The August Challenges: #2 – The Poetics of Place and Belonging

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’:

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 […]

The Challenge

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send your poem in writing or submit a performance poem as a video or audio file. You are welcome to submit as many poems as you like.

The deadline for all entries is Sunday 3 September 2017

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please include it in 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 poems to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with your name, age, the county you live in, if you’re based in the UK, or the country you live in if you’re based outside the UK. The subject line of your email should be ‘August Challenge #2’. By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to read the general Terms and Conditions for YPN Challenges as well.

When you enter we will add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list – please let us know if you do not want to be added.

Prizes

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.

8 thoughts on “The August Challenges: #2 – The Poetics of Place and Belonging

    1. Hi Beth,

      Thanks for your message. You are welcome to submit as many poems as you like!

      Looking forward to receiving your entries,

      Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Shubham,

      Thanks for your message – winners will be announced in September.

      Best of luck,

      Young Poets Network

  1. Whilst submitting my poem I forgot to mention what county I lived in! Does that matter, and if so what do you recommend doing about it. Thanks!

    1. Hi Anna,

      Don’t worry – your entry is still valid! If you’d like to send us another email with your county, that would be great 🙂

      Thanks,

      Young Poets Network

  2. Is there any limit to the number of lines in a poem. Also, can we give a short description of the place we are describing along with the poem to eliminate any confusion regarding the place?

    1. Hi Ahmad,

      Thanks for your comment. No, there’s no line limit, and of course you can supply extra information if you think it will help the poem!

      Best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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