Writing tips from a master wordsmith

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
TES Scotland has got together with the Scottish Book Trust and Royal Mail for another Poems to Post! competition. Writer Matthew Fitt gives pupils advice on this year's theme, transformation

You want to write a poem about transformation to enter in the Scottish Book Trust's poetry competition? Och, that's easy. Here are a few tips to get you going.

First of all, meet Finnigan. He is an Irish wolfhound that weighs 10 stone and stands four-and-a-half feet high. When he is out for a walk with his owners, Gail and Petr, everyone stops them to say: "That is the biggest dog I have ever seen."

Finnigan was not always as muckle. When he was a puppy, he was tiny. Over a few years, Finnigan has gone through a spectacular transformation, from being awfie tottie to absolutely massive.

Big Dog Finnigan

When he was just a small wee dog

He hid in Petr's boot

We carried him in a message bag

His wee nose sticking oot

Now when he runs

For goodness' sake

The people hide

And the buildings shake

For this poem, I had a think about Finnigan when he was young and made up pictures that showed how small he was: hiding in a shoe and being carried in a shopping bag. Then, to show how big he has become, I exaggerated his size by making people seem afraid of him (they're not usually; he's very friendly) and having the houses shooglin as he runs past. Finnigan changed from small to big, so for the poem I played with the idea of size.

Animals make excellent subjects for poems, and they can't argue back if they don't like what you write about them. So, if you want to write about your pet dog or cat or python or an animal you have seen in a zoo or on television, think about how small they used to be and how big they are now.

Use my poem about Finnigan to help you make up lots of fun pictures.

Of course, transformation is not just about size. A plain, mingin-looking thing like a caterpillar can change into a stunning butterfly. This miracle of nature would make a really good poem but I'm not going to write one for you here. Instead, have a think for yourselves.

What is the transformation that occurs? The insect goes from ugly to beautiful. So, think about ugly. Imagine the caterpillar on a leaf. It is not enough to write: Oh, see that larva on its leaf.

It's pure ugly, by the way.That's no use because we don't see any interesting pictures. A good poem will have lots of imagery in it.

Let's imagine the wee, short, fat caterpillar on the leaf again. What else could it look like? Remember, we're thinking "ugly". So, a squashed slug? A mouldy sausage or a finger that's been cut off? Are those ugly and unpleasant enough?

What about after the caterpillar has changed into a butterfly? Imagine its wings full of colour. What else might be as colourful as that? How about a princess's dress, or a sunset, or even clean clothes on a washing line?

There are lots of ugly and beautiful images to choose from for a poem about a butterfly. See how many you can list.

You don't have to stick to animals for a poem about transformation. You could have a go at writing about people. Maybe your baby brother has grown up from a greetin wee ball of smelly nappies into the strong captain of the school football team. Maybe your sister has changed from a little terror that used to pull your hair and get you into trouble into an elegant young woman who has boys calling her all the time. Maybe your cousin has gone from an angel-faced boy to a hairy monster with plooks all over his face.

Places can be transformed as well. The fields and disused railways tracks where I used to play as a boy have all been concreted over and houses put up. The centre of my hometown was a magical, medieval place that someone decided to knock down to build boring shopping centres.

Have a think about your area. Is there any part of it that has undergone change in the past few years? Ask your parents or grandparents if you're not sure.

It doesn't need to be a famous place. It could be one that is special to you. There is a village which lies drowned in the loch at Strathclyde Country Park near Motherwell. That would make some poem.

Another good topic would be the regeneration of the Clyde flowing through Glasgow. The transformation in this case is from dirty to clean, well, cleaner.

Again, it is not good enough to write: The river was dirty And now it's clean.

Yip-dee-doo.You have to get images working for you.

Take the river of the past. What sort of images would have been alongside the Clyde? I can think of cranes from the shipbuilding, thousands of men working on the ships during the day, and oil from the boats and yards going into the river, making the water dirty.

The river has not forgotten the clumsy, clanking cranes Nor the shouts of men moving across the steel like ants And not the clogging, choking oil once poured into its mouth What about the present, cleaner Clyde? What images describe the scene today?

Now the Science Centre glistens in the sun like a wet fish The river washes down from the hills through Glasgow to the sea And cormorants stand in the shallows below the rusting cranes Change is all around you. The trees in the park grow leaves but then they fall to the ground. Old buildings come down and new ones go up. The newspapers and television show us a world in which nothing seems to stay the same.

You yourselves are changing, too. Your hair, nails and bones are growing.

For some, your voice is getting deeper. Your interests are changing too.

Some day soon you will no longer go to school and you'll have a new set of challenges to face.

So, choosing a subject to write about transformation should be easy because, whether you know it or not, you have lots of experience of things that have been transformed. Ask your teacher for advice or try your school library for poetry to read. And you never know, writing this poem may even change you. Good luck.

Dundee-born Matthew Fitt writes in Scots and English. His books include Grammar Broonie, with Susan Rennie (EUP), But N Ben A-Go-Go (Luath Press) and Sair Heid City (Kettilonia)

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