On March 25 1921, a large crowd of spectators gathered on the lawn beside the ‘Tir aux Pigeons’ or the pigeon shooting range, just below the famous Monte Carlo Casino. It was a warm spring day, and the crowd were in good spirits – they had brought along picnics and had settled themselves in along the stands. A dozen photographers in casual suits and derby hats stood together with their equipment in the centre of the field.
They were there to watch the first day of the 1921 International Women’s Olympiad, a landmark event organised by Alice Milliat after the International Olympics Committee refused to allow women to participate in athletics in the 1924 Olympic Games. 100 female contestants from England, France, Italy and Switzerland and Norway had travelled to Monte Carlo to compete in 60 metres, 250 metres, 800 metres 4 x 75 metres relay, 4 x 175 metres relay and hurdling 65 meters, high jump, long jump, javelin and shot put, as well as take part in exhibition events in basketball, gymnastics, pushball , rhythmic gymnastics and standing long jump. This was the first international women’s sport event.
Among these 100 were 10 students from The Regent Street Polytechnic – the institution that would later become the University of Westminster.
I’ve already written a little bit about their achievements, and there is lots more information on some of the things we’re going to be doing to explore and honour their legacies. However, I also wanted to mark the anniversary of the Women’s Olympiad in another way..by putting on a Poetry Games!
Over the next few days I’m going to be putting up some challenges to match up to the events of 1921. No teams this time – we’re all entered as individual competitors.
There may not be a gold medal to play for, only the warm glow of participation. However, hopefully you’ll also get some new writing out of it. If you do have a go, I’d love to read your work. you can post in the comments below, or get in touch on twitter.
So secure your competitor number with the safety pins available, double check your laces, and let the games begin!
Event 1: The 60 Metre Race
1921 Winner – Mary Lines, England (Polytechnic). Time: 8.2 seconds
There’s not much time to think in the 60 metres. It’s a race of fast beginnings, fast middles, and even faster endings. So to mark that in our writing challenge, we’re also going to focus on speed.
I take things lightly
that perhaps are heavy.
For example, I know I’m the gap between two pavements,
yet I cross it as fast as I can — why?
And because I take risks with my voice,
I trip on air.
And the first bead of sweat that trickles down my forehead
I take things lightly
that I know to be heavy.
This is the truth.from ‘Speed’, by Abdullah al Ryami, translated by Anna Murison. Via the Poetry Translation Centre
There is a physical lightness in this poem by Abdullah al Ryami, despite the heavy subject matter that lurks just behind the surface. It seems to jump – or ‘trip’ – from line to line, racing across its subject matter without stopping. The line breaks keep us constantly on the move, so in the end the ‘speed’ of the title is as much about our own quick inhalation of the poem as the quick-footed language and body of the writer.
Taking the subject of ‘Speed’ as our big idea – whether that’s the physical speed of Mary Lines in the 60m or the imagination of the writer, in this first set of trials we are going to ‘trip’ and ‘race’ across our challenge and try not to ever slow down too much. Be nimble, don’t think too hard, don’t stop. Go!
Get a timer and set it for 2 minutes. Now write without stopping on the subject of ‘speed’. Embrace whatever comes into your head and don’t allow yourself to pause for breath or reflection. Just put one word in front of the other until the alarm goes.
Set your timer for 2 minutes again. This time, write about a specific time in your life where you have gone too fast – for better or worse. Do the same as before. Embrace whatever comes into your head and don’t allow yourself to pause for breath or reflection. Just put one word in front of the other until the alarm goes.
You should now have two interesting and potentially overlapping prose passages. Go through each and circle/highlight your favourite phrases, images and ideas. Now have a go at drawing those out and jumbling them together in a poem. Don’t worry too much about full sentences and punctuation. The goal here is to move fast and capture that sense of the sprint (between images, between words, between lines) in your finished piece.
Subscribe or stay tuned on twitter for more challenges. And let me know how it goes!