Every August, Foyle Young Poets take over Young Poets Network and set four weekly writing challenges. In the first August challenge of 2020, Lydia Wei is challenging you to write poems that imagine historical or fictional characters in surprising new situations.
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 judge: Alice Broadbent, Courtney Hart, Isaac Kim, Annie Lane, Cia Mangat, Marina McCready, Sarah Nachimson, Natalie Perman, Ella Standage, Rena Su, Ellora Sutton, Jessie Taussig and Alice Watkinson.
The challenge: write a poem or poems placing historical figures or fictional characters in unexpected new contexts.
Historical figures never die. I know this for a fact, because just last week I took a BuzzFeed quiz that Shakespeare wrote and found out that, based on all the hipster foods I’d eat, I was an embossed carbuncle.
Okay, obviously I’m just kidding – sort of. Though I’ve yet to see the Bard on BuzzFeed, I do believe that historical figures are very much alive. But we often have a fixed idea about the people of the past – we only see them in the setting they lived in, and forget that their legacies are like living beings, ready to act in any surprising context…
Your challenge is to write a poem placing historical figures or fictional characters in unexpected new contexts. There are many ways to do this – placing them in new settings, giving them surprising roles, or weaving their histories into your own life. The best ‘historical re-mixes’ place the historical figures in conversation with their unusual contexts, allowing us to discover new truths about both elements. I’ve compiled a few poems that illustrate the inventiveness and infinite possibilities of ‘historical re-mix’ poems.
In Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘A Supermarket in California’, the speaker imagines meeting Walt Whitman, the 19th-century ‘father of American poetry’, at a supermarket:
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
Why has Ginsberg placed a 19th century poet in a modern-day supermarket?
Between 1872, when Whitman died, and 1955, when this poem was written, America had changed dramatically. There had been two World Wars, capitalism was in full swing, and how people wrote poems had changed dramatically. By placing Whitman in a supermarket, Ginsberg is contrasting two different eras of white American history. In Whitman’s time, the Europeans who had recently settled in the New World were beginning to expand westwards into America, and they felt full of opportunity and hope. By Ginsberg’s time, America was no longer an emergent country, and Ginsberg felt much more cynical about how materialistic and globalized it was.
Even though they’re so different, Whitman and the supermarket can both be considered symbols of America. In this way, Ginsberg shows how one country can (in Whitman’s own words) ‘contain multitudes’. In your own writing, think about how your chosen figure either contrasts or complements their new setting, and what that says about both them and the setting.
In ‘Ophelia Drinks Rubbing Alcohol On A Friday Night’ (content warning: self-harm), Zuyi Zhao imagines that she is re-writing Hamlet. It begins: ‘If my name was William and I wrote a play about revenge, / I would have written less about Hamlet and more about Ophelia.’ She goes on to re-imagine Ophelia and Hamlet (the lovers in Shakespeare’s play) as contemporary college students in her new play. Seeing them as college students not only shows how timeless Shakespeare’s characters are, but, considering students often study Hamlet in college, also gives Zhao the opportunity to make some insightful parallels:
who went to class in the morning even though her father died,
is too busy hallucinating on homework to even write
down her own name. I try to tell her that right now, she is nothing
but a device to flesh out a man who doesn’t actually love her,
but she’s only half-listening.
By placing Shakespeare’s characters in a familiar setting, the reader is given a new way of identifying with them. In your poems, could you bring a figure who you’ve studied into a role in your life?
We can also re-contextualize historical figures using poetic form and structure. In ‘Chapter Seven Quiz: Coming of Age in Female Skin’, Jenny Li chronicles the fate of several powerful women – including Medusa, Frida Kahlo, and Henrietta Lacks – in the form of a quiz. This unique poetic form allows her to explore several narratives, and also shows how women’s lives have been regulated throughout history – often, it feels as if women must live according to implicit questions and pre-determined answers:
What did she birth?
a. twins: winged horse and giant wielding a golden sword, of her slayed body
i. immeasurable scientific advancements
ii. a multibillion dollar industry
c. a commercial property…
d. an awful little allegory…
At the end of the poem is a list of historical women’s names, some of which are crossed out, suggesting that each answer matches with one of these figure’s lives. The poem works as a quiz – you have to know the answer to work out which woman is being referenced in each line. You might be impressed, or disappointed, with how many answers you know, and your results might show you something about who we study and why.
When writing your poems, consider the ‘forms’ you encounter in your daily life – such as quizzes, menus, or dictionary definition entries – and see if you could shape them into a poetic form that would reveal something important about your chosen figure. For example, a menu-poem focused on Marie Antoinette might weave in both indulgent dishes and social commentary. Plus, you could also explore modern, technological forms, such as computer programming! For example, how might Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry intersect with Python?
Finally, you could also weave your chosen figure’s story into your own life. In ‘Elegy for Bruce Lee’ W. Todd Kaneko ties his father’s death to the martial artist Bruce Lee. By focusing on this historical figure rather than his father, Kaneko accesses a deeper emotional truth. He reaches a poignant, bittersweet conclusion about the relationship between combat and grief:
… There is no fight
where there is no spark, no wretched cock crow
in the dark, just this cha cha chá—grief is a fist
and a promise to hurt someone. Just give it
an inch between knuckle and breastbone.
It will punch through everyone.
If Kaneko had set out to write a poem about his father’s death, he probably wouldn’t have written these brilliant images about fighting. What surprising new images could your chosen historical figure bring to your own experiences?
Write a poem placing one or more historical figures or fictional characters in unexpected new contexts.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Imagine your favorite historical figure or fictional character has suddenly shown up in your neighborhood. Where would they go? What would they do? How would they engage with both the foreignness of modern society and the local quirks and customs of your neighborhood?
- Embrace mishmash – combine grand historical figures with pop culture! For example, would John Milton or Lord Byron write Wattpad fanfiction?
- Experiment with unconventional forms – can you re-contextualize a historical figure or fictional character by using a modern, surprising poetic structure, like Jenny Li’s quiz?
- Randomize the process! Take a historical figure and then generate random context for them (for example, go to Wikipedia and click ‘Random article’). See if you can connect your historical figure to the bizarre, unexpected context that you find. Will you discover surprising truths about the historical figure, the context, or both?
- Jot down some important moments, questions, or adventures from your life. Then, read about some historical figures or fictional characters and record the important moments from their See if you can weave these two threads together – how do their lives connect to your own? Can examining this figure’s life lead you closer towards finding an answer about your own life?
Good luck with this poetry challenge! I can’t wait to read what you write.
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Monday 14 September 2020. 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.
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