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Mouthy Poets Workshop – Ms PoPOW’s weekly blog entry

7 Apr

Things a title can do

A title is, in essence, a first impression. Like a lack of eye contact or a floppy handshake, if the title of a book doesn’t instantly grab your attention, you’re probably not going to want to find out more – unless of course there’s something about a verbal floppy handshake that appeals to your individual reading taste. Although poetry/novel writing shouldn’t be all about the commercial side of things, publishers will be thinking about the ways to make your book stand out on the shelf. It’s also an excellent opportunity to use all of your writing skills to create a title that says something pretty cool.

We had a think about the function of a title:

  • summary
  • retrospective
  • intriguing
  • misleading/irrelevant
  • can be pretentious
  • shines a light
  • looks nice (font)
  • memorable
  • hidden meaning
  • punchy
  • incite questions
  • layers

We looked over a list of the titles of Poetry Collections and each picked out our favourite and least favourite. Then collectively we picked out these four titles:

  • After the Dancing Dogs
  • The Second Child
  • Sunday at the Skin Launderette
  • Yoik

We split up into four different groups – taking one title each – and had a chat about why it did or didn’t work well as a title. Then we did a five minute free-write to brainstorm some ideas.

Writing Villanelles

The Villanelle is an interesting form because it repeats two lines several times throughout the stanzas so once you’ve got those two, a lot of the poem is already written. The skill here, however, is creating something that works as a cohesive, creative poem within the strict rhyme scheme.

“The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.”

(See more at:

We looked at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ and Dylan Thomas ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and discussed what it was we liked and didn’t like about them. We thought that there is even more need for the two repeated lines to be strong because there will be more attention drawn to them.

Then, returning to our original groups, we each wrote a Villanelle under our chosen titles and collaborated to orchestrate a performance of our work to the rest of the group.


We played a game of Consequences in order to brainstorm potential title ideas. For those of you who don’t know what this is, we basically had to write a definite article, fold it down and pass it on, then an adjective, fold it down and pass it on (and repeat this subsequently), then a noun, a verb, an adjective and a noun.

This was what mine said:

“The bohemian pleb runs grimly… cats.”

– So this might be a bit of a long shot but the general consensus was that ‘bohemian pleb’ sounded pretty nice.

Here were some of the other phrases that we liked the sound of:

“The petulant leotard.”

“The fragile apple.”

“Snobby nerves”

– Apart from enjoying the strange combination of words that erupted out of this exercise, it showed us how important it is to get the balance right between the familiar and the surprising when creating a title.

Top Nine Feedback Points from SST6 Drafts

18 Feb

The idea of feedback and helpful criticism has been really hot at Mouthy the last week. So here is a collection of Deb’s common feedback points given on the SST6 poems. Think about these when writing or redrafting your poems to get them as tight as possible!

1) Form and Concision.

Look at every stanza in your poem as a unit of meaning; an image, an event, a tone – each new stanza changes the event, meaning, image or tone and looking at line breaks a highlighting elements on these. This enables you to cut out repetition, tighten up images, reorder sentences and ask yourself – what do I actually mean here or what is the most important point in this unit? Is this unit important at all?

If your poem feels unwieldly, like it’s got more words or longer sentences than it needs, try playing around with a more rigid stanza formation.

2) Word Choices.

Get out the thesaurus and ask yourself if there are more accurate/original options for words – this gives you the opportunity to out every word in the thesaurus and make sure you have chosen the best, most rhythmic for your poem. Each word has slightly different tones and add a layer of impact to the poem. Spending more time over word choices will help you tighten up certain phrases and images.

No clichés! You have a unique set of experiences and perspectives which people want to see in your poems! If you find yourself using a word-out phrases, challenge yourself and ask  – what do I really mean? Then brainstorm some alternative metaphors, similes and images. You can also try to put each word of the cliché in the thesaurus and come up with a more accurate and original alternative.

3) So What?

What’s the point of including this? This is a question poets and performers have to ask themselves a lot. Maybe a free write explaining this would help you pin it down. Or try drawing a diagram of use different characters and images in your poem and what they represent to you. Another thing you can do is work in small details that allude to a bigger picture of what the poem is about or its central metaphor. This is especially important at the beginning and ending of your poem.

4) Choosing a Title.

Read this post about the different purposes of a title. After reading this, make a short list of ten titles, then you can go back to them after editing your poem again. You could talk to other people about which they think works best or even set up a Facebook voting poll to choose the right one.

5)  Get Specific.

Instead of using undefined ideas or ambiguous sentences, give specifics. ”Stop what you’re doing” – what are they doing? The washing up, scratching their arse, drinking their macchiato…? A specific reference will tell the audience more about what kind of poem you are creating.

Try to show instead of tell, through images and examples. For instance, rather than saying ‘she is losing him’ replace the generalisation with examples – “she is forgetting the smell of the toast he makes her”, “she is losing the creases in the shirts he washed for her”.

6) Poetry Doesn’t Have to Rhyme.

Watch out for rhymes. It’s easy to get caught up and be lead by the rhyme rather than the meaning, which sounds lovely but can make the meaning not so clear. Have a look at your strong rhyming sections and ask yourself: is this what I really mean? Are these the most accurate words for my feelings/story or am I just choosing them because they rhyme? Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme – go for words which convey exactly what you want to mean rather than have a particular sound.

7) Grammar.

Consistent what tense and person perspective you are writing in. Make sure it stays consistent throughout, unless it is completely deliberate and changes for poetic effect. If you want to carry a sense of immediacy and personal honesty, stay in the first person. Also

8) Cutting.

If you have really strong particular lines or images, consider cutting out some of the less strong ones to let the vital parts shine and be taken in by your audience.

9)  Characters

If your poem is very long or has lots of different characters, this can be confusing for an audience especially if you use a lot of ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’. Try drawing a diagram of the different characters and the relationship between them or bullet point the action of the poem. Then redraft your poem to make sure these are clear from what you’ve written. Ask other people to listen and check that they’ve understood so you know your audience will follow.

~ feedback by Debs, compiled and edited by the Creative Placements

I am a Poet

1 Feb

Now there’s a sentence that is very difficult to say without cringing. When people ask: what do you do? Or what do you want to do? It can be very daunting to reply: Well, I write poetry, I want to be a poet. Even if this is something that makes you extremely happy or is something that you are genuinely talented at doing, it is often very difficult to speak out and say so. Poetry is traditionally a sphere for privileged white males, and yes, some of the best-known and most-beautiful poetry has come from these dominant voices. But there are voices, intelligent and fascinating voices, that have been oppressed since the first verse of poetry was written.

I’ve been writing my English dissertation on Grace Nichols’ poetry. She is definitely a Mouthy Poet. I first came into contact with her when doing GCSE English. Many of you will be familiar with her Island Man Poem:

(She begins speaking the poem at about 3 mins 17 secs).

Despite writing a lot of interesting poetry, however, there has been relatively little critical comment on her work. Indeed, having studied English literature at University for nearly three years, I am astounded that black literature has been largely ignored. Universities tend to prioritise the literary voices of dead white males over any minority voice. I was shocked to discover that in my first year, only 10% of the books that we studied were written by women, and these were white women. I don’t wish to devalue the importance of reading Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Brontë; no one doubts their excellence as writers. But the fact is that there is a wealth of literature written by people whose voices have been silenced by patriarchal and racist oppression. If this continues to be overlooked in Universities then critical work on these texts will continue to be muffled. These voices will continue to be drowned out.

Grace Nichols was born in Guyana and moved to Britain in 1977. Her poetry emphasised the importance of deconstructing racist and gender prejudices and reconstructing identity through self-celebration.

In Beauty (below), she decontructs the limiting white, Eurocentric ideals of beauty by personifying the concept as a ‘fat black woman’. She dismantles the familiar stereotypes and celebrates the multiplicity of beauty in the world:



is a fat black woman

walking the fields

pressing a breezed


to her cheek

while the sun lights up

her feet



is a fat black woman

riding the waves

drifting in happy oblivion

while the sea turns back

to hug her shape


As a woman who emigrated to Britain in the 70s, her poetry also provided a significant political commentary on her individual experience of moving to a country which was hostile to immigrants. The way in which the white British would undermine her sense of the home that she had created in the UK by asking ‘Are you going back sometime?’ illustrates the racist hostility that was (and continues to be) prevalent towards immigrants. Fear is a poignant poem which voices this atmosphere of aggression:


Our culture rub skin

against your own

bruising awkward as plums


black music enrich

food spice up


You say you’re civilised

a kind of pride

ask, ‘Are you going back sometime?’


but of course

home is where the heart lies


I come from a backyard

where the sun reaches down

mangoes fall to the ground

politicians turn cruel clowns


And here? Here


sometimes I grow afraid

too many young blacks

reaping seconds

indignant cities full of jail


I think my child’s too loving

for this fear.

Grace Nichols, The Fat Black Women’s Poems (1984)


It is, therefore, paramount that people write poetry and assert their individuality. Poetry can be a powerful tool to deconstruct the prejudices and injustices we see/experience around us every day.

So never, ever, be afraid to say it, sing it, or shout out it loud: I am a Poet and Proud of It.  

Top 5 Poetry Teaching Tips

26 Jan

1. Before a workshop kicks-off, take a moment to remind yourself why you are doing this. (I find myself, for a specific example, going through this process everytime I walk into Djanogly’s reception)

2. Be aware that just because a participant is outwardly quieter than others, doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute to the discussion/situation. Explore techniques that can involve everybody in the room.

3. Plan hard but be ready to change everything you planned.

4. Encourage specificity in everything. On the page, in a response. ‘So, why exactly did you like the way he performed that poem?’

5. Bring as much of your personality into the space as possible: don’t be afraid to be you, even as a teacher. This means something to you. Show it.


Teaching Tips

25 Jan

5 Top Poetry Tips by Matt Miller.


I have been teaching weekly at Arnold Hill now for around ten months, and along the way have learned a thing or two. After all that time, I think I’d be alright in thinking I’m at least some way qualified to give 5 Top Poetry Teaching Tips. I will not profess these to be my top 5, because my Top-5-anythings tend to change fairly regularly, but here we are:


  • Listen, for God’s sake listen!
    • Listen to your class and determine what they want and need and the direction they want to move in. They’ll have some good ideas. Use them, steal, roll with them and everyone will be happier. Of course its important to have your own plans and ideas but giving time to respond to student input is no bad thing.


  • Stay on your toes, baby
    • Have formulas. Formulas are good when they work. They’re lovely. Routines are good for most people, I think. But classroom dynamics and needs seem to have a way of shifting around a fair bit. Use your formulas  but don’t let the routine of them blind you to the dynamics wiggling. Keep an eye out for when things need to change and don’t be afraid to do so.


  • Do as I say, do as I do
    • I usually find, if I have anytime at all, that it’s a good idea for me to run through the exercises I’m planning to set my students myself before the session. It makes me more confident with introducing the exercise, allows for better timing and, if needs be, provides me with an example of my own response to the exercise that can help to underline my explanation of it.


  • Bring the atmosphere
    • Enter the classroom carrying the atmosphere you want to create. Come in smiling. Come in energetic, positive, prepared, calm, measured, ready, eager, bright eyed, bushy tailed. Or whatever your preferred mood for the session may be. Embody it.


  • Keep it relevant
    • There are a million writing and teaching exercises out there. Oh internet, you ever present friend. But if you don’t get the grasp of the exercise yourself, it isn’t ever gonna work. If it’s a nice exercise that you really like the sound of but it’s not relevant to your session, it aint likely to work. Use teaching exercises on the internet for inspiration, steal your favourite lines, but make them your own somehow. You’ll understand them better and it’ll work better.


There we are. There’s more, of course, but I think those are 5 useful ones. It’s also very important, I find, to keep a record of sessions – type up how things went, keep your exercises and plans in a folder, refer back to them, remind yourself of what you’ve done, what worked, what didn’t, don’t throw stuff away. Let’s call that number 6 then; Record and reflect. And enjoy it. That’s good too.



22 Jan
  1. If you only have one or two periods, think of how you can make your lesson as effective as possible in terms of time. Rehearse how you instruct the exercises and try to make the instructions concise and simple. Also, instead of handing out sheets of paper during the lesson, distribute them on the chairs, if they need paper for the first exercise.
  2. When the students are talking with each other and do not listen to your instruction, don’t overuse “Respect the Mic!” (because it can become meaningless and like “shh”, like shut up). Instead, whisper your instructions, change your pitch, speak like goofy, or speak directly to the one who is talking (but without telling him that he should stop talking), or you can change your position in the room in silence. The students then will notice that instructions are coming or that they need to be quiet and listen to the instructions.
  3. If you want the students to give feedback on your session, use post-it-notes! Use different colors for positive and constructive/ negative feedback. In order to get more specific feedback, e.g. let them use a metaphor (if you’ve done a session on metaphors) to evaluate the session. Or let them compare the session to animals, vegetables, clothes, etc. They might come up with a feedback like “The session was like new shoes I had to wear in.” or “It was a cup of coffee, warming and refreshing.”
  4. Always do a small projection exercise before they share their writings: Stand / sit straight, both feet firmly on the ground, shoulders back, imagine that your spine wants to reach your chin, but your chin stays up. Don’t forget to breathe! Look into each other’s eyes. You want them to hear your voice.
  5. If the students don’t have much energy and are tired, do this quick exercise: Stretch your arms, shoulders, legs. Then Yawn together very loudly and open your mouth as much as you can. Do this together and repeat the yawn two or three times. This takes maximum 3 minutes.

Top 5 poetry-teaching tips

22 Jan


  1. Before anything else, teach them how to free-write. The privacy and personal freedom gets them in the writing ‘zone’.
  2. Be ridiculously organised and understand all of your activities but let the students sway the session.
  3. Give them their own poetry books. This becomes a sacred space where honesty appears most.
  4. ‘I can’t’ seems to linger in the classroom. These two tactics have been the most effective: Say ‘I’ve seen you perform before’ with a knowing facial expression that says ‘.. and you were amazing’, or simply ignore the comment and they miraculously continue.
  5. Provide lots of colourful pens.