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
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.
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)