This site is full of creative poetry/art exercises that aim to bring pleasure back into using words and writing. We welcome the participation of you and your child, please have a look at the list of contents, or the blog archive and try out any of the exercises that you like the look of. We welcome your comments on the success (or otherwise) of the idea…

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Acrostic Poems

Recently Joe and I have really been struggling with writing, so it was exciting that yesterdays task went down so well, he embraced the idea and was creative and productive. I suspect the delight for Joe was the simplicity of the form, the fun, game playing, puzzle making, silliness and he got to do some decorative writing!

Acrostic poems are easy to write, the first letter, syllable or word of each line in the poem spells out a word or message. Good for writing secrete coded messages!


Joe's wrote about his sister;


1. choose a word for your subject, it could be a name, or an activity...
2. write that word in big bold letters vertically going down the side of your piece of paper (or you could cut letters out of newspapers or magazines and stick them down.)
3. think of lots of words that fit with the subject, don't worry if they fit with the letters, list as many as you can think of
4. look through your list of words, and think about how they could fit in the poem
5. when you're sure write them down.

In Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the final chapter is an acrostic of the real Alice's name: Alice Pleasance Liddell.

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July -

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear -

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream -
Lingering in the golden gleam -
Life, what is it but a dream?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Dear Father Christmas

It's a real a slog sometimes motivating my son to write and I know I'm not alone. However I do believe there is one writing exercise that any boy who celebrates Christmas will be eager to get on with, that's writing their wish list for Father Christmas. It feels really early to me, (its not even December) but inspired by spotting the first Father Christmas of the season, Joe wrote his list. On one side he did a drawing, the other his list and a joke he made up for Father Christmas (he plans to leave the punch line out on Christmas Eve) On those days when every letter, every word is a struggle, its good to reflect on the ease of writing a wish list! and as one of his teachers said 'any writing is good writing.'

Monday, 22 November 2010

learning to speak

Joe's little sister Minnie might not be speaking many comprehendible words, but everyday she understands a wider selection. We thought it would be a good idea to record some of these words for posterity, as my memory of dates  of even the major milestones of Joe's life so far, seem to have disappeared.

This exercise could be adapted for any younger relative or friend, or could be used to record the first words spoken.

  1. Make a list of the words either spoken or understood by the younger child. The whole family can join in with this activity, taking the pressure of writing and spelling of the words.
  2. Read through the list, and look for words that could make good pictures such as button, dog or ball.
  3. Enjoy drawing the chosen shape- in Joe's case an octopus.
  4. Write your list of words in the drawing, you can try turning the paper round in circles, changing the size of your letters, using colour, writing the words on a jagged line or a curved line.... in Joe's example instead of drawing the octopus's legs, he used the list of words
  5. Keep your artwork as a reminder (for those with failing memories) of your little sister/brothers first steps into language.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


A monogram is a motif made by overlapping or combining two or more letters to form one symbol.

artists and craftspeople's monograms

Throughout history, artists and craftspeople have signed their work in a number of ways, often with a monogram. Monograms first appeared in the West on coins, around 350BC. In China the tradition of signing your artwork with a stamp ('stampo') is very ancient. The same idea is used by graffiti artists to design their tags.

Virkotype monograms

A really lovely exercise is to design your own monogram. You can try:

* Playing with your own initials by overlapping different sizes of letters
* Try different shapes outlining the monogram in circles, diamonds, squiggles...
* Use colour
* Try designing a monogram for a friend or family member
* Next time you draw or paint a picture, sign it with your personal monogram.

Joe's swirling monogram

Joe's exploding monogram

For children who enjoy drawing and designing, this is a sideway step into to writing. They're beginning the process of writing without even realizing it. 

Exercises like these help to foster joy and delight in letter forms. Individual letters can be playful and played with and children can take ownership of them, banishing the fear and boredom from writing. 

Joe's monogram

Joe's initials, not truly a monogram as they're not joined into one whole, but still a lovely job - an artwork in its own right/write. 

Monday, 8 November 2010

play with your food (and other spelling ideas)

This year Joe's spelling homework is coming in thick and fast. We're finding the LOOK, SAY, COVER, WRITE AND CHECK method very effective, but I do like to try other methods to make things more interesting, less stressful and more pleasurable, for child and parent. Particularly the latter.

spaghetti ABOUT

We've just had a go at spelling in spaghetti shapes; they looked great, but Joe found it difficult to concentrate, as he wanted to eat his spellings. Perhaps it would work better with a less hungry child. These spelling suggestions are based on the idea of using the MATERIAL of the words as an important part of their composition. A word made out of elastoplast, for instance, will tend to stick (ha ha) in the mind more readily than one written with the usual biro - especially if the material and the subject of the word complement each other. The sticking plaster word might be 'injury'.

Other ideas you could try: 

*  Write the words on a black or white board.
*  Write each word (or even the different parts of each) in a different colour and/or decorate the letters.
*  Use chalk to write the words outside on the pavement, how big can you write your words?
*  Use bath crayons or foam letters and decorate the bath with your spell list.
*  Use Scrabble letter tiles to spell the words.
*  Type your words on a computer, using your nose.
*  Find sticks, pebbles, rock, leaves and create the words on the ground out of your found objects.
*  Use your finger to spell out the word on a friend or family member's back, then take your turn to feel the words on your back.
*  Use letter magnets, on the fridge or other metal surfaces.
*  Write the words in sand, or in mud, or a steamy window, or snow.

If you have any other creative ways to help with spelling practice that you could share, it would be great to hear about them. Spelling is never my favourite, so any tips will be welcomed as honoured guests. Phil is fine with spelling, but can't add numbers up - however that's a matter for a different blog.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

a lantern poem

We're all a bit sleepy today, so struggled a bit with this, but we wanted to get it finished in time for Bonfire Night. We've used the idea of sending a wish into the sky and mingled it with the names of star constellations. You can find the names, origin, pronunciation and star charts at

a paper sky lantern
pen and paper

1. Think about a wish for yourself and a wish for a friend, family member or the whole world. If you struggle with this, you could use the names of the star constellations for inspiration as Joe did on his example. Write a couple of ideas down (or get someone to write them down for you)

2. Have a look through the list of star constellations, write down the names of any you like.
3. Cut up the lines of wishes and the names of constellations and swirl them up.
4. Write your ideas onto your lantern.
5. Wait till its dark, then light your lantern and send it up to your chosen constellation.

Joe wrote:

I wish for the phoenix spirit
the wings of pegasus
the teeth of canis major the great dog
the horn of the unicorn
the arms of cancer the crab
and the mane of leo the lion

Other ideas: 
a four line wish including the names of four constellations and one astronomical instrument.

Friday, 5 November 2010

A brain of a dream of a dog

Our first workshop in Warrington with young carers and children from Women’s Aid, mostly pre-teens, took place last Friday. An ice-breaker for all of us, we let the participants steer much of the session, building trust and emphasising playfulness. By getting a sense of the group when they were relaxed, we were able to gauge how they might be able to explore more deeply.

concrete poem on a plaster
The art-room in Warrington Peace Centre was set up with separate spaces for five different exercises, plus extra materials from Derek (Warrington Museum and Art Gallerywho had commissioned this initial workshop and came to lend his support. We would try overwriting, fold-in and some variants on concrete poetry and collage, using pens, postcards and stencils. 

The Dead
The intention was to build on this session in order to run further workshops focussed on text/art self-portraits. It was also a chance for Derek to see us in action and decide if our approach fitted the group. Because the first session was on the doorstep of Halloween, the young carers arrived in their finest, witchiest costumes and face-paint. We decided to busk along this theme, using the excuse of spookiness to explain the weird effect of some of the pieces.

Spooky World
Overwriting (a la Bob Grenier) combined with ‘wrong hand’ writing, was used to create badges with a 50s horror movie flavour. We hope to come back to this ‘wrong hand’ technique again, with the group exploring the push/pull between positive and negative self-image. Badges are a form of self-labelling; these ones were essentially fancy dress, the equivalent of a ghost mask, but the same method can be used to go deeper under the surface. For this day, the big success was the enthusiasm which met these little bits of mini-writing. An industrious girl made six badges and clinked as she walked away at the end of the afternoon.
Stencil Face
The concrete poem faces were very simple, game-like. Again, this was an easy way into a technique that is extraordinarily expressive; we will return to it. One of the delights was that a young girl F who had literacy problems was able to make a witty poetic piece, completely unhampered by (and unaware of) her spelling.
F also contributed beautifully to the largest piece of the day, a cross-section of a brain that people wrote dream fragments into (this was the fold-in writing). F wrote a short sentence, needing letter-by-letter guidance. “What else can I do?” she asked.
“Can you draw?” I enquired.
A Brain of a Dream of a Dog
Not only could she draw, but was bursting to do so. She was joined by Kitty, whose specialty was drawing dogs. And so the brain became a figment of a dreaming dog’s imagining, filled with further dreaming dogs, dream bones, cats up trees, a cat and crossbones, and a doggy spiel written by the irrepressible Billy. A brain of a dream of a dog was a piece of splendid whimsy, co-drawn-and-written by roughly ten of the group. Co-operative pieces like this tend to be unwieldy, but are great to get a group working as a team and also quieten criticism.

The collage-making produced some of the most subtle pieces of the day, recycling postcards into little dioramas with intriguing perspective shifts and lush textures. The makers of these pieces also seemed to be the most introspective, moving quietly into the imagined space of their postcard worlds.

The workshop was a very joyful day of silliness and messing, with a serious undercurrent. We were very aware of the backgrounds of the young people and the thin ice that some of them walk across day-to-day. The question is: how to develop the exercises, to reflect this experience without intruding?

For more images please visit

We will run number of one day workshops, relating carers' experiences and emotions in a creative manner. This will link this to the exhibition at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery by American street artist Elbow-Toe who creates collages and prints depicting the emotions of the inner person. We will use portraiture combined with poetry; work will be displayed in the town centre and/or gallery.

As with our hospital work, the pace of exploration will be determined by the participants themselves - it’s their choice. Enthusiasm is a key in all this and so we will revisit the things that elicited the best responses to see where they lead. The badges are a particularly popular activity and can open out into various kinds of writing and self-portraiture, including photography, so they will feature. The group piece was a gand way to gather all the ages and abilities into one space and we will experiment with this further, with a tighter brief. We hope to visit the Elbow-Toe exhibition with the groups, to focus our work and move it into an introspective mode.

single word concrete poems

All you need is a single word, a piece of paper (or mud, sand, salt etc.) and something to write with. Your job is to make the word look more interesting, by changing the shape or size of the letters or playing with space and colour.

a           lone

Joe's Galaxy

Dramatic words work well, you could try:

Joe's thin & fat

or descriptive words

short & tall
little & big
upside down
under & over
uphill &  downhill

Joe's uphill downhill

You can find other examples in books and on the internet, such as Alec Finlay's Loop poem, and Salt Publishing's splendidly obvious Salt, with letters pressed into the white stuff. This is also chosen by us for another reason (see below).

Alec Finlay, Loop, vinyl on wall, 2006

Salt Publishing logo

A book for inspiration is A Poke in the I, a recent collection of concrete poems, selected by Paul Janeczko and niftily illustrated by Chris Raschka. If you'd like to dig deeper, look at Concrete Poetry by Mary Ellen Solt, her joyous FLOWERS IN CONCRETE is at

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

a drop in workshop and a screaming badge

Last Friday we ran a drop in workshop day with a group of Young Carers at the Peace Centre in Warrington.  We played with lots of ideas from our Boys Can Write collection, themed around Halloween, including scary stencil faces, grisly plaster poems, screaming badge making and nightmarish poetry making. You can see the results on our portfolio site at

Thanks to Derek at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery for such a smoothly run event.

To make your own screaming badge..

You will need a red and black pen, scissors, something to create a circular shape and sticky tape.

1. What makes you scream? It could be a scream of excitement or joy, or something that makes you scream with terror.
2. If there are any spelling that you are unsure about, practice them on a separate piece of paper.
3. On card or thick paper, write with a red pen, holding it in your teeth.
4. Then with a black pen, write it again using your 'wrong' hand.
5. If you like you can repeat the words writing with your feet, or getting someone to shake the paper, or turning the paper around, or writing with the palms of your hands.
6. Find something to draw around, such as a mug or eggcup, draw a circle around your most marvellous piece of writing.
7. Cut out your badge shape, attach a safety pin with a bit of tape and wear with pride. You are now officially scary.

PS. For a completely different result with a similar technique, look at the beautiful meditative work of the American poet Bob Grenier at

Monday, 1 November 2010

Background notes for parents and teachers

Sometimes words can freeze up, especially if they’re being written onto a snowy white page. Writer’s Block is a famous term, that conjures images of a desperate author reaching for the vodka, but it is a problem that affects many schoolchildren too. The problem is usually a combination of self-consciousness and lack of confidence. Those two things make a formidable block. But one of the best ways to get around a blocked path is simply to use a new route.

This blogsite is full of ideas for taking a sideways step around problems with writing. By using exercises that can be played like games, the anxiety that adds to the problem can be defused. Creativity has always been close kin to playing – and musicians actually do ‘play’, of course. We’ve collected many techniques that are used by contemporary artists and writers. Some, like concrete poetry, cut-ups and Oulipo strategies are rarely taught in school, which gives them the advantage of freshness. They are playful, but are also subtle tools for self-expression.


The Boys Can Write blog isn’t tied to any curriculum or syllabus, it is designed to aid people find delight in writing. It is especially for boys who have hit that cold, blank wall of the page. The fine-tuning of spelling, grammar, etc., will follow once enthusiasm has been established, but they are not the first hurdle and we don’t attend to them here.

We have worked with hundreds of young people in Primary and Secondary Education. Many are illiterate, some are in danger of exclusion, many have special needs, trauma, or are vulnerable in numerous ways. By making writing a kind of play, we’ve helped them explore their own ideas of beauty, anger, humour, sadness and hope. You can view examples of our previous projects with children, on our portfolio site: Inscape: a stone walk  Eyebright Pilot  Eyebright and A brain of a dream of a dog.

Inscape, a stone walk

This site is illustrated with examples from past and present arthur+martha projects, as well as an ongoing diary of experiments documented by Lois and her son Joe.

The most important technique of all is to let pleasure be the guide. This is brainstorming. Dump the idea of things being ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or ‘un/successful'. All of those things will reassert themselves soon enough (and oh how rapidly they race back in). But for this work, take a holiday.