The August Challenges: #1 – The Unreliable Narrator

The August challenges are back! Every week  in the month of August, we’ll be introducing a brand new challenge from a young poet to help jump-start your writing over the summer. To kick us off, Ben Read, a 2015 Foyle Young Poet, challenges you to experiment with truth and lies to create poetry that twists, turns and deceives…

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‘Les chuchoteuses’ by Rose-Aimée Belanger. Image: Mioggi Interactive

The concept of the unreliable narrator, or a narrator who isn’t completely truthful with his or her readers, is far more common in fiction than poetry. Or is it? Poets create personas all the time, and readers should never assume the speaker in a poem is the poet. In fact, lying in poetry is often necessary for the sake of the poem and the poet.

“You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything”

–Richard Hugo

Maybe I shouldn’t call it lying. It’s more complex than that. 

“My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth”

– Evey Hammond, V for Vendetta

I believe poetry is courageous. Poetry can be a confession, an admission, an apology. By experimenting with lies in writing, we are going to try to tell our own truths. For this challenge, I want you to try writing a poem in which you directly lie at one point in the poem, and at another point, admit the truth.

Obviously, this is difficult, as sometimes writers, including myself, don’t know the truth until they are writing or have written the poem! So to help brainstorm for this poem, we’re going to play a game. I think lots of you will already know how to play ‘two truths and a lie’, but for those of you who don’t, here’s how it goes. It’s usually played in a group, and each person comes up with two true statements and one lie about themselves, and the others have to guess what the lie is. Here’s a very basic example about me:

  1. My favourite colour is blue
  2. Sea turtles are my favourite animals
  3. I only write poetry

The lie is the second one; owls are my favourite animal. To help you write your poem, try playing a couple of rounds of two truths and a lie with yourself. Start with basic things like the example above, including concrete facts and details. Then start writing more abstract truths and lies  – “I was born as the snow was falling”; “light spills from my footsteps” and follow your train of thought as far as it takes you. See if a general topic or theme emerges from your truths and your lies, and consider basing your poem around that idea. Then, when you come to writing the first draft of your poem, pick just one of your truths and one of your lies to include.

My advice for writing the poem is start with the lie. Throughout the course of the poem, you can then either slowly or abruptly arrive at the truth. A top tip for structuring your poem is to write in two stanzas, one about the lie and one about the truth. At the transition between stanzas, include some variation on one of these phrases:

  • This is what I will not tell you.
  • I lied to you.
  • You want the truth?
  • This is a confession.


Here’s my example of what your poem might look like at this point:

Water, Merciless

Outside the bedroom window, dressed
in old, beveled wood reminiscent
of my grandmother’s cupboards, the view
is half cresting waves, half clouds
that look like butterflies.
The fog hangs low here, a blanket
covering the mattress of seashells and sand
dollars. Salt tastes like improbability.
Running my hands through
the hanging mist, window curtains,
I can feel the infinite gathering
into the possible, droplets of mist
on fingertips, the whorl of myself.
The butterflies are monarchs, ruling
the sky. Their subjects, people like me,
live here forever.

A confession: I live nowhere
near the sea. I am not the ocean.
I know this. I am not vast
or endless, never remembered.
But I always come back.
Small, half submerged,
my clothes are rough from the breeze
off the water, merciless.
It takes and takes. I give in
every time. The possible is all
I need, insistence to live, existence
as hope that the sand will hold
my shape through high tide,
against a thousand waves.
Hold your breath, jump
into the cold.

Once you have a first draft, here are a few editing suggestions to experiment with bending the truth:

  1. Use a thesaurus to look up antonyms to any adjectives you use. Try replacing a couple of adjectives with their antonyms to deepen that sense of ‘unreliability’ that you’re creating . If the word you choose doesn’t quite fit with your poem, try looking up the antonym to the antonym, and see if it gives you a better effect than the original word. For example, the antonym of sharp is soft, but another antonym of soft is strict. You can do the same thing with verbs and nouns in your poem if you like, although you may find it more to think abstractly about their opposites in these cases.
  2. Revise the placement and the delivery of the truth in the second stanza (if this is the structure you are using in your poem). Tell your truth as a simple sentence on a single line. Tell it as a run-on sentence for a whole stanza. Break the line in the middle of your truth.
  3. Change the persona of the poem. Does the lie need to be told by someone else? Or something else? Maybe revealing your truth later in the poem is about admitting you’re not what your readers thought you were. In Angelique Palmer’s poem, ‘Before Acceptance, the Tornado Speaks to Her Damage’, the speaker is the tornado. Write from the perspective of a force of nature, an animal, an object, or another person, and then admit you’re human during the course of the poem. 

But don’t listen to me at all if you don’t want to. For all you know, I could be lying.

When you have used lies to find and tell your truth, please share and submit them! I’m looking forward to being tricked, deceived and inspired.

This challenge is now closed – huge thanks to all who entered. Check back soon to find out the winners!

Ben Read headshot

Ben Read lives in Spokane, Washington, where he is a senior at Lewis and Clark High School. He was a 2015 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and his work has been recognized by RiverLitEunoia Review, and The Adroit Journal. He recently co-founded Ponderosa Literary Journal at his high school. Other than writing, he likes to participate in speech and debate, attend and read at local poetry slams, and listen to music like the Juno soundtrack. His favourite muse is the river.

Published July, 2016

4 thoughts on “The August Challenges: #1 – The Unreliable Narrator

    1. Hi Denisa,

      We think it’s brilliant too! Glad you like the sound of this challenge – hope to see a poem from you.

      Young Poets Network

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