The Family/On writing poetry when you’re ill and just want to hide under your duvet for six years

Freshers flu is not a myth. If you want to gain some understanding of what it was like to live during The Black Death, take a seat in a university lecture hall in the first few weeks of term. Sometimes the coughing gets so loud you can’t hear the lecturer.

It starts in little clusters as one person sets off whoever’s sitting next to them, then it spreads along a row, then suddenly within the space of two seconds half the theatre is overcome in fits of barks and wheezes. I’m not sure whether it’s a kind of sympathetic coughing, akin to infectious yawns, or whether it’s that everyone simply holds in their spluttering until they’ve got the chance to anonymise it within a more general cacophony.

For the first week I observed all this with curiosity and a tad of smugness. I guess I must be immune, I thought to myself in a seminar, as the girl sitting to my left and the boy sitting to my right blew their noses in unison.

I am not immune. Not in the slightest. Last Monday afternoon I awoke up from a nap with a sore throat, and from there things just went downhill. By Tuesday I was part of the plague-stricken, zombified mob coughing together in Plays and Performance.

So naturally, when my creative writing group were set the task of writing a poem inspired by people-watching for our Friday seminar, I put it off to the very last minute in favour of lying in bed, filling up my bin with snot-filled clumps of tissues and Googling important questions like, ‘Can you overdose on Lockets??’ But by the time Thursday evening came around I knew I had to write something.

I hadn’t actually done any proper people-watching (sitting down with a notebook with the soul intention of capturing some significant moment or observing an unknowing stranger). I had however noticed a family by the campus lake one day as I walked home from the shops. I had spared a short glance at them, noting the way they stood close together in a neat little formation by the water’s edge. That night as I opened up a fresh Word file I knew that that small moment was the best starting point I had for a poem.

Before I say anything more, this is what I came up with:

The Family


They’re standing by the lake. Nuclear.

Mother, father, daughter, son

about to explode.


For a moment

the water holds their perfect pose

hands holding hands

holding the pram

hand on her waist

hand on his arm

and then a splash


A mallard lands in the water

and then

the tears begin

the ten-month-old boy

can’t hold his tiredness in


The rings on the surface widen

as the family rearrange

the mother kneels to cheer him

the teenage girl sulks away

the father takes his phone out

takes a picture of the lake

it was perfection once

but they had to detonate.


To start with, writing this poem was a slow and painful process. I wrote a good five or six opening lines, all of which I hated and back-spaced out of existence almost immediately. But finally I came up with a single word that became the basis of the whole poem: nuclear. Once I had that, I had an idea of where I could go, and what my ‘story’ would be. (I say ‘story’ because I do think that poems, like pieces of prose, need to have some sort of narrative… some sense that between the beginning and end, something has changed or a new understanding has been gained.)

The word ‘nuclear’ brought with it the idea that the family had some sort of conflict broiling away under the surface, always threatening to cause total destruction. The rest of the poem came far more easily once I had this starting point.

I could write more about why I made certain decisions, like not using punctuation for much of the poem, but most of it would amount to ‘I don’t know, I just did.’ I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but a lot of it just sort of flowed once I’d got going.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with it considering it was a very rushed piece of work. I like the alliteration in the second stanza and the half-rhymes and the way ‘detonate’ ties everything up. But I agree with my seminar tutor (who gave everyone feedback) when she said that the conflict of the baby crying didn’t seem strong enough to warrant word choice like ‘detonate’. She suggested that I could hint at a more deeper conflict, and perhaps it could arise from the teenager rather than the toddler. I think I’ll return to this poem at some point and try some changes. But for now I’ll focus on getting some sleep.