I remember with some fondness one of Alexei Sayle’s full-on rants, all shaven-headed aggro and strangled scouse vowels. ‘Werkshops! ****** werkshops! Legwarmers and poncy improvs…listen. If it hasn’t gorra lathe and bench fulla spanners, it’s not a werkshop!’ And recently, with no fondness at all, a Facebook post where some slack-witted journalist was having a sneery pop at Creative Writing courses..MA’s in particular. I think I said that even though my own MA course was a staggering let-down and that other friends felt equally short-changed, I had no reservations about why I paid to go on it, and why I’m happy to pay to go to poetry workshops; the reason’s simple. Because I want to learn how to do things better.
They don’t all work. I’ve been on a truly disappointing Arvon course. It was the first one I’d been on, and it might have been the last…except that because I was used to poetry workshops I knew it was because me and the tutors were a mismatch. Not their fault, I like to think when in a charitable mood. Anyway, what I want to write about is the ones that work for me and why, and also about the truly talented writers I’ve met and become friends with because of them. Nothing that follows will come as any surprise to those in the know, but I’ll be delighted if I reach anyone who’s not, and persuade them that this could be what they’re looking for (without knowing it).
Here’s one of my inspirations …Ian Clayton. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:
Ann and Peter Sansom. My poetry heroes. Julia Deakin introduced me to the Saturday Poetry Business writing days** when they were still based in Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I would have been, I think, out of my depth among so many people who knew each other, and were comfortably familiar with the world of poetry and publishing and poetry readings. But I knew how to sit quiet (not like me at all) and write non-stop, regardless. So I did. I guess the format doesn’t suit everyone, the business of six or seven writing tasks, intensive 5 minute bursts of writing on the basis of the most minimal cues. It suits me because I’m lazy and I work best under pressure…paradoxically it frees me from second thoughts and second guessing and irrelevant self-censorship. It’s pure drafting, and it plunders the memory you didn’t know you had. I wrote down something Ann Sansom said about the magic of how it works : because you are writing for yourself; because you tell yourself things you didn’t know you knew. It’s a kind of ambush on the unconscious. Sit and deliver.
What the Poetry Business added to Ian Clayton’s work was, not surprisingly, poems. Sometimes I would write things that needed minimal editing, as though they’d been waiting around and hoping to be found. The picture that starts this week’s post is of a couple of the six notebooks that I’ve filled almost exclusively at P.B. workshops. And they are all in continuous prose. I can put the line breaks in later, if it’s a piece that’s worth keeping. I think I’ve done about 400 different exercises. How Ann and Peter think them up is a matter of abiding wonder. It’s always artful and without artifice, and is always about memory. The notebook page I chose to photograph is actually of a task at a different workshop, with Jane Draycott (of whom more later) but it’s typical, except that in this case the notes became a poem that won me a prize, a poem that Andrew Motion chose, and a poem that has made a huge difference to the way I think about myself as a writer. The poem is ‘Julie’. It’s in my pamphlet ‘Running out of Space’. I’ve discovered that if you click on the headline photograph you get a full-size image, large enough to read the text. What you find is that the notes are almost word for word the same as the opening of the finished poem.Somedays the gods smile. The prize money from ‘Julie’ paid for the printing of the pamphlet, and 80% of the poems in it came from Poetry Business writing days. The other thing they do is introduce you to a staggering range of contemporary poetry via the extracts they use to start many of the writing tasks. I cut them to size and stick them in my notebooks and reference them to the tasks they triggered. So I’ve learned to read more voices, and to buy more poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, Alison McVety, Helen Mort, Denis O Driscol, Emily Berry, George Szirtes, and all the dozens of others. You learn from the company you keep.
There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:
Residential courses. If a day in the company of writers is good, then 5 or 6 or 7 days is (for me, with one exception) wonderful. I’ve said before that I like mountains and vistas and you can’t get much more of either than at the Old Olive Press. Lumb Bank is great, and so is Whitby, but this place does something extra for me. On an Arvon Course I get distracted by cooking in the afternoon. Can’t keep out of the kitchen. But at Almaserra Vella, thanks to Christopher North and Marisa, it doesn’t arise. You work flat out for three hours in the morning, eat your lunch. And then, (me, anyway), walk for miles in the afternoon, (or sit by the pool, or in the library, or in the cafe by the church) and let the words do as they will. And while you do that, someone cooks your evening meal. Astonishing. And you meet new tutors with different styles. Last year it was Jane Draycott, who, every day, added a new bit of kit to the poetry toolbox. How to use viewpoint, voice, dialogue, setting, pace, line-length…on it went, layer after layer. And she left me with two phrases that see me through the trudgy bits of the process. She said, as she set us off on a task: off you go, opening doors, and lighting candles along the way. She said:look for the point where the poem detonates . So I do. One day I’ll be convinced I know exactly what she meant. In a couple of weeks I’m off again. The tutor is Mimi Khalvati; she has, I’m told, a formidable reputation. Well, if you rest, you rust. I can’t wait. And please, Google ‘The Old Olive Press’….you won’t regret it. If you look closely at the picture, you can see it. It’s the blue house.
Finally, any new writing group is a daunting experience. But I find I can hide behind the physical business of non-stop writing; head down, focussed on the page, the physical act of making marks with a pen, I can blank out a room, and everyone in it, and simultaneously feel safe in the knowledge that in this situation it’s an entirely natural thing to be doing, whereas writing on my own sometimes feels terribly pose-y. And then, one day you find you want to read out something you just wrote, and that when you do, no one laughs. And you start to make friends who, it turns out, have been published and actually are famous but still treat you as an equal. Not only that, but sometimes you see poems emerging that you later meet again in published collections with the bonus you can hear the voices behind them,and the days when you first heard them. Some become especially special, as though I was somehow part of their making, even though I wasn’t. I met Kim Moore because, in one PB morning workshop, she read the draft of a poem she’d written that morning, on her way. Train journey, Barrow to Sheffield, which had such memorable images in it…the sheep that stand and drown in the incoming tide of a shallow estuary, the man waking up on the train, shouting ‘I’ve got to find the sword’ …..that it made me ask her for a copy. And she sent me one. That poem’s in her Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner: If they could speak like wolves. James Caruth, with the unfair advantage of a voice like Heaney’s, workshopped a draft that he’s written that morning. I’ve got a photocopy of the handwritten first version of ‘Lethe’ that we offered comments on, the newly-dead with her ‘ face pale as a clock.‘. That’s in another winning pamphlet: The death of narrative, and so is ‘Pigeon lofts, Penistone Road‘, from another afternoon workshop. There was Julie Mellor (yup, another winning pamphlet: Speaking through our bones) taking Heaney on with her poem about blackberries, and making me sit up straight with the image of the mole that marks a man for hanging. Julia Deakin not only workshopped poems from two collections (‘Slice’ , the tumultuous prosepoem ‘Checkpoint’, ‘Kingfisher on a tram’, amongst others) but I sat and watched her writing (5 minutes) what turned into For what we are about to receive, and the ‘Blackie’s children’s classics’ that taught us ‘that as children we belonged in prison’. And Gaia Holmes’ delicate ‘Trinkets’ asking for the gift of words you could arrange…make them say what you’ve always wanted me to say. So I’ve learned to hear the voices in poems from the voices behind them. And so much confidence
Writers’ workshops, their tutors, and friends like these help me find my voice. And if anyone asks why that’s important, I repeat a line of Tony Harrison’s, one that should be written on every blackboard/chalkboard/whiteboard in every school in the country. The dumb go down in history, and disappear. That’s why.
Next week I promise you another undiscovered gem (except she isn’t), and, maybe some snapshots from ‘poetry readings I have been at’. Something like that. Thanks for listening.
*Ian Clayton: ‘Our Billie’ [Penguin. First published 2010] and ‘Bringing it all back home’ [Route. 2008]
The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.
For details of Julia Deakin’s collections, ‘Eleven Wonders’ and ‘Without a dog’ see my post of a couple of weeks ago
**The regular Poetry Business Writing Days are on Saturdays, once a month, and meet at the Premier Inn in Sheffield (though there are also occasional PB Writing Days around the country)
You can contact the Poetry Business via their website (just Google Poetry Business) for all the information you could need about workshops, publications, competitions and submissions. And you should.
[The Poetry Business/ BankStreet Arts/ 32-40 Bank Street/ Sheffield S1 2DS]