Five Gifts for my Grandmother – poem in progress

Once again I find myself indebted to the Guardian Unlimited Poetry Workshops. This time, to Matthew Francis’s Sensual Imagery exercise. Like all good exercises, it starts with a bit of stretching, a bit of limbering up, then sets you to the task at a nicely measured pace.

  • We begin by writing: When I think of summer, I think of… and coming up with as many endings to it (words or phrases) as possible, with the proviso that all of them must refer to something you experience through the senses. (So not just “swimming”, but “the feeling of the wave curling over me, and the swirl of sand it churns up”, or similar.) Good fun. 
  • Now we start on the real exercise. Imagine someone you love, and someone else that you hate. You are going to give them five gifts each, five experiences – one for each of the senses. So not “a big hug”, but “my arms wrapping around your middle from behind, my forehead pressed against your shoulderblades, my lips brushing a kiss against the back of your neck”. Or ” the sensation of a large insect, crawling slowly across your stomach and up, across your chest, along your throat, up over your chin, to your mouth.” (Add “feeling completely unable to move or make any noise” to the beginning, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.)
  • Then we go back and have a look at George Mackay Brown’s famous poem, Hamnavoe Market, for inspiration on using surprising similes to make the sensory image come even more alive.
  • Now write a poem around the idea of giving sensuous experiences as gifts – could be the whole set of five (pleasant or unpleasant), both sets of five, or just one or two individual gifts. Create some sort of backstory if you like (which may or may not appear in the poem itself). Why are such odd presents in the first place? And why presents to a person you dislike? 

I love this sort of thing. Permission to write something nasty doesn’t come along too often, so I found that part particularly liberating. It’s also an interesting way of exploring oppositions, putting two characters from your life up against each other. (Best friend and school bully? A neighbour from either side? Mother vs mother-in-law?) 

In the end, the poem I’ve started writing is five gifts to someone I love – my maternal grandmother. I’m trying to use the five experiences to show some of the ways she shaped me as I was growing up, as well as being a way of illustrating the change in our relationship over time. And as a thank-you to her. The hardest thing (and I know I’m skating too close at the moment) is to avoid the poem getting sentimental. I suspect I’m going to have to just let the poem go its own way at first, and then sharpen it up later in the editing phase.

A bit like adding salt to your soup – no point doing it early on. You have to cook everything to the right balance of flavours first, then add the salt. (What a pity – that metaphor looks so much less profound when written out. It was sheer brilliance in my frontal lobes, I tell you!)

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