In the third August challenge written by Foyle Young Poets, Ife Olatona asks you to repeat an image in your poem(s), and see where it leads…
Content warning: Please note that one of the powerful example poems Ife Olatona focuses on in this challenge contains references to racialised violence (Natasha Oladokun’s poem).
The challenge: write a poem(s) which focus around a repeated image.
I love poems with strong imagery, poems that make simple, everyday things like food, weather, and colours seem fresh. For this challenge, I’m asking you to write poems that repeat a particular image or phrase.
There are lots of ways you could approach this. You could pick an object – a bunch of keys for instance – and write a poem that uses it in different ways, creating a new impression about the object with each perspective. Or, you could pick a word to examine from different angles, repeating it in different contexts. Repetition of an image doesn’t have to mean you repeat the word, though: you could illustrate the object in lots of vivid ways, naming it just once or twice – or not at all and trusting the reader’s intelligence.
Do you need a few examples?
You could repeat a single word or phrase. In ‘The Poem Climbs the Scaffold and Tells You What It Sees’ by Natasha Oladokun in The Adroit Journal, the word ‘lynch’ is repeated as an unnamed narrator drives down ‘Old Lynchburg Road’. Written in the second person (using ‘you’), the poem involves the reader in the violence of the word ‘lynch’ right from the opening lines:
Driving alone down Old Lynchburg Road in the lilac haze of dusk
it is so beautiful that for a moment you forget
that the root word in this road you drive down every day is lynch
that the origin of lynch as you know it comes from the name of men also named Lynch.
When we begin writing poetry, we’re often told not to repeat words. But here, the repetition of the word ‘lynch’ in different forms and contexts (the name of the road, the verb, a family name) brings the violence and history of what might seem quite ordinary – a road name – into sharp focus. As the poem progresses, the word ‘lynch’ is repeated less, but the imagery of lynching continues: ‘bottlenecked mob of maples’, ‘a murder of crows despite yourself’, ‘killed the animal inside you’, ‘scythe in hand ready and eager to meet yourself’. Having repeated ‘lynch’ so often at the start, Oladokun doesn’t need to keep saying it for the image to continue having that same force. In your poem, you might like to repeat a word that you use or see every day to explore the roots of it, like Oladokun does, all the while telling a perfectly ordinary story.
You don’t have to repeat the same word, though: your response to this challenge could revolve around a specific kind of imagery. For instance, Mag Gabbert’s poem, ‘Constellations’, published in Waxwing Magazine, is skillfully woven around recurring images of celestial bodies, heat and flames. The poem is about an ex-partner, and love is commonly linked to fiery imagery – people sometimes say they are ‘burning’ with a ‘fiery’ passion; a relationship can lose its ‘spark’ and ‘fizzle out’; an ex is referred to as ‘an old flame’. Gabbert is fully aware of this. Her poem is made up of lots of separate vignettes, or moments, spread out on the page which use fire in unexpected ways. For instance:
and sometimes people get
sunburned while swimming
because they think
they should’ve felt the heat
Although this stanza doesn’t reference love, or even address the ‘you’ in the poem, the image about getting burnt resonates. We know that heat in this poem is a cipher for love or passion. You, too, could turn a cliché on its head: play with the imagery of the cliché, but don’t give in to it! Trust that your reader knows the context, and the image will resonate better.
Here are a few more examples of poems that repeat images:
- ‘Even the Rain’ (a ghazal) by Agha Shahid Ali
- ‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allen Poe
- ‘Repetition’ by Phil Kaye
- ‘Gaddafi, Gaddafi, Gaddafi’ by Hannah Silva
Your challenge is to write a poem that repeats a particular image or phrase. You can interpret this however you like, but the poem has to revolve around at least one central image. If you are repeating a word or phrase, make sure your chosen word evokes a strong image – choose a noun (like ‘star’) or a verb (like ‘swim’). Avoid repeating adjectives or adverbs (which are describing words, like ‘kind’ or ‘cleverly’) for this particular challenge.
Your central image could be anything – be playful. You could choose an everyday activity— cooking, driving, combing hair, washing dishes, cutting fruits, etc.— and then use it as a central atmosphere or recurring image in the poem. Your poem should be full of surprises: every time your image comes back, it should bring something new to the poem. Avoid clichés, unless you’re twisting them somehow. Be specific.
A few helpful tips and suggestions to get started:
- If evoking a strong image in your poem feels difficult, look around. Right now – what can you see? Have a look at pictures you like. What catches your attention in them? A blurry hand? A door? A colour? Write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems at first to be incoherent. Surreal can be good!
- Have a conversation with a friend or listen to people near you talk. Randomly pick words out of the conversation and create a list of words or impressions central to the conversation. Pick the strongest of them, imagining it in a different context and creating a poem out of it.
Happy writing! I can’t wait to read your entries!
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 25 and younger, 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.
Send your poem(s) to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘August challenge #3’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible.
If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 14 September 2020, 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.
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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, 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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Ife Olatona’s fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Harvard’s Transition Magazine, The African Writers, and Nottingham Poetry Exchange’s Voices anthology. Currently serving on the editorial board at The Adroit Journal, he was a commended Foyle Young Poet in 2019. You can find him at ifewrites.com or on Instagram @ife_olatona.
For more August challenges, check out Lydia Wei’s challenge about re-mixing historical figures in your poems, Meredith LeMaître’s challenge about fairy tales and poetry, and Rian Paton’s challenge on spoken word.
Published August 2020