Playing Poetry

Poetry Library Micro-commission: Aeronwy Withers

As part of the Poetry Games exhibition, the National Poetry Library supported the launch of two micro-commissions. Each one was an opportunity for a poet or artist to explore their own work in the context of playful arts, and see how interactivity or game-design might take their practice in a new direction.

For this commission, poet Aeronwy Withers looked at the game of chance within the classic claw machine, and produced a physical machine that participants could draw out tiny capsules filled with words. The fragments could be pieced together and joined with other players’ attempts to form a growing poetry sequence that reflects on the nature of chance and getting what you don’t expect. Aeronwy writes about the process below:

Claw Machine

I have had a few very positive interactions with claw machines recently – and some negative. I don’t always get what I want, it’s all a sham – but the transaction I make for losing is an investment in the joy of winning! This year, I won two toys in Swansea (a dachshund and a hippo – I gave the hippo to my friend) , and two in New York (both were ‘‘miffy” (or miffies?) clutching at a crescent moon. I gave the spare miffy to the same friend I gave the hippo. She came with me to New York and we brought the dachshund from Swansea to see Times Square.)

I’d never, ever won a toy with a claw machine before this year. Ever. And the two times I did felt big. Monumental! I’d tried, or, we’d tried: and I got something back. Something I could see and hold. I’d tried a lot the same year and got nothing in return, which is fine. That’s just how the cookie crumbles a lot of the time. Until you don’t have a cookie any more. I hurt in ways I hadn’t since being a teenager. But I played games, and felt the same elation that comes with getting an ice cream as a child – or riding spinning teacups, or having a water fight.

A claw machine is a lot gentler than the idea of a ‘claw’. Gentler still than ‘grabbing’, or even ‘winning’. These are all a little desperate. The claw is loose. It’s a mockery of a claw, really. What tends to happen with a claw machine is, you try and try – and the claw lets stuff go. Or rather, it slips away from you. Real claws (think: eagles, grizzly bears, dragons) grip and sting and don’t let go.

The capsules in the claw machine are small, short-form pieces that work a little like memories. Some are happy and some suck. Some are neutral. They’re all in ‘claw form’ – three equal-syllabic lines that work in any order. Just like how a claw spins around when you drop it!

You might open a capsule and get a line you love. It might move you or make you smile. It might hurt to read or make you miserable. All the lines will be able to interact, whether you mix and match or use just a single capsule.

You might cobble together a memory of your own, or rearrange one of mine. Whether you like it or not, everybody wins. You’ve made something.

The Playing Poetry Micro-commission is supported by The National Poetry Library and took place as part of the Poetry Games exhibition (Southbank Centre, October 2022 – January 2023)