with the rhyme pattern A-B-A,  B-B. You can have more verses – check out the wikipedia page on terza rima for the rules.


Carry A Poem

During February there will be poetry events happening all over Edinburgh as part of the City of Literature’s Carry a Poem campaign. There will be opportunities to share your favourite poems with others, to attend poetry writing workshops and to take part in a treasure hunt. I see that Mark Thomson will be performing his poetry in Leith Library next Wednesday. I had an amazing time at a workshop with him last April and I strongly recommend that you go along if you can.

From Monday 1000s of Carry a Poem Books will be given away for free in Edinburgh City Libraries. The book contains a selection of poems, each one accompanied by a story from the person who chose it to explain why that poem is significant to them. I’m desperate for a copy and am already planning the fastest route from work to the library on Monday afternoon.

I’m sure the campaign will not only encourage people to read poems but also to treasure them. Already it’s got me thinking about poems that have meant a lot to me.  I’ve never been a good one for memorising lines (I have friends who can carry on whole conversations quoting only from The Simpsons while the best I can manage is “Doh!”) and I’m not the sort of person who learns poems off by heart. I can’t claim to carry any one particular poem in my head, but there are some that still make me smile long after my memory of the words has faded.  

One of these is Fleur Adcock’s Illiterate, which I recently came across in a journal at the Scottish Poetry Library. The poem describes that confusing time in childhood before you can read or write. Without letters to pin down the words it’s so easy to get them wrong. Adcock recalls her mother offering her crayons and thinking she had said “crowns”. Learning to read brought her clarity but also sadness; all those words that had to be unlearned!

It reminded me that when I was a child I thought that my mum carried a ham-bag and my grandpa was in the Gravy. I spent about a year playing “shoders” at nursery until “shoulder” and “soldier” resolved into two distinct words. Although it’s been a  long time since I made those mistakes, my mum still clings onto my childhood words, offering me “noccit” when I visit home.

Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’-Race!

Today is Robert Burns Day so I’ll be having haggis for dinner, courtesy of my friend Lucy. The last time I had a Burns supper must have been about five years ago when I was still a student. My college held one every year. The haggis would be led into the hall by a bagpiper in full kilt and carried up to the high table where one of the fellows would recite Burns’ Address to a Haggis, slicing the thing open with a wicked gleam in her eye at the line:

An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

After that disgusting piece of imagery the haggis would be taken away again to be dished onto plates and we would be left picking at the prunes in our cock-a-leekie soup, feeling slightly squeamish.

If you weren’t lucky enough to have been invited for a Burns supper this evening (and I bet you wish you were now. Gushing entrails? Yum!) but  still want to enjoy a little bit of Scottish Bard related fun, why don’t you try this puzzle? Even if you don’t learn anything new, you can still have a laugh at the anagram clues. Danny Seagull? Hah!

Inspired? Get Writing

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT declares the neon blue sign emblazoned across the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. My sister says that on a bad day, seeing that message makes her feel warm inside. Having read Fleur Adcock’s persuasive argument in Mslexia on why “all right” is two words and not one, the sign just makes me feel irritated.

Last week while visiting the gallery, a teeny newspaper clipping pinned to the noticeboard caught my eye. The National Galleries of Scotland are running a competition for short stories or poems inspired by one of the works in their collection. Entries can be up to 1000 words and the deadline is 22nd January 2010. Don’t worry if you are unable to get to Edinburgh to view the collections; many of the works are displayed online.

My favourite works in the Gallery of Modern Art were the Cindy Sherman photographs and the Liechtenstein painting. Funny though, that the work that sticks most strongly in my mind is that bloody annoying neon blue sign.

Heads Up

After a couple of years of entering writing competitions and becoming disillusioned with the whole set up, the only writing competition I am now prepared to pay to enter is The Bridport Prize.  It is open to everyone over 16 and is for poems of up to 42 lines and short stories of up to 5000 words. The entry fee is £6 per poem and £7 per short story and the first prize is £5000. The top 26 stories and poems will be published in an anthology. I have the anthologies from 2006 and 2007 and as well as enjoying reading the winning pieces, I have found the judges’ reports illuminating. Here are a few tips on writing for the Bridport, which I have assembled after reading what previous short story and poetry judges have to say:

Short Story Competition

1. Make it funny. “Humour was in short supply and so was beauty, human or divine.” Jane Gardam, 2006

“Sorely missing from the entries was humour.” Tracy Chevalier, 2007

2. Avoid writing about death, bad parents and religious faith if you can help it. Instead choose an uplifting theme for your story. “There was a grim uniformity about the worlds (the writers) described. I felt that if I were a Martian I would not want to continue with any space-probe that might take me anywhere near planet earth; a place of malaise, disillusion, infidelity, malice, cowardice, madness, cruelty, marital discord, damaged children with ghastly parents, drugs, booze, child-abuse, war, massacre, suicide and scant religious faith or hope for the future.” Jane Gardam

“It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting to find out what subjects people choose to write about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: ageing and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.” Tracy Chevalier

3. Nail the characters. Make them memorable and real. “It is character that is at the heart of everything…I decided to give my judicial self a rest, live my life and see which of the characters would continue in my mind.” Jane Gardam

“(short story writing) does have a purpose beyond entertainment, and that is to explore what it means to be human. I was very impressed by the many examples of good writing and the confidence and economy with which entrants established character, voice and scene.” Tracy Chevalier

4. Don’t rush the ending, spend time on getting it right. “Too many times I thrilled to a story, only to be bitterly disappointed on reading the last page. The reader demands the impossible (from an ending): to be both surprised and satisfied. Too often entrants didn’t give me either option.” Tracy Chevalier

Poetry Competition

1. Writing beautifully is not enough. ” There’s a lot of dead poetry about. Some of it is beautifully made. I’ve dismissed poetry that is beautifully made and nothing else.” Lavinia Greenlaw, 2006

“Lots of poems here sound like poems, and often very beautifully – but…they have no great imaginative or dramatic proposition that makes me excited about the prospect of reading them again. I want a poem with an interesting argument or point to make, or a compelling story to tell.” Don Paterson, 2007

2. Make it surprising and imaginative. “The things I was looking for as I made my way through the entries were… surprise, precision, imagination and risk.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“Too many (of the poems) afforded me no surprise – which is the reader’s only test that the writer has themselves been surprised or excited or moved in the actual making of the poem. The poems I have in the final pile all have a sense of having built their own little imaginative planet.” Don Paterson

3. Pay attention to technical details.  “I was looking for…a proper attentiveness to and use of cadence, lineation, enjambement, metrics etc.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“There are three things that I really wish poems would not withhold or muddle or fail to signpost, through incompetence or misjudgement: these are literal context…, dramatis personae…, and chronological sequence.” Don Paterson

So now there is no excuse for not writing a bloody good entry for the Bridport. The closing date is 30th June so that gives you a little more than a month to get your piece ready. What are you waiting for? Get cracking!