Building it up, breaking it down – Helen Mort’s third Cape Farewell challenge


Controlled burning in an Amazonian forest. Photo by Daro Montag/ Cape Farewell.

Former Foyle Young Poet Helen Mort sets out her third poetry writing challenge, asking you to respond to images from Cape Farewell’s archive of photos, videos and blog posts.

Cape Farewell leads expeditions of artists, musicians, writers and scientists to places like the Arctic and the Amazon so they can see the effects of climate change close up and respond to it in their work. Now you can add your voice by writing in response to the challenges – and Helen will be choosing poets to publish on Cape Farewell’s SWITCH website and win some particularly exciting prizes…
Sometimes, you have to destroy part of something to keep it. Look at Daro Montag’s image ‘Controlled burning in an Amazonian Forest’, above. Controlled burning is a technique than can be used in forest management to reduce the risk of fires in the longer term. It uses an artificially-induced fire (fire is often a natural part of forest ecology) to reduce fuel build-up in the forest so that there’s less chance of a serious, hotter fire starting by accident later. Controlled burning stimulates the germination of certain forest trees, therefore helping to renew the forest. This might seem like a slightly contradictory idea at first – how can partly destroying something help to save it in the long term? Sometimes, a part has to be sacrificed for the benefit of the whole.

This can be true of writing a poem too. Sometimes you have to ‘kill your darlings’ and take out a phrase or word that you’d really rather keep but need to edit out for the sake of the overall poem. Before you work on this challenge, read these handy tips from Young Poets Network about re-drafting your work.

Writing your poem

Have a look at this poem on the Poetry Society website, which I wrote a few years ago. In your piece of writing, you’re going to make the fire talk about itself too. You might start off by making a list of answers to some of the following things: What will fire have to say? Is this a small, domestic fire in a hearth or is it a large fire in the open? Has your fire been started deliberately like the controlled burning in Daro’s picture, or is it an accident? What might fire think about the things it burns? What does fire feel like? Does it want to be here or would it rather be somewhere else?

Looking at Daro’s picture, we can almost smell the distinctive, acrid scent of burning. Try and weave this sense into your poem, considering how fire would talk about this aspect of itself.

When you’ve drafted your poem, you might go back to it with some of the redrafting tips in mind and think about which words are essential and which words you might edit out.

Further inspiration

If you have time, you could go on to look at this image of ice by Carol Cotterill:


Untitled image by Carol Cotterill/ Cape Farewell

We’ve already heard what fire has to say, so how about ice? This time, make the ice talk about itself. Where is your ice? What shape does it have, or has it changed shape? Does it remember what it was like to be water? Carol’s photograph focuses on the idea of tasting ice, so try and weave that into your poem – how does ice taste, or what does it taste itself, as it freezes over other objects?

You might like to submit two separate poems, or you might like to incorporate both fire and ice into a single poem, as Robert Frost does:

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice…”
From ‘Fire and Ice’


The winners of the four Cape Farewell challenges will have their poems set to music by famous composer David Julyan, who has written the musical scores for the films Memento and The Prestige, among many others! Winners will be published on the Young Poets Network and SWITCH websites, and there will be other goodies too.

Calling teachers!

If you are a teacher reading this, we have good news! Helen has written a free downloadable Cape Farewell poetry lesson plan on the theme of ‘disappearance’, suitable for key stages 2, 3, 4 and 5. It’s part of our fantastic range of free downloadable Poetryclass resources and includes a class discussion, individual activities, tips for poem-building and a handout.

Submitting your poems

The challenge is now closed – but you can read the amazing winners and be inspired to write your own poem to submit to one of our Poetry Opportunities Page!

The 2013 winners discuss the Cape Farewell challenges

Serena Cooke won Karen’s challenge to think about the causes and effects of climate change, expressed through a collage poem, with her wonderful piece ‘Green Tears’. Here Serena takes us through her response to the challenge.

I really enjoyed the environmental themes of the Cape Farewell challenges because they allowed me to explore something very close to my heart in a poetic way. When writing my poem, I started off with a free write, thinking about the big tree in my front garden. I then looked at the pictures accompanying the challenge by Ana Cecilia Gonzales-Vigil and did another free write for those trees. My poem had to be a collage poem and so played around with the structure of my poem lots, starting off some stanzas with random words and sounds from my free write that I then pieced together. Because I love the environment and think very closely about my own carbon footprint, winning this event was very special to me as I had successfully connected my love of poetry with my love of the environment to write my poem. The Cape Farewell event in London was fantastic because it showcased the best young poetic talent and reunited us in writing about the dangers of climate change, a huge issue for our society that should be taken more seriously.


Helen Mort

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press, the shape of every box and a pint for the ghost, a Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2010. Five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, she received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007 and won the Manchester Young Writer Prize in 2008. In 2010, she became the youngest ever poet-in-residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. Helen is also the new Derbyshire Poet Laureate. 


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Published January, 2014

10 thoughts on “Building it up, breaking it down – Helen Mort’s third Cape Farewell challenge

  1. Hello! Just wondering- after I’ve sent my poetry, will I get a receipt? I’ve lost things across email before so I wouldn’t want to risk it!

    1. Hi Jessie, your poems have been safely received! We don’t generally send receipts but you can always ask for one in your email.

  2. Hi,i was just wondering when are the results announced? and i hope you got my poems and enjoyed reading them as much as enjoyed writing them.

    1. Hi Oliver, the deadline isn’t until 23 March so the results won’t be announced for at least ten weeks.
      We’ve received your poems safely, thank you!

  3. Does the poem have to be about the thoughts/feelings of fire and ice, or can it just be about fire and ice generally? Thank you 🙂

  4. Good evening folks! I see there is not a lot of participation from budding poets in India, even though we have been brought up on a heavy dose of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley while in school. I am very glad i discovered this site. Hope to spread the word among my friends. 😀

  5. Can we put more than one poem in the email, even if it’s for a different part of the challenge? Or should they all be sent separately? Thank you!

    1. Hi Abby, yes you can send all your poems in the same email, just make clear which challenge each poem responds to. Good luck!

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