All ages: Imagine Glastonbury – A Festival of Poetry Prompts

It’s the time of year when the weather turns warm and our thoughts drift to festivals: to live music, camping with friends, street food and, er, dodgy plumbing. Crowds are a no-no this year and many of our favourite festivals are not going ahead but the BBC has come to the rescue with a whole programme of past Glastonbury highlights televised and online. To help get you in the festival mood, here are some poetry prompts. And if you write a festival-themed poem and you’re aged 11-17, why not submit it to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which is open until midnight on 31 July 2020?

A photo of a yellow tent in pitch black darkness, lit up brightly from the inside.

Delving into Glastonbury

1) Behind the scenes

Over Glastonbury Weekend, Michael Eavis’s farmland completely transforms into a self-sustaining community. It’s not just the bands – stall owners, food vans, festival workers and even the festival goers themselves all play their own part on creating a real functioning community the size of a small town. Make a list of as many different kinds of people that you can think of who live and work in your community. Pick out who you think makes up the most and the least visible contribution, and try to write a poem that connects them together. For example, in Glastonbury the most visible might be the Pyramid Stage headliner and the least might be the security guard at the car park. How might you get from one to the other in the course of a poem?

Remember that just because someone’s contribution might be less visible than another person’s, doesn’t mean it’s less valuable. Can your poem draw attention to the valuable work of those away from the spotlight?

2) A musical background

Most music has a long history behind it – a song might have been written long ago, or passed down through people and cultures before finding its way to the Glastonbury stage. Most new music contains lots of samples spanning years of music history. Look up one of your favourite songs on a website like whosampled.com (or even Wikipedia!) to discover its ancestry.

Try and write a poem from the perspective of that song, thinking about its journey between many different artists, cultures and genres. What might that song tell you when you ask it about its history?

3) Variations on a theme

In music, a ‘key’ is a piece’s chosen group of notes, which affects the mood of how it sounds. Most western music is in a major or minor key (here’s an article about the difference between them). A major key tends to feel happy, light and airy – and a minor key can be sad, dark and moody.

Pick a mood as your poetry ‘key’ (hungry! angry! confused! silly! curious! thoughtful! etc..). Try to write a poem in that key, describing a subject through that mood. What would a poem about a sandwich look like in the key of ‘angry’? When you’re finished, give it a read and decide whether the poem is ‘major’ (happy!) or ‘minor ‘(sad!). Which words could you change to put your major poem into a minor key, or vice versa?

A photo of a crowd at a concert outdoors, On stage there are bright white lights and smoke. People's hands are raised in the foreground.

Simulate the Festival Experience

If you are truly committed to recreating a festival vibe, you could try camping in your back garden and not showering for three days. BUT if you’re looking for a more low-key way to tap into the festival mentality and connect it to your poetry writing, here are a few ideas.

1) Go unplugged

Part of the fun of going to a festival is that it forces you to go unplugged. You’d be relying on your data plan and trying to make the battery on your phone stretch. And while this might not be ideal conditions for Instagramming your festival experience, it does force you to pay attention to the world around you in a different way. Festivals are really sensory events: the smells of the open air, the food stalls, and other festival goers (ew); the sound of the music and the crowd cheering; the feeling of dancing with your friends. The thought of festivals is even more poignant at the moment, when crowds seem such an alien idea to us in a socially distanced world.

On a piece of paper, write the headings ‘Smell’, ‘Taste’, ‘Sound’, ‘Touch’, ‘Sight’. Under each heading make a list of what you imagine you would find at a festival. Can you write a poem that focuses on just one or two of these senses? Or try writing a longer poem with each stanza or line focussing on a different sense.

2) What’s your poetry line up?

Big festivals are known for having lots of different stages, some featuring established artists, some showcasing up-and-comers. This isn’t just the case for music festivals: poetry and spoken word festivals often take a similar approach. Imagine you’re the Director of a festival of poetry. What would your line-up be? Think about your headliners – are Simon Armitage and Imtiaz Dharker raising the roof? – and your emerging artists. Have you just discovered a new poet at the start of an exciting career? Perhaps you’d have a different stage for every genre of poetry – historic, activist, confessional, nature, or whatever else you fancy. If spoken word and performed poetry inspires you, check out some poets like Joelle Taylor, Polarbear, or Joshua Idehen.

If you have friends who also like to write poetry, why not put together a set list and create your own virtual festival? You could even write new poems specially for the occasion and share your poems over a video call.

If your own writing journey is just beginning, check out last year’s anthology of winning poems from the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Keep writing and send us your poems at foyleyoungpoets.org. It could be YOU featured in that anthology this time next year.

3) Warming up

Live music is not the only performance you’ll find at a festival. At Glastonbury, you’ll also come across theatre, circus, cabaret, dance, magic, puppetry, acrobatics and much more. Check out this page for some video and photo highlights of Glastonbury’s Theatre and Circus area.

Imagine you are performing as part of one of these acts and write a poem based on what you imagine. For example…

  • Imagine you are a puppet being used in a performance. Someone else controls your movements and you cannot speak, but you can see everything. What do you see?
  • Or, imagine a dialogue between a puppet and a puppeteer. How might their personas differ when they are talking to each other, compared to when they are performing to a crowd.
  • Write an acrobatic poem. Think about the shapes an acrobat can make with their body and a trapeze or tightrope. What would be the poetic equivalent? You could try writing within a particular formal constraint such as a haiku. You could try experimenting with the length of lines or with spacing on the page to recreate an acrobat’s somersault or a human pyramid. Or you could try writing some concrete poetry. Here’s a guide to writing a concrete poem on our Young Poets Network (although please note that this particular YPN challenge has now closed).
  • Imagine you are a magician. Think about the props you will use in your magic set. This could be a cloak, a white dove, a bunny rabbit and a top hat, a never-ending handkerchief, a pack of cards or anything else magical you can think of. Write the objects you think of in a list like this:

The cloak is…
The dove is…

And so on. Now think of each object as a metaphor. For example, the cloak might represent the way the magician tries to deceive the audience. What could the other objects represent? It can help to pair up concrete nouns like ‘cloak’ with abstract ideas like ‘deception’. Complete the ends of the sentences e.g. ‘The cloak is deception.’ Now weave these together and expand on them to create a poem.

A seemingly psychodelic photo. In the foreground, two acrobats are bent over backwards. On their stomaches, another acrobat stands, also bent over backwards. On top of that acrobat, a fourth acrobat holds themselves up with their arms and their legs in the air doing the splits. All the acrobats are dressed in tight-fitting clothes with blue-purple swirls on. In the background, there are columns with curtains in between that are pinched in the middle, creating a diamond effect.

4) Chilling out

After all the dynamism of the performances, you might be looking for ways to relax. Fortunately, Glastonbury has you covered here too. The Healing Field offers a menu of yoga, massage, meditation and Tai Chi. If you’re feeling like you need to slow down and take some time for yourself right now, here is a ten-minute guided mindfulness meditation you could try, or check out this resource by Antosh Wojcik on poetry for mental health.

Virtual Glastonbury

As well as the BBC’s extensive coverage, the Glastonbury Festival has put lots of extra content online to bring the festival to your living room. There’s loads of music on offer, as well as dance classes, an art gallery, educational talks at the ‘University of Glastonbury’, a Glastonbury archive, and The Poetry and Words Tent – our favourite, for pretty obvious reasons. Lots of poets have recorded readings, some of them Glastonbury-inspired. And you can dive into the Poetry and Words Tent blog here.

Poets and Festivals

Did you know that Glastonbury has its very own poet in residence? The 2019 poet was Vanessa Kisuule. Check out the poems she wrote about the festival here. Or here’s a video of a poem written by 2011 poet in residence, Tony Walsh a.k.a. Longfella.

Other festival poems you could check out include Mary Ruefle’s ‘The Butter Festival’ and Fuyuhiko Kitagawa’s ‘Festival’. If you’re feeling in a circus mood, try N. J. Hynes’s ‘Why I Won’t Run Away to Join the Circus’, Christopher James’s ‘The Circus on St Kilda’, and Isabella Mead’s ‘Tight Rope’.

Submit your festival poetry to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award by 31 July at foyleyoungpoets.org