This year, we have seen how important nature is to our wellbeing, and how limited access to green spaces can be. We’ve teamed up with our friends People Need Nature and poet Gboyega Odubanjo to challenge you to write nature poems that focus on people’s place in nature. Send us poems appreciating the trees by the motorway, the river by the factory, the flowers growing in brick.
The challenge: write a poem or poems mixing the human and the natural worlds.
I live in Dagenham, in East London. Down the road from my home is a field with a small hill that overlooks the A13. Walk another mile or so in the same direction and you get to the River Thames. Before lockdown I had never gone on the thirty-minute walk from my home to the Thames. Going on walks was never something that I did, especially not just to see the river or get some fresh air. The natural world around me was not something I felt I ever actively participated in; it was just always there. Other than going to the park with friends in the summer, I lived my life and nature lived its own. Then lockdown happened. I have now gone on numerous walks just to see the river. When I don’t fancy all that walking, I sit at the top of the hill near my house and watch cars go by or I sit in my garden.
These are all luxuries. Across Britain, nearly 2.7 million people do not have a publicly accessible local park or green space within a ten-minute walk of where they live. In addition to this fact, one in eight British households has no access to a private or shared garden. For many, during lockdown, there was no option of going to a local field/park or sitting in a garden. Some had balconies, for others it was a case of making the most out of the breeze from their window or the fresh air from their doorstep.
There have been numerous studies showing a positive correlation between one’s access to green or open space and their general wellbeing. Lockdown presented, and continues to present, many challenges. Whilst at times it has felt like we have all been going through the same things, when we look at basic access to green or open spaces that has not been the case. Access to these spaces, especially in cities such as London, is often linked to household income. The more money a household has, the more likely they will have a garden or be within a ten-minute walk of a park or green space. But even for lower-income homes which are within walking distance of a park, the government is threatening to temporarily shut green spaces, fearing that too many people will gather there. And so my question is: how can we all participate in nature?
A simple response is that we already do.
Michael J. Bugeja, in his book The Art and Craft of Poetry, says: ‘If a poem is set in the world, it is in part a nature poem.’ Of course, there are poems about seasons, plants, animals and these are often categorised as nature poems. But this is not all there is to nature. We, and everything we do in this world, are a part of nature. From the realities of climate change to the enjoyment we can feel in green spaces, it is important that we are aware of how we relate to nature and how we exist within it. The idea that nature poetry can only be about certain aspects of nature is limiting. It suggests that some aspects of nature are more important than others, creating an impression that only those with knowledge of this type of nature can write nature poems.
John Keats was a poet who wrote a lot about nature and the environment. His ‘Sonnet X’ begins:
To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven
The opening lines of another of his poems, ‘Sonnet VII’, read:
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings
On the surface, both these poems present a feeling that is relatable and difficult to argue with: the ‘open face of heaven’ does sound a lot better than the ‘jumbled heap of murky buildings’. However, both these extracts also imply that the city is a place without nature. The experiences we have in cities and less green areas are of course different to those that Keats longs for. But looking back at my experiences this summer, and indeed throughout my life, I have realised that nature exists beyond the places we expect it.
Sitting on that hill by my house overlooking the A13, I’m reminded of the famous Grace Nichols poem, ‘Island Man’. In the poem ‘island man wakes up to the sound of blue surf in his head’, only to come back ‘groggily’ to a ‘grey metallic soar’ and ‘surge of wheels’ as he reckons with the reality of ‘another London day’. There is again a clear distinction between nature and the city—a man missing his home environment and unable to feel any sense of nature in London. But sometimes I sit on that hill listening to the ‘surge of wheels’ and, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear a ‘blue surf’ of my own. There is something fascinating in the juxtaposition of the green of the hill and the harsh metallic of a motorway. And in cities there are many fascinating ways that our humanity comes close to, and morphs into, nature.
Neal Bowers’ poem ‘On The Road’ is a good example of the ways in which nature poetry can relate to more urban landscapes. The central image is a ‘lone petunia growing in the driveway crack’:
the car stands over it at night,
heat from the engine block
keeping frost away
In the poem, the voice does not romanticise nature. Instead, it establishes a sense of parity between itself and nature. The poem presents a reality in which the voice exists, side by side, with nature.
No reason to make anything of this—
I parked where I’ve always parked
It reminds me of my earlier thought: I am living my life and nature is living its own. But it goes beyond that, and shows me the naivety of that thought. Our lives, whether in the city or the country, are inextricably linked to nature. This is the nature poetry that I am interested in. One that does not disregard the human element or involvement. I want poems that are able to appreciate nature in different, interesting ways. Tell me about the park that sits alongside the shopping centre. Or the spider that finds its way onto the ceiling of your room. What is your relationship to it? How does the rain fall onto the cars parked outside your house? When the sun shines through your window what does it land on? How does nature make its way into your life? How do you make your way into its life?
Write a poem or poems mixing the human and natural worlds. Some questions to consider are: how can (and do) we all participate in nature? How have recent events affected your view of and access to nature? Where is the nature in your life, and what is your relationship to it? We are interested in nature poems that don’t look like traditional nature poems, and we especially encourage entries from poets who might not have written much about nature before. If you have never thought that nature is ‘for’ you, we want to hear from you. Where is your hill overlooking the A13?
- Go outdoors to your favourite local spot or just wander until you arrive somewhere, anywhere. Stop and look at all its natural characteristics—weeds, insects, flowers, animals, trees—whatever you see that has not been made by a person. Now look for the manufactured objects—pavement, house, skyscraper, garden, plastic bottle. Examine the relationship between human and nature in that setting.
- Go to your least favourite spot—somewhere ‘ugly’—and do the same.
- Look around your house/room. Imagine it’s a natural place and write it as if it were. Close your eyes: what does the hum of your fridge sound like? What type of grass is your carpet? Use as many senses as you can.
- Walk out of your house and look at the largest and the smallest living thing. If you live in a suburban area, that may be a tall tree and an ant. If you live on a farm, it could be a cornstalk and an ant. If you live in a city, it could be a blade of grass and an ant. Imagine how the tallest and smallest would view each other if they could. Imagine how each would view you. Assess how you viewed each of these entities, if at all, before the exercise and how you view them now.
If you need some more inspiration, read these poems:
- ‘I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth’ by Fatimah Asghar. Sit somewhere where there are animals (big or small) around you. It could be a garden, a park, a bench in a town centre, or anywhere else you can find animals. What do you think about when you see them? What do you think they about when they see you? If you could talk to them what would the conversation be?
- ‘These New York City Pigeons’ by Jayne Cortez (contains strong language). What animals do you see in your area? Pick one and write an ode to it. You can write about how much you like this animal, how much you dislike it, or a mix of the two.
- ‘Directions’ by Inua Ellams. Walk around your area. Sit on a bench facing a park or a busy road. Write a poem detailing what you see/hear/do, what other people do. Think about your area as if it is an ecosystem: everything in relation to everything else.
This challenge will be judged by Gboyega Odubanjo. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and the People Need Nature website, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies. The first, second and third-prize winners will also receive £50, £40 and £30 in book tokens respectively, and commended poets will win £10 book tokens.
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, Sunday 1 November 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 email@example.com with the subject line ‘People Need Nature challenge’, 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 to help us reach as wide an audience as possible.
If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 1 November 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.
We welcome entries from schools and 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, The Poetry Society and People Need Nature 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.
Our thanks go to People Need Nature for helping to make this challenge possible.
People Need Nature is a charity which promotes the value of nature for people in their everyday lives: nature as a source of inspiration, as a source of solace; and nature enriching people’s spiritual lives. PNN also work to influence public thinking and policy to place a greater value on nature for these things. PNN are delighted to work with the Young Poets Network on this third poetry challenge, exploring the highly relevant issue of access to – and exclusion from – nature. Covid-19 has brought into focus just how much people benefit from being in nature, but also how difficult it is for some sections of society to find and benefit from nature in their local area. We would also like to acknowledge with thanks the generous support for this challenge from Mrs J R King. Find out more about People Need Nature’s work at peopleneednature.org.uk
Gboyega Odubanjo was born and raised in East London. His pamphlet, While I Yet Live, was published by Bad Betty Press in 2019. He is an editor of bath magg.
Published September 2020