Living in a state of alertness – How-to Finuala Dowling    
Mon, 24 April 2023

Do you ever find yourself wondering how poets manage to conjure poems that sound so perfectly finished out of thin air?

If you approach reading and writing poems in this way, you might come to believe that poems are only composed in the minds of a few very special individuals.

Finuala Dowling, an award-winning poet who has published four collections, believes that the truth is much more exciting and lies much closer to home. In her legendary poetry workshops and courses, she challenges aspiring poets to find raw material for poems hidden in the most ordinary experiences: overheard conversations, catalogues and lists of names, implements we use every day. The trick, she says, is to be alert and pay close attention to everything we encounter.

She has shared five exercises with us, which she uses to help poets hinge into writing.
  1. Write down a simple observation, followed by a reflection. Choose something simple, apparently ordinary: a daily routine, an anecdote, an activity. Describe or record it. Then spend a few moments reflecting. What message, insight or resonance is hidden in what you’ve observed?
  2. Begin this exercise by asserting that something of great importance is coming. After alerting the reader with this fanfare, describe a simple or humble object, gesture, greeting, action, scene. Your poem should consist of a single sentence with line breaks. If you like, you can use one of these phrases to start:
Nothing more important than…
This I have loved more than anything…
More lasting than the pyramids…
A new Olympic event:
Place your trust in…

Don’t worry if the result is funny. (We need more funny poems.)
  1. Find a poem in something you’ve read, in the overheard words of a stranger or the delightful words of a relative. Signal that it is a poem by giving it line breaks. If you like, you can add some contextualising words of your own.
  2. The pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper wrote that one of the strange things that we humans can do is to look at our own selves from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. In other words, we can feel and at the same time watch ourselves feeling.
Write a dialogue poem in which the watching self interviews the inside self about how she/he is feeling.
  1. Every year, police receive baffling complaints from the public, including:
A man phoned to complain of a bright light in the sky. Police investigated and found it was the moon.
A man phoned to alert police to a suspicious peanut in his yard.
Parents complained that a man living near a learning centre spent hours every day observing their children from a window. Police investigated and found a cardboard cut-out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
A woman reported that someone must be stealing her mail because she did not receive the normal amount of birthday cards.

Write a poem made up of imaginary police reports, or a poem entitled ‘Do not telephone the police in the following circumstances’.

In the coming days, allow these exercises to guide your thoughts as you find your best words. Remember that nothing is too ordinary or too strange to become raw material for your writing. You can read more about Dowling’s work on her website or order her new and selected collection Pretend You Don’t Know Me and be moved and entertained by her work.

Instagram: @finuala_dowling

Remember that the AVBOB Poetry Competition reopens on 1 August 2023. Visit our website regularly at for editing tips and advice as well as updates about upcoming workshops