Winter Is for The Birds!


Today, in class at Bentleigh as we were busy writing our masterpieces, I had to stop and draw my students’ attention to a Noisy Miner balancing on the stem of an orange Grevillea supping the nectar. A few moments before we’d been entertained by his amazing vocals, but to see him up close and concentrating on his lunch, unaware of our scrutiny, was delightful. However, others don’t share my adulation because they can cause havoc and the introduced species are certainly ‘pirates’ when it comes to claiming territory and food.



When I spent Christmas in Canada with my oldest daughter, I missed birdsong, and indeed seeing birds. Our feathered friends had literally all flown south to escape winter – and who can blame them for that – especially since the winter of 2013 was Toronto’s worst for many years!

The valiant birds remaining scrounged what they could, excited if someone slipped on the ice and spilt coffee, or dropped their chips! Needless to say, it was the ‘rats of the sky’, pigeons, or resourceful sparrows I saw – no exotic or beautiful species – just ordinary unspectacular birds.

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Although, I don’t think any bird is ordinary and have been fascinated by their behaviour, their resilience, and their many talents for  years. They often appear in my poetry and stories, they are such an essential part of my life, and the life on our planet. I can’t stand seeing birds in cages and must admit Hitchcock’s The Birds, seen as a child has made me wary of too close encounters, but from a respectful distance birds never cease to amaze and earn my admiration.

Marauding Mimics
Mairi Neil

They appear on my lawn,
Like four pirates of old,
Strutting, aggressive,
Noisy and bold.

Fixing beady eyes
On a treasure trove
They push a bit here –
Then give a shove.

They’ve come to this land
from across the sea
The climate they love
And thrive with glee.

They raid and they steal
Do what pirates do best
The Common (Indian) Myna
Has become quite a pest.

Silence Is Golden
Mairi Neil

Darkness outside
says the sun is asleep
We’re snuggled together
In sleep – peacefully deep.

Until there’s a sound
A persistent ‘peep peep’.

Slumber disturbed
Thoughts in disarray
I try to identify the noise
heralding the day.

The sound,
interrupting deep sleep
a soft
‘peep peep’

The sound doesn’t stop
There’s a rhythm too
Like a fairy cobbler
Mending a fairy shoe.

A sound interrupting deep sleep
a soft ‘peep peep’

‘It’s coming from outside,’
A husky comment from you
‘Or is it the smoke detector –
replacement batteries due?’

A sound interrupting deep sleep
a persistent peep peep

‘It can’t be a bird,’ you say,
‘dawn’s still breaking.
If a feathered friend
it needs a darn good shaking.’

That sound interrupting deep sleep
a penetrating ‘peep peep’

There are habits and rules
For bird behaviour and song
the paramount one being
Song must wait ’til dawn.

That sound, interrupting deep sleep
a soft
‘peep peep’

Days turned into weeks
night’s passing disturbed –
our discovery – the noise
most definitely a bird!

An ornithologist confirmed
when the world is still dark
‘peep peep’ is the calling card
of the cheeky Mudlark.

‘Peep Peep’


Winter’s Song
Mairi Neil

It’s winter time,
The nights are long.
Oh, how I ache
For joyful birdsong.

The winter sun’s glow
Absent of heat
Stirs memories of snow,
Rain, hail and sleet.

It’s winter time
The nights are cold
Oh, how I love
Flames bright and bold.

Melbourne’s winter
Cold, it’s the coldest day
Smog-bound, fogbound
Peasouper grey.

It’s winter time
The night’s are drear
Oh, come on Spring
I want you near.

Blustery August blows
July’s temperatures warm
The stirrings of Spring
As new life forms.

It’s winter time
The nights are long
Oh, how I ache
For joyful birdsong.

This winter Melbourne has broken a few records apparently – it certainly has been a cold one – roll on spring and, I never thought I’d say it, the wattlebirds feasting on my Grevillea!

Winter Blues!
Mairi Neil

Today, it felt like winter
Cold air penetrated winter woollies
Chilled the bones
Numbed the fingers and toes
Froze ears and nose.

The grey aluminium sky
Promised rain and then
Sent it in buckets and sheets
Hailstones the size of golfballs
Cats and dogs scurried to safety.

Torrential rain pounded the windows
Bounced off the pavements
Saturating surrounds until
Puddles became pools, water
Thrown into the air by passing cars.

The wind howled at these waves
Wrestled with trees, snapped their branches
Shifted roof tiles; rattled windows
Blew under doors, lifted carpets
Whistled down hallways.

Gusts grabbed the rainwater
Dashed it against walls
Determined to inflict maximum damage
Outbursts escalated as Mother Nature’s
Children fought and grumbled

People struggled to stay upright
Umbrellas flapped inside out
Windscreen wipers seized up
And gutters not knowing whether
To drown or smother debris
Came to a standstill.

Today winter threw a tantrum and won.

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Cliff top turbulence
An explosion of feathers
Gulls blown out to sea

Pelican perches
Atop electricity pole
Fishing boats bring lunch

Pelicans leave pier
aerial acrobatics
Sightseers enjoy the show

Do birds play a part in your writing, or give you inspiration?

‘Found Poetry’ or How to Find Poems Where You Least Expect Them.

Central Australia 2011
Central Australia 2011

I suppose shaping words into poems is not too hard, however, creating a poem that others like or appreciate is difficult. This task, like all creative writing,  is worth pursuing – a challenge that can be fun.

I try to bring new ideas to class, to stretch the imagination of  students. It’s good to  move  out of  comfort zones, adapt, perhaps extend and improve writing skills. Many of my students went to school in an era where poetry was defined by set verses, set rhymes. They usually read works by  Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Rosetti, Hope, Eliot… great and famous poets, but they provide only a small percentage of the poetry written, not only in our culture, but elsewhere.

A way of learning about poetry and how poets work is to write your own poems. Writing a Found Poem means you don’t start from scratch – rather you look for words, phrases, similes, metaphors, headlines, titles, – any text that appeals to you – and use it in a poem. You find interesting or ordinary prose  – look for strong verbs, concrete nouns, words with a richness and interest that fires imagination.

Found poems are excellent for understanding the essence of a piece of writing or seeking the essence not apparent in the prose. You choose words and distance yourself from the original writing while creating a different form by transforming the words into your poem.

War Exhibited
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from an article in Royal Auto magazine)

Night follows day
Rain turns to sun
And tanks roll
20,000 kilometres away.
After extensive planning,
As if choreographed
Buildngs are devastated
barbed wire erected
parapets protected.
But the impact of war
These are real people
Not artefacts.
Giant screens
In our lounge rooms
Evocative deep shadows
Of horror revisited
in sequence
Locating, arranging, recording
With focused narrative
Force us to embrace
The world at war.

Maybe there is a snatch of conversation you recorded in your writer’s notebook, an idea triggered by a piece of junk mail, a moving phrase in a story, a striking word in a newspaper article, a fascinating headline or book title.

Hopeful Ageing
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from advertisements for seniors)

A health breakthrough
Ultimate comfort
Never again
Aching joints
Problem toes
Swollen ankles and feet
Strained muscles
Hand pain
Knee discomfort
Blemishes and age spots…
A body shaper
To improve blood pressure
Mobility without straining
No slipping, sliding…
Warm, soothing, soft as silk companion
Retain independence
Quality of life
Reduce exercise
And take advantage of
Extra support
Never needs sharpening
Perfect relief
What is this breakthrough?

Why – it’s a miracle!

Poems – short or long, form or free verse –  language rearranged, emotions hidden until the possibilities of language explored and shared.


Using existing text to construct a poem lessens the demands of writing, but gives the opportunity for creativity and imagination. When a poem eventuates there is a sense of satisfaction. It increases a knowledge of words and builds confidence.

The Necklace
Mairi Neil
(a found poem based on The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant)

She drew near
‘At last it is done!’
I examined my sister closely
As if for the first time.
No jewellery –
Where was the necklace?
She was the prettiest
No need of fancy dresses

Where was the necklace?
It is done…?
‘Are you not making a mistake?
Selling an inheritance worth
Millions’ – I turn away
‘How dare you!’

She was always the prettiest
Now she is the wealthiest.
What blunder of destiny
Made us sisters?
My unhappiness chokes me –
Or will strangle her…

Found poetry helps demonstrate we can all construct poetry using the everyday as inspiration. We learn how poetry works and how to experiment with poetic form, using the various creative tools and language conventions we know, in an enjoyable way. Writing found poems is about keeping your ears and eyes alert to the possibilities of ordinary language.


To have fun is rule number one!  If the poem is written in stages it helps lessen the sense of panic and confusion some students have when asked to try something new and ‘think outside the box’.

Ten Simple Steps For Writing a Found Poem

1. Choose an article, a short story, a novel, a cereal packet, junk mail, newspaper headlines, obituaries, letters, bulletin boards, menus, advertisements – whatever piece of prose you want. You can even use several sources for one poem. Check your notebook for ideas, dialogue, words you may have noted.
(NB: Do not use other poems or song lyrics – they’re already poetry!!)

2. Find 50 to 150 words you like – cut them out, highlight or underline them. Remember these must be interesting words, but not necessarily unusual – strong words the key.

3. Copy the words/language (it may be a phrase) in the order you ‘found’ them.

4. Study the words carefully (this is why 150 is a good number) and remove any that are dull, offensive, sound a bit ‘off’. Reduce your number by half. With the words left, you can change punctuation and tense of you want, perhaps capitalise – a word may be a common noun easily adapted to a proper noun etc. , make the words into a possessive or plural.

5. Work on these words, maybe pare some more, until you have a cohesive poem developing. You might have to add a few words of your own although the secret is to make minimum additions – it is a found poem after all!

6. Arrange the words – maybe key words are put at beginning of lines, or perhaps the end. Maybe words going together can be split and put on different lines. Think of ending each line on a notable sound. Keep the reader’s interest . What are you trying to say?

7. Read the poem aloud as you work, listen to where you want to pause. Do the words sound good and is pacing right? Listen for the rhythm.

8. When reading your poem consider a title.

9. With found poems the rules are yours – you can change fonts, use form poetry, be as creative as you want. There are few conventions to worry about – and anyway you make the rules just as you choose the words to include!

10. As a footnote, or included under the title you can give credit to the source of your found poem(see above), particularly if all the words are taken from a story or novel.

eg. From Chapter Four, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
     From Mordialloc Chelsea News, What’s On Section.
    Overheard while waiting for a train on the Frankston Line.
    From Myer’s Winter Catalogue.

The process of recasting the text you are reading in a different genre will help you become a more insightful reader and develop creativity in thinking and writing. Don’t be too concerned about the ideas in the article/story you choose, focus on the words, the headings, the language.

Arrange your word list, break the words into lines, add punctuation if desired, determine the use of white space, the lay out, and you have created a found poem!


Good luck and happy writing!