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Making use of what’s around you

In which the learners consider the wider 'where' of where they write: your street, town, city, country, environment, online or offline.

In the previous step, Helen introduced one of her found poems. A found poem is a poem made out of words the poet uncovered somewhere else. Found poems can be made out of shopping lists, place names, diary entries, etc. Over the next few steps, we will be writing our own found poems. In this step, we will be using our immediate environment to gather the materials we need. To help us, we will be taking advice from the French writer and member of experimental writing group OuLiPo, Georges Perec (1936-1982). Here is an exercise Perec describes in his essay ‘The Street’:

Observe the street, from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps.
Apply yourself. Take your Time.
Note down the place: the terrace of a cafe near the junction of the Rue de Bac and the Boulevard
Saint Germain
the time: seven o’ clock in the evening
the date: 15 May 1973
the weather: set fair
Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you?
Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see.

You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.[1]

Perec describes a simple street. He writes down apparently insignificant details: the street name, the time, the weather. Perec then asks you, the reader, if you see ‘anything worthy of note going on’. He is suggesting that the problem is not that there is nothing happening on this ordinary street, but that we have forgotten how to see the ordinary.

Perec gives clear instructions for us to follow so that we can learn how to ‘see’ again. (We might expand this term to include the other senses: hearing, smelling, touching, tasting.) He writes: ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.’

Let’s try something similar then. Let’s take Perec’s advice and do this ‘slowly, almost stupidly’. Don’t let anything escape your attention. Choose a place. It doesn’t have to be a street, but a place you are familiar with. It might be where you live or work. Now try to find in that place traces of language, the kind of stuff you normally ignore: adverts, timetables, machinery labels, registration numbers, street names, numbers, overheard conversations…etc. You might set aside ten minutes to do this, or do it on your way to work.


[1] Perec G. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. London: Penguin Classics; 2008.

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How To Make A Poem

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