August challenge #4: Break the Ice with Vernacular in Poetics

Welcome to our fourth and final August challenge for 2018! This week, Foyle Young Poet Aidan Forster invites you to create poems using contemporary and local language. Could you write a poem out of online jargon? A poem incorporating your favourite song lyrics? And how will your choice of words reflect your identity? Read on for more…

When writing and reading poetry, I am particularly interested in examining language: both the particular patterns of language used in a poem (an author’s decision about word order, word choice, repetition, etc.) and their social or cultural origins. In what way do the different types of language we encounter in the modern world (such as in popular music or on gaming or dating apps, or through words specific to a local region) inform or infiltrate a poet’s individual language?  

This challenge is all about exploring how the real language that people use today is used in our poems. Think, briefly, of the types of language that you use and hear every day. Do you use a lot of regional language, which is to say phrases unique to a particular culture or community? We call spoken language ‘vernacular’ and in many ways it’s different to written language. For example, you might say one thing but when asked to write down the same thing write another. Have a think: what makes up your vernacular?

Growing up in South Carolina, the heartland of the American South, I hear lots of regional phrases every day: contractions like ‘y’all,’ phrasal verbs such as ‘fixing to,’ the duplicitous ‘Bless your heart!’ (often used to condescend) and expressions such as ‘That dog won’t hunt,’ meaning ‘it’s no use’. No matter where you’re from, you likely use certain words and phrases that are unique to your region or community. Consider the subversive queer dialect of Polari, a fusion of thieves’ cant (a secret language used by thieves) and Romani slang used by queer people to communicate discreetly during the twentieth century. Words such as ‘butch,’ ‘camp,’ and ‘fruit’ arise from this dialect, and have earned their place in the English language today. As a queer person, using Polari words in a poem locates the poem within a historical lineage and illuminates the power of a queer experience of language.

In her class at the Tin House Summer Workshop, Mary Ruefle said poetry is nothing more than the arrangement of linguistic energy, or the ordering of language as a fluid and living material. Language is not static—rather, it is an organic and active system of ever-changing rules, and poets can manipulate this system in interesting ways. When we look at it this way, each individual word takes on a huge significance within the poem, serving as its fundamental building block. Like an atom, the poem cannot be distilled further than the word—therefore, poets must use words deliberately to build a meaningful poem. But the words that come naturally to you, and the words you use in your poems, reflect your background and your identity. Perhaps they represent the place where you’ve grown up, or the people who have raised you, or the communities to which you belong, or the media you consume. In this way, each poem you write becomes a coded representation of your identity through language. To learn a little more about what this looks like, let’s take a look at the poem ‘Preference’ by Albert Park:


from Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (ed. Christopher Soto) 

The poet uses language that you might find online, particularly on an online dating profile, reflecting a particular digital subculture. Phrases within the poem like ‘you should too’ create a defensive, challenging tone which imitates the feeling of many websites and apps, where users are to an extent anonymous. The lack of spaces between the words makes the poem hard to read, cleverly mirroring the difficulty of deciphering the internet’s stream of data and people.

Now, let’s take a look at a poem of mine entitled ‘Break the Ice’ (after the infamous Britney Spears’ song):

I’ve been thinking about
how you say my name,

how dawn’s fiasco
troubles our Eden

before I can ever
get you right,

the precise element
of my terror ferried

through the 808—
that you might,

like any wonderland,
vanish into a field

of glimmering fur,
a palanquin of blue

& undrinkable milk.
Could you rise,

in this nounlight,
to the occasion?

Here, I incorporate lyrics from the song to reflect both my personal interest in the song as an element of my identity and as a way to investigate certain ideas that interest me: namely, a fear of loneliness masquerading as confidence in intimate situations. By weaving in references to a contemporary song in this poem, the reader is given two texts rather than one, and hence two contexts.

Although these poems may seem vastly different, they share a common formal element: the use of ‘popular’ language as a means of exploring larger ideas of identity and politics in poetry. Popular language helps tackle these topics because words that make up an individual’s lexicon often hold a particular significance to a person, invoking their personal experiences, images, or impressions. This can help them to explore their own identity, and helps the reader access the inner thoughts and feelings of a poet through familiar socio-cultural institutions or practices, drawing on the connective ability of shared or popular experience.  

The challenge

For this challenge, I’d like you to identify a type of language, a phrase, or a word from popular culture that in some way represents your identity, interests, community, region, or home, and write a poem that somehow makes use of that language. I’d like you to actively engage with language as a product of place and culture (particularly language that corresponds to popular or contemporary culture) and to understand the origins of your own poetic lexicon: what about your life or your identity informs the way you construct images or sentences? In what way can language as representational of public and popular institutions and trends help you explore personal identity? The possibilities are endless, but here are a few potential starting places:

  1. Choose a phrase unique to your region or hometown (such as ‘that dog won’t hunt’) and use it as either a title or a repeated phrase throughout the poem.
  2. Choose a word or phrase that is important to a particular community to which you belong (such as the word ‘queen,’ a sort of iconic praise in the queer community, or ‘redneck,’ a typically derogatory term for someone from a rural area) and write a poem that attempts to explain the secret reality of that word. When you hear this word, what landscapes, images, actions, or events does it conjure? This exercise is based on a prompt generated by poet Hanif Abdurraqib.
  3. Choose a phrase used in popular culture and write a poem that explores, examines, reimagines, or subverts that phrase, such as the verb ‘flex’ (which, when used colloquially, means to show-off) or the expression ‘throwing shade’.
  4. Beyond text, language permeates popular culture through visual media. Identify a particular example of visual expression (a painting, a music video, an installation, a sculpture, etc.) created in the 21st century and write an ekphrastic poem responding to its visual language (the formal elements such as value that make up a painting or other form of visual expression). An ekphrastic poem is a poem based on or in some way engaging with a piece of art. In what way does the piece illuminate avenues of self-exploration within your poem?

Regardless of what you choose to write, here a few tips:

  1. Use specific detail in your poems. What makes your interpretation of this word or phrase unique?
  2. Try to avoid simply describing the conventional meaning of your chosen phrase or word. Rather, search for the wild, magic heart of the word—what electrifies this word for you. For example: I’m interested in ‘throwing shade’ as a mode of queer communication and a sort of double-speak (often a damaging one) in dialogue.
  3. A great place to start is by going somewhere (a coffee shop, a library, a grocery store checkout line) and listening to the conversation around you. Is someone using interesting language? How would this borrowed language function within a poem? Could you use a stranger’s comment or question as a jumping-off point for a poem? A title? A last line?
  4. If you choose the ekphrastic prompt: avoid simply describing the painting/video/visual expression. Instead, consider the way your sense of language and poetics (what natural or trained inclinations you have toward language and writing poetry) can illuminate an interesting or novel dimension of the visual media, and vice versa. How can you and the visual media intermingle on the page?

Happy poem-ing! I can’t wait to read what you come up with. 

Note: It’s important to acknowledge that many words or phrases that society considers to be part of ‘popular culture’ are actually appropriated from historically marginalised groups. This challenge does not attempt to suggest that language endemic to particular communities are ephemeral, topical, or diminutive, but rather recognises the complex and various factors that influence an individual’s use of language.


The winning poems will be published on the Young Poets Network website. Winners will also receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other poetry goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send a poem written down, or a performance poem as a video or as an audio file. Send as many poems as you like. The deadline for all entries is midnight, Monday 17 September 2018.

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending an image, 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 poems 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 #4’. 

If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 10 September 2018 you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form if you haven’t already; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws. 

If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line of your email. If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, please include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the body of the email. You can sign up yourself for free here.

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, and to hold your data in a secure manner so we can contact you about the results of this challenge. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

Aidan Forster is a poet and essayist from South Carolina. A 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, his work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and The Poetry Society, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2017, BOAAT, Columbia Poetry Review, Indiana Review, The Journal, and Tin House, among others. His debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in November 2018. He attends Brown University and plans to study Literary Arts and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Aidan Forster was a Foyle Young Poet in 2016 and 2017.

Published August, 2018

4 thoughts on “August challenge #4: Break the Ice with Vernacular in Poetics

  1. This is a great challenge with a really interesting prompt, I’ve just entered and I can’t wait to read the winning poems. 🙂

    Can I just ask what the prizes are for this challenge, please? Thank you.

    1. Hi Chloe,

      Thanks for your lovely comment! We’re so pleased to hear you enjoyed the challenge.

      Prizes will include publication on the Young Poets Network website and goodies such as poetry anthologies, bookmarks and so on.

      Best of luck in the competition!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Mercy,

      We run challenges all year round – why not enter our Bletchley Park challenge by Sunday for free?

      Sign up to the Young Poets Network mailing list to find out more:

      Best wishes (and best of luck!),

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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