David TaitNanjing, China

“Jack Daw” by Polly Atkin

This week’s writing exercise invites readers to write about a living thing (be it animal, bird, plant, insect etc) that you have found yourself unable to write about before, using Polly Atkin’s poem “Jack Daw” as an inspiration or starting off point.

One thing I think is important for this exercise is to choose a topic you’ve never satisfactorily tackled. For instance, if you normally write lots of poems about horses but you’ve never been able to write a poem about a snake, have a go at writing the poem about the snake.

Let’s take a look at Polly Atkin’s poem:

Jack Daw

Strut and hop, head cocked. Bill-up posture.
Sky-tumbler. Linear hierarchical order

repeated through faultless falls. Acrobat
soothsayer. Splintered midnight in flight.

College bird, sea crow, chimney sweep bird.
In French – tower crow – choucas de tours

steeple-jack. In Latin – Corvus Mondedula
money crow. Jack of coins. Jacques d’or.

Labelled by home or haunt or habit.
Love of the shine. Your bright slick image.

Centuries repeating your own name in greeting
chyak chyak chyak

taught us the sounds
as best as our soft mouths could catch. We parroted

jack. Dubbed you simple – daw.
In spring I watch you nest-build, exulting

over sticks; twigs; clumps of tatty wool picked
from barbed wire; moss, human hair, pruning

fleece from a sheep as she sleeps. Any
gap you find you will work on improving.

Day after day I hear you calling
ciao ciao ciao from the rooftops, tree tops,

chimney pots, edge of the woods ciao ciao
from the village green. I call you back

Prince of Smokestack Chaplin Inquisitor
of Stars Moon Eye Coin-in-a-Well.

That which you love the best you share
faithfully. All preening in pairs.

When you quarrel with yourselves a war is massing
on a distant horizon, a long term forecast.

Thunderclouds flock when you gather, to mimic
your sharp murmurations, to call in the rain.

I know you are trying to tell me something.
I know I could teach you to say it with meaning.

ciao ciao ciao I squawk, signalling
exit/arrival. A clatter of wings.

I have set a dish of oil in the yard
to catch you with your own reflection.

Your blue-eyed baby is crying in alarm
from the breach in our structure you cracked her into

kae kaya kavka caddy
ka-wattie caddess caddow cawdaw
cathag jak-y-do chauk

When writing your poem, start by sketching down your vague impressions and stray thoughts, what the animal does, how it moves, then move on to doing a little research about your animal, maybe drawing inspiration from its etymology, its appearance in literature or personal encounters, family retellings. When you’ve got a large number of notes, try to stick them together – see what fits – throw away the pieces that don’t deserve to stay.

Once you’ve written your poem, if you’re happy with it please feel free to send it in along with a short bio. We’ll feature some of our favourites on the site!

Polly Atkin on Writing Jack Daw

I wrote Jack Daw for Sidekick Books’ Birdbook project; an ‘alternative orthopedia’ which assigned each of the birds of the British Isles a poem and an illustration. One of my dear friends, Emily Hasler, had a poem in the first book, and I was overjoyed to get to sign up for the third (Farmland, Heathland, Mountain and Moorland). 

When I moved to Grasmere I was struck by how it has gangs of jackdaws like other places have gangs of pigeons. I was taken with their quirky intelligence, and their comedic aspects: the funny noises they make, and the way they will hop up to you if they want something and cock their heads at you. They’d already appeared as extras in a few of my poems, so when I saw jackdaw on the Birdbook list I leapt at it. 

Often when I take on a commission I’ll begin with research, which is what I did with Jack Daw. Most of the poems I’ve written for specific projects like this are on subjects I’ve already had thoughts about, but just haven’t found the impetus to write yet. So I begin by sketching out my vague assumptions or anecdotal thoughts on the subject, then look up everything I can find out about them, and use that research to challenge and augment my initial thoughts. I’m very interested in folk knowledge, and how that that is reflected often in the naming of things, which is where I ended up started with Jack Daw: the various names for them in different languages; how those names echoed jackdaw habits and showed shared observations and beliefs across cultures and language barriers. I also wanted to interweave those with scientific observations which struck me as belonging, in some way, to the same field study. 

“I begin by sketching out my vague assumptions or anecdotal thoughts on the subject, then look up everything I can find out about (it), and use that research to challenge and augment my initial thoughts.”

Polly Atkin

So I put all the snippets of information that appealed to me into a word doc and began reforming it into a poem. It went through a lot of drafts before it reached the form it is in the book, a lot of which was to do with rearranging phrases and whittling down. As editor of Birdbook III Kirsten Irving had some editorial input too. 

To read more from Polly Atkin, please check out our interview by clicking the following link (to be added)

To find out more about Sidekick Books and The Birdbook Series, click here: http://www.sidekickbooks.com/index.php

Thank you Polly Atkin.

Polly Atkin lives in the English Lake District. Her first collection, Basic Nest Architecture, was published by Seren in February 2017. Her pamphlet bone song (Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award, 2009, and Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013), won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012.

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