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Tanya Southey: Why I love writing poetry

I was six when I wrote my first poem. It was for my grandad’s birthday. I made a card and penned a poem in it for him. His face lit up. It was all that I gave him that year. But he loved it. I found the card again when I was seventeen and I was helping my gran clean out his things after he passed away suddenly. I had seen the power of the words when I first gave them to him. I saw the power again when the card was still in its original condition in a cigar tin from Holland. The card now smelled like my grandad after dinner. I don’t have it anymore. Somewhere between living on three continents, I lost something my grandad held onto for a long time. But I still have words. And I still know how powerful they are. Three can change your day or ruin it, “I love you,” or “He passed away.”

I learnt early that words can heal. I knew that sticks and stones could break my bones, but I never believed that words could never harm me. I felt words even if I hid their bruising impacts as a child. I also knew that words were powerful and able to reset my mood. They are able to express the complexity of feelings that make up being human and if they couldn’t then music that would do the rest.

I returned to writing poetry a few years ago. I had written until I went to university and then pushed it aside, for more serious pursuits. About sixteen years ago, I started dabbling in

writing again, doing a couple of writing courses after my daughter was a bit older and more independent. I wrote my children’s book, Ollie and the Starchaser, and in between I started a poetry challenge. Writing a poem a week and pairing it with my beautiful friend Denise Smith’s amazing street photography.

What I love about writing poetry is:

· you can camouflage what you feel in the most obscure way and not really reveal exactly what you are thinking

· there is an immediacy that you do not get when you write fiction. You can share it much faster than a novel, which for me can take years to incubate

· taking a small concept and writing a vivid little short story, that shifts someone’s mood from melancholy to joy or wonder

· making opaque connections between words and concepts and creating something clever or beautiful

· everyone reading a poem has a different idea of what it is about and the diversity of thought that a poem can generate fascinates me

· sometimes I do not know what I am feeling until I have written a poem

· but most of all I love distilling the human condition into small sentences

I highly encourage you exploring writing poetry as one of your writing practices. It is a wonderful way to hone your writing craft. It saddens me that so many English teachers have unwittingly made adults feel like they have never understood poetry and even more that they could never write in this pared back story form.

In closing, I leave you with a small poem which I wrote, after my sister and her family had left South Africa, mum was the last person left in the country we were all born in. I had flown from Australia to accompany her to live with me. It was a few nights before I left with her and I stood with my bare feet sinking in the thick grass, knowing there was little chance I would stand on this patch of lawn ever again. This poem came through me and I rushed and penned it on my iPhone. Mary Oliver, the beloved poet, is right when she says, you must write a poem down as soon as it comes to you, if you don’t it will leave you and get written by the person who has a pen in their hand.


The clock does not know it will continue ticking but we will be gone; the garden will remain in velvety verdance and someone else will tend the plants and trim their wild ambitions; the birds will arrive at dawn waiting for the whistling woman as she scatters the seeds of their longings;

The sky will not crack, the clouds will float, the rain will course through the gutters we have called home, but the roof will shelter someone else’s memories; our laughter will compost in the soil, we will be flung, a diaspora of family floating in planes above the turbulence hoping for gentle landings

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