Trauma writing exercise

Here’s a little trauma writing exercise for you all. I’ve used it in several workshops, online and peer sesisons, and it works very well. As always, my primary advice is not to put any expectation on the writing, or the results. Follow you gut, and let  your gut, guide the pen.
Part  1
Free, long sentences. No structure. Time yourself per section, 1 minute
– Think of an animal, the first that comes to mind.
– Think of place in which this animal lives/roams.
– Describe the place in detail
– Describe the animal in detail
– Where has the animal come from (do we know?)
– Where is it going (do we know?)
– Your animal has an injury. Describe the injury.
From here:
Underline phrases/images that stand out. That surprise, unsettled. That you might like to use. At least 6, at the most 12.
List these phrases words down the page.
Read it through. What do you find?
Start to shape this para into something of a poem, giving it a rough form. Don’t put any expectations on it. Just work with what you have. This is just an animal poem, for now, don’t force going any deeper unless it comes naturally to you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments, and read about your creative developments as a result of this exercise. Please tweet them @HelenCalcutt or send me a private message.

New poem: Cardiff Review

I’m so excited to share this poem with you.

This is the title poem to my new, working collection ‘A mountain that is your grief you can’t utter’. Thank you to the Cardiff Review for publishing it! I’ve posted an extract below, and a link to the full poem beneath.

I wanted to follow it — though I was going home to a house of light.
I stared, hard. The stars
wouldn’t come forward

and I looked a long time
from the mouth of the bridge, feeling for a mountain,
with the dark bearing down, like a wing.

Read the full poem here:

From a distance…

I’ve composed, and shaped several new  poems whilst away. I’ve been surprised by how physical, geographical distance from home (and everything we might associate with our trauma) can bring about a deeper understanding of it. New landscapes give rise to new creative manifestations, which is perhaps a testament to the power any given trauma can have. It can re-attach, remake itself almost, in the fabric of a new place,  offering new perspectives of course, but also relief.

All the new sensory delights of a different country – from the coastal influences of the sea and sky, to the incessant thrum of cicacda music, has transformed my own personal understanding of the event of Matthew’s death. The creative horizon collapsed and opened simultaneously after the first few days of scribbling, leaving enormous scope for change. I was provided with new robes or fabrics within which to bundle and carry my grief, and when it wasn’t felt (which it often isn’t) new visual gateways (though remarkly distinct and totally unrelated to him in any way) acted as hooks on which I could place a Matthew poem or idea. I thought a lot about home, too, family and new life, again perhaps somewhat unrelated, but steppingey back in this way – naturally and without guilt – helped me find the tenuous, yet beautiful relevance. Exploring them fully has been a crucial part of my personal trauma writing process.

Working out any given trauma through writing itsn’t just about hammering away at the event itself, or the pain of it (though this as its place). It’s about all the litte dust pieces that connect. And in Greece I was able to walk through, as if through sandstorm, the many sesmic waves that continue to pulse, purr even, after Matthew’s death.

Once such ring was for my unborn daughter. My first, Josephene, had two uncles. This baby will still have two,  but she’ll never meet one of them. This was something I’d never consciously thought about, until I came across  ‘the field’. A golden, hazy expanse of land secluded just a few paces from the Agean coast, protected by long tufts of ragged, sun-beaten reeds. It’s at its most alluring in the evening, before dusk. It’s most haunting at night. I walked past it almost every day on our little family outings to the cove to swim. And every day a line or two would come.


It was a clearing beyond itself.
Formed the instant it appeared, yet held together by memory.
Threads hung from the corners by light. The haze
warmed and christened my brow, the gold made
new silt of my body.

When I read over these lines I could see they weren’t just desriptive notes. Something very new was coming.

I wasn’t carrying you anymore. I was looking towards
where you and I were headed
seeing you clear, through the grasses that rocked
seeing, for the first time
a cradle of peace…

and beyond that, the place my brother had died
This was a resting place where nothing
had been buried or born. You,
and him, your imagined skins met tentatively in the light; a wing, his shirt
a dust mote, your eye.

This was the first time I’d written directly about my unborn baby. And it intrigued me that she came hand in hand with the gentle appearance of my dead brother. He’s been present in many of my poems, but never in a tender way as this.

Your gathering
brought my seeing to tatters, such was the life.

Life? How can the visual manifestaiton of a dead brother, and an unborn daughter, radiate this? But it did, with ease and beauty, there in the empty but field. And again and again in the poem, which I’m deliberately taking my time over writing, simply because it just feels so good to explore this sort of soft, unfolding connection to Matthew, one that continues long after his passing. It’s a comfort if anything and dare I say, theraputic.

‘The Field’ again, just before nightfall.

..and again, in Watercolour

You, death, are a mountain that will not move…

I’ve been working very closely with mentor and editor Mario Petrucci on a poem that lost its original intention. Largely through over-editing, and through the naive assumption that every poem in this collection needs to, in some way, mention my brother.

The trigger of a trauma or grief lands like a stone in the sand. But what happens when it hits? There’s the deep impression of its weight in the soft, sandy bed. And then all those fine, powdery particles erupting outwards, mushrooming into a thick, cicular progression of dust. Part of the writing challenge here, is to somehow capture this radiation, and everything it touches.

With Mario’s guidance, I’ve come to an important landmark in the trauma writing process – that is, realsing how valuable, yet discrete, this new space from which to write, can be. My new poem ‘Garden’ is the product of exploring it. I’ve posted a snippet below.

And just before I go, a few phrases from Mario that I’ve shaped into advice, that might help some of you on your own, trauma writing journeys.

1) The initia l energy of a poem is key, especially a trauma poem. Stick with it.

2) It’s okay to ‘make love’ to death. And by this I mean – it’s okay to get close, sensual, weird. Especially if your trauma is connected to it.

3) Sometimes, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture (the eruption of dust) and spend some good, quality time exploring it.

Garden (extract)

The garden is speaking to me with the rain.
It rocks and sways like the bow
of my spine when making love.
It talks the way a body talks.
The trees bend their hard backs
and moan with the weight,
their long green hair
throws shafts of purple – the birds
touch in and out of the downward wet.
They rock and sway like the bow of my spine
when making love.
I catch that song among them,
such jewels
lit up like still bones
and I wonder if the sky is a coffin,
if they flit and skitter, adorning the dead…

Extract from ‘Garden’ © Helen Calcutt 2019