The August challenges are designed by Foyle Young Poets to send you into a fever of creativity over the summer. In our second challenge, Daniel Blokh inspires you to immerse your reader in a particular place – from weeping willows to snowswept mountains…
As a first-generation American, I have always loved hearing my parents’ stories about their homeland. I have often asked my mother to describe the world they left behind, listening for hours on end as she described sledding over mountains of perfectly white snow during cold Russian winters, or picking zemlinyka berries during the summers she spent at her dacha. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, so I am utterly unfamiliar with the landscapes evoked by my parents. But as my mother depicts the busy, architecturally rich streets of Moscow, as well as the beautiful Russian forests lined with birch trees, I find myself entirely enraptured.
Capturing a poetics of place and belonging can capture a reader’s attention like nothing else.
This holds especially true in poetry. When a writer paints a perfect picture of a place, you trust them. Their narration feels more reliable and real, and this gives the contents a feeling of genuine emotional weight. Not only that, but it makes a piece more memorable in hindsight.
A beautiful example of this is Amorak Huey’s ‘Elegy For Where I Was Born’. I revisited this piece time and time again after I first read it. It is a short poem, showing that poetry concerning place doesn’t have to be incredibly long or all-encompassing. In fact, I find that Huey’s concise and observant images reverberate in my head much more than a lengthy, verbose description would. ‘Elegy For Where I Was Born’ is especially successful at evoking a sense of place and belonging because its meanings are wrapped up in questions of birthplace, distance, belonging and identity:
I have often said I was born on a houseboat anchored
along a grassy bank under
a weeping willow near where the river bends […]
Another example by one of Russia’s foremost poets, Anna Akhmatova, is worth taking a look at, as yet another instance of brilliantly evocative use of imagery to create a sense of place and self-identity. As much as I love my mother’s descriptions of Russia, it is incredibly insightful to see that landscape evoked in the beautiful words of Akhmatova, in the poem ‘Willow’:
translated by Jennifer Reeser
And I matured in peace born of command,
in the nursery of the infant century,
and the voice of man was never dear to me […]
For this challenge, I want you to write a poem about a specific place, while trying to make that place feel as tangible as possible to the reader. Write about where you were born, or a place where a very significant event took place. Write about the concept of distance or closeness to home, about where you would like to be in the future, or about a place you absolutely love or utterly despise. There are boundless possibilities.
When writing or revising your poem, here are some helpful pieces of advice:
- Try to include interesting observations that are not often made about a particular place. Don’t just say somewhere is cold or hot, mountainous or flat. Instead, paint the obscure details – using metaphor or simile – that can make your poem unique.
- Focus on things that are specific to the place you are writing about. Try to render it such that someone who’s been there can actually recognize that your poem is about that particular landscape.
- As Huey’s and Akhmatova’s poems demonstrate, less can often be more. Feel free to write a detailed catalogue of somewhere, but know that you also have the option to explore it in a brief and concise manner.
- If you get stuck while writing your poem, I highly advise reading your work aloud to someone, particularly if they’ve visited the place you’re writing about. Also, reading a work-in-progress aloud can bring a new perspective that might enable you to approach your subject from a different angle.
Good luck with this poetry challenge! I can’t wait to read what you’ve written.
How to enter
This challenge is now closed. Thank you to everyone who entered this challenge. You can read the winning poems on the left hand side of this page.
Daniel will choose a handful of winning poems to be published on Young Poets Network and be sent an exclusive Young Poet’s Network notebook.
Daniel Blokh is a 16-year-old American writer of Russian-Jewish descent, living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the memoir In Migration (BAM! Publishing 2016), the micro-chapbook The Wading Room (Origami Poems Project 2016), and the chapbook Grimmening (forthcoming from Diode Editions). His work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and the Foyle Young Poet awards, and has appeared in DIALOGIST, Permafrost, Blueshift, Cleaver, Gigantic Sequins, Forage Poetry, Avis, Thin Air, Cicada, and more. He’s bad at taking naps, which sucks, because he really needs a nap right now.