Put up a sign saying Do Not Cross.
Disconnect your phone, gas,
the broadband, electricity.
Tear up the quarterly newsletter
issued by the resident’s committee
Declare your flat sovereign
and the line a border.
Open any post with
bomb disposal gloves.
Push back the neighbour’s cat
when it tries to enter.
Put down barbed wire
across the corridor.
Watch everyone who passes-
they might be hostile.
Start producing your own
newsletter, telling the truth.
To be safe, destroy the post.
Wonder why deliveries stopped,
why your fridge is empty
and the taps are dry.
Blame the other flats.
Blame the resident’s committee.
Detain the cat when
it crosses the line.
Turn the barbed wire
into sheet metal, a wall.
Brick up your windows.
Stop the freeloading light
from pouring into your home.
Force the cat into a cage.
Don’t feed it. Ignore the cries.
Wonder why the neighbours
are suddenly outraged.
Sharpen your knives
and wait for the knock
as they come to invade.
Open mic nights are wonderful spaces. They are brilliant places to try new work in front of audiences and get instant feedback. But more than that, they are places where you can listen to the voices of others and learn from them. It’s essential in these times to be in the same space as others and listen to their words.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been going to a lot of poetry nights in Bristol. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the different nights the city has to offer. I read, nervously at first, but then relaxing into having a space to speak. More than that though, I appreciate listening to varied voices in each night. The joy of open mics is everyone gets their turn to speak. So you hear a huge variety of people from all different backgrounds reading poetry. It can be hugely powerful to hear marginalised voices that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
There are people in all open mics who turn up, read their pieces and then disappear. I’d argue these people are missing the point. You read your stuff, yes, but the whole point of the night should be to listen to the other people around you. The nights are not only about you. It’s an exercise in quieting the ego and making sure you stay grounded.
Making art, especially writing, can be a lonely business, so it’s nights like these that link you to a community of people who are doing the same thing. It shows you are not alone in your endeavours and helps you carry on. By listening to others, it also exposes you to different stories, different references, different ways of seeing the world.
Politicians and reactionary tabloids often push simple narratives as a way of managing dissent. The world works like this. Those people are not like you. They exploit and perpetuate prejudice for power. Open mic nights dismantle these simple stories. They allow you to hear other people’s stories from all different backgrounds and empathise with them. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the same room as people and hear their poetry. In these days where we form so many of our opinions online, it is essential to have real-life spaces where marginalised voices can speak freely. It’s also important for privileged people like me to be quiet and listen. Listening becomes a revolutionary act because you are giving your attention to others. It would be a better world if we stopped shouting and allowed others to speak. So stay and linger a while, engage with voices that are not your own. It might be good for you and the world.
I’ve done NaPoWriMo for the last three years. I’ve found it hugely useful to create new poetry and improve my craft. The process of writing thirty poems in thirty days is not a great achievement, but it is a useful one. It highlighted a couple of things to me:
Pushing Through Resistance
Each time I work on this challenge, I get sick of it. There comes a point where I feel I have nothing left to write about. This generally happens around the third week, where I have lost the initial momentum and the end seems far away.
This year I also struggled with the arbitrary rules I had set myself. Towards the end, they felt constricting. I was increasing the line count day by day. My poems tend to hover around 15-20 lines, so stretching them to a longer length seemed difficult. On day twenty or so, I thought that I couldn’t write longer poems at all, I had lost anything I wanted to say and might as well give up.
As will be obvious, I didn’t give up. I kept on pushing through, writing increasingly long poems until I reached the thirty lines. Some of the longer ones became my favourites. The resistance and fear I felt were because I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It was something new and I didn’t know how to do it. But the limits I set myself pushed me forward and helped remove the fear. No matter how good it was, I needed to get x number of lines written and published by the end of the day. The deadline and limits allowed me to push myself, even though they were completely self-imposed and
The power of the subconscious
Most weekdays I would write on my lunch-breaks. I only had an hour and by the time I ate and did general life business, there wasn’t many minutes left to actually write. I learnt to trust my subconscious and just go with my instincts on what to write. There simply wasn’t enough time to find an idea that I knew would go somewhere.
If I didn’t have a clear idea of what to write, I would flip through my notebook, choose a phrase almost at random and just start writing around whatever it was. Before I realised it, I had a poem. Writing in this way over a number of days made me feel like I wasn’t in control of the process, the writing was coming from my subconscious. It sounds strange to say but I think this is when I produced my favourite poems when I barely knew what it was I was writing about. Poetry as a form is all about the half-glimpsed images, the moments that floor you emotionally and you never quite know why. Digging in deep threw up unusual images for me. Often I would understand a poem halfway through writing it. This process can be hard as it feels like giving up control, but it is worth it. Trust your gut instincts and your feelings to guide you.
Time to write
Life continued around NaPoWriMo. I started a new job and adjusted to a new life. But every day, there was always at least half an hour where I could squeeze in writing. This process has highlighted I can always write in the cracks or the quiet moments of the day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Despite this constant impression I have of being busy, there is almost always a few minutes that can be carved out and reclaimed. And a few minutes is better than none at all.
I’m going to do this again next year. The whole process is extremely beneficial to my work and always throws up interesting poems. I’m undecided about whether to post them up online next year as I may want to start sending poems out to magazines. But whatever I decide, I find it useful to exercise to work on something intensely for a month, every day.
You can download all the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMo 2018 for free here.
Eyes flicker and head reels.
I am lost and dizzy from
another reality adjustment.
Precious seconds to get my bearings,
probing my memory for gaps,
a tongue checking missing teeth.
A nerve twitches, a sign of change.
Last Tuesday no longer existed.
Not the worst to reconcile,
nothing of great importance lost.
Perhaps just a rainy day gone,
work, tv and cups of tea.
Whole months have been deleted before,
years when they were inconvenient.
We accepted them without protest
not often knowing what we lost.
The subtle, gentle changes are hard-
rain when you swore it was sun.
Physics changing. The bullet
landing there, not here.
Most stopped caring about politics.
We became numb and did not register if
a speech’s reception was edited
or some minister altered a few votes.
These are the days of constant whiplash
and rising nausea. No, we mourn the
quiet moments most. Holding hands
deemed subversive and forgotten
or our laughter changed to silence.
If you are hearing these words
then our efforts were futile.
We were an ant trying to halt
an avalanche, a single voice
trying to cross the endless void.
I was no-one important, a bureaucrat
following the train tracks left
I record this message as an emissary
from the past, from your former government,
but it will be clear to all of you listening
that all our institutions and borders
were always illusory, tricks of the light.
to create numerous systems together,
will them into being, change the
It pains me to think of you listening to this.
We are sorry. We were blind in so many ways.
There is little to be done now
but to listen to seeds split open and grow,
feel your heart thump,
and to spend time with those you love.
That’s all there ever was.
All the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMo 2018 are available as an ebook that you can download for free.
You are a grizzled space marine
reporting for duty on the SS Hermes.
Humanity faces a new and terrible threat.
You are our only hope for survival.
Whilst saving the galaxy, why not
look stylish with optional upgrades?
(The waking world is a buried memory.)
Superhumans swarm above your head
battling an ancient foe, standing up
for what is good and just. You must
stay on the ground and duck for cover,
having never fallen in radioactive waste-
but you can buy their merchandise.
(A flash of dawn light.)
A dictator walks the streets alone.
You are forced to stay at home,
watch the Good Leader on television,
where we can categorise and file you.
(Eyes flicker and succumb once more.)
Today the sun expanded without warning,
consuming our glass sphere in flames
four billion years early. The future
is always uncertain. Buy insurance.
(Waking for certain now, you watch
as a bee attempts to crawl into
a drawing of a lilac, again and again.)
The Kite Festival
The dates are always unknown.
It is never scheduled or planned.
Rumours circulated it was banned.
A few news in brief articles
stoked our speculations. Years passed
and life happened. It was forgotten.
Until yesterday, when unusual sunlight
kissed bare skin and breeze blew blossom
making confetti. We started driving
when we saw flashes on the horizon,
bright purples and oranges that
swooped and darted and flickered.
Moving down the road, we saw it all;
saw the fishes and birds jiving
in the sky, saw the strings that
connected them to small figures
guiding their joy from the ground.
We drove past, continued home,
but my heart opened the door
raced across the grass,
climbed up the string
and in that cloudless expanse
it became part of the dance.
Plane trails cross the sky,
thin lines from one hub to another
Small boats over the ocean
drag the same white trails behind.
On a blank page, write out the names
of everyone you’ve ever known
even passing acquaintances and colleagues
you haven’t said a single word to.
Then draw lines of connection.
You will have a map of the cosmos
and a diagram of an molecule.
From above at night, the cities
towns, villages and roads are glowing
cells and veins. Grids are subsumed.
From above, the ground is a pictograph
of the inside of your skull.
One strike sends sharp signals
to everyone. We all twitch and flinch.
Somewhere within the network, you
are a single synapse, one electrical
spark dragging connection in its wake.
All the poems I wrote last year for #NaPoWriMo are available as a free ebook. Download it here.
The sea is a distant silver chain
hugging the horizon.
Wind laughs, dances and sprints
giddy at the space.
Grains bounce and tumble through
her outstretched palms,
each and every falling dot
The shore-line sighs and is erased
by the careful, precise hands
of advancing waves.
Names, messages and castles
blur, then vanish.
Wind tires herself out and calms,
dampens the sea peaks.
The hidden beach slumbers underwater
waiting for the tide to turn.
All the poems I wrote last year for #NaPoWriMo are available as a free ebook. Download it here.