In our second August challenge of 2019 former Foyle Young Poet Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo challenges young poets to write a poem in the form of a how-to guide…
The challenge: write a ‘How-to’ poem.
Writing poetry is often like wrapping a present – a central theme or message is swathed in layers of metaphors, allusions, imagery and other literary devices that all contribute to a beautifully crafted product. And while this can make for a powerful poem, sometimes the best way to relay a message is to give your reader a guide, literally!
A poet’s guide to writing a poetic guide
Although not a poem, a prime example of this would be the acclaimed essay written by the recently deceased Kenyan-born writer Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘How to Write About Africa’:
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
In his essay, Wainaina confronts the issue of Africa’s poor portrayal by the media by using sarcasm to tell his reader what (or rather what not!) to do when covering the continent. This form of imperative writing, or ‘How-to writing’, stuns the reader with its blunt humour and manipulation of stereotypes to strike an immediate impression upon the first read.
In poetry, this technique works beautifully as a means of direct engagement, as illustrated by the American poet Ron Padgett in his poem, ‘How to be Perfect’:
Eat an orange every morning.
Be friendly. It will help make you happy.
Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes
four or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.
Hope for everything. Expect nothing.
Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.
In his poem, Padgett lists all the requirements for perfection. Some of these seem obviously ‘good’, such as being friendly. Others, though, seem unattainable or strangely specific – 120 beats per minute is pretty difficult to measure. If you keep reading, even more unexpected ideas of perfection crop up in his poem:
Do not practice cannibalism.
Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do
anything to make it impossible.
Take your phone off the hook at least twice a week.
Keep your windows clean.
Extirpate all traces of personal ambitiousness.
While we should all take a break from our phones every once in a while, should we ‘extirpate’ (i.e. destroy) our personal ambitions? These instructions all depend on your personal perspective and aims in life, but Padgett lists each instruction with the same tone and weight, as if they were all equally valid. In this ‘How-to’ poem the poet actually shows us the futility of ‘how-to’ guides. The reader learns not to take seriously voices that claim to have the answer to life’s most difficult questions – in short, there isn’t one manual to perfection.
‘How-to’ poetry can also be a reimagining of an everyday task such as walking to school, or cooking your favourite meal. You can make something we take for granted seem exciting again, or open up a new perspective on it through the power of language. Philip Levine does just this when describing the borough of Brooklyn in ‘How to Get There’:
Turn left off Henry onto Middagh Street
to see our famous firehouse, home
of Engine 205 and
Hook & Ladder 118 and home also to
the mythic painting “Fire under
the Bridge” decorating
the corrugated sliding door. The painting
depicts a giant American flag
wrinkled by wind
and dwarfing the famous Brooklyn Bridge
as it stretches as best it can
to get a purchase
Maybe you could write a poem about a journey you do every day. Or you could even think about poetry itself in your poem – American poet Eve Merriam instructs her reader on ‘How to Eat a Poem’:
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
In these kind of ‘How-to’ poems, though the poet might seems to be talking about one thing (here, eating), often they are really talking about something else (here, reading). Similarly, Chinese-American poet Koon Woon uses the process of cooking rice to talk about cultural pressures in ‘How to Cook Rice’:
Measure two handfuls for a prosperous man.
Place in pot and wash by rubbing palms together
as if you can’t quite get yourself to pray, or
by squeezing it in one fist. Wash
several times to get rid of the cloudy water;
when you are too high in Heaven, looking down
at the clouds, you can’t see what’s precious below.
Writing this type of poetry can feel quite liberating because, unlike in most poems, where you might not acknowledge your reader, you can directly engage with your imagined reader. You can also play with the fact that you both know you’re reading a poem, and make use of irony and double meanings.
Write a ‘How-to’ poem. It can be about something political or philosophical that challenges the reader’s assumptions, like ‘How to Be Perfect’. It could be about poetry, like ‘How to Eat a Poem’. But it can be about absolutely anything, including the most boring things you do every day.
- Sarcasm and irony work really well in this kind of poem!
- If you’re stuck, find something that is commonly overlooked or rarely ever written about – maybe changing a lightbulb, brushing your teeth, having a sip of water, or even your local environment – and draw inspiration from that.
- The title of your finished poem doesn’t necessarily have be have the format of ‘How to …’, but make sure to maintain that style of writing in it.
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 Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo.
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 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@example.com 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 #2’. 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 class 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo is a 17-year-old British-Nigerian writer who was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2018. Fiyinfoluwa has also been recognised in various writing challenges on the Young Poets Network, and has shared his poetry at a meeting of the Poetry All-Part Parliamentary Group at the House of Commons. Always wanting to improve his writing, he recently just concluded the Adroit Summer Mentorship Program 2019. He finds writing impossible without the accompaniment of some form of soul music and enjoys dabbling into short stories as well. He can’t wait to read the amazing submissions to this challenge!