Roddy Williams – The Atheist Poet

Posts tagged “Poetry Exercise

Poetry Exercises: Fifty Word People

OK. Here’s a thing I’ve been doing for the last year or so. You might like to give it a go.
Pick a place you go regularly which has a changing clientele; a pub, a coffee shop, a bus stop, a laundrette, a regular train. It needs to be somewhere where you will be sitting or standing near a stranger for at least five minutes. My particular place is a coffee shop I visit quite regularly, usually to do some writing, although I do confess that other coffee shops are also employed. As long as there is some kind of consistency of background you are allowed to change gyms, laundrettes or bus-stops, as long as you move from gym to gym and not gym to laundrette. This will help to build a collection of work where the subjects are related by the location.
Pick someone and study them closely. Ask yourself questions. What are they wearing? Who are they with? Why are they there? What are they doing? (Many of them will be engaged with a mobile device of some sort, but don’t let that put you off. What are they doing with it?) Be Sherlock Holmes and attempt to deduce from your observations a background to your subject. What is their mood? How do they move and speak? What do they do with their hands? Look at the body language.
What do they eat and drink?
Sometimes they may speak to you, or you may overhear what they say. Try to record not only what they say but how they say it.
Now, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write one poem per visit, of exactly fifty words about your chosen subject. Title each one and number them sequentially in the same format such as ‘Kings Arms Drinker No 6’
It is for one thing a marvellous exercise in brevity and paraphrasing and forces you to make difficult choices in order to present information with the minimum of words.
It’s also (at least for me) fascinatingly addictive. I am up to ‘Costa People No 59’ and may well have chosen number 60 by the time I finish writing this.
You may also find yourself looking at finding different and more interesting ways of constructing your pieces as your collection grows which should have a direct effect on your other work outside of this process.
You will also find that you, as the writer, become an additional character in this disjointed narrative of fleeting lives.
I should, I suppose, provide an example. I like examples. Don’t however assume that you need to copy this style. The people you select will be yours to do with whatever you may.

Costa People 12

god knows how long
he has dozed
chin on armrest
clutching a dumb phone

two carrier bags
rucksack gagged mute
badly turned up for the black books

‘i’m waiting for a friend’ he mutters
when the barista
frothing frustrated steam
wakes him with a
stare of eviction
espresso intense


Found speech

One of the benefits – or drawbacks – of being of a certain age and not looking too much like a serial killer is that strangers regularly strike up unsolicited conversations.
Granted they are not always rational conversations, but they nevertheless provide me with a fund of material. I love to write poems based on reported speech and have found lately that one sided conversations can be one of the best ways of presenting them. It prompts the reader to construct another voice, another character, to imagine the missing dialogue.
Two of these have translated into my series of fifty word poem portraits of coffee shop customers one of whom, in an Edgware Road coffee shop recently, told me of the time that he saw Telly Savalas (who was once Kojak on TV in a bygone age) walking down Edgware Road.
On these occasions I do my best to transcribe what was said as soon as possible in order to preserve the rhythm of speech and the syntax.
At other times, often on buses or trains, one hears half of a phone conversation, and this can lead into some interesting territory.
Watch. Listen. Engage if that’s an option. Be nosey.
My justification for this, if I need justification, is that otherwise these things are lost. If I don’t record them, in a year or month even, neither of us will recall what was said. I am saving contemporary life for posterity.

Here’s one, based on an overheard mobile phone conversation from a london bus and published last year in the online mag ‘Message in a Bottle’


so why were you giving me screwface i says?
and she says like, who?
and i says last night.
you was screwfacing me
in the club, yeah? remember,
‘bout quarter to three.
and she says no i weren’t
but she was man, i swear,
then she says she was
screwfacing charlie and claire
but she wasn’t, right, …yeah!
so i says no you weren’t,
you were screwfacing me!
pulling a screwface ‘bout quarter to three,
cos charlie was dancing with fuller, right?
and there’s no way that she was like
screwfacing claire
‘cos claire wasn’t there
so i says to her
how can you screwface thin air?

i know… i know



Poetry Exercise – 50 word portraits

Lately I have the feeling that my poetry is changing. It’s going in a new direction but I am as yet unclear as to what that direction may be.
Certainly, over the last year I have paid far more attention to punctuation and line breaks, experimenting with various formats. Do I really need to use commas and full stops for instance?
I’m also finding that my poems are getting longer. They used to average (leaving aside strict forms such as sonnets and haiku) around 21 lines but lately they’ve been venturing into the 30s and occasionally beyond into scary uncharted lands.
There’s also a greater element of surrealism creeping in.
Perhaps to subconsciously subvert this trend I’m currently working – in tandem with my regular poetry – on a series of vignettes comprising of exactly fifty words each, based on customers of various coffee shops I frequent.
Here I am eschewing commas and full stops, replacing them with line and paragraph breaks. I am as yet undecided about capitalisation. I’m not even sure what I plan to do with them. It’s a work in progress.
It’s also an excellent exercise in brevity, in making every word count in order to put over a short portrait or narrative. The result is therefore sometimes a little impressionistic.
Try it out. It’s a good exercise. Use a place you visit regularly and which has a changing population, like a supermarket or a bar or a prison. Study one person for a couple of minutes; their mood, their clothing, what they are doing, looking at, reading. Write a poem of exactly fifty words for each one. See where it takes you.

Poetry Exercise #002 – A Simile Portrait

Think of someone you know quite well, or at least well enough that you know how they speak and some of their mannerisms.
Now, produce your notebook or laptop or phone or the back of a bus ticket and begin to create a list of similes related to aspects of this person e.g.

Her hair was like a web holding her thoughts in..
Her tongue was like a knife for slicing bitter fruit…
Her house echoed like an empty heart.

Try to write at least some of them while in the company of this person. Your aim should be to write ten to twenty similes. Once you have gone as far as you can read it through to see how accurately you have portrayed the person. Then, pick one line to use as the first line of a poem about that person. Feel free to use or amend any of the other lines… or not.

What you will find is that the very act of carrying out this exercise will force you to concentrate on many aspects of this person and may well open up avenues to explore.
Additionally, good similes (and indeed metaphors) are things to hoard. You may end up using something in another piece.

A variation of this exercise, which may be useful to those who have absolutely no friends or family, is to take out your notebook in a bar, cafe, airport, on the bus or tube and carry out this exercise on a stranger. Take your time. Study their clothes and accessories. In true Sherlock Holmes style use the clues you see to produce your collection of similes.
I find shoes an interesting place to start. Footwear often gives a fascinating insight to character dependent on the style, age and the amount of wear and tear going on.
I once wrote a whole sequence of poems about people sitting directly opposite me on the tube, and although only one or two of them eventually got to the first base of being tagged as ‘this might be an interesting’ it was a worthwhile exercise, and one I may pursue again.

Poetry Exercise #01

Cryptic crossword clues.

It has always seemed to me that cryptic crossword puzzle clues have a strange poetry of their own. By their very nature they are both surreal and mysterious, being an abstruse definition of a seemingly unrelated single word or phrase.
Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to find a cryptic crossword puzzle and choose a clue to use as the first line of a poem. It might be additionally interesting if you were to solve the clue and use the word as the subject of the poem.
Please let me know how you get on. I plan to do a follow up post about my results.

Some examples, to get you started

Humming end of song through a small glass (5)

Spaniard has to pass over square to get money from bank (5)

a bit brassy my mum would have said (4)