Friday, 1 February 2019

Meddle with a san san poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I’m sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Love your imagery? Use it to the max! “San san” means “three three” in Chinese – three images, each repeated three times, across just eight lines, plus a rhyme scheme of abcabdcd.

The san san is a lovely variation on the repeating forms - instead of repeating exact phrases or lines, it repeats the imagery, which can be reworded and reused however you please. Each image appears three times, in any order. With just eight lines, that's rapid repetition! It also has a rhyme scheme of abcabdcd. When I'm writing, I break that down into abc abd cd, to help me keep track, and sometimes write it with those line breaks as well. Later, when I type it up, I remove the extra line breaks. Here's an example san san:

Rosebay Willowherb


Arms overflowing with twirls of seed-head froth
as white as the hair of the man who stopped me, said,
“In the blitz, that purple grew in the rubble, throughout,”
arms overflowing with memory, voice like a moth,
“It grows in purple cones in summer – our dread
couldn’t survive the flowers.” November’s white
seeded the broken places, a growing shout
of purple and arms overflowing in white nights.

Here it is again with the imagery in bold and colour-coded, and the line breaks added to help you see the rhyme scheme:

Rosebay Willowherb


Arms overflowing with twirls of seed-head froth
as white
as the hair of the man who stopped me, said,
“In the blitz, that purple grew in the rubble, throughout,”
arms overflowing with memory, voice like a moth,
“It grows in purple cones in summer – our dread
couldn’t survive the flowers.” November’s white
seeded the broken places, a growing shout
of purple and arms overflowing in white nights.

As you can see, you can repeat the words or not to repeat the image: "arms overflowing" is repeated exactly; "purple" interchanges with "purple cones"; and the white seeds are "seed-head froth of white", "white seeded" and "white nights".

Have fun with it!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts this week, on 6 and 7 February 2019 (Wednesday and Thursday courses running in parallel) and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. You can also find lots of other fun forms to play with on my poetry advent calendar.


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Friday, 25 January 2019

Meddle with a sonnet


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I’m sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

14 lines, a shift or twist about 2/3 of the way through, and some kind of a conclusion. That’s it: the rest, contrary to the school rules, is up to you! Various types of sonnets have their own rhyme schemes or metres. You can pick whatever type you want or go freestyle.

At school, most of us get taught The Sonnet as a completely fixed form, to be rigidly obeyed, never to be meddled with... so it comes as quite a shock to discover you can meddle with almost every single aspect of it!

If you ever felt frustrated or cross or like you didn't get sonnets at school, read on, because you were probably right, and I'm here to vindicate you. And then when you're feeling thoroughly vindicated, set you free!

*

The rules we were taught went something like... iambic pentameter (de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM), rhyme scheme abab-cdcd-efef-gg, something about a twist or whatnot, wraps up in the final couplet. And that's the Shakespearean sonnet. And then we were given Shakespearean sonnets to look at, to admire how well he did it and work out What He Was Trying To Say, and sat there scratching our heads, because even if we could get through the thickets of Shakespearean English at that age, he didn't really seem to follow the rules...

And you know what? School-You was right! Let's look at one of the most famous Shakespearean sonnets. (I've broken it into stanzas so it's easier to analyse.)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
So let's assume we've already got past the stuff like tempest=storm, and bark=ship, and "the remover" is death not Vanish, and all that, and start analysing the form.

Rhyme scheme: finds / minds, fair enough. That rhymes. love / remove? Nonsense! Then the teacher starts talking about "visual" rhyme because it looks like they should rhyme and that's... a thing, apparently? That's even good enough for the final couplet, prov'd / lov'd? If School-You was angry and sceptical, you were right. And what about come / doom? They don't rhyme and they don't even look the same! So much for the rhyme scheme, Shakespeare.

Next up: metre. If you're a native English speaker, you use English rhythm perfectly, naturally. And then you're told this sentence
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
is iambic pentameter: de-DUM x 5. In which case, I'd need to put the stress like this:

Let ME not TO the MARRiage OF true MINDS
which is clearly the speech of an alien. Honestly, just try saying it out loud like that. Anyone with the faintest grasp of English will, quite naturally and correctly, put the stress like this:
LET me NOT to the MARRiage of TRUE MINDS
or even this
Let me NOT to the MARRiage of TRUE MINDS
And then you end up thinking that you don't understand metre, because you can't see how that's iambic pentameter (hint: it's not) and rhyme doesn't even mean anything anymore, and then you're told to write a sonnet "following the rules" when apparently even Shakespeare couldn't get it right.

Here's the thing: Shakespeare's sonnets often don't rhyme and aren't iambic pentametre – but they used to, and they once were. The language changed. The way we pronounce words changed, and the way we stress things changed. There's no such thing as visual rhyme. (Well, there is now, but only because people made it up because they misunderstood.) The words that look like they rhyme? They used to rhyme! (Later, other poets came along and thought, 'Oh, those words look like they rhyme but they don't, so that must be okay,' but they were wrong. I'm looking at you, William Blake, with your eye / symmetry.) Mostly this is because of something called The Great Vowel Shift which was a huge change in English pronunication and no-one really knows why it happened. As for the metre – I believe that was iambic pentameter once, and everyone's still frantically embarrassedly pretending it still is, but it's clearly not.

So! Tl; dr: There is such a thing as a Shakespearean sonnet, which does follow those rules, but Shakespeare's sonnets don't anymore because the language has changed. And that's not the be-all and end-all of sonnets! Prepare to be set free...

*

So far I've counted up 28 sonnet forms, and I'm sure there's plenty more I've yet to find. The rhyme schemes vary wildly and they don't even all use rhymes. Iambic pentameter? Pfft! In the sonnet history, that's a modern upstart; the original and older sonnet forms didn't use that, and plenty of the newer forms don't either. We can see it as a phase we went through, in the middle. Ten syllables, at least? Nope: the world's yer oyster. Go wild. Write very short lines, if you want. Or even longer ones.

The only things all the sonnets have in common, the kernel of what-makes-a-sonnet-a-sonnet, are these:
  • 14 lines
  • some kind of 'twist' in the argument (the pivot, also known as volta) about two-thirds of the way through
  • some kind of conclusion (from the neat tie-it-up-with-a-bow rhyming couplet to the slightly vaguer gestured-at suggestions of conclusions in most contemporary sonnets)
That's it. All the rest are variations that people made up. You can copy their variations if you like them, you can make up your own, you can do completely as you please. If you're worried it's not 'authentic', then relax. The first sonnet form was the Sicilian sonnet, which was invented circa 1200 AD. It rhymed abababab cdcdcd, it had no particular metre, and it was supposed to be about courtly chivalrous love. So if 'authentic' is 'going with the original form', then Shakespeare, Petrarch, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Pushkin, Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning were all writing inauthentic sonnets, so you're in bloody good company!

I happen to love writing Shakespearean sonnets (though I'm starting to play more with other ones) and pretty rigorous iambic pentameter, so the example is a Shakespearean sonnet, which really does follow "the rules", but you do you! (And because I live to let other people copy my homework, if you want my summary of sonnet forms, just email me on megan@thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk and I'll happily send it to you.)
TThe empty post-box down the broken drive
was weathered tin. The gravel cut my feet.
You wrote me daily, bringing me alive –
you touched me, then. Each moment, incomplete
without you, stung. I needed you. At night,
I dreamt of hands which crossed the world to touch
in matrices of meaning, gloves of light &ndash
we wrote so many letters. Bore so much.
The future came. My hands, in blind despair,
through emails, Facebook, website stats pursue
your ghost with data gloves, but clutch at air &ndash
and I have no address to write to you.
I'm lost in losses time and I forgot.
The world moves on, but I, my love, cannot.
Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. You can also find lots of other fun forms to play with on my poetry advent calendar.


Friday, 18 January 2019

Meddle with a roundelay


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a roundelay poem: Take repetition to the max - every pair of lines gets repeated! You have 4 stanzas of 6 lines each, rhyming ababab. The last two lines of all the stanzas are the same. Plus, the middle two lines of each stanza get reused as the first two lines of the next stanza.

There are lots of lovely repeating forms, but this one really goes all out - without being too tricky either. You have four verses of six lines each, rhyming ababab. The lines repeat in pairs: the last two lines of all the stanzas are the same (that's the refrain). Plus, the middle two lines of each stanza get reused as the first two lines of the next stanza. I like to draw this kind of thing out for myself in colour:


ORANGE a
ORANGE b
RED a
RED b
REFRAIN a
REFRAIN b

RED a
RED b
PURPLE a
PURPLE b
REFRAIN a
REFRAIN b

PURPLE a
PURPLE b
BLUE a
BLUE b
REFRAIN a
REFRAIN b

BLUE a
BLUE b
GREEN a
GREEN b
REFRAIN a
REFRAIN b


It also uses a set metre of DUM-di DUM-di DUM-di DUM-di. (If you're feeling grand, you call that "trochaic tetrametre" because DUM-di is a trochee and "tetrametre" means there's four of them.)

Here's a thoroughly joyous roundelay I wrote. The previous day's copla real hadn't captured what I wanted to say at all, or the energy and enthusiasm, so I cheerfully cannibalised it and rewrote the same thoughts as a roundelay, which I was much happier with. Back to the joys of spring, this time with vigour! (In the last line of each verse, I shortened the metre ever so slightly, leaving off the final "di".)

Feel the suckling sap that rises
tiny flowers, bluebells ringing
soft as sky in shy disguises.
All the world is juicy, springing
thick with life and wet surprises:
taste the juice in everything.

Soft as sky in shy disguises,
all the world is juicy, springing
green and thrusting. Life advises
us to whisper bees – the stinging
thick with life and wet surprises:
taste the juice in everything.

Green and thrusting life advises
us to whisper bees, the stinging
sweet as greedy weeds, whose prize is
sunlight. Like a dewdrop singing,
thick with life and wet surprises,
taste the juice in everything.

Sweet as greedy weeds whose prize is
sunlight, like a dewdrop singing,
like the hawthorn tantalises,
we are rising sap and clinging
thick with life and wet surprises.
Taste the juice in everything.
Go forth, sing, and roundelay!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 11 January 2019

Meddle with a Pleiades poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I’m sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

A starry seven-liner, named for the Seven Sisters star cluster. Pick a one-word title, and start each of the seven lines with the same letter as the title.

A simple, flexible form with a perfect touch of constraint: a one-word title, seven lines, and every line starts with the same letter as the title.

The Pleiades is the Seven Sisters star cluster, hence the restriction to seven lines, one for each sister. It's a recently invented form Craig Tigerman came up with it in 1999. (And had the wisdom not to name it the Namregit. Richard Wilbur, take note!) Hortensia Anderson then came up with another requirement: as one of the Seven Sisters is so pale that it's almost invisible, each line should be just six syllables. (She's a haiku and tanka poet, so tiny syllable restrictions are right up her street.)

I like playing with both variations. In this example, I've used the six-syllable limit:

Perpetual

Plain-song echoes in old
porous stone. Wilting weeds
plead. Thistles fly where once
prayers flew. Roof gone, sky stark,
peel back centuries: the
Passion, or passions, all
places die, immortal.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. You can also find lots of other fun forms to play with on my poetry advent calendar.


Friday, 4 January 2019

Meddle with a quintilla poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a quintilla poem: A Spanish five-liner with plenty of rhyme. You have five lines, each with 8 syllables. Use 2 rhymes throughout, and don’t end on a rhyming couplet. That gives you lots of possible rhyme schemes: ababa, abbab, abaab, aabab, or aabba. Just don’t end aa or bb!

Another nifty quickie: just five lines, each of 8 syllables, and two rhymes throughout but you can't end on a rhyming couplet. That gives you lots of possible rhyme schemes: ababa, abbab, abaab, aabab, or aabba.

Here's a draft quintilla I wrote about the hodag, using its name as an acrostic. Merriam-Webster's lovely blog introduced me to it, and it's described as "a mythical animal reported chiefly from Wisconsin and Minnesota, noted for its ugliness, lateral horns, and hooked tail, and reputed to be outstanding in both ferocity and melancholy." This one's rhyme scheme is a b a b a.

Howls tear the trees; it lashes
out in horned despair, its tail
dragging, hooked, the sap from gashes’
aromatic pine. A trail
glistens where it slumps in ashes.

And if you put two quintillas together, you get a copla real. (Both stanzas use the same rhyme scheme.)

Off you go quintillering, copla-realing if you fancy it, and beware the ferocious, melancholic hodag and the forbidden final rhyming couplet.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 28 December 2018

Meddle with a katauta poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I’m sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

This is basically a haiku but it’s in love (or written to a lover) and you can have 2 extra syllables if you want them. Line 1: 5 syllables. Line 2: 7 syllables. Line 3: 5 or 7 syllables.

A katauta is very much like a haiku, but it's written to a lover, and you can have two extra syllables if you want them:

Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 or 7 syllables

On its own it’s considered ‘incomplete’: it wants a katauta in reply. Two or more katautas talking back and forth, in lovers' conversation, make a sedoka and if your lover doesn't obligingly respond to your katuatas with katautas of their own, you get to write both halves! You can also let a katuata stand on its own and then that ‘incompleteness’ becomes part of it.


Haikus also have a bunch of other conventions, which katautas don't particularly need to follow: a seasonal reference (a kigo); a 'cutting' or juxtaposition of images (a kiru); a degree of ambiguity, provoking thought rather than explaining; lines being self-contained fragments; and focusing on a single moment. Using some of these can be useful though – the ones that I think suit katauta is keeping each line self-contained to a degree, focusing on a single moment, and sometimes something seasonal or from the natural world.

Here's an incomplete katauta that I wrote for my students, after teaching, for my poem-a-day. (Yes, I sometimes write love poems for my classes. I really love teaching!)

Tiny lights sparkle
in a waft of sandalwood
under my skin, when I teach

Feel free to reply, to turn it into a sedoka! Or try out a katauta of your own, for someone – or something – you love.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. You can also find lots of other fun forms to play with on my poetry advent calendar.


Friday, 21 December 2018

Meddle with a nonet poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

An elegant quickie that tails away to a vanishing point. The first line has 9 syllables, the next 8, then 7, and so on down to 1.

If the rubliw is a brontosaurus (starts small, gets much much bigger in the middle, and then gets small again), then the nonet is a ticeratops (starts big, gets smaller and smaller, then stops). The first line has 9 syllables, then 8, then 7, then 6, and so on, all the way down to 1. It's an enormously satisfying little form and the dwindling away lends itself to all kinds of subject matter.

Having a selection of these tiny forms is also a huge help when you're mad-busy with Christmas prep / wiped out with flu, but still want to poem! Here's one I wrote in November, with hectic flu but still wanting to keep up my poem-a-day practice:

Water-wall slams, translucent turquoise
splinters silver, barrels, roaring
white and golden grains churn, flung
forward, rush – their arches
stretch flat, simmer with
bubbles, strain to
touch – pause – stroke
the wet
sand.

Have fun with it!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. You can also find lots of other fun forms to play with on my poetry advent calendar.


Friday, 14 December 2018

Meddle with a Rubliw poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Like a Brontosaurus, this poem is thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again. The first line has 2 syllables, the next 4, then 6, then 8, then 10 – then it goes back down to 8, then 6, then 4, then 2.

The rubliw is another handy little short form, like the elevenie, but with no constraints other than the number of syllables on each line. Limiting your syllables, rather than the number of words or rhyme or metre, does interesting things to your writing - try it out and see for yourself. It was invented by Richard Wilbur, based on the cinquain – that's the one that goes 2–4–6–8–2.

Here's a draft rubliw I wrote to try it out, based on a delightful snippet of folklore:

Bramble
flowers; berries
harden to red nubs, swell
and glitter black between the thorns:
soft and plump to the lightest tug until
Old Michaelmas Day: the devil’s
piss wizens and sours
fruit to gnarls on
bramble.

By the way – if you're wondering how to pronounce "rubliw", I thought it was Welsh and have been going with "rooblee-yoo". I've just realised it's his name, Wilbur, backwards. Numpty.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 7 December 2018

Meddle with a coupling poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Like someone else’s words? Use their lines and write your own new lines in between each of theirs. You can do this with articles you’ve screengrabbed, fiction snippets, other poems, whatever you fancy.

Like someone else’s words? Use their lines and write your own new lines in between each of theirs.
You can do this with articles you’ve screengrabbed, fiction snippets, other poems, whatever you fancy. Part of the pleasure is twisting or enriching the meaning of the original lines, playing with or against them and toying with the grammar, especially when sentences run across lines. This is a very new form, invented by Karen McCarthy Woolf.

A quick note on copyright: the person who wrote the original words owns their copyright. If you want to share your poem (online or by publishing it), you'll need to get their permission or pick words that are already out of copyright (in most countries, that means where the author has been dead for more than 70 years). Alternately, you can do a double-coupling poem: write your lines in between theirs, then remove their lines and write your own new lines between yours.

For variation, you can also try a hidden coupling poem, where you pick a poem which you haven't read and cover it with paper. Reveal the first line, copy it out, then write a line yourself, then reveal and copy out their second line, and so on. It's a thrilling way to work, not knowing what's coming next, but a word to the wise: get someone else to pick the poem for you and check its length and suitability. I chose a poem from the index of a book based on its title and that it was out of copyright – it started out well enough, and then I found myself trapped in swathes and swathes of lyrical pastoral description! By the tenth line rhaposidising about mountain scenery, while I tried to add stuff in between, I was losing the will to live.

In this example, I'd screengrabbed three quotes from an article on fugue states which had struck me deeply. The words not in italics are from "How a Young Woman Lost Her Identity" by Rachel Aviv (2 April 2018, New Yorker), reproduced with her permission.

Fugue


dissociative fugues are organised and
I can still drive, as if this metallic blue momentum were
purposeful, operating according to some
enduring physics, though even my hands have lost
internal logic. The person’s thinking is
smeared around a conversation under a tree,
dominated by a “single idea, that
escapes her fingers, trying to reach him, which
symbolizes or condenses (or both)
the event horizon around this singularity, which swallows
several important ideas and emotions,”
nimbused by bereft light particles, partnerless now. Read what
Lowenstein writes.

Furious sun fought air conditioning. I think by then I had driven
for several hours. “I had lost the ability
to park, to decide turnings, but I stopped,
to understand categories,” she said. “I
sat in a deli. I didn’t know what food I liked. I
no longer had a chronological measure
of selves – if that self had gone, the singularity had eaten all
of time. I no longer experienced myself
but thought, once, I had eaten sundried tomatoes
in a specific place. I didn’t have an
idea beyond that, but ordered some.” No-one

understood why someone might forget
her own mouth, or how to move in time, might lose
her identity during the storm. “There
I sat, immobile, with the sundried tomatoes. I knew I
was a lot of trauma,” she said softly. “It
spilled from me, in Hawking radiation. I
cracked things wide open.” A man
had vanished; this anti-particle self appeared.

If you want to give it a go, check your own screengrabs folder for inspiration (remember you'll need the other person's permission if the poem goes public) or try an out-of-copyright poem or book - here's a helpful starter list of poems in the public domain.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 30 November 2018

Meddle with a fold poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Lovely repetition and light rhyme make a flexible, flowing form: 11 lines, with all the odd lines rhyming, and the end of line 1 repeated at the end of lines 5 and 11.

A fold poem uses a bit of repetition and very light rhyme (only every second line rhymes) which makes it a wonderfully flowing form to write.

It has 11 lines, and the end of line 1 repeats as the end of lines 5 and 11. (That can be one word, a phrase, or most of the line, as you wish.) All the odd lines rhyme (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) - but because 1, 5, and 11 are the same words anyway, you actually only need four rhymes total. Here's what the form looks like:

1   ~~~~~~ refrain      a
2   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
3   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
4   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
5  ~~~~~~ refrain       a
6   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
7   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
8   ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
9   ~~~~~~~~~~~    a
10 ~~~~~~~~~~~    *
11 ~~~~~~ refrain      a

refrain is the repeated bit; a is the lines that rhyme; * means no rhyme. As with any poem that uses repeated lines, you can play with twisting the meaning, or just use it as obsessive repetition

The fold peom was invented by Gillena Cox, who also specifies that there must be a reference to nature (as with haiku) and how it affects you as the poet, moments that are "special, simple and exactly". I take that specification with a pinch of salt: I write more than enough about nature as it is and I think the form is more flexible than that.

Here's the first fold poem I wrote, about choosing a perfume. The repeated bits are underlined and the rhymes are in bold - and yes, there is an invariable reference to nature, but that's more because it's me writing than because I was obeying that requirement! Anyway, is perfume distilled and bottled still nature?

Inhale: English oak and hazlenut,
cedarwood and juniper, cedrat,
amber, oud, and bergamot – the glut
drags you, gasping, country after country,
but… English oak and hazlenut
is home. Your skin says yes and welcomes in
its pheremonal counterpart to rut
in glee upon your wrist: it knows you well,
your smell of onion, sandalwood, and slut,
your lazy warm delight, your greenish gown,
a spell of English oak and hazlenut.


Have fun folding your own poems, with absolute freedom to ignore any rules you wish!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 23 November 2018

Meddle with a wreathed poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Instead of rhyming the words at the end of the line, each end-word has a rhyme somewhere in the next line. That’s it! You can combine this with any other form of poetry as well – wreathed sonnets, wreathed golden shovels, etc.

Instead of rhyming the words at the end of the line, each end-word has a rhyme somewhere in the next line. That’s it! You can combine this with any other form of poetry as well – wreathed sonnets, wreathed golden shovels, wreathed anything really. If this is your first wreathed poem, then try it out on its own first, before combining it, or if you're combining it with another form, pick one you already know well.

In this example, the end-words rhyme as well (a b a b a b a b a b), but they don't have to. I've marked the end-words and their matching rhyme in the next line in bold colours.

The balsam bobs. The narrowboat’s paint flakes.
Blackberries glisten, where bramble snakes its way
through the hawthorn, and pray for lips. A breeze rakes
the trees’ reflections; breaking through leaves, a ray

wobbles on ripples. A spider’s ballet makes
geometry of sun and waits for prey.
The hops and hay ripen while the lakes
give up their geese. It takes its time, decay:

while leaves fray, twigs brittle, and wasps hold wakes
by drizzlelight, mud cakes the memories of May.

I've used some half-rhyme in this (makes / waits, rakes / break) and also, because the rhyming word is in the middle of a line, you don't have to rhyme the whole word, just the heavy-syllable bit (rakes / breaking).

Try it out with some free verse, enjoy the freedom it brings to rhyming, and have fun!


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 16 November 2018

Meddle with a cinquain poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Cinquain is Fancy French poetry-speak for a fivey, each line longer then the last one short. Line 1: 2 syllables. Line 2: 4 syllables. Line 3: 6 syllables. Line 4: 8 syllables. Line 5: 2 syllables.

This is a concise, and wonderfully versatile little form, which also has some delicious variations. ("Cinquain" is basically Frenchified poetry-speak for a "fivey".) It's super simple: no rhyme or metre requirements, and just 5 lines, which steadily increase in length, then abruptly jump back down:

Line 1: 2 syllables
Line 2: 4 syllables
Line 3: 6 syllables
Line 4: 8 syllables
Line 5: 2 syllables

For example...

I walk
the Erl-King's wood
of beechmast, berries, ripe
decay, and golden pools of sun
that lie.

You can use iambic metre (de-DUM) if you like, as I did, but you don't have to.

Then you can also spin it through all sorts of fun variations, if you don't feel like stopping at just one. You can write a cinquain "chain", where the last line of one cinquain is the first line of the next. You can also write a "cinquain swirl", which is a bunch of them linked together, sharing the two-syllable line as the last/first, and the two-syllable line is the same each time.

Here's a draft cinquain chain I wrote, from the prompt "falls to the soul" (a snippet from Pablo Neruda's poem, "Tonight I can write the saddest lines"). In each stanza, the last line becomes the first line of the next stanza. Right at the end, it ties in a circle by using the first line of the poem as the last line.

Frost-dark
falls. To the soul
tiny stabs of light are
constellations, a sparse dot-to-dot
promise.

Promise
five dots can make
the big dipper, nineteen
are somehow Orion, and that’s
the sword.

The sword
of Damocles,
hanging by a horse hair
above the throne, mocks what you wished
on stars.

On stars,
we pin such shapes,
wildly drawing contours
of beasts and gods, between dots, on
frost-dark.

And here's a draft cinquain swirl I wrote a couple of months ago, to try it out. It's very similar, but the two-syllable line is shared between each cinquain.


Silent
cowled figures haunt
the pool and wrap the wind
in their cloaks. Empty deckchairs lie
silent.
Deserted tiers
rise under curved clay tiles
where windows stare blankly over
silent
terraces. Chairs
line the long glass table
past which leaves scud, awaiting the
silent
feast of unseen
guests. The cowled figures wait.
Clouds swell. Only the wind is not
silent.


Start with a cinquain or five, try it out, see how it feels, and then chain or swirl to your heart's content!


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 9 November 2018

Meddle with an ekphrasis poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with an ekphrasis poem: Choose a picture or a work of art that you like and describe it, in a poem – any style, any length. For added fun, you could play with matching your writing style to the artwork’s style.

Ekphrasis simply means describing an artwork in a poem – usually visual art, a painting, a sculpture, etc, but you could equally describe a piece of music or a dance, if you wanted. It's a lovely form when you want to write, but aren't sure what to write about. You can write in free verse (no set rhyme or metre) or use it to write in another form, like a sonnet, a sestina, or whatever you fancy. Depending on the artwork you're using, you might write a narrative which the picture suggests, about the person in a picture, or a description of the scene. Matching your writing style to the artistic style can be a fun extra challenge, to stretch your writing in new directions - to copy a loose flowing style, or a stark bold one, or whatever the picture suggests.

Don't feel like you have to stick to Fine Art or established art - photographs, 3D art, digital art, graffiti, use anything you fancy. Bookmark pictures you like on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, so you have a collection to dip into. I follow Helen Warlow on Twitter, who posts several pictures a day from a cross-section of artists and styles, and a bunch of artists I like on both Twitter and Facebook. Fantasy art and 3D / digital art can also give you a doorway into wonderful worlds and story-poems.

The most famous ekphrastic poem is probably "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats ("Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness..." etc) – which, incidentally, he published anonymously and the critics hated. The example below was written about Henri Rousseau's painting, "The Dream", taking its very bold stylised lines and colours as an exercise in writing only in heavy syllables. The painting's below the poem.

Greens: lime, fern, moss, jade;
leaves limned, strong lines rise,
spike, spread, splay: soft blade,
rich light, thick white skies.
Blue blooms burst; bold birds
perch, peach; deep-shade eyes
peer past full fruit; words
drown; gold flesh curves, thighs
heaped, breasts ripe; apes play
brass notes, sharp fierce cries;
stems stand; horns curl; day
stops, struck here: warm, wise.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of other contemporary poems.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 2 November 2018

Meddle with a triolet poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a triolet poem. Like your first two lines? Just keep using them!
FIRST LINE
SECOND LINE
new line, rhymes with first line
FIRST LINE
new line, rhymes with first line
new line, rhymes with second line
FIRST LINE
SECOND LINE

The triolet is a fabulously compact repeating form, where the first two lines make up most of the poem. If you've got two good opening lines, why not make the most of them?! Part of the fun, too, is seeing how much you can shift their meaning around each time they're repeated, by using words with two meanings, or with the different lines that lead in, or by punctuating them in different places. That said, the lines can also be repeated for the sheer force of repetition, the insistence of it.


FIRST LINE a
SECOND LINE b
new line, rhymes with first line a
FIRST LINE a
new line, rhymes with first line a
new line, rhymes with second line b
FIRST LINE a
SECOND LINE b

The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-a-a-b-a-b, but because of the repetition you actually only need 3 a-rhymes and 2 b-rhymes. For the metre, people often use iambic pentameter, but you don't have to. Here's an example:

At the prod of a finger, a sea anemone closes.
It can’t unfurl its tentacles till danger has passed.
It tickles so lithely at tides, one hardly supposes
at the prod of a finger, a sea anemone closes.
The rockpool is tight and clenched, where just before. roses
were laughing and loose in the water – then sealed, aghast
at the prod of a finger. A sea anemone closes:
it can’t unfurl its tentacles till danger has passed.

It's also known as a French medieval rondeau, and is part of a group of repeating forms that all have almost the same name and slightly different lengths and patterns: the rondeau, rondine, roundelay, roundel, rondeau redoublé...! So if you find repeating lines fun, there's a ton more out there to play with.

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Saturday, 27 October 2018

Meddle with a golden shovel poem


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with a golden shovel poem. Have a favourite quote or lyric? Write it down the right side of the page and use those words as the last word in each line of your poem. See where it goes – it might surprise you.

A golden shovel is a lovely form of free verse - no rhyme scheme or set metre (rhythm) and a great form when you're not sure what you want to write about or what exactly you want to say about something: the quote gives you something to riff off and explore, and the end words shape your thoughts. As you write each line towards its end word, you follow the flow and discover what you want to say. It was invented by Terrance Hay.

Here's one of my golden shovels. Read the words down the right-hand side for the original quote. (The title and the quote are from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - you don't need to know the story to enjoy the poem, but it's so delightful that I've put it at the bottom of the post, under the poetry course pic. He died in 1944, so it's out of copyright now.)

Drawing #1

Orchids grow so high in the jungle, if you didn’t know then
you’d say they didn’t exist, waxy-lined – not you, though; you and I
understand how the furtive petals splay, out of sight; we would
never betray the dark pink secrets of its lapping labellum, never
expose the dappled shadows of its soft throat to careless talk.
Those who can’t dream their eyes up through the humid canopy to
where they peachly, whitely, redly lick the air think that
all truths are down to earth, punchable facts and grids. A person
like that needs the word “epiphytic” to believe anything about
roots that live off air, dangling and loosely draped like a boa
around an outstretched branch. Such people cling to facts like constrictors
till they still the delicate pulse. Perhaps they just don’t know or
perhaps they’re angry that orchids elude them in the hot wet air. Primeval
things are always the hardest to prove, deep in forests
where perhaps we used to fly. We can’t explain or
convince such people. We can only climb lianas, through the orchids, towards stars.


Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


The Little Prince

Chapter One

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing.
boa constrictor swallowing an animal

   In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion."
   I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. It looked something like this:
Drawing Number One 
 
   I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: "Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?"
   My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained. My Drawing Number Two looked like this:
Drawing Number Two 
 
   The grown-ups' response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened by the failure of my Drawing Number One and my Drawing Number Two. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
   So then I chose another profession, and learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown a little over all parts of the world; and it is true that geography has been very useful to me. At a glance I can distinguish China from Arizona. If one gets lost in the night, such knowledge is valuable.
   In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them.
   Whenever I met one of them who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my Drawing Number One, which I have always kept. I would try to find out, so, if this was a person of true understanding. But, whoever it was, he, or she, would always say:
   "That is a hat."
   Then I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars. I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Poetry form: Elevenie


For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, starting in Feb 2019, I'll be sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

Meddle with an elevenie poem. A nifty little quickie, just 11 words total: 1 word: a noun 2 words: what it does 3 words: where it is 4 words: further explanation 1 word: a feeling about all this

The elevenie's an absolute beauty and a very handy form to have up your sleeve when you want a quickie. The form is blissfully simple and creatively constrained, so you can launch in with just your noun (that's a thing word) and discover the rest as you go, through following its strict rules. You can also write double and triple elevenies if you want, or as many as you please. Here are some of my draft elevenies:

Single elevenie

Spiderwebs
catch petals
strung in midair
elf-veils suspended, decaying
uncertainty.


Elevenie series: Colour elevenies

Clouds
bulge lavender
over slate roofs
ragged with distant rain
privately.

Beech
brittles copper
against red brick
glowing in late sun
inviting.

Featherboards
slide creamily
around the courtyard
wrapping the edges in
calm.

Willow
curls greenly
in humid stillness
every twig twisting with
delight.

Variation: for a fun / silly group game, try playing these "Consequence" style: each person writes a line, folds their paper, and passes it on. The resulting poems can end up hilarious, nonsensical, or uncannily brilliant. This was one I wrote with my nieces, Isabel (11, black pen) and Harriet (8, orange pen). Remember that we couldn't see what each other were writing!

Parrots
hover, untidily
up down everywhere
They dream of jungles
terrified



Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts will only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2019 and explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Friday, 20 January 2017

Creating a balanced reading list: speculative fiction by women and people of colour

One of the joys of creating a new course is putting together the reading list, finding a wonderful cross-section of authors, heaping up a pile of your favourite books, anticipating the pleasure of students recognising favourites or discovering fabulous books they might not yet know. Recommending books to people is always a delight. And then there's the more logical, intellectual pleasure of balancing out the list: in this case, for the Imaginary Worlds course, I'm looking for top-notch examples of each week's theme, but also thinking of a matrix of other factors. Have I included all the genres, do I have steampunk, urban paranoramal, alternative history, Young Adult fiction, dystopia, literary fiction, epic fantasy, space opera, hard sci-fi? Are any of the genres over-represented? Are these all the best examples I can think of? Is it a satisfying range of styles?

I sit back, study the completed list, and sigh with pleasure. This is a beautiful list of books. And then I do the gender count.

The gender count pisses me off. Guess what, my list is skewed towards men again. Well, so the hell what? This is a great list of books! And it's carefully balanced and I don't want to change it! Why should I try to change a fabulous list of recommended reading just to include more women?

Every time I do the gender count and strike out for gender balance, I get frustrated - not frustrated that even as a feminist, I've always chosen more books by men, but frustrated at doing it at all. I feel resentful and irritated. I grit my teeth and do it anyway, because it always ends up being worthwhile. I have always missed out brilliant, canonical work by women that absolutely should be on the list. When I wrote a blog post about unsympathetic characters, something female authors are far more criticised for than men, I easily thought of Kazuo Ishiguro's Mr Stevens and Ian McEwan's revolting Michael Beard in Solar. Only after I did the gender count did I think of Jane Austen's Emma and AS Byatt's Frederica. Emma is the definitive example of a character "whom no-one but myself will much like" and Byatt is my all-time favourite author, but both had slipped my mind. When I created the reading list for the Magical Realism workshop, I'd included Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (which has a tangential claim to magical realism at best) and forgotten both Laura Esquivel and Isabel Allende, both Latin American authors at the absolute heart of the genre. For the Imaginary Worlds course, probably the most glaring error was including Stephen King's Green Mile as an example of theme (good theme, but it's barely speculative fiction) and forgetting The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I'm not even a huge fan of Stephen King - I don't read much horror and that's the only of his books that I've thoroughly enjoyed - whereas I've studied Margaret Atwood, and read, loved, and own everything she's written.

Why does this happen? Because male authors are just more visible. Male names count for more. To everyone. It's systemic sexism. Systemic means it's in the system: it's not nasty men oppressing noble women. That's worth repeating: it is not men against women. Both men and women are sexist, and that sexism isn't coming from some inner evil, it's coming from the system, ie, our culture. To really grasp this, it's worth looking at just how widespread it is throughout our culture.

One of the most famous anecdotes is about an orchestra trying against the odds to get a gender balance of musicians. In Geena Davis's telling, 'In the 80s, after a long effort to equal the gender composition of orchestras in the US, where they’d slowly increased the number of female musicians from 5% to 10%, they came upon the idea of “blind” auditions. If the panel, behind a curtain, couldn’t see who was playing, then they wouldn’t be able to discriminate. It worked! Sort of. The numbers of female musicians rose, but not significantly.' At that point, no doubt some people suggested that maybe some women were as good as men, but women clearly didn't have an equal talent, because even without gender, they still weren't equally represented. But the orchestra kept at it: 'Was some element revealing their gender and skewing the results? I’d love to have been in that room when they finally rasped: “Carpet the stage!” After the next round of auditions, Davis grinned, the orchestras were 50% women, because the panel had been able to hear their heels.'

It's hard to work out whether something really is sexism, rather than other confounding factors: maybe men are just better than women at some stuff, maybe women have different preferences, maybe the competing demands of childcare mean women can't pursue an area to the same level of excellence, and so on. The only way to be certain is to find a way to strip out gender completely, as the orchestra did, or test responses where the only change is gender.

One double-blind peer-reviewed study on academic hiring took the second option. They created application packs where the male and female 'candidates' were identical, except for gender, and got a range of participants to evaluate them. 'Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.' The 'men' were rated more highly, purely for having male names. Importantly, the gender of the person making the decision didn't change anything: both women and men discriminated against women and in favour of men. Again, sexism is not something men do to women: it's an unconscious bias that both men and women have.

The value of studies like these is that it completely removes any confounding factors, including any arguments about whether the women are really as good as the men, arguments which can (and are) thrown at any real-world study. If you read a real-world study that women are cited less in academic papers, you might argue that maybe their work isn’t as good or there's less of it. But in another blind study, 'students gave higher ratings to identical abstracts submitted with male author names, associating them with greater “scientific quality.”' Again, quality was rated more highly, just because of a male name. (If you want more on gender and racial bias in academia, there are a heap more studies collated here.)

It's not just orchestras and academia. The same thing repeats across sector after sector: having a male name is an advantage; having a female name is a disadvantage. In tech, hires of women increased from 5% to 54% when gender indicators were taken off all applications. That's from 1 in 20 hires being women to more than half.  In medicine, in another of those nifty double-blind just-change-the-gender studies, doctors looked at reports from 'patients' of their symptoms: 'Females were rated less seriously ill, less likely to require laboratory tests, and more likely to receive medication than males. Among depressed patients, counseling and reassurance were more likely for females, and a nonpsychiatric consult was more likely for males.' Remember: again, these were from identical reports. All that changed was the gender.

The disadvantage of being perceived as female runs across our culture. Even in maths tests – surely the most objective of exercises? – boys are marked more favourably than girls if the teacher knows their gender. Somehow maths can be more right if it has a boy's name attached. External examiners, who didn't know the children's genders, marked them equally.

Despite what all the stats and all the double-blind studies say, though, our perception can be very different. Crowd scenes in films famously have around 17% women, on average, and it doesn't strike anyone as odd, on screen. Even more startlingly, as Davis told NPR, from the studies of Gender in Media, 'If there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50, and if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.' The same skewed perception crops up in conversation: we think women are dominating a discussion when actually the men are. And when I say "we", I mean both men and women. (There’s a whole lot more on how we perceive men and women talking compared to what actual linguistic studies show here. Tl;dr: every cliche is wrong.) Even on Twitter, men are retweeted twice as much as women.

That's what systemic means: it's throughout the culture, replicating itself, as a bias that everyone has in favour of male names and against female names. And in today's No-Shit-Sherlock Awards, the world of books is not magically immune to this. Just as you'd expect, having a male or female name affects who gets reviewed, who gets recommended, who gets prizes, and who gets onto reading lists.

One of the longest-term studies into reviews was a 28-year study from Australia by Dr Julieanne Lamond of the Australian National University and Dr Melinda Harvey of Monash University, looking at 1985 to 2013 found that 'two-thirds of the books being reviewed are by men – a ratio that has remained largely the same for 30 years.' It hasn't changed since the 80s. And in case you're thinking maybe that's just Australia, the VIDA Counts yearly tot-up doesn't show anything like parity here in the UK: 'One of the worst culprits was found to be the London Review of Books which featured 527 male authors and critics on their pages in 2014, compared with just 151 women.' That's 7 men for every 2 women. 'It also saw a rare drop in reviews of books written by women from the year before, with 14 fewer than in 2013.'  And in the US, 'The New York Review of Books displayed a similar imbalance, featuring an overall 677 men to 242 women.' That's 3 men for every woman. 'The New York Times book review featured an overall 909 male contributors and authors, compared with 792 women; the Nation’s male-female split was 469 to 193; and at Harper’s fewer than half the authors reviewed were women.' That's a lot of visibility going to men and not to women.

Prizes show an even more striking discrepancy. In the sweet summer days of naivety, before I knew anything about how anything in publishing worked, I used to think that prizes simply went to the best books. I don't know how I thought that. Gradually, though, I learnt how prizes actually work and how much opportunity the process holds for that invisible bias. In the big prestigious prizes, it's usually the publishers choosing who to put forward for that prize - and of course they're not immune to the male-name effect, but they might also reasonably consider which of their authors have had the best reviews. (Let that sink in.) That's before the judges even see the books. In fandom prizes, it's a lot of nominations from a bunch of fans, and then people voting from a slate, which seems like a very level-playing-field crowd-sourced way to go about it, until you remember that the men have way more visibility, and male names, and we all take stuff by men more seriously and rate it more highly. (Which all the studies at the start of the article were saying.) To imagine that a prize process could happen without being touched by this widespread cultural bias is... nonsensical. Of course it's affected. And the stats bear that out.

Nicola Griffith 'conducted an audit of the past fifteen years of books that won the Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal. She found that the overwhelming majority of prize-winning books were by men. No surprise there, perhaps, but the rabbit hole went deeper: when Griffith looked at the gender of the protagonist, she found that the overwhelming majority were male. In fact, over the fifteen years of prize-giving, the Pulitzer was awarded to a book with a female protagonist a grand total of zero times. Even the best man for the job of protagonist is a man.' (You can read the full breakdown of the audit here.)

In all the double-blind studies above, when gender was removed, we got gender parity; when gender was included, and nothing else changed, we got a strong bias in favour of male names. And that strong bias in favour of male names bears out exactly what we see in the large-scale real-world data. So on average, men and women's work is of equal quality, but work with a female name is rated weaker.

In 2015, Catherine Nichols conducted her own “blind” study in book submissions. Frustrated by a stream of rejections, she tried sending out her manuscript under a male name, let's say 'George', using the same novel and the same submission letter. Only the name changed. She discovered, 'He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.' Of 'his' 50 queries, he had 17 requests for the manuscript; under the author’s actual name, her figures never went above 1 in 25.

All this visibility, for male authors, adds up. The bias is definite and real and we can show it again and again with large-data reviews and blind-data studies, but we never want to think it applies to us. 'I just chose the best books!' I huff. Funny how I never end up with more women’s books when I 'just choose the best books'. Nobody wants to think they’re sexist. Everybody is sexist. Because it’s not a nasty thing that nasty people do, it’s a systemic unconscious bias. I'm sexist. Of course I am, I'm not immune to my culture. My only weapon, when I'm compiling lists of recommended reading, is the gender count. And still, even being committed to it, I’m intensely irritated by the process. Every time, I find myself thinking, 'Why should I include authors just because they’re women?'

But actually, I'm choosing men just because they're men – just because being men, having male names, makes them more visible. More reviewed, more recommended, given more prizes, taken more seriously, rated more highly. The stats show incontrovertibly that women are unfairly rejected, for their gender, in sector after sector. But what we often fail to consider is the flip-side: that men are being unfairly favoured, for their gender.

Every time I do the gender count, I find better examples when I force myself to think of books by women. The flipside? I'm instinctively choosing weaker examples because they're written by men. Recently, when my partner was choosing between two new books by authors he knew nothing about, one male and one female, I said, 'Pick the one by a woman. It'll be better.' Statistically, a book by a woman will be better than a book by a man. The bar is set higher. That seems such an inflammatory statement, and goes so against our unconscious bias, that it’s worth breaking it down statistically.

Firstly, we know the quality of work is evenly spread: when gender is taken out of the equation, men and women’s work is chosen equally. So the available quality looks like this:

So if you were taking 50% of each, judging purely on merit, this is what your selection would look like:


You've got all the A and B quality work from both, and a sprinkling of Cs from both. But that's assuming absolutely zero interference from our cultural bias. That's assuming 'George' isn't eight and a half times better at writing the same book as its actual female author, that men and women are getting equal reviews, prizes, and visibility, that they're getting equal levels of recommendations and retweets, and that there's no male-name effect suggesting that work with male names is better and more serious. But of course none of that's true. Our culture runs interference at every point, through our own unconscious bias.

So let's say our culture swings it just 20% in favour of men. Women’s share goes down to 30%, men’s goes up to70%. And this is our selection of books:


All the A-quality work still gets through. But overall, there is less B quality work and more C-quality work. And suddenly,  D-quality work starts appearing.

Now choose, at random, one from the red group and one from the blue group. Statistically, the one from the red group will be better. In other words, you have more chance of choosing a good ‘un from the red group than you do from the blue group. Statistically, once a book with a woman's name has made it through the various hurdles of the male-name effect, only the top stuff gets through.

But of course, that’s not how we choose, because we’re also choosing on visibility and with the same cultural bias that creates this situation in the first place:

 Choose one of the first ones you can see. It’s blue. The work by women is still there. It's just... not as visible, somehow. The Gaimans, Kings, and McEwans come easily to mind while you have to scratch your head and squint to spot the Atwoods, Byatts, Equivels, and Allendes. Again, and I cannot repeat this enough, this is not men against women. Both sexes show systemic gender bias. Men benefit more from it, but we all do it.

I did my gender count. I gritted my teeth, grumped and harrumphed, scratched my head, and resented it, and did it, and I ended up with a much better selection of work, as always. I felt the same delight I feel every time, at the much better reading list I've compiled, and the same embarrassment at the work and authors I'd forgotten, and I leant back, sighed happily, and scanned my gender-equal list.

Then something in my head twisted. I don’t know what removed my usual spectacles. I think I was questioning whether I had a really good example of urban paranormal, and thought of Ben Aaronovitch - then I thought, 'Hold on, wasn't his protagonist black? Is Ben Aaronvitch black?' Googled him - nope. Then I suddenly looked at my list through different eyes, and scanned down the author names. Everyone on the list was white. Not one person of colour.  At least I'd had a few women, to start with, in the original list. And if the bar is set higher for women, how much higher is it set for people of colour? In other words: how much incredible stuff am I missing out on? How much A-list work am I not including?

I have years of curated studies and stats on the systemic bias against female names. When it comes to race, though, I have the clear gulf of my own blindness. The 2015 VIDA count was the first to count race as well as gender, and just as my whitewashed reading list indicated, it only gets worse. For instance, in 2015, the New York Review of Books featured 4 men for every 1 woman. But women of colour were only 10% of the women. I hone in on data about bias against female names, because that affects me directly, but had stayed oblivious to bias against non-white names, even when the same articles were flagging that up, as in the VIDA count.

The same picture of name-bias emerges as something deep, systemic, and running across fields. A just-change-the-colour study into job applications in the US found people with black-sounding names had to send out 50% more CVs to get a call back - ie white names were 50% more likely to get a positive response. A similar study in the UK found that people with white names were 75% more likely to get a positive response. The same pattern shows in academia. Researchers sent out almost 7000 emails from 'potential students' enquiring about a course, changing only the students names between male / female and white / other groups, and found it's not just a male name that helps: it's a white male name. And again, in the No-Shit-Sherlock awards, the same sytemic bias pops up in publishing. The Bookseller found more people called David reach the bestseller list than people of colour: in the top 100, you have 11 Davids to 1 person of colour. Nine months after it launched, the new Jhalek Prize for books by BAME (Black and Ethnic Minority) authors had received a paltry 51 submissions from publishers.

Nonetheless, my first reaction to my all-white reading list was just the same as the gender count: 'Well, so the hell what? This is a great list of books! And it's carefully balanced and I don't want to change it!' The amount of resistance I feel trying to rebalance my own bias is extraordinary. In this case, I had to combat not only my own resistance but my own blind ignorance. My bookshelves weren't a total whitewash, but they were when it came to speculative fiction. (I'm discounting magical realism, because that uses world-building completely differently so it isn't included on the Imaginary Worlds course.) The temptation to brush it aside was so strong, but I didn't, for the most selfish of reasons. If work by women that makes it through is statistically better, and the bar is set even higher for people of colour, how much incredible stuff am I missing out on?

Cue lots more research. I started Googling and finding long list after long list after authors I’d never heard of. I drew up complicated spreadsheets to see which names were recurring on multiple lists and trying to work out just how much I could read. When I was totally tangled in my very long lists, I asked for help on Twitter - I really was trying to do my own research, I said, but I could do with some hand-recommendations as well. (It's always tricky, asking the people who're on the receiving end of your unconscious bias to help you with your homework.) Lea Fletcher, Joanne Hall, Aliette de Bodard, Cheryl Morgan, and 'Old Sareemaa Witch' all came to the rescue, listing further suggestions, advising which of the names on my long list were canonical authors, and flagging up names that were missing that really should be there.

Having thought I'd completed my reading list, I now had a list of 37 other authors to consider and a ton of reading to do. That, at least, was the very very good news! I started downloading Kindle samples, buying books at Blackwells, devouring a book a day, and hungrily happily immersing myself in new worlds. I'm always looking for new speculative-fiction authors and suddenly discovering a whole range of new authors was Christmas! I also had a new logical puzzle with a fresh complicated spreadsheet, to include at least 50% authors of colour, once more make sure the list was gender balanced, that fantasy and sci-fi were equally represented, that all the subgenres were represented, that each week's theme had top-quality examples of that particular aspect - and that the books I wanted to include were actually available for my students, in physical bookshops in Oxford.

The final reading list is, frankly, dazzling. It's a full 16 books (on average, we'll look at two extracts in each week of the eight-week course), so I don't expect my students to read all the books before the course, but I am thrilled at the calibre and range of books I'll be introducing them to. It's not meant to be “the 16 best 16 SFF books” – there are far too many fabulous authors not on the list – but it is a fantastic cross-section:

     Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller's Wife     Cixin Liu, Three Body Problem     George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire     Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go - NB: Read this one in advance, to prevent SPOILERS     Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings     Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale     Malinda Lo, Ash     Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber     Nisi Shawl, Everfair *     NK Jemsin, Fifth Season     Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix     Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind     Peter F Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist     Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy     Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games     Terry Pratchett, Jingo


Working against one’s own systemic bias is frustrating and irritating at first – until you start discovering the amazing stuff you’ve been blind to, because it’s just not as visible. Like creating an imaginary world, you have to throw out some of the assumptions you didn’t even realise you were making, to discover a new world full of exciting new possibilities.


The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.


Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.


Particular thanks, again, to  Lea Fletcher, Joanne Hall, Aliette de Bodard, Cheryl Morgan, and 'Old Sareemaa Witch' for helping me discover so many fabulous new authors. The eight works of speculative fiction by people of colour that are on the final reading list are Ash by Malinda Lo, Everfair by Nisi Shawl (pending final confirmation of its availability; since it won a prize recently, the publishers seem to be struggling to keep up with demand), Fifth Season by NK Jemsin, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the one author I already knew!)

Some fabulous authors that I wanted to include, or would include on a longer reading list, I had to leave out - most notably, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Angela Carter, Scott Lynch, Neil Gaiman, Aliette de Bodard, Ben Aaronovitch, and Juliet McKenna, for starters. These were for various reasons: whether they were available in hard-copy in Oxford, whether they wrote novels rather than short stories, whether a particular sub-genre was already well-represented, avoiding overlap with my reading lists for other courses and workshops, not covering magical realism in this course, and simply limited space on the course.

The other speculative-fiction authors of colour I found through recommendations and assorted blogs are below. So if you're also looking for new worlds and incredible stuff you've been missing out on, fill yer boots!
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Charles Yu
  • Cindy Pon
  • Daniel Heath Justice
  • David Anthony Durham
  • Derrick Bell
  • Gerald Vizenor
  • Jewell Parker Rhoades
  • Jy Yang
  • Kalpa Imperial
  • Karen Lord
  • L. A. Banks
  • Lee Perry
  • Octavia Butler
  • RSA Garcia
  • Saladin Ahmed
  • Samuel Delany
  • Sarah Kuhn
  • Silvia Morena Garcia
  • Stephanie Saulter
  • Steven Barnes
  • Tade Thompson
  • Tananarive Due
  • Terry Bison
  • Tobias Buckell
  • Vandana Singh
  • Wesley Chu
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Zen Cho

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