Vanishing Acts – Helen Mort sets the first of her new Challenges for Cape Farewell and the Poetry Society

NG_CF08__Greenhouse Gas

Greenhouse Gas, by Sunand Prasad – Photo: Nathan Gallagher / Cape Farewell

The first of four Challenges from Switch 2014, created by Helen Mort for Cape Farewell and the Poetry Society.

Five-times-Foyle Young Poet and TS Eliot Prize-nominated Helen Mort introduces the first of four poetry writing challenges, asking you to respond to the images at the bottom of this page, taken from Cape Farewell’s archive of photos, sound, videos and blog postsCape 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 to this crucial conversation by writing in response to the challenges – remember, Helen will be choosing poets to publish on this site and to win some particularly exciting prizes…

The theme for this first challenge is disappearance. What happens when something disappears? Will it come back in another form or is it gone for good? What would you least like to disappear? Or what, perhaps, would you most like to disappear? Climate change and growing industrialisation is bringing many changes to our environments, such as loss of habitat, and the disappearance of whole glaciers bringing rising sea levels which threaten whole communities, as experienced by this teenager from Nunavut, Northern Canada.

Look at the picture above, taken from a project by the artist Sunand Prasad.  The red balloons represent C02 emissions.  Together, the balloons mark out a cube representing the volume of space that would be taken up by 1 tonne of pure carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities which is causing changes to the earth’s climate, including the gradual disappearance of some land forms and animal species.

Now read Amanda Dalton’s poem ‘How to Disappear’.

First rehearse the easy things.
Lose your words in a high wind,
walk in the dark on an unlit road,
observe how other people mislay keys,
their diaries, new umbrellas.
See what it takes to go unnoticed
in a crowded room. Tell lies:
I love you. I’ll be back in half an hour.
I’m fine.

The childish things.
Stand very still behind a tree,
become a cowboy, say you have died,
climb into wardrobes, breathe on a mirror
until there’s no one there, and practice magic,
tricks with smoke and fire—
a flick of the wrist and the victim’s lost
his watch, his wife, his ten pound note. Perfect it.
Hold your breath a little longer every time.

The hardest things.
Eat less, much less, and take a vow of silence.
Learn the point of vanishing, the moment
embers turn to ash, the sun falls down,
the sudden white-out comes.
And when it comes again – it will –
just walk at it. Walk into it, and walk,
until you know that you’re no longer

Amanda Dalton, How to Disappear (Bloodaxe Books, 1999)

Writing your poem

Whatever you write, think about the theme of disappearing. You could take inspiration from Amanda’s poem, or using the inspirational artworks Helen has selected at the bottom of this page, to create your own set of instructions for a disappearance. What things could you lose and how? How hard would losing each thing be?

You could try writing in the voice of the disappearing land or animals. How does ice feel when it melts? What do monkeys, birds or tigers fear as the rainforest is being stripped away? You could even write in the voice of carbon dioxide – how does it view its role in causing climate change?

Or you could write about something you’ve lost, or something you don’t want to lose. What makes it special to you, and how do you feel about living without it?


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! There will also be a special event to celebrate the poems and music in summer 2014. Winners will be published on the Young Poets Network and SWITCH websites, and there will be other goodies too.

Sending in your poems

This challenge is for poets aged 25 and under, from all over the world. The deadline is Sunday 23 March – but you can send in your poems any time before that too. Send as many poems as you like to in the body of an email (not an attachment), with your name, age and address. We will add you to the Young Poets Network emailing list – please let us know if you’d rather we didn’t!

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and has been 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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