August Challenge #1: Conversation Poems

August means just one thing here on Young Poets Network: August challenges! Every week this month, we’ll be publishing a new writing challenge set by a Foyle Young Poet. We’re kick-starting 2021’s set with Sinéad O’Reilly’s challenge about conversations.

Three giraffes, taken from below, looking as though they're having a chat

The challenge: write a poem(s) inspired by conversation

Poetry is essentially a form of conversation with the reader. In the act of writing, the poet is always speaking to someone, whether they imagine them or not, and even if that person is themselves. When I get stuck writing a poem I always try to take a step back and imagine the reader right in front of me. What would I say to them about my subject? What sort of conversation would it be?

Overheard conversations can be an absolute joy. The other day I was walking by the seafront and I heard two fisherman discussing evolution whilst mooring their boat. The most bizarre things can be dropped into a simple conversation, and the most mundane conversations can carry a huge weight.

I could ramble on and on about the different meanings of conversation. A now out of use definition from the 14th century is “a place where one lives or dwells”. Another etymological link that I love is the verb ‘to turn’ or ‘to bend’. It’s hard to define a conversation, because each conversation defines itself by the directions it takes.

For this challenge I’d like you to think about how you can use conversations in your poetry. Challenge your definition of a conversation. Are they always verbal or can wordless interactions be conversations? If you use sign language, how does that differ to a conversation via text? Does nature converse around you? Most of all think about how conversations, direct or indirect, can be used as a tool to carry what you want to say.

Some examples:

The Choirsinger’ by Tamara Fulcher shows the weight a conversation can carry, without directly mentioning the source of weight. The whole poem is a conversation between the speaker and their mother and father. It starts straight in with speech:

My father said, So what do you do?
I stopped, and replied, I sing in the choir.
Choir? Said Mother, That must take some work.
I said, It takes a lot.

Choir singer's wooden pew

The lines of conversation set the strained tone by themselves, and are punctuated by images that carry the tension and space between each of the speakers: ‘The fire cracked. He made the noise again.’ These details give the poem a dramatic quality, helping the reader to picture the scene unfolding as if onstage.

I think we’ve all experienced wanting to say something but struggling to find the words. This poem conveys not only the conversation being had, but the conversation not being had, the unspoken undercurrent. See if you can write a conversation poem which avoids directly mentioning whatever it is the speakers are really talking about. If you get stuck, write out two versions of the conversation: the one where you say everything exactly as you want to say it, and the one where you say a masked version of that. Create some images, perhaps possible reactions, from your first conversation and use them to punctuate your second one. But don’t be tempted to overdo these, or to explain how any of the speakers are feeling – read and re-read ‘The Choirsinger’. The power in this poem comes from its lack of explanations. Let the reader work out for themselves what lies beneath the words.

Some more ideas:

You could write a poem in dialogue between two people. ‘Explaining Memes to Keats’ by Nadia Lines is a short but powerful conversation between the speaker and Keats. The whole poem is in dialogue which creates a great sense of immediacy. You could follow Nadia’s example and include a poet or character from history in your conversation, or you could include a family member or friend.  

You could take the indirect approach and write about the space surrounding a conversation – the build up or aftermath or the internal dialogue only you hear. For inspiration read ‘The Constructed Space’ by W.S Graham.

You could write about a conversation between objects in nature. You could try bringing a human into this natural dialogue if you wanted. How could a conversation with nature reflect the character/viewpoint you’re trying to write?

Dialogue can be a used as a great tool to lift characters off the page. You could try to use speech in your poem to illustrate a character really vividly. Watch Rachel Long read ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’ below for some ideas.

However you choose to respond to this challenge, keep it simple and go with what resonates for you.

I hope you enjoy exploring this topic, and I can’t wait to read what you come up with.

Prizes

This challenge will be judged by Foyle Young Poet Sinéad O’Reilly. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies including books and posters.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight BST, Sunday 12 September 2021. 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 protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and where you found out about this challenge (e.g. Twitter, YPN email etc.). In the email subject line please write ‘August challenge #1 2021’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 12 September 2021, 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.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity if you are among the winning poets of this challenge, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected]etrysociety.org.uk.

Sinéad O'Reilly, a young white woman with long brown hair, grinsSinéad O’Reilly is a sixteen year old poet from Wexford, Ireland. She was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2019 and 2020 and was selected as part of the inaugural Edna O’Brien Young Writers Bursary. They coordinated the Deep Routes Poetry Exchange.

Published August 2021

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