52: Jo Bell, Nine Arches Press
The idea of the 52 project was brilliantly simple. Jo Bell knows a lot of poets. She was inspired, in a moment of generosity and madness, to set up a “global workshop group” with hundreds of practising poets, that “became a phenomenon as poets took up the challenge and thousands of poems were written and shared”. A key part of the idea was mutual support, encouragement and external discipline. This book then, is a collection of these writing prompts with its invocation to “Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going.”
The trouble is, like the best of reads, I keep forgetting I’m supposed to be a reviewer and my mind wanders from considering the format, the writing style, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the poems chosen as example or for inspiration. I stop to consider what my own response to the prompt might be, what I might write. This stuttering on the book as a whole is what is meant to happen. The reader is being prompted, inspired, cajoled, demanded to inhabit their own creative space and to write. Determinedly I resist the urge to pick up my own notebook and return to the book.
As well as Jo Bell’s indomitable, pushy and witty voice, with her inspiring strings of ideas out of one theme, she also invited 10 well-known poets to each write a prompt, so the varied voices of poets such as David Morley, Helen Mort and Luke Kennard are also in the mix. Most of the 52 writing prompts include one or two already published poems, and Bell’s taste in these is exemplary. This book is also a joy in discovering poems that may be new for the reader or that ask the reader to look at old favourites in a particular way. I love this aspect of the book best of all; it is almost as though UA Fanthorpe has been inspired by Bell’s prompt to write something on ‘The Unseen’, or Sharon Olds has responded to ‘the things we nearly did’ idea with her poem ‘The Race’. Here are wonderful poems from all over the place in terms of time and space and voice; Daniel Sluman’s ‘in dreams’ is written from his experience of losing a leg as a child, Fleur Adcock’s poem on a significant moment in time, Carol Ann Duffy, Keats, Donne, Daljit Nagra, to name just a few.
The book is beautifully produced, fat and packed with goodies. It feels supportive, understanding, imperious. If you weren’t one of the blessed original 52’ers, if you don't get this for Christmas, go and get this book for yourself. Although you can begin at any time, begin with the new year. “Start now. Keep going.”
Deborah Alma is a poet with an MA in creative writing, teaches at Worcester University and works with people with dementia and at the end of their lives using poetry. She is also the Emergency Poet in her 1970s ambulance and performs at literary, music and arts festivals, schools, hospitals and libraries all over the country. She is editor of Emergency Poet - an anti-stress poetry anthology, and her True Tales of the Countryside collection is published by the Emma Press