Secondary (11+): Imagined Worlds by Michelle Madsen

The brilliant Michelle Madsen has created a poetry workshop perfect for Key Stage 3 and beyond, exploring the theme of imagined worlds. So get ready to immerse yourself in another world and create new possibilities through poetry.

A cosmos in a carpet, a continent under the stairs, a whole ice sheet in your bathroom sink.

C. S. Lewis, John Donne, Ursula Le Guin, Coleridge, Lynne Reid Banks, Terry Pratchett and Lewis Carroll are just some of the thousands of authors who opened up cupboard doors, peered into closets, stared at carpets and contemplated fleas to discover other worlds which somehow made it easier to understand the places and times they lived in.

In this strange time, when our worlds have suddenly shrunk to our homes, let’s take a magnifying glass to places we find so familiar and open up as yet undiscovered universes in unexpected places.


This is an exercise which I use when I am working on building an idea of the worlds I am creating when I am writing for theatre, but it works really well for poetry and fiction as well. There’s nothing like opening up the unknown through places you (think you) know better than the back of your hand.

  • Take a tour of the place you live with a notebook and find a place which you find interesting. It might be the way that the light hits a certain spot, or the temperature of the room, it might be that it’s the one place where you can be on your own, or it might be somewhere hidden.Take yourself comfortable and free write for 4 minutes about this place. Think about:
    • What you can see?
    • What it smells like?
    • What sounds you can hear?
    • What memories it has for you?
  • Now change your perspective – if you have been standing try sitting down, or lying down. Try to find a way of looking at this place from an angle which is completely new to you – I like to lie with my legs up against a wall – that usually changes my perspective quite a bit. How do things change from this perspective, what can you see that you didn’t see before? Have the things you can see taken on different meaning? Think about magic eye pictures and optical illusions and let your imagination flow. Free write for four minutes or more about what you see and feel from this new perspective.
  • Find a comfortable place to write. Starting with one of the images you have written about, describe how you would enter this other world. Maybe you can only enter it if you touch something, or if a certain sound is made, or a change in temperature or smell is a signal that you’re shifting into another plane.
  • Longer writing task: Once you have a feeling for what this world might be like and how you get there, imagine you are showing a stranger around your new universe. Who lives here, what can you see, what happens here? What’s the atmosphere like? You might be a guide, or an estate agent, or a security guard, or someone who is in charge, or someone who has absolutely no power but knows everything there is to know about this place. You are in the here and now and you are writing in the first person. You can write prose or a poem. If you write a poem, start each line of the first verse with a preposition – under, over, below, beyond, at, here, there etc. You can go wild after that.

Examples of imaginary world poems chosen by Michelle and The Poetry Society’s education team: 

The posh mums are boxing in the square

by Wayne Holloway-Smith

roughing each other up in a nice way
This is not the world into which I was born
              so I’m changing it
I’m sinking deep into the past and dressing my own mum
in their blue spandexes
svelte black stripes from hip to hem
and husbands with better dispositions toward kindness
or at least          I’m giving her new lungs
I’m giving her a best friend    with no problems and both of them pads
some gloves to go at each other with    in a nice way
I’m making it a warm day for them but also
I’m making it rain
the two of them dapping it out in long shadows
I’m watching her from the trees grow
strength in her thighs     my mum
grow strength in her glutes my mum
her back taught upright
her knees
and watching her grow no bad thing in her stomach no tumour
her feet do not hurt to touch    my mum she is hopping
sinews are happening
wiry arms developing their full reach
no bad thing explodes

sweat and not gradual death     I’m cheering
no thing in her stomach no alcohol
no cigarettes with their crotonaldehyde let my dad keep those
no removal of her womb
– and I’m cheering her on in better condition
cheering she is learning to fight for her own body
in spandex her new life
and though there is no beef between them
if her friend is gaining the upper hand
I will call out from the trees
       her name
and when she turns    as turn she must
my mum                  in the nicest possible way
can slug her right in the gut

At the Funeral

By Maggie Olszewski

Brother and sister take polar bears.
Brother parks his between
two F-150s but sister’s won’t stay,
instead follows her to the front row
of fold-out seats and licks her wrists
when hungry, so she digs through her pockets
for bits of raw seal. After the ceremony, she feeds
brother’s bear too. Family members say nothing because
there aren’t any rules against bears.
Brother and sister take polar bears
for a walk, all the way to the Arctic and back.
Bundled to their chins, they watch their
bears ask other bears why
it’s so cold here. And other bears say
it could be colder. Sun a gravestone.
Ice the body being buried. Time
for the reception, sister finds hers scraping its claws
through layers of white to brown, scraping an H, an E,
Help, Heaven, Hello, and brother
can’t find his at all.
Sister takes hers into the funeral home and for a snack
it eats its whole plate, crunch of ceramics.
Mother says nothing because
their father is dead.
Mother says nothing but feeds the bear
his shoes, his wallet, a wedding invitation he left magnetised
to the refrigerator which now sits filled with fish. And sister hates the bear
and the way it smells
but falls asleep on a bench with her face in its fur, rubs its ears
now she’s out of seal,
does nothing to make it leave though she wonders
why it stays

from Kubla Khan

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Read the poem in full here.


You can find other poems by exploring the poems database on The Poetry Society, the Poetry Foundation ,the Poetry Archive and the Children’s Poetry Archive.

Check out more of Michelle’s fantastic work at

If you are aged 11-17 years, don’t forget that you can enter your poems into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. It is free to enter and there is no theme. Enter by 31 July at