In our second August challenge this year, Foyle Young Poet Mukisa Verrall invites you to get weird. Embrace the absurd as a response to the internet, the pandemic or just life on this crazy planet.
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: Rachel Bruce, Creagh Factor, Hannah Hodgson, Heather Hughes, Jasmine Kapadia, Irma Kiss Barath, Anoushka Kumar, Stella Lei, Kia Matanky-Becker, Amy McGinn, Divya Mehrish, Kate Moore, Brooke Nind, Salma Reda, Finn Rose, Jessica Taylor, Elizabeth Train-Brown and Sofia Swenson-Wright.
The challenge: write about something you find absurd
I can’t quite remember when it was that I first noticed the overwhelming presence of frogs on my social media. I knew they must always have been there, but somehow they’d escaped any real consideration on my part. I never questioned the comedic value of three frogs with badly edited sunglasses and wizard hats beneath some apparently disconnected text in bold white capitals, like: ‘The council has decided. You are friend :)’ Often these memes are ungrammatical, as if the frogs themselves are trying to communicate and they have the basic fundamentals of English down but are still struggling with articles, prepositions and tenses. It’s really quite strange.
Of course, the strangeness is the point, and it isn’t limited to the internet. Memes capture a shared experience and absurd memes reflect a sense of surreality that has been heightened for many due to the pandemic and the rollercoaster of populist politics. The zeitgeist (spirit of the time) is perhaps a stubborn sense of unreality.
Mind you, this isn’t unique to the 21st century. Artists, writers, film-makers and philosophers have been exploring the absurdity of existence since long before any of us were born. A popular symbol for absurdity is the Greek myth of Sisyphus, about a man made to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity as a punishment for cheating death.
Modernist writers, active between the early 1900s and 1940s, explore absurdity in a way that emphasises decay and human powerlessness, often drawing from the futility of war. In T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, about London in the aftermath of WWI, he writes:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images…
For Eliot, war is absurd because it is senseless. The speaker appeals to a silent listener to give meaning to ‘this stony rubbish’, which represents physical and emotional ruin in the aftermath of war. But the question is rhetorical, and the speaker suggests that there is no sense to be found, because all we have left is ‘a heap of broken images’.
Compare this with postmodernist literature, which is less disturbed by this breakdown of meaning and more irreverent. This is the case in Drew Milne’s 2003 poetry collection Go Figure:
… cleaving indifference over physical
features that depict no political borders
lost upon spicy chicken wings as claws
do special resolutions in pink cartoons
nails down tankers the chalk on board thing
and the gas is all for oil …
Globalism, fast food, technology and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq sit alongside each other in a disorienting stream of images devoid of punctuation. The subject matter of ‘political borders’ may be serious, but ‘spicy chicken wings’ are mentioned on just the next line. ‘Oil’ and ‘tankers’ may not be laughing matters, but ‘pink cartoons’ come just before. Hence we can see how postmodernism may illustrate the breakdown of meaning – the ‘broken images’ that T. S. Eliot describes – through the structure of the poem, which is itself absurd.
Another example of this is the Foyle Young Poet Lydia Wei’s poem ‘you/me, an intellectual’:
you: thumbs up if you’re still listening in / 2019 / 😛
me, an intellectual: thumbs up if you’re still listening / now / in this 3am romance / while the moon hangs like an unopened locket / & the streetlights in the iridescent darkness twinkle / their secret intimacies / & the weight of this night presses against the ribs / all our lost loves pigeoned away / in the attics of our hearts / thumbs up i / want to know we were real / if only for a moment / 😛
Wei creates a stark contrast between the personal and desperately eloquent ‘3am’ thoughts of the speaker, and their fear that they are somehow unreal, with the mute silliness of a smiling face emoji with its tongue stuck out. The incongruity of lyricism contrasted with emojis heightens the sense of desperation, unreality and fragmentation, at once commenting on and demonstrating the absurdity of internet culture and human existence.
Write a poem about something you find absurd. You may also write it in a way you find absurd. Think about:
- Comedic absurdity on the internet. How might you interweave internet culture into the fabric of your poem? Lydia Wei used emojis. How else could you do this? Maybe you could reference memes or well-known internet jokes?
- Personal or large-scale suffering, like war or the pandemic. This can make people lose their sense of meaning, as we saw in The Waste Land. Maybe you could write about something that made you question your sense of reality?
- Being unpredictable. This could mean mixing the serious with the humorous, like in Go Figure. Or perhaps you could mix the historical with the modern, or dreams with reality?
- Non-traditional ways to write a poem. In the spirit of absurdity: experiment! Maybe you want to try randomly ordering phrases you’ve written? Maybe you want to describe an event in backwards chronology? Maybe you want to write in a programming language?
Good luck with the challenge! I look forward to reading your entries.
This challenge will be judged by Foyle Young Poet Mukisa Verrall. 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 #2 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.
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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.
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Mukisa Verrall was a Foyle Young Poet in 2020. Their prose has been recognised by the Newnham Essay Prize and Oxford’s French Flash Fiction competition. This autumn, they plan to study English Literature and French at the University of Manchester and hopefully write lots of very lyrical verses about dead leaves. In their free time, they like to walk along riverbanks and pretend they’re in Paris.
Published August 2021