August Challenge #1: Photographic Poetry – Capture the Moment

Welcome to the first of four August challenges in 2019! Every week in August a Foyle Young Poet will challenge you to write a different type of poem. To kick us off, Andrew Pettigrew is challenging you to write a poem that captures a moment. Find out how…

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judges: Elias Gougousis, Andrew Hamilton, Arna Kar, Alicia Montana Malkinson-Gregori, Mariana Martins Vieira, Sofia Panourgias, Malavika Selvaraj, Nazanin Soghrati, Max Thomas, Olivia Todd, Anna Westwig, Hannah Withers, Alannah Young and Fathima Zahra.

stone age

The challenge: write a poem in no more than 250 words capturing a single moment.

For thousands of years, human beings have been preserving memories in a variety of ways, from cave art to sketchbooks, self-portraits to the modern mobile phone. Much of this requires skill, and I for one don’t have any of that when it comes to the visual – my body-separating, head-decapitating, nostril-hair-revealing selfies are things of legend. Meanwhile, my talents of illustration do not exceed the classic stick man, and my self-portraits can turn out monstrous and vaguely disturbing.

But taking photos and drawing pictures are not the only ways to preserve a memory. Although perhaps not as much as a defined style as sonnets, ballads, dramatic monologues, and the like, poems that simply describe a particular moment are still widely recognised for their brilliance. Take ‘Basking Shark’ by Norman MacCaig, for instance – a lyrical, structurally straight-forward poem which narrates MacCaig’s startling encounter with a large but harmless basking shark:

To stub an oar on a rock where none should be,
To have it rise with a slounge out of the sea
Is a thing that happened once (too often) to me.

But not too often – though enough. I count as gain
That once I met, on a sea tin-tacked with rain,
That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain.

In this poem, MacCaig does not really attempt to tell a story. Rather, he strives to describe this one sensational memory so vividly, through his excllent use of rhyme, rhythm, and imagery, that it’s almost as if we’re sitting beside him in his little rowing boat. I’m just glad basking sharks only eat plankton, otherwise I might not be so fond of the life-like quality of this poem (we have JAWS for that, after all).

photo: the shadow of a basking shark in the sea is seen from above - it looms underneath and dwarfs a canoe with two passengers

Another poem that beautifully preserves a memory is Edwin Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’:

There were never strawberries
Like the ones we had
That sultry afternoon
Sitting on the step
Of the open french window
Facing each other

OK, I admit, I have never been much of a fan of romantic poems and I personally prefer eating Maltesers than strawberries, but even so, there’s no denying Morgan perfectly captures this moment. It’s heartfelt, it’s evocative, it’s full of life, a life that is brought through by Morgan’s sheer skill and talent. His use of the senses and his detailed description of the setting beautifully convey this important memory to the reader, even though there’s nothing actually ‘moving about’. I like this poem for its power and beauty, but also for how clearly I can imagine being there, in that exact scene, tasting those strawberries. Mmm, strawberries…

photo: a bowl of ripe strawberries

There are, no doubt, many other poems out there that preserve a single, powerful memory. I confess, I have always felt like a fraud as my seas of poetical knowledge are rather shallow. But you don’t have to be a poetry expert to enjoy poetry, nor to recognise a good poem when you see one. I’m sure there are plenty of good poems out there that capture that special moment – sometimes, poets use it merely as an imagery technique within a larger work. For instance, I used it in my Foyle winning poem ‘Heaven in a Poke’, as, in the final stanza, I tried to capture that solitary picture of a seagull dive-bombing the poor, helpless, fish-loving Glaswegian. Fortunately, that was a persona and I have never been attacked by a seagull (yet), but you get my point of how useful this ‘technique’ can be!

The challenge

I challenge you to write a poem of no more than 250 words in which you take a memory and describe it so vividly it’s almost like the reader is there in person. It has to be your own memory, although you can write about it from any perspective you wish, and it might help if it is one that’s special to you.

Perhaps you want to pen a poem that describes the moment you rode a bicycle for the first time, or when you first laid eyes upon your dog, cat, hamster, guinea pig, flamingo (don’t ask), etc. Perhaps it was when you lost someone who was very close to you, or when your dentist yanked that molar out (ouch!). The possibilities are endless! So long as it’s your memory and the poem is 250 words or less, it’s all good.

Need a hand?

Are you staring, terrified, at that white page? Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, we all have Blank Page Syndrome, so here’s a few tips to help you out.

Do some reflection – No, I’m not encouraging you to admire yourself in the mirror! Find yourself a quiet place to sit and think about which of your memories are the most important to you. We all have memories, and it can be a bit hard to separate them sometimes, but there’s bound to be a handful you most want to write about. Once you have one, jot down words to describe it, thoughts and feelings and things like that. Write as much as you like – this might just be notes, or a template for your poem, but in any case you can edit it later.

Take a few photos – This style of poetry is very much like taking a photograph of that special memory, so it’s a good idea to take some of your own photos or look back through old ones. Examine the photo and think about its details. Who’s in it? Where was the photo taken? What feelings do you have with regards to the memory that photo preserves?

Go for a walk – Yes, I know, this is the height of cliché, but going for a walk and having a good look around you is never a bad thing. It might help you think of all the important details of a memory. Here it’s helpful to think about your senses. What things can you see? Can you hear anything strange or interesting? Is there a familiar smell that reminds you of this place?

So that’s your challenge. Good luck! I can’t wait to read all your fantastic creations!

photo: small frog statue holding a camera to its eye


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 Andrew Pettigrew.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 15 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 recording, please also include a written version. You can send as many poems as you like. Submissions must be in English, and must not exceed 250 words (excluding the title).

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, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘August challenge #1’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 15 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.

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, 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].

photo: Andrew Pettigrew, a young white man with auburn hair and wearing a grey t-shirt and glasses, grins

Andrew Pettigrew is a seventeen-year-old writer and poet who currently lives in Hamilton, Scotland with his family and two dogs.  Losing his sight and hearing before the age of 11, Andrew has won the Pushkin Prizes, the Seeing Ear Creative Writing Award, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and was recently shortlisted for the Young Walter Scott Prize.  Chosen in early 2019 as one of the seven teen writers for Scottish Book Trust’s What’s Your Story? creative writing programme, Andrew is currently working on his first novel, which he hopes will not end up in the trash bin (like the others).

While you’re in a creative mood, do check out our other challenges:

  • 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!
  • August challenge #4 calls for questioning poems. How can you use questions to structure your work?
  • 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.

Published August 2019

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