In our last August challenge of 2019, former Foyle Young Poet and Chicago Youth Laureate Kara Jackson is challenging young poets everywhere to write questioning, interrogating, cross-examining poems.
The challenge: write a poem/poems that centre around questions.
When I first started talking, questions were the most frequent visitors to my mouth. I asked my mother so many questions, she would hurry to put something under my eyes or into my hands, something to distract me. My questions were as common as breakfast and were anticipated in the same way. ‘Mom?’ I would start, and she knew a question would follow. I would ask about the weather, the dirt, what made meatballs round—and my mother wasn’t the only one on the receiving end. I asked the toaster questions, interviewed all of my dolls, questioned the hot sauce in the pantry. While my questions, or the frequent nature of them, frustrated my mother at times, they also made her proud. She always wanted us to grow up and be curious people. In her eyes, curiosity is the tool of the educated, something she always wanted us to be.
Despite my mother’s enthusiasm about our curiosity, in my experience children are often told off for asking too much. We are conditioned to receive answers, not to beg for them. We spend hours in school collecting the answers of adults and not searching for our own. We are given tight, unbreakable answers. We are taught the rules of language, spelling, and grammar, and are not given our own freedom to bend these rules.
When I first starting writing poetry, I was delighted by the fact that poems did not require any traditional grammar. My poems could stand naked with no commas, or dressed in an elaborate suit of caesuras (the symbols we use to break lines, like dashes and semi colons). Poetry loved all my questions: the dark ones, the fake-deep ones, those silly quizzes sitting at the top of my teenage brain. Poetry took my questions in and made them feel right and necessary. Poems are never frightened of asks. Instead, poetry welcomes and embraces writers who do not come with answers, who stand with no statements stashed in their pockets, whose ink itches to inquire.
In her second book, Soft Science, American poet and educator Franny Choi writes poems in the form of Turing tests. A Turing test is a test used to determine how well a computer can use language in the same way a human does, and therefore pass as a human. The test is named after Alan Turing, a scientist who argued that a computer has artificial intelligence if it can hold a conversation like a human. In Soft Science, Choi’s poems (all called ‘Turing Test’) ask questions but do not arrive at hard, convenient answers. Instead, like a computer, Choi collects words, and forces the reader to sit with all their meanings. When you Google the definition of a word or a phrase, do you sometimes feel frustrated by the way the internet does not completely give you what you’re looking for? Or maybe the internet provides you with too many answers. Choi’s poems feel like search engines rummaging through the results of certain bodies. She uses questions to push us into finding our own answers. In Choi’s Turing tests, the speaker becomes the computer or the computer becomes so familiar, it makes us question the definition of human. Read the very first ‘Turing Test’ poem that appears in the book here (content warning: strong language).
Take a look at the first stanza. The stanza starts off with a question, and Choi’s answer follows:
// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness
// do you understand what i am saying
in a bright room / on a bright screen / i watched every mouth / duck duck roll / i learned to speak / from puppets & smoke / orange worms twisted / into the army’s alphabet / i caught the letters / as they fell from my mother’s mouth / whirlpool / sword / wolf / i circled countable nouns / in my father’s science papers / sodium bicarbonate / NBCn1 / amino acid / we stayed up / practiced saying / girl / girl / girl / girl / til our mouths grew soft / yes / i can speak / your language / i broke in / that horse / myself //
The questions in this poem are vague enough to bring out interesting answers, yet jarringly specific; later in this poem comes the question ‘do you believe that you have consciousness’. Questions help define the limits of this poem. Because you can answer a question any way you like, questions present the opportunity to be as vast or as narrow as the poem needs to be. In answer to the question ‘do you understand what i am saying’ the speaker says ‘i can speak / your language’ and forces us to ask only more questions: What is the interviewer’s language? Is it English? Does speaking the right language mean they can understand what the interviewer is saying?
In his poem ‘The Interrogation’ American poet Jericho Brown similarly uses questions to drive the poem, yielding fantastic answers. In Choi’s poem, Turing Tests structure the questions. In Brown’s poem, the questions seem to suggest a cross-examination, which is the title of the second stanza. By asking questions and leading sentences like ‘Did it hurt?’ and ‘But you arrived alone’, Brown suggests a legal or police context without explicitly saying so. Questions can set the scene without giving it away.
Like Choi’s, Brown’s poem does not always give the most logical answers. Unlike Choi’s Turing Tests, which invite a technological, mechanic speaker to answer the questions, Brown’s answers come with more of a flesh, a humanity that contrasts with the authoritative voice asking the questions. The answers are hauntingly human:
And his death made you
You only see me
When I carry a man on my back.
How do the questions in each poem set up the answers? How are these answers informed (or not) by the questions?
Your challenge is to write a poem that centers around questions. This can take the form of an interview (like Choi’s), or a cross-examination (like Brown’s), or something else entirely – as long as questions are vital to the poem.
If you’re stuck, you could try and list some situations where there are questions and answers, like Turing tests or cross-examinations – or classrooms, parent/child conversations, surveys or anything else. Play with the reader’s expectations. How can you change up the questions you’d expect to see in these situations? How can your answers address the questions in a surprising way? How can you, in Emily Dickinson’s words, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ with your questions and answers?
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other poetry goodies. This challenge will be judged by Foyle Young Poet Kara Jackson.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight BST, Sunday 22 September 2019. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poem(s) to email@example.com with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘August challenge #4’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 22 September 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.
We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.
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Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2016 and 2017, 18-year-old Kara Jackson is the new Youth Poet Laureate of the USA and the Youth Poet Laureate of Chicago. She won the literary award at the 2018 Louder Than a Bomb finals selected by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Patricia Smith. Kara was a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Adroit Magazine Mentorship Program; was selected three times to the extremely competitive Louder Than a Bomb “Bomb Squad”; won the Brown University Book Award; and is a multiple awardee of the Scholastic Arts and Writing Award. She was a semi-finalist in Nimrod International Journal’s Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry and was selected by Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess as runner-up in the Frontier Poetry’s Award for New Poets. It should be noted that Kara competed against adults in both of these latter competitions. Kara just had an essay published in Poetry magazine making her one of the youngest prose writers in the 106-year-history of the prestigious journal. This essay, ‘Teenagers Are Not Exempt from Poetry’, was republished in The Poetry Review and you can read it here.
While you’re writing, why not check out our other challenges?
- August challenge #1 asks for a poem capturing a specific moment.
- August challenge #2 on How-to poetry challenges you to instruct your readers in your poems!
- August challenge #3 will inspire you to write meta-poems – write about writing!
- The Timothy Corsellis Prize asks you to respond to poets of the Second World War, from poets like Keith Douglas who died in the Normandy D-Day landings, to German soldier-poet Günter Eich, to Anna Akhmatova who lived through the war in Russia, and celebrated Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti who was murdered in a forced march.