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Poetry 101

Poetry 101

Here beginneth the first lesson: put pen to paper, finger to keyboard and let words spill out. Season with as much rhyme as you like ... rhyming couplets are fine, so is poetry devoid of rhyme. add a few metaphors and similes (metaphors are phrases that say something is something else, like a teacup is a container of dreams; a simile is not a smiley face, it is a phrase that says something is like something else, as in a sock had been left on the floor like an unwanted piece of Turkish Delight). Avoid clichés and adverbs and that's all there is to it ... pretty much ;)

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

So this is my 101st blog post. So I'm going to reflect on the poetry things that most terrify me, À la Room 101 in George Orwell's magnificent book, Nineteen Eighty Four.

“Room 101,” he said.
There was a gasp and a flurry at Winston’s side. The man had actually flung himself on his knees on the floor, with his hands clasped together.
“Comrade! Officer!” he cried. “You don’t have to take me to that place! Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know? There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll confess it straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it—anything! Not Room 101!”
“Room 101,” said the officer.
(from Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell)

Outside of poetry my Room 101 would be full of wasps. On the plus side, if it is jam packed with wasps around me they might not be able to manoeuvre enough to sting me badly. Maybe they'd like me since I've written two poems that include wasps!

My poetic Room 101 is filled with much more terror than flying stinging insects. I'll confront them in no particular order — they are all equally terrifying!


I've had several encounters of the scary technology kind. When I first started doing poetry performances lasting more than 5 minutes, I needed to find a way to perform the poems without being able to memorise them or read from a printed copy. After much trial I decided that using my talking glasses which take a photograph of a printout and then read any text aloud was not reliable enough for use in public. They were too dependent on lighting levels and, as with all optical character recognition systems, sometimes letters would be mis-recognised; the letter o being recognised as a zero means the glasses don't read book if they think it says ‘b00k’. Capital Bs can be confused with the number 8, captial Is and the number 1 also get mixed up, and I've known times where a letter n can be interpreted as an r followed by a lower case i. Playing Russian Roulette with words at a poetry performance isn't my idea of fun!

I have, very successfully, used the screen reader voice on my tablet computer to perform poems. The benefit there is that the poems are written in regular text so there is no guesswork on which letters are which. The only major concern is whether the tablet device itself is working. There have been times at workshop events where I have unplugged the headphones and plugged in an external speaker to allow the tablet to read my work to the group, and no sound at all has come through the speakers. The speakers were fully charged but, for some reason, the screen reader sometimes forgets which speakers it is supposed to be reading through. I think I have about 95 percent confidence that it's going to work and, most of the time, I'm reading in rooms that are small enough for the tablet's internal speakers to be loud enough, if push comes to shove, for everybody to hear, but sometimes rooms and audiences are larger and those internal speakers would not have been sufficient.

I might have fallen foul of technology at a reading and workshop I'm doing for Cardiff Institute for the Blind tomorrow. I have decided to read for about half an hour, using memorised poems as well as screen reader performed ones since I want other blind people to experience the way in which technology can assist in performance and participation. I'm not worried about my blind tech other than as noted above, but I noticed a few days ago that my laptop did a Windows update. I dread that more than anything! Imagine turning on a tablet device to start your performance and Windows says, “Windows is installing updates. Do not turn off your computer.” So I wait for 10 minutes, dodging the rotten tomatoes being lobbed in my direction and turning a deaf ear to the chorus of disapproval. Windows finishes downloading and installing the updates and restarts, so I type in my password and ... “Windows is configuring your system. please wait.” You get the idea, I'd have to talk about current pricing in the fish market or why your cup of tea isn't as hot up on the Pennines as that lovely brew you had in Torquay 3 weeks ago. It was with great relief, as I turned my tablet on last night, optimistic that the update might be ready to be installed, that indeed it was! Fingers crossed, as I turn on my tech tomorrow I'll be good to go.

The Human Factor

There are a few things that might go wrong on the human side of the equation. Firstly, what if nobody shows up? Maybe not such a big problem since then nobody will witness all the technology hiccups; it'd be a bit of an anti-climax mind you. What if the opposite is true and far too many people are around and about but not actually there to listen to the poetry? I had that experience the very first time I read in public — 3 poems from memory at Risca Library near Newport, south Wales. It was a smallish audience, maybe 20 people, but there was quite a lot of background noise to deal with. I put a video of that Risca Library reading on YouTube if you'd like to watch it.

There was another human factor at that Risca reading too — my memory! Since nobody knew the poems I read I suspect nobody spotted the slip of the tongue, when I turned, “After the pubs / busy from midday to moon,” into “After the pubs, busy from moon to midday.” Yeah, poets do keep weird hours, often scribbling on a scrap of paper at 3 in the morning but, with the exception of Dylan Thomas, most of us are not writing poetry in busy public houses at 3am! I've had occasional other memory lapses. The worst time needed me to start from the beginning again after getting about a dozen lines in. The one positive note with this though is that my memory is getting decidedly better through regular practicing of my set. Although I'm doing the mixed human and screen reader performance for Cardiff Institute for the Blind, five days later I'm intending to do a full 20 minute set from memory at the final night of Abergavenny Writing Festival (see my events page for more info). That will undoubtedly be the largest audience I've read to but I was also not certain my little external speakers would have been up to the job for that size of hall. With the choice of connecting to the in-house audio system or making sure I had 20 mins of memorised work primed in my brain, I went with that latter option. I won't be taking my screen reader with me so it's all or nothing on the memorisation approach.

And of course sometimes getting to an event is the major barrier for me. Next Saturday will be fine because I'll have transport to the event and home again. Tomorrow is going to be a challenge because I need to get a taxi to the station, train to Cardiff where I'm being met, and then the reverse trip after my workshop. I have a fear of taxi journeys — will the taxi driver be kind enough to guide me into the ticket office where the station staff will assist me? As I return, will the taxi driver watch out for me and say, “Hello, Mr Turnbull, I'm your taxi,” or will the driver assume I'm sighted and expect me to spot my taxi amongst any other motorised vehicles? I actually don't feel too worried about this because I've found a small independent taxi firm who are highly regarded for helping old dears into their houses with their shopping and assisting wheelchair users in and out of the taxi ... surely a blind guy shouldn't be too much trouble?

Always one to believe on building on successes, I'm mentally pondering a trip up North, a train journey with 3 changes, to do a poetry reading in the town I grew up in and first started writing poetry, Harrogate. I very much want to be able to use that as a stepping stone to potentially attend the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, |Scotland next year. It's like everything, isn't it — use the skills, build on the skills or they go rusty and you've got to start right back at the beginning.

The Poetry Problem

I'm a poet who prefers to write in blank verse. I've tried writing in a few other forms — I love haiku and have quite strong views on what is and what isn't a haiku. I wrote a sonnet that I thought was decent, and a villanelle I thought passable, but I don't find it easy to write in such strict forms. When I read a villanelle like Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, I am amazed by its brilliance. When I write in a form where certain lines or words need to be in specific places, it always feels like I've written those lines just to achieve the form. It is very rare that I have an idea and think it'd work best as a sonnet or as a Sestina. In the Poetry 1 module of my creative writing course the handbook states that the student will be introduced to several strict poetry forms. These are then continued in Poetry 2:

  • Classes 1-4 will introduce you to sestina and alternative sonnet forms, and some mildly alternative practices, including aleatory (found) and open field poetry, and the poem sequence.
  • Class 5 is a one-to-one discussion of your work to date.
  • Classes 6-10 introduces further strict forms (villanelles, pantoums, ghazals), Dada and surrealist approaches to poetry, and other radical formal approaches such as collage, concrete and OuLiPo poetry.
  • Class 11 will be a second one-to-one meeting to discuss your portfolio and self-reflexive essay.

In 2017 I did a LiveCanon course on forms in poetry. In twelve weeks we looked at the sonnet, haiku and tanka, Terza Rima, Sestina, villanelle, Visual and Concrete, Limerick, Ghazal, Iambic Pentameter, rhyme royal and ottava rima, and the (Sapphic) Ode. I'm assuming my final piece of coursework will need to include proficient examples of all of these forms so I think, between now and then, I'll be doing a lot of reading of examples of such work, as well as going through each of the tutorials from the LiveCanon course again to make sure I'm starting on a decent footing.

My Own Private 101

So, when Big Brother calls and the guards arrive to escort me to Room 101, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, when I finally walk through the door I'll be faced with an audience of 500,000 wasps who've not had anything to sting for a week, and they will be expecting me to read an hour's worth of strictly metric poetry and, as I turn the laptop on, it'll have 100 updates waiting to be installed, and the screen reader won't be working so it'll be trial and error and, every time Windows beeps for an error the wasps will move an inch closer. Can wasps applaud? How would I say, “Good wasp,” in waspish?

#Poetry101 #PoeticForms #PoetryPerformance

Published inblindnesseducationPoetrytechnology


  1. Charlotte Gann Charlotte Gann

    Argh, metric wasps, they’re the worst! Good luck with the upcoming visits, Giles x

    • Giles Giles

      thanks, Charlotte 🙂 xx

  2. Frances Browner Frances Browner

    This is great, I was looking for inspiration for tonight’s class on ‘how to write a poem!’ You’ve given me a few ideas. As for my Room 101, I would’ve always said rats, maybe I should still say rats, even though I’m trying very hard to make peace with all my fellow animals. Good luck with course, Giles, it will be inspirational.

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