50 Napowrimo Writing Prompts

On top of all our calls for submissions over the years, we thought we’d come up with 50 writing prompts for anyone attempting Napowrimo this year.

Firstly, it’s more important that you look after your health than write tons of poetry. There are some good resources out there for doing this, such as Harry Josephine’s tweets here and Scottish Book Trust’s resource page.



  1. A Quiet Place
  2. One hand clapping
  3. Describe a swan
  4. Walls
  5. The actor Robert Pattinson
  6. Tim Henchman
  7. The posters on your wall
  8. The time capsule
  9. Glamping
  10. Hopscotch
  11. When you need to go but then you get there and there’s nothing
  12. You awake to find yourself in a dark room
  13. Daddy or chips
  14. When you move house and you need to find new takeaways that you like
  15. Imagining the worst possible outcome of any given situation, just to feel alive
  16. A tiger comes for tea
  17. Landlords
  18. I think my cat is going to eat me
  19. Falling down a Wikipedia hole
  20. Why is Calibri the default font?
  21. You have been given the job of rebooting Space Jam
  22. Becoming strangely melancholy while eating cold pizza
  23. Describe the personality of your elbows
  24. Architecture in East Lothian
  25. All Children’s TV is about death
  26. I really really really really really really really like you
  27. Poetry is terrible and poets are the worst
  28. The Purest Content
  29. Fur
  30. Inside the mind of a bumble bee
  31. Going to Greggs with Peter Capaldi
  32. Just write the weirdest shit you can
  33. Unashamed enthusiasm
  34. One hit wonder Nineties techno
  35. The Floofiest Timeline
  36. Write an ode to a cleaning product
  37. Toby Young’s Stag Weekend
  38. Three Ghosts visit Jeff Bezos
  39. Clams
  40. Unspoken codes of behaviour on buses
  41. Write a poem using only swear words
  42. I haven’t read Moby Dick but this is what I assume happens in it
  43. This is the best goddam sandwich
  44. The Time cupboard
  45. Mum, watch me do my ninja moves
  46. I know eventually this will end but tonight let’s just get caned again
  47. Craft brewing
  48. You are allowed to pick two things from Plato’s cave, what do you choose?
  49. Glue from your childhood
  50. A massive anticlimax




Lies, Dreaming #21 – These Pyramids

We are delighted to announce the contributors for our twenty-first Lies, Dreaming podcast, which has as its theme “These Pyramids”.

You can subscribe to the podcast using the links on the right.

Here is a rundown of our contributors:

Lindz McLeod’s short stories have been published by the Scottish Book Trust, 365 Tomorrows, and more. She has published poetry with Passaic/Völuspá, Prometheus Dreaming, For Women Who Roar, and Indie Blu(e)’s Smitten anthology, with work forthcoming in Coffin Bell, Sunbeam Anthologies, Allegory Ridge and Heirlock Magazine. More information at www.lindzmcleod.co.uk

Carl Alexandersson is an undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh. When not studying, he can be found dabbling in the Edinburgh spoken word scene, enchanting everybody with his Swedish/American/’oh-you’re-not-from-around-here-are-you’ accent.

Sy Brand is a queer non-binary person living in Edinburgh, Scotland. They write through the haze of sleep deprivation to try and make sense of gender, relationships, parenting, and ADHD. Their work has been published in Popshot Quarterly, Transcend, and Visual Verse. You can find them on Twitter @TartanLlama.

Andrés N. Ordorica is a queer Latinx writer based in Edinburgh. His writing lives in the neither here nor there. His writing has been featured in Confluence Medway, The Acentos Review, 404 ink Magazine, “CEREMONY” (Tapsalteerie Press), “We Were Always Here” (404 ink), and “The Colour of Madness” (Stirling Publishing).

Our next theme will be “E•mo•tion by Carly Rae Jepsen”. Read this blogpost for further details.

Call for Submissions #22 – E•mo•tion by Carly Rae Jepsen


22 carly rae jepsen

We want your words. Your words inspired by the prompt ‘E•mo•tion by Carly Rae Jepsen’.

When we say ‘we want your words’ we want anything that involves you making noises; it’s only limited by what your mind can come up with and a time constraint: a maximum of five minutes in length (a limit, rather than a target). We’re interested in any style of writing, we want to show off the range of spoken word. We are happy to broadcast previously published works.

Whatever you send, the podcast will be set to an ambient soundtrack, so we ask that the recordings are vocals only. Preferred audio formats are mp3 and wav files. Please save your file with your name and poem title.

Recordings can be sent to lies.dreamingpodcast at gmail dot com by the 31st of January 2020 for a podcast at the end of Feburary.

We welcome submissions in Scots and Scots Gaelic, though we may request accompanying translations or transcripts for which we are unable to offer an extra fee.

The theme for the podcast is E•mo•tion by Carly Rae Jepsen.

We’re looking forward to your responses!

All submissions will receive a response within 10 days of the deadline passing.

Contributors to the podcast will receive a payment of £5.

Please note we are unable to provide feedback on your submissions.


Copyright Notice

By submitting your work you are giving us permission to use it in our podcast. All other rights remain with the author(s).

Lies, Dreaming #20 – It’s Tuesday Night!

We are delighted to announce the contributors for our twentieth Lies, Dreaming podcast, which has as its theme “It’s Tuesday Night!”.

You can subscribe to the podcast using the links on the right.

Here is a rundown of our contributors:

Stefan Mohamed is a Bristol-based poet, author and spoken word performer. His poetry collection PANIC! is published by Burning Eye Books and his novels Falling Leaves and the Bitter Sixteen Trilogy are published by Salt Publishing. You can find him on Twitter @stefmowords or at www.stefmo.co.uk

Catherine Tausney.

Sebastian McLellan is a retired Interior Designer with an antipathy to draylon and
the sartorially egregious. He enjoys the dark side of his physical degeneration and
scribbles or records his thoughts as they present themselves. He is also a practising
fantasist and compulsive liar.

Our next theme will be “These Pyramids”. Read this blogpost for further details.

Eight Poems…with Colin Bramwell

Thanks for the invitation to write this. I LOVE poetry. The way it ducks its long neck into the water, how it looks serene from far away but can be quite aggressive if you get too close. Fun poetry fact: all of the poetry in Great Britain belongs to the Queen.

Wait. That’s swans. Sorry, I’ll start again.

Poetry is, I think we can all agree, something that exists. Some humans excrete it: but, unlike a turd, a bad poem can never be fully flushed away. And let’s face it, most poetry is utter garbage. When you emailed me and asked me to give you eight poems I liked, my first thought was that I’d have a hard time finding one poem I liked. If it was eight flavours of crisps, I’d have had a lot more to say.

I also want to make a point of saying that I’m not happy about being trapped in this non-specific location. I’m an awful narcissist at the best of times, so having to think about being trapped anywhere has drastically inflated my ego. I assume that if I was some kind of political prisoner—the only variation of this scenario that doesn’t end in my death—Amnesty International would be on the case. ‘All Colin Bramwell did was stand on a street corner in <enter country with terrible human rights record here> and recite his own poetry,’ they’d say. ‘But in our country it’s illegal to be rubbish at poetry,’ officials from said country will reply. And the SNP’s response will become legend. ‘Not in Scotland,’ they’ll say. ‘Not in Scotland.’

At heart, I am an optimistic sort of person. I hope that, in my darkest hour, I can remember the words of my fellow incarcerated poets: Oscar Wilde, Federico Garcia Lorca, Andrew Blair[1]. I hope that, when I stepped off that plane and onto my home soil, I would be given a befitting welcome. Yes. I’ll be standing on the sweet, sweet, tarmac of Edinburgh Airport, as Jackie Kay presents me with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then I’ll recite my own epic spoken-word masterpiece to the gathering crowd—an indictment of any political system that would seek to deprive an honest Jock of his God-given liberty.

They’ll be weeping almost as much as they wept during the enormously successful run of my 2019 Fringe show, Umbrella Man. As I recall, I performed it at Summerhall, at 10am every day of the Fringe, apart from the 7th, 12th and 20th, for those were my days off. At the time, I was worried that 10am was an insane time to have a show, but after an effusive Twitter endorsement from the actor who played Gimli in Lord of the Rings, I managed to capture the coveted pro-Brexit audience demographic at the Fringe, and sold out my entire run. Anyway. They’ll be weeping.

But, as Ratho Station gently wends its way into my field of vision, I’ll be weeping too. I’ll be weeping so hard that I fall onto my front. Then a big man will stand on my head and I’ll die. But the moment my heart stops, a dragon that looks a bit like Nicola Sturgeon will arrive from the west. She’ll swoop me up in her talons and roar a lamentation to the sky, then carry my lifeless body back to the misty mountains, where the Bramwell crypt lies waiting. As we disappear into high clouds, the crowd, now speaking as one, will begin to chant a single word. ‘Khaleesi.’

Here’s eight poems I really like.

cb 8p

Carlos Drummond de Andrade – In Search of Poetry

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Boof! That’s the sound of you failing to anticipate my first choice: the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. A poet with Scottish heritage, not that it matters particularly. I found out about him while reading the Wikipedia page on Scots in South America. That’ll be the side he gets the poetry from then. Shut up, Gran.

Scots have a bad habit of claiming things that don’t really belong to them, and I don’t wish to stick a flagpole in Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I am, however, glad that a tenuous link led me to his work, because he’s become one of my favourite poets. This poem derives its own fun wisdom by telling would-be poets how not to proceed. Naturally, it admonishes those who are inclined to write by mocking them for their humanity. In this way, it suggests a negative reframing of the practice of writing. And in this age where we’re constantly trying to improve and better ourselves as human beings, let alone writers, a bit of negativity goes a long way.

‘Don’t tell me your feelings.’ ‘Don’t get cross.’ ‘Don’t waste time lying.’ The poem is a goldmine of dubious advice. It’s the world’s grumpiest TED talk. It’s like a finger getting jabbed in your chest. ‘Okay, so you want to write? Do it then, but also: get over yourself.’

Move closer and consider the words.

Each one
hides a thousand faces under its poker face

and asks you, without caring how poor or formidable
your answer might be:

Did you bring the key?

Alternative choices in the genre of poems about poetry include Leonard Cohen’s ‘How to Speak Poetry’, and Les Murray’s ‘The Instrument’ (‘Why write poetry? / For the weird unemployment.’ Yup.)

Ye Mimi – They Are There But I Am Not

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Zap! This next poem is also a film. The genre of the ‘film poem’ is not something I know much about. But it did strike me that, if I were locked up, it might be good to have something to watch. And this bears repeat viewing. It’s one of those poems that I always carry with me in the back of my head. I can’t say that I’ve cracked what it’s really about yet, but I don’t particularly feel the need to try and explain its mysteries to you. The footage is of the poet/filmmaker’s native Taiwan: of clocks, toys, toy clocks, birds, bike wheels, generations. The words are elusive too: they relate to the displacement of individuals in cycles of time, I think, but that’s probably putting too fine a point on it.

What I like about this is how the visual images enjamb the lines, how they create this black and white world where the poem’s text, which reads like a kind-of moody Tao Te Ching, is given space to breathe. The video would be extraordinarily hip if it weren’t so punctuated by alienation and loss. Ye Mimi whispers the words over the top, almost as if she’s hiding, then gets caught by the children she films.

The poem falls into a final mantra: ‘Time isn’t there but it is / They are there but I am not.’ I don’t know what it means, but it reminds me of the invisible world behind things. Central to Highland folk belief was the idea of a shadow world that overlapped this one: if you saw a shadowy version of yourself, soaked with water, likely you would meet your end by drowning, and so on. Words are a little like that: open to different definitions of causality, open to superstition and magic. And they’re allowed to be that way in a way that pure scientific knowledge isn’t. There is something that exists behind a poem, that says ‘They are there but I am not.’ The voice is so quiet here, it barely draws attention to itself—but that whisper becomes conspicuous too. Which is a circular way of saying that the person who made this film-poem is not as close to invisibility as she first seems, nor am I, nor you for that matter.

Other must-read Taiwanese poets: Hsia Yu, Ling Yu, Sun Wei-Min, Yang Mu, Chen Li.

Elizabeth Bishop – Little Exercise

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Boing! It’s Elizabeth Bishop. Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘No Colin. Bishop don’t boing.’ Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise. Her poetry boings like a trampoline, mate. Can you dig it?



No. Don’t boing. Talk about this seriously, please.

Okay. Elizabeth Boingshop is, I think we can all agree, absolutely sick at poetry. And there are lots of poems by her that I love, but this one is a total beast. She’s a master of form: she knows the rules and when to break them. In ‘Little Exercise’, there’s this weird rhyme seeded at the start (lines 1, 4 and 6, nerds) which sort-of alerts the ear to the presence of more sort of assonant music within the lines (ladies). It’s all musical and playful.

There’s a writing workshop exercise involving write a poem where all the lines begin with ‘Think of’ or ‘Remember’ or ‘I hate you because’. If you do that exercise, you’ll probably not write anything earth-shattering, maybe some interesting things will come out. But check how Queen Elizabeth Bishop does it. She follows her ideas through, threads them together and this painting of a storm unfolds. Read it through the first time and you’re struck by the music for it. The second time, the painting appears: the third it becomes clearer, the fourth less so. It’s a precise and confounding little journey, this poem. Lizzo Bizzo? She’s a ninja, mate, yeah? Boing.

Other poems that go boing: ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of Kate Tempest’s excellent new album, Ani Difranco’s ‘Self Evident’.

Michael Donaghy – The River in Spate

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Michael Donaghy had a penchant for bullshit. His first collection contains a piece called ‘Seven Poems from the Welsh’, all attributed to a 14th century Welsh poet named Sion ap Brydydd. In the fake introduction Donaghy writes, he describes the poet’s intention: to capture ‘faint echoes of a single unwritten poem which, if pronounced, would so perfectly unite the souls of author and listener that they would inhabit each other’s bodies and exchange destinies.’ Apparently a lot of people thought that was real. Good on him for making it up, for being a convincing liar.

All the best poets have a sense of fun. Donaghy, you feel, must have been a lot of fun to hang around with in real life. I feel like that was a nice lesson to learn from Donaghy: as a young poet, he’s probably the person I’ve learned the most from reading, so I can strongly recommend him if you’re starting out.

There are millions of great stories about him. He famously recited his poems from memory, but he only started doing it because he forgot his book on the way to a gig once and realised that he knew everything in it off by heart anyway. On that point, I do think it’s a great test of a poem, to be able to remember it. You have to know and be comfortable with each element that it contains, with its through-lines and digressions. It obviously doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s no harm in not remembering them: but this way works for me, and it’s me that’s being imprisoned here, not you.[2]

Donaghy was a smart-arse, and his poetry is beguiling. ‘The River in Spate’ was the first poem I read by him, before I knew he was funny. This poem isn’t funny. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, perfectly constructed, heartbreaking. A story is buried in it, but for me the story of a poem rarely comes across on the first reading, unless it’s a narrative poem. My first experience of a poem is normally as a balance of sounds, a rhythm. Donaghy was a musician, and you can hear that in his phrasing, which feels so naturally measured, balanced, in proportion with itself. If you love Katy Perry, you have to read Michael Donaghy.

If you love Katy Perry you should also read: Wendy Cope, Christina Rossetti and Philip Larkin.

W.S. Graham  – Listen. Put on Morning

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Louis Zukofsky had an equation for poetry: lower limit speech, upper limit music. I have a fondness for poems that get closer to the latter, because I think that’s where you explore the limits of sensible observation and have to be guided by the combination of sounds in words. Following your ear in a poem forces you to say something different: to find out what you have to say, which will often be to different to what you initially intended to say, and likely more beautiful, perhaps wiser, or plainer.

There’s something very simple about this poem, which is about being awake. A few weeks ago, I was moved to hear a poet excoriating himself onstage for enjoying being asleep too much. ‘Listen. Put on Morning’ contains no such admonishment. It understands that there are days where staying in bed may be preferable, if it didn’t, the poem would be far less injunctive and commanding. But sometimes when you’re a reader, it’s good to be commanded, to be forced to submit.

That’s the kinkiest sentence you’ve written for a while, Colin.

But it’s not hard to concede Graham’s point here. Every morning there is a whole world waiting to speak to you, and that world has a rhythm that you partake of, that is different to the worlds of death and sleep, and always contains you within it. Wants you to inherit it, to be part of it. What I love is how unforced that point is in this poem. If poetry has the power to change minds, or to speak directly to people in a way that may be healing, then it does so not by overreaching, but by laying out the evidence, distracting you with a little sleight of hand, a flourish. That’s a better tactic for getting the melancholic out of bed. Maybe it’s the best one.

Other poems for getting you out of bed: ‘I Leave This at Your Ear’, also by W.S. Graham. The morning section of Under Milk Wood. Also, if you’re feeling melancholy, you could always try reading Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’

C.P. Cavafy – Ithaka

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I have a good friend who will never read this. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. He’s not the sort to read poetry. I think that with some dyslexic people, that feeling of not being able to do something catches at a very young age. Sadly he wasn’t helped much with it at school, and came out of his education feeling like he wasn’t very bright. That’s a pattern I’ve seen a fair bit with dyslexic friends and family. Once you’ve been beaten down by schooling, reading poetry – particularly with the way it’s taught, as some kind of compendium of puzzling techniques, rhetorical devices, something to be analysed rather than enjoyed – must feel like playing a computer game on the hardest difficulty.

All of that being said, my friend and I have enjoyed one poem together many times. And, unexpectedly, it’s by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. Not that Cavafy’s unheard of in poetry circles, but he doesn’t tend to come up in conversation down the pub: at least less so than Sean Connery. I wouldn’t say my friend is a big fan of Sean Connery. He finds Sean Connery’s accent funny, and has thus fallen into a kind of Connery trap. I once had that with the music of a pop star. I heard one funny song, and then he accidentally became my favourite singer. Akon. Changed my life.

So, when I typed C.P. Cavafy into Youtube, to see what would come up, I was delighted to discover a recording of Sean Connery reading Cavafy. Unexpectedly, it had been set to music by Vangelis. The Greek connection, presumably. But when you add a Sean Connery voiceover into the mix, it makes for quite the threesome. He comes in like a wrecking ball.

But the poem, man. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of S. Each line of the poem seems to pile more and more S on top, until you find yourself solely listening for S. This must be a wind-up, you’re thinking, but no, it’s really happening. But even when all of your pals are around a table, crying with laughter, the quality of the poem still leaps out and calms you with its beauty, and there are occasional moments of appreciative silence among the laughter. And so this particular version of the poem, as represented by its unintentionally comic reading, represents something great about poetry in general: its capacity to exist outside of itself, to take on incidental meanings.

Other poems Sean Connery should read: ‘Brigflatts’ by Basil Bunting, ‘The Schism Ring’ by Jenny Lindsay, and my next choice…

Ross Sutherland – Six House Parties

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I’m interested in the question of whether it is a poet’s job to speak for their time. I blame the calendar for this—the reinforcement of decades as a marker for aesthetics is totalising, in that it apportions much of the credit for shifts in ‘ways of doing things’ to the process of time itself, rather than to individuals who, by expressing themselves, take the pulse of their moment. If you read TS Eliot, say, you’ll gain a lot of insight about what it was like to live between the two world wars. Similarly, if you listen to Ross Sutherland’s work, you learn about the minutiae of our time. The two poets bear comparison, I think, because they both like to mix two kinds of obscurity, the first relating to ‘high-brow’ culture, and the second to ‘low-brow’. Ross Sutherland, to my mind, is the more generous of these two, because when he makes a reference he often tends to show his working, but that may only be a marker of our time, and an aesthetic of clarity – perhaps of generosity – that the poetry of our age has embraced.

Although Sutherland’s podcast, ‘Imaginary Advice’, is not a strict poetry podcast, a poet’s fascination with structure undergirds the whole exercise. The two things this reminds me of are (1) William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, which was made by Basinski, a composer, tried to transfer sounds recorded on magnetic tape to a digital format, only to find that the tape had degraded, creating cracks in the music—he proceeded to make four hours of excellent ambient music from recording the tape’s degradation—and, (2) James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, in which a man falls into a madness facilitated by the appearance of his Satanic doppelganger. In Ross Sutherland’s work you have a combination of prosey, narrative techniques with these poetical-musical structures.

If I’m correct in anticipating a move within poetry towards narrative (my evidence: the rise of the spoken-word show as a form, the influence of television on poets, the relationship of audio with oral storytelling that correlates with ideas of listening as encouraged by pageless media, i.e. podcasts) then Ross Sutherland will be one of the folk who pave the way for this explosion of form, this move towards mixed media, this great Yggdrasil of future art, etc. He’s an individual who pushes towards the future, as well as taking the pulse of this moment, and I hope he receives the credit he deserves for his beautiful and apparently limitless imagination.

Other spoken-word poets who do a good job of defining their age: John Osborne, Ross McCleary, Leyla Josephine, Iona Lee.

Hannah Lavery – Scotland, You’re No Mine

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Hannah Lavery is my favourite poet in the Scottish performance scene, and I’m lucky to call her my friend. The world has taken its time cottoning on to how great she is, but she seems to be getting there so, poetry fans, if you aren’t aware of her work now, then you will be soon. Her show, The Drift, is essential viewing. It is a true story of unbelonging and discrimination that is extraordinarily moving: a document of historical crimes, and a call to arms, to change.

This poem is the centrepiece of it. It contradicts everything that we so frequently hear about ourselves in Scotland: that we are friendly, multicultural, that there’s no room for racism here, that we’ve shown it the red card, etc. Well-intentioned rhetoric, but not accurate—damaging, even, if they stop us from facing our history, from knowing ourselves. So frequently we in Scotland try to give ourselves a pass for the crimes of the empire: worse still, we deflect our approbation onto the USA, and point out the racism there as if it is somehow distinguishable from our own. This poem punctures that hypocrisy: ‘blue n white; blue, white n red. / It doesnae matter’. I remember hearing that, and needing to hear it.

Poems that harness anger, that have political ramifications, that agitate for change, are hard to write. Readers and audiences will not stand much hectoring. When a poem like that works, it becomes an extraordinary, heart-breaking act of generosity towards anyone who reads it. ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us. / Tae see oorsels as ithers see us!’ Well, Burns, here is your reply:

‘my blood and your secrets,

bleed into you, root and earth,

and you, forever, pagan, will, in the spill

and the seep, see all you really are.’

If telling Scotland to go fuck itself is a sign of Scottishness, then Hannah Lavery isn’t just a Scottish poet, she’s the most Scottish poet. Moreover if, as Scots, we are to take ourselves seriously as a country, then this poem must be one of our foundational texts. We might be a little less proud of ourselves, but we ought to be proud that we can count Hannah among the best of us.

Here’s an early version of Umbrella Man that Colin recorded for us.

[1]Whose face is currently trapped in the prison of his beard.

[2] Like Bridget Jones. Except Colin Firth will not be rescuing me. Unless he could. Editor, is that allowed?

Call for Submissions #21 – These Pyramids


We want your words. Your words inspired by the theme ‘These Pyramids’.

NB. This is what these pyramids actually are. Feel free to ignore this if you prefer.

When we say ‘we want your words’ we want anything that involves you making noises; it’s only limited by what your mind can come up with and a time constraint: a maximum of five minutes in length (a limit, rather than a target). We’re interested in any style of writing, we want to show off the range of spoken word. We are happy to broadcast previously published works.

Whatever you send, the podcast will be set to an ambient soundtrack, so we ask that the recordings are vocals only. Preferred audio formats are mp3 and wav files. Please save your file with your name and poem title.

Recordings can be sent to lies.dreamingpodcast at gmail dot com by the 31st of October 2019 for a podcast at the end of November.

We welcome submissions in Scots and Scots Gaelic, though we may request accompanying translations or transcripts for which we are unable to offer an extra fee.

The theme for the podcast is These Pyramids.

We’re looking forward to your responses!

All submissions will receive a response within 10 days of the deadline passing.

Contributors to the podcast will receive a payment of £5.


Copyright Notice

By submitting your work you are giving us permission to use it in our podcast. All other rights remain with the author(s).

Eight Poems…with Katie Ailes

I realise how much a poem means to me when I find myself running its lines over and over in my head like worry stones. Each of these poems has lines which have become mantras for me over time, and each time I re-read them they hold their original power. I’ve found that I’m drawn to poems written in simple language, without complex overlapping points or heavy references, that convey ideas so core and basic that they become radical. While generally I prefer free verse to tightly structured poems, I do enjoy work that plays with the concept of language itself and breaks it down in innovative ways. My favourite poems tend to be affirmations—of love, belonging, power—yet generally wouldn’t be described as ‘happy’ poems per se. Many of these pieces are visceral in their descriptions: they evoke sensations that are hard to capture in words, but that you feel in your gut. If I were stuck somewhere, with little hope of escape, I’d return again to these pieces, these mantras.


Sharon Olds – I Go Back to May 1937 (Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002, Penguin Random House 2004)

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I heard this poem for the first time on a podcast, and I remember stopping dead in the street. As someone who tends to write confessional poetry, often implicating my family, I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of that (luckily my family-based poems are generally about love, not abuse). The concept in the poem of wanting to warn her younger parents away from each other, of the future’s hindsight, is so tragic and profound. But even more so is the sense of duty that she recognises, or self-imposes at the end: that her existence is enabled by this problematic relationship, and now it is her responsibility to tell its story. It’s such a simple distillation of the concept of being a confessional poet—”and I will tell about it”—but in the context of Olds’ greater body of work, it feels almost like tying together the trauma of her childhood with her creativity. That’s a dangerous association, but one which I experientially understand – that sense of the poet’s duty to record history, and the temptation to twist the past in the telling.

Pablo Neruda – Sonnet 17 (Essential Neruda, Bloodaxe 2010)

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A classic, but for a good reason. This has been my favourite love poem for over a decade now. The way love is described as not flashy, not a flower in full bloom, but a potential, an earthy fertile thing, has always stuck with me. While I can’t understand it in its original Spanish without the translation, the aural element is absolutely gorgeous as well.

Thom Gunn – Touch (Selected Poems of Thom Gunn, Faber & Faber 2017)

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It wasn’t until putting together this list that I realised the similarity between “Touch” and “Sonnet 17”: the way both poets describe love as a dark, warm, fertile place. I love the simplicity of this poem: its short lines forcing the reader to slow down, the simple and relatable narrative it tells. It’s so physical, visceral – we all know the shiver as you get into bed cold, then the feeling of it warming with another person there. The poem is intimate without being sexually graphic, and conveys the deep safety of an old and comfortable love. And the grammatical funkiness of “I feel a is it my own…”, the conversational nature of it, for some reason really appeals to me.

Don Paterson – The Wave (40 Sonnets, Faber & Faber 2016)

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I’ve read relatively little of Don Paterson, but have heard him live  several times. I remember hearing him read this piece at StAnza a couple of years ago, and the final line stole my breath. The way that the expectation builds, then wanes, then smacks you in the face – that’s an art. The piece is sensual in its imagery without being overt or constructing any obvious metaphors. And the lesson of underestimating our own strength – or rather, danger – is one we don’t often hear in such a manner.

Mary Oliver – Wild Geese 

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Yes, yes, this is a cliche favourite poem – but oh my goodness its reputation is well deserved. I’ve memorised it now not through trying but through re-conjuring it in my mind so many times. The first time I heard it was when a friend at university choreographed a dance piece to a recording of Oliver reading it, and hearing it still evokes some of that movement for me. It is a psalm, a hymn, a mantra – not just the first or final lines but the entire piece. Like most of the poems in this list, it is written simply but evokes something deep and powerful.

Jackie Kay – In My Country (Other Lovers, Bloodaxe)

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I discovered Jackie Kay’s work at a time in my life when the themes she explored were exceptionally relevant to me. Reading ‘The Adoption Papers,’ informed by her experience as an adopted child, helped me come to terms with finding out that I was donor-conceived. And her extensive work on nationality and feelings of torn or conflicted citizenship resonated strongly as I ping-ponged between the US and Scotland trying to figure out where my home was. Of course, though, I have no personal experience of the racism to which Kay refers here. This piece is so eloquently written, yet simple and bold in its message. Kay claims her Scottishness from the title to the final line. And the metaphor about the old wheel says so much in a quick phrase.

Freddie Alexander – Manifest Destiny

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The final stanza of this poem has been a mantra since I first heard it. Freddie, the creative genius that he is, keeps changing this poem, but the way that I remember the final stanza in my head is: “You don’t have to try so hard / you can lay your weapons down / because I love you / and that’s a might rare thing, love. / Listen to all of these people, man / while you can. / All of their words are birdsong.” It’s strange to remember a different version from the ‘canon’ version, and I think I’ve melded some of the different works together. In any case, Freddie has this incredible ability to speak so plainly in some of his poetry yet carry so much nuance and complexity. I couldn’t summarise what “Manifest Destiny” is about even if I tried, and I’ve heard it live dozens of times. But it touches, for me at least, a deep chord regarding community and the bonds which tie us together. The narrative in the beginning is reminiscent for me of some of my own family, and those strange relationships grounded not in common beliefs but in a stubborn love.

Carol Ann Duffy – Words, Wide Night (The Other Country, )

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One of the themes running through Duffy’s work is the inadequacy of language – how we cannot possibly fully capture feelings like love in words. Yet paradoxically in her poetry, through exploring this impossibility, she solves it (if that makes any sense). She evokes how impossible it is to evoke love. The intentional grammatical flub of “In one of the tenses I singing” is brilliant – and I’m learning putting together this list that apparently I have a love for intentional grammatical inaccuracy in poems (Hi Thom Gunn!). And Duffy has the ability to write love poetry that is simultaneously swooningly romantic and totally grounded in reality in a way I find very difficult and deeply admirable.

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson

Katie Ailes is a researcher, artist, and producer focusing on performance-based poetry. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Strathclyde on the performance and perception of authenticity in contemporary UK spoken word poetry. During her research she created a large and unprecedented archive of interviews with contemporary UK poets in partnership with the Scottish Oral History Centre. She organises poetry events, performs, and tours with acclaimed Scottish company I Am Loud Productions (Loud Poets). Her poem “Outwith” was chosen as one of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best of the Best Scottish Poems in 2019.