Cape Farewell Challenge 1: Consumerism and the Great White Sale


Hi I’m Karen McCarthy Woolf! I’ll be setting a poetry challenge every week for the next four weeks asking you to respond to Cape Farewell’s archive of photos, videos and blog posts.

Cape Farewell leads expeditions of artists, musicians, writers and scientists to places like the Arctic and the Amazon so they can see the effects of climate change close up and respond to it in their work.

SWITCH is a project which aims to add the voices of young poets aged 11-18 to the conversation and I will be selecting poems to showcase on the Switch website after the submission deadline for all four challenges on 22 February 2013.

Karen McCarthy Woolf  Karen McCarthy Woolf  is a poet, dramatist and short fiction writer for print, online, broadcast and live platforms.

Challenge 1: Consumerism and The Great White Sale

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? […] This we know, the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.”

Chief Seattle, from his speech ‘Selling Our Land’ 1854
(in Earth Shattering Ecopoems, Neil Astley, Ed, Bloodaxe 2007)

The theme for this first week is consumerism. With Christmas just behind us, we are now in the middle of the January sales. Thousands of people queued through the night in the hope of bagging a bargain. But what is the true cost of our disposable society, where last year’s must have buy is cast aside for this year’s latest gadget?

Burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet at an unprecedented rate. The Arctic sea ice helps regulate the earth’s temperature. In 2012 more ice melted than ever before, causing a knock on effect on the environment around the world, from rising sea levels to freak weather conditions. Climate change could kill more than one third of the world’s plant and animal species by 2050. The people and wildlife in the Arctic region are at the sharp end.

Click here to see a video on the SWITCH website about how this will affect the local Inuit community.


Do a timed, 10-minute freewrite in response to the artwork below, ‘The Great White Sale’. Click here to find out more about how to use freewriting as a drafting technique.

The Great White SaleArtwork by David Buckland. Text by Amy Balkin. Copyright Cape Farewell.

“This image was made in a short window of time when the power of the video projector matches the light of dawn, when there is both message and ice. This fleeting moment of human excess is so short, two hundred years, but for the glacier it is barely a single breath taken.” David Buckland

Describe the photograph.

What can you see? Write down everything you can see in detail.

Imagine you are right inside the photograph. What are the sensations it evokes? How cold is the air around you?

What does the image bring up for you? What springs immediately to mind?

Does the photo have a mood?

What are the things you can buy in the Great White Sale and what is the cost? Why is the sale ‘white’?

What three questions would you ask the glacier? Answer them.

You might not have answered all these questions by the time you get to ten minutes. Don’t worry. You can just start the clock again and do another 10 minutes if you still have lots to say..


Over the next month, I invite you to keep a journal (you might already have a poetry notebook and you can keep the journal here or separately, it’s up to you). Each week I’ll be giving a ‘journal challenge’ to go along with the poetry challenge. You can see my notes on journaling here.

This week, make a note of things you buy, or thought about buying in your journal. You might want to make a note of where it’s from, what it looks like, what colour is it? If you bought it how did it make you feel when you held it in your hands? Did you feel excited? In a good mood? Did you look at it on the way home from the shops? Describe the experience in detail.

Also make a list of things you can’t buy. But don’t just write ‘love’ or ‘happiness’, expand on the idea and cast your mind back to a specific moment or memory where you realised this.

Go back and circle anything that catches your attention. Underline phrases and words that you like.

Icerbegs in Ilulissat image

Nathan Gallagher, Icebergs in Ilulissat – another incredible image from the Cape Farewell archives..

William Heyen: Emancipation Proclamation

William Heyen is an American poet who wrote that “Our entire planet is on the verge of ecological catastrophe. I argue that we need a new poetry, one somehow still evocative and interesting, but one direct and filled with Truth in ways it has not been before.”

As a final source of inspiration before you write your poem, take a look at William Heyen’s poem Emancipation Proclamation which is a passionate call for the end of the exploitation of natural resources, in this case trees. The poem lists many of the things that the tree does for humanity and describes them in detail. It makes one think about the role of trees and the connections they have to the rest of the ecosystem in a fresh way. One of the ways the poet achieves this is by personifying the tree in the poem, listing all the positive things it does, like “provides free housing for insects & squirrels” with things it doesn’t do, such as “discriminate between starlings & robins”.

Writing your poem

This week’s challenge is to write a list poem that responds to the image and the theme of consumerism. Your poem should include three objects and a phrase or phrases that you underlined from your freewrite or journal.

Things to try if you want to

William Heyen uses a poetic device called anaphora, where he repeats specific words, in this case ‘Whereas’ at the beginning of each verse, and ‘&’ at the beginning of the line, which creates a particular rhythm and sense of emphasis.

Perhaps you might want to repeat a phrase like ‘The Great White Sale’ or you could use one of your own lines from your freewrite. Or you might want to personify the glacier, in the same way that William Heyen personifies the tree. You could use any of these techniques in your poem.

For more artwork from the Cape Farewell archive and to get inspired check out the SWITCH website.

I look forward to reading your poems!

Submitting your poems

The Cape Farewell challenges are now closed – you can read the fantastic winning poems on their website. But why not follow Karen’s challenge and submit to one the magazines or competitions on our list of Poetry Opportunities?


Cape Farewell logo      Switch logo

Published January, 2013

One thought on “Cape Farewell Challenge 1: Consumerism and the Great White Sale

  1. Dear Karen McCarthy Woolf, I’ve just surfed a while and found your use of my poem on your site. Thanks for the attention, and all good luck…. May I mention that I have a big new book, The Candle, upcoming from Etruscan Press? Well, I guess I just did! Yours, William Heyen

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