NEW resource: Polaris

To launch this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, blue space scene with orange and white stars and planets, and the words ' You Speak in Constellations' we published two anthologies of the winning and commended poems in the 2020 competition, entitled You Speak in Constellations. The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is one of the biggest competitions for young poets aged 11-17. It’s free to enter and you can win some amazing prizes. Check out the ‘Resources for Writers’ section for inspiration, and enter your poems to this year’s competition by 31 July 2021 at foyleyoungpoets.org

In this resource, we’re taking a closer look at one of the winning poems in the anthology, Brigitta McKeever’s ‘Polaris’. There are activities for teachers using the anthology in the classroom, and for individuals reading the poems in their own time, or looking for inspiration for their own writing. Teachers can request a free class pack of the anthology by emailing [email protected] or you can access the online version here.

Navigate the resource using the links below. This resource features:

  1. a video of Brigitta reading the poem, alongside the text
  2. a lesson plan for teachers, suitable for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5
  3. an interview with Brigitta about the poem
  4. points to think about when you’re reading the poem
  5. writing prompts to help you create your own poem
  6. an extension activity, comparing and contrasting three more poems by previous winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award. These poems appear in the anthology of commended poems in the 2020 award: ‘Full Moon: A Fragment’ by Euan Sinclair, ‘jamaica: in search of my body’ by Elyse Thomas, and ‘thunderstorm at night and you tell your sister not to be afraid’ by Ran Zhao.


1. Here is ‘Polaris’, along with a video of Brigitta reading it

Polaris

slit through the
belly and you will find
hot air, slippery fat, rabbit bones,
a beer belch swallowed.
ask him what he has done,
and he will say / nothing.

flush out the acid
and you will see what it has
ravaged. what remains of the forest
is its rot; of its birds, a feather.
ask him what can be done,
and he will say / nothing.

break open the chest
if you desire gold, oil, bleach.
let it smother you and see how
your skin blisters, your eyes turn
to dust, the rib cages nothing.
ask him what he has gained,
and he will say / everything.
                                                       (              )
burrow into his palm and
drain your milk; the North Star
thrashes in his paper folds.
let it blind you and you will see
the narrow skull of a boy, his
hollow cheeks ruddy, the bullet
between his eyes bleeding light.
ask him what he regrets,
and he will say /

2. Lesson Plan

If you’re a teacher, take a look at a brand new lesson plan on the poem, written by Teacher Trailblazer Stephanie Nobes, from Hounsdown School, Hampshire. Stephanie encourages students to use this poem to think about the relationship between poetry and objects, the body, and the ‘Evolution of Me’.

If you’re coming to the poem as an individual student, you might also find the lesson plan inspiring, or read on for more ways into the poem…

3. Interview with Brigitta McKeever

Brigitta is originally from Colorado, but now lives in England. She has loved creative writing ever since primary school, and placed second in the Young Romantics Poetry Prize 2020 for her poem ‘Mockingbird’. She started writing poetry when she was about thirteen, but it was reading the work of writers like Danez Smith and John Burnside that cemented her love of poetry and helped her to experiment more with her own writing. Brigitta finds that she especially enjoys writing about social issues and identity. Alongside writing and reading, she plays the violin, mandolin and sings, and she is planning to study English literature at university next year. Here, she tells us a bit more about her winning poem ‘Polaris’.

Question: What was your motivation or inspiration for writing ‘Polaris’?treasure chest with jewellery

Answer: I wrote the poem in summer 2020, and my main motivation was the Black Lives Matter protests happening in America at the time. More broadly though, it was motivated by a build-up of my own dissatisfaction and anger towards the US. I was born in America and moved to England when I was seven, and I think that gave me a more detached view of the US where I was able to see its problems as an outsider, but simultaneously made my feelings a lot stronger because they were the problems of my own country. The treatment of Native Americans, military involvement in the Middle East, slavery and police brutality were the main things I was thinking about while writing. I had also been reading some Margaret Atwood poetry at the time, specifically ‘Songs of the Transformed’, and I think that influenced the choice to transform America into the body of a man.

Question: Can you tell us anything about the form of this poem?

Answer: I used free verse and no capitalisation because I wanted the poem to feel more modern and separate from tradition, to reflect the breaking away from old ideas about America that happens in the poem through the dissection/operation. I wanted the stanza lengths to increase as it went on to match the building intensity of the contents, as if the violence couldn’t be contained within the six-line stanzas I had started with. I used the forward slashes to create a gap and mimic speech, to make it hard to tell if the man said the word ‘nothing’, or if he didn’t reply at all. To me, saying ‘nothing’ is active denial, whereas silence suggests a refusal to even acknowledge the questions being asked.

Question: Could you tell us anything about the voice or point of view of the poem?

Answer: I used second person to involve the reader directly in the contents of the poem, interrogating and dissecting the ‘man’. The second person creates the impression that anyone is able to dissect him, but also makes it unavoidable – the reader can’t run away from what they’re finding.

Question: The imagery in this poem is quite startling, including animals, body parts, and the North Star. Why did you choose this imagery?

Answer: I used the body of a man to represent America as I wanted to make it easily dissectible, but also to make the starting image more recognisable and small-scale. ‘Hot air’ ‘rabbit bones’ ‘beer belch’ etc. in the first stanza build up this image of an average, kind of nasty guy who hunts and drinks a lot, but what’s within him and upholding him is more sinister.

I used ‘chest’ because it can be taken as either the body part, or a treasure chest image. Since the poem is focused on the body, the assumption is that the chest also refers to the body part, but instead of a heart being underneath, there’s only evidence of the man’s greed. I used ‘bleach’ because it reminds me of teeth bleaching, which seems like a very American thing, but also because it suggests there’s something that needs cleaning or covering up. The image of milk suggests innocence and protectiveness to me, but I also used it because there were discussions at the time about protesters putting milk in their eyes to wash out the tear gas used by police, and about how the protesters should use water instead. I wanted to draw a link between the protesters and the poem’s dissection/operation of America, because in a way, I think that’s exactly what the protesters were doing.

I put the North Star in the centre of the ‘man’ to mimic the image of the soul as something small and glowing, almost like a star. I used the North Star in particular because it’s the brightest star in the sky, just like America is often seen as the most powerful, most important country, along with stars being on the American flag. Since the North Star is the brightest and most known for its light, I wanted to flip that on its head, along with light’s traditional connotations of goodness and purity. The light comes from a bullet wound, and all of America’s power and supposed goodness is really built on brutality.

stars in the sky, with one star brighter than the rest

4. Reading the Poem – think about these points as you read, or discuss them with a friend

  • The title of the poem, ‘Polaris’, means the North Star, and this is mentioned again later in the poem. What do you think the significance of the star is?
  • Imagery of the body occurs often in this text. How many parts of the body can you find in the poem? Why do you think the poet has chosen this imagery (there are some clues in the interview above!)?
  • The poem is full of imperative verbs – ‘slit’, ‘flush’, ‘break’, ‘let’, ‘burrow’, ‘drain’, and the repetition of ‘ask’. What is the effect of this?
  • Why do you think the poet chose to write this poem in the second person (‘you’)?
  • Can you notice any unusual use of punctuation in the poem? What is the purpose of this?
  • What is the role of ‘nothing’ in this poem? How would you characterise the tension between what is said and what is left unsaid?

5. Writing Prompts

If you’d like to try writing your own poem, here are some ideas to get you started. You can submit your poem(s) for free to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award at foyleyoungpoets.org

  • ‘Polaris’ is full of concrete nouns – body parts, gold, oil, bleach – but there is also an abstract ‘nothing’ to which the poet constantly returns. Make a list of concrete nouns: you might choose objects in the room you’re currently in, objects that mean something to you, or a themed group of objects, such as foods, tools, or kitchen items. Now think about some abstract ideas you might like to write about, such as ‘joy’, ‘fear’, or ‘kindness’. How can you use the objects to convey the abstract idea?
  • Can you write a poem that takes the body as inspiration? For more ideas, check out this recent challenge on Young Poets Network. The challenge has closed now, but you can still use the prompts to create poems and submit them to the Foyle Young Poets Award.
  • There is syntactic parallelism in the poem, which is when phrases or sentences use the same types of words in an identical order. For example, the lines ‘slit through the belly’ and ‘break open the chest’ are both constructed as verb-preposition-article-noun. Can you write a poem that uses this technique, building patterns of words for effect?
  • The poem ‘Polaris’ is all about uncovering secrets or things that have not been vocalised. The poem encourages us to dig into the unknown, but leaves us unsure about what we have unearthed. To stretch yourself, try writing in a way that builds deliberate ambiguity into your subject matter – remember, it’s OK for a poem to ask questions without having all the answers.

6. Extension Activity

In ‘Polaris’, Brigitta McKeever takes the symbol of the North Star, a guiding light, and relates it to a process of uncovering or revealing what has been hidden. This is part of a long tradition in which poets find inspiration in the sky – in fact, the sky is so inspirational that we named the latest anthology of winning poems You Speak in Constellations! In this extension activity, we’ve brought together three more poems that are inspired by the sky, all written by commended poets in the 2020 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. All these poems are collected in the commended poems anthology, here. Once you’ve read the poems, think about the discussion points, below, comparing and contrasting the texts. The different colours used in the poems below have been added by us, to help you when reading the discussion points.

Euan Sinclair’s ‘Full Moon: A Fragment’

“Do you think that… I have slept too long in the moonlight?”
    – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

A cotton-coloured moon
Hangs low and luminous in the sky
Tonight – like an eggshell – soon
To be broken –

Or a ripened watermelon
Suspended from a branch of stars –
Round and smooth
And glittering with dew
And waiting –
To be lopped in two –

Elyse Thomas’s ‘jamaica: in search of my body’ (watch Elyse perform it here)

my husband hums        a thunderstorm
in my ear each night.

i small up myself against him,
our bones clink together
like glass.

i lost my maiden name
a few summers ago.
it crept through me
as i slept.

i tore
myself a new name
in newspaper,
tattooed words to my palms,
sculpted letters into moons,
& watched them escape
into sky,        revolve around
each other—in orbit.

does he remember        when my body,
dropped itself
like a single, welled tear
into the river?

my limbs braiding
themselves into the current.
pricked by water.        how the river
hushed, sleep now.

& i asked to drown.

i safety pin his kisses to my skirt
& anchor myself to him.
my body sinks further
into his arms, his hands
no longer life rafts.

& i hope i can remember
how to whisper back lightning.

Ran Zhao’s ‘thunderstorm at night and you tell your sister not to be afraid’ (watch Ran perform it here)

come here. do you know how thunder is made? 
lightning rends the atmosphere apart / leaves the 
air pitted / leaves it negative fractal / sawtooth void in 
the brightness of the sky. do you hear how the air 
rushes in, filling the wound of itself? listen, this 
shuddering of the ground is only an act of healing /
only an act of rejoining together. ten thousand feet
above us, the sky is mending itself again and again.
isn’t that beautiful?

Discussion Points

Use these discussion points to compare the three poems, also drawing on what you have learned about Brigitta McKeever’s poem:

  • Looking first at ‘Full Moon: A Fragment’, what do you make of the title? Can a moon be full and a fragment at the same time? Or does the fragment refer to something else and, if so, what?
  • Still thinking about the first poem, we have coloured some similes and metaphors in green. Do you think these are unusual ways to describe the moon? How are they effective?
  • Now thinking about ‘jamaica: in search of my body’, what do you think the relationship is between Jamaica and the speaker’s body? Drawing on what you have learnt about Brigitta McKeever’s poem, how do you think parts of the body and concrete nouns are connected to a sense of identity in this poem?
  • We have highlighted some words red, some orange, some green, and some blue in the poem. Why do you think we have grouped them like this? Does this tell you anything about the themes of the poem?
  • Thinking about ‘thunderstorm at night’, look at the verbs we have coloured purple. All are present participles, which means they are -ing verbs, conveying a continuous action. What is the effect of this? Does it make you think about the word ‘lightning’ in a different way?
  • The word ‘fractal’ means a never-ending pattern. What do you think ‘negative fractal’ could mean? In what ways can poetry be patterned?
  • All of these poems use punctuation in unusual ways: Euan uses lots of dashes, Elyse inserts gaps into some lines and uses ampersands (&), and Ran use slashes. Think, also, about how Brigitta used parentheses and slashes in ‘Polaris’. Why do you think these poets have chosen to punctuate their poems in this way? What is the relationship between the sky and the words on the page?
  • Compare and contrast the point of view in these poems. Are they written in the first, second, or third person? How does that make a difference to your experience as a reader? Can you rewrite any of them from a different stance?
  • ‘jamaica: in search of my body’ and ‘thunderstorm at night’ both use questions. Are the questions used in Ran’s poem the same type of question used in Elyse’s poem, or do they have a different purpose or effect?
  • Thinking more about sky imagery, what is the role of the moon in Euan and Elyse’s poems? What is the role of thunder and lightning in Elyse and Ran’s poems?

planet, stars, and face in a moon, with the words 'Enter Now'All the poems featured in this resource were written by poets aged 11-17. If you’re aged 11-17 and you’ve been inspired by these poems, consider entering this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Visit foyleyoungpoets.org to submit your poems.