Blank Pieces of Paper
Day one of a painting course at the Slade and my tutor asked, “Where’s your source material?” I didn’t have any. She made me leave the class and go and collect images that would help me visualise and think about what I was trying to create.
That moment has influenced the way I approach all creative work, including poetry. Working from ‘source material’ (whether artwork, music or even other poetry) often helps me generate ideas, break out of using predictable language, come up with original images and experience emotions that I can hopefully channel into a poem.
One example is a poem I wrote called ‘The Land of Blue’. I remember sitting in front of a painting at The National Gallery and wondering why there was a blue valley between two very green hills. It really didn’t fit with the rest of the painting and it was all I could think about.
Staring at this valley, I found myself, quite unintentionally, writing about sadness – imagining The Land of Blue as a place we go to when we feel low.
Looking back, it’s not surprising – I’d had cardiac arrest the week before and was being tossed about by a gigantic emotional tsunami. But if you’d simply asked me to sit down and write a poem about what I was feeling, I suspect the paper in front of me would have remained blank.
Instead, focusing on something else brought it out in a much more organic, safe and manageable way.
Here’s an excerpt:
Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue.
It’s far and near, it’s strange yet known –
and in this land, you’ll feel alone,
you might feel tears roll down your cheek,
you might feel wobbly, weary, weak.
I know this won’t sound fun to you –
it’s not – this is The Land of Blue.
It’s blue – and when you leave, you’ll see
the crackly branches of the tree,
the golden skies, the purring cat,
the piercing eyes, the feathered hat
and all the other things that come
when you escape from feeling glum.
Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue
and going there will help you know
how others feel when they feel low.
Poems provide me with a safe and structured place to explore and process things that are a bit harder to be honest and open about in real life (like sadness, fear and anger) – and I think it’s the same for younger people too.
One strategy for those working with young writers might be to play emotive music or provide examples of artwork (by students or well-known artists) and ask them to write down words, questions, images or phrases that come to mind, focusing on feelings, thoughts, shapes, colour, texture and sounds. These notes could then be collated (either individually or as a group), and then revisited and edited at a later point.
If collating words as a group, students could be asked to use at least some of the words others had come up with, as this would get them using terms and phrases that didn’t come to them quite as readily.
Poetry provides a sanctuary in which to process difficult emotions and experiences –something that’s essential for good mental health. And I find that the best way to approach writing poems is not to sit in front of an intimidatingly blank piece of paper, but to come at it sideways, by exploring the creative work of others.
Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.
Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, in 2016 she won the Caterpillar Poetry Prize, and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets displayed on the Dublin overground. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out next year, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) the year after.
Laura also writes for adults. Her debut book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury), was featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour as well as being Sydney Morning Herald’s Pick of the Week.