'Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going': Jo Bell's 52 poetry prompts book to give 2016 a kickstart
First there was the 52 Project itself, that former canal laureate Jo Bell set up after a new year resolution, with prompts – “Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going.” It grew into a group with more than 500 members, giving them confidence to write, get published, sign up on courses. Then came the 52 Project anthology, featuring the best of their work. Now comes Jo Bell’s 52 Project book of prompts, unlocking the secrets of the project’s success, for those who were not members of the group.
Jo said: “I wrote this book by accident, and it's all the better for it. The prompts were written one by one for the weekly 52 blog, but by spring 2014 it was clear that they might indeed make a book at the end of the project. The first priority, though, was to give the 52 group's members an anthology to showcase the best work of the tight, writerly community that had sprung up. Only when that was done could I put out the prompts. Both books were made possible by an overwhelmingly generous response to my Crowdfunding campaign, which raised twice its target within a fortnight.
“The new book has 42 prompts by me, and 10 by guest poets including Costa-shortlisted Neil Rollinson, TS Eliot winner Philip Gross and stellar poet Helen Mort. Those 10 poets originally gave their time for free, and the crowdfunding allowed me to give them a small payment at last. Reading back over my own prompts, I was really pleased with how they came across. Because they were often written late at night, between other commitments and to meet a deadline for the weekly blog, they had an urgency and energy which more leisurely writing doesn't have. They don't repeat themselves, there's a unity of purpose to them, a feeling of drive. They distil pretty much everything I know about writing poetry, with tips and pitfalls to show how to make your poems stronger.
“Above all, I hate the kind of lazy prompts that we often see on the internet - 'here's a picture of a horse, write a poem about it', or 'here's how a villanelle works, go write one about anything.' Too often we forget that a poem isn't just a machine made of words - it's a vehicle for delivering mood, message and meaning. It needs to say something about your own life, in order to absorb a reader. A good poem costs you something to write; so my prompts ask you to uncover something in your own story, and to address it with frankness and discipline.
“The main reason that the 52 blog worked was that each post included six or seven really good poems. We couldn't include all of those, without making it an item of furniture rather than a book, but I was determined that each prompt would be supported by good poems. You can't write well, unless you read well. So the main cost of producing the book - and the reason we needed that Crowdfunder campaign - was securing permissions for all the poems we used. We have Sharon Olds, Michael Donaghy, Daljit Nagra, Carol Ann Duffy. We needed of course to pay poets for their work, and permissions can come in at £100 or more. One British poet asked for £500, for an eight-line poem. We used somebody else's.”
Jo added: “I'm really proud of this book. It feels like a landmark, a workbook that can genuinely help people to write better without spoonfeeding or patronising them. It doesn't matter whether people actually write a poem a week - they can dip in and out of it at will - but it does distil the best energies of the 52 project, and much of my own approach to writing.”
PHOTOGRAPH: LEE ALLEN PHOTOGRAPHY