The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.


Well, here we are, a day late, and posssibly later. No excuse really. Just that yesterday (Sunday, in case it really is later) I put on an unfeasible number of waterproof, windproof, fleecy layers and headed off in the driving sleet and rain to Mount Pleasant. Arguably the most ironically named Rugby League ground in the world….whether it’s the bleakest is arguable; I seem to remember that Workington’s ground is pretty inhospitable…..but anyway, even going to sit down in the covered stand did little to stem the sensations of encroaching hypothermia, and I spent last night getting warm again instead of writing this for the cobweb. So, thank you for your forbearance and general air of cheerfulness. It will not be forgotten.

As it happens, there’s a bit of serendipity involved, which I’ll explain as I go along. I’m feeling a bit confused and conflicted about the business of writing poems at the moment. This morning a copy of The Interpreter’s house dropped through the letter box. It’s full of good things, including poems by cobweb guest poets Keith Hutson, Wendy Pratt, Wendy Klein and Julie Mellor, and, among so much good stuff, a fulsome review of Much Possessed by Dawn Gorman. Wow. Thank you for that. A review! every stage of writing you can feel you’re ‘arriving’, though I can’t imagine you’ll ever quite feel you’ve arrived. I hope not, because then you’d have to get off the bus and look for work. First poem in a journal, first commendation in a competition, first invitation to do a reading, first pamphlet, first collection. First review. How did I ever get here? I’ll come back to that.

Because there’s sometimes a downside to the business. In my case it’s paradoxically to do with having won a competition…jointly won, because it was a shared submission…which you can check out if you like. I wrote about it on Dec 3rd, feeling especially proud of my fellow writer, Andy Blackford. The prize is to have a collection published. Here’s the thing. No one from the business that runs the competition (and I believe it’s a reputable affair) has ever contacted me directly, only Andy. He forwarded a copy of a publishing contract for me to sign in January. I sent off my two copies, but have heard nothing, nor has my copy been returned, countersigned. We have repeatedly emailed the organisers and still have had no reply. Andy begins to believe it’s a scam. I don’t, but it makes me cross. What would you do? Comments welcome if this resonates with you in any way..but there it is. I’m simultaneously delighted, frustrated and cross. How did I get here?


In my case it’s because I’ve started by going on day courses, and then won competitions…one of my pamphlets, and my first collection, were published as the prize for winning, first the Camden/Lumen, and then the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comps. And now the latest one, Much possessed. There are other routes, and tougher ones, especially those taken by the writers who submit and submit and submit and submit to journals and magazines, and build up a painstaking porfolio of published work. They’re the ones who win my admiration and respect. They know who they are. But thing is, how did I come to write enough poems in the first place. Well, it started, as I say, with one-day workshops, and with small writers’ groups, but at some point I applied to go on a residential course. Moniack Mhor. That’s it, with the Wagnerian sky in the background.

I’m not sure I would have done so had I not known a bit about Arvon Courses in the first place. Which is why there’s a picture of the back yard of Lumb Bank at the top of the page. I ‘ve always thought the real character of the building and, indeed, the place, is in that back yard with its hard granite setts.It’s always, for me, been the setting of Full moon and little Frieda. It’s the spirit they went for in the recent TV Bronte drama. Uncompromising. It’s leaked into a couple of poems in the last two years. In Banked up

“somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over

rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage

like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall

and sing about the blood”

and in So I’m thinking

“….of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,

that valley of unsmoking chimneys,

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an old artillery firing blanks at a Pennine moon”

It certainly made a big impression when I first went there in the mid-80s, not as a course participant (because I’d never heard of Arvon or Lumb Bank till then), but because as part of my job as an LEA English/Drama Adviser I co-ordinated an annual residential course for selected 6th formers from the Calderdale schools. It’s how I came to meet Berlie Doherty, John Latham, Terry Caffrey, Lemn Sissay and Graham Mort among others. Maura Dooley was warden then, and for a few years it was a retreat and a bolthole when I needed to avoid the increasing misery of being turned into an Inspector. Very fond of Lumb Bank, then, though I’ve never been on a course as resident member. And that’s how I became aware of Arvon, though I didn’t write poems until a good deal later.

Like I say, in the late 90s I discovered writing days, which made me write stuff, even though my heart wasn’t yet in it. And I began to meet more like-minded folk and make ‘writing friends’ and think there was something to the whole business, though I wasn’t sure what. It was my partner, Flo, who was the one behind my going on residentials. Determined that I wasn’t going to mooch through retirement like a mental tramp, she looked things up, told me Liz Lochhead was tutoring a course at Moniack Mhor, and told me to apply for it. So I did.I liked Liz Lochhead’s poetry. That was the only reason. And I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. Not at all.

But my partner was indefatigable. I’d become a Poetry Business writing day addict by then. Look, she said. Your friend Ann Sansom is running a poetry course in Spain. Spain! I might not have gone, but my oldest friend lived only 100miles south of where the course was..and had been very ill…and I reckoned I could go and visit him, too. I’m glad I did, because he died a couple of months later. And I’m more than glad I went to the Old Olive Press, because that’s where I met Hilary Elfick who told me, without qualification or hesitation, that I should and would be published. It was truly astonishing.


Everything about it was astonishing. Heat. Mountains. Walking. A swimming pool. En suite bedrooms. Food. Writing every day, for day after day. Amazing. I keep going back. And here’s the cost less for a Saturday to Saturday course in Spain (including the air fare) than it cost me to drive to Inverness (which involved a B&B stop…it’s a long long way) for a Monday to Saturday Arvon course. Money’s an issue, but so is value for money. I’ll come back to this. The thing is, I enjoyed it so much, got so excited by it all, that I went again, for a course tutored by Jane Draycott..which was brilliant…on which I wrote a poem that won a prize that paid for a return to Spain the next year, a course with Mimi Khalvati, and something towards another with Ann Sansom.


And so it goes. I’ve been on others…to Cumbria, to Whitby, to Keswick, and to St Ives (where I’m going again on Sunday, and very handsome it is, as you can see)..and it’s on these days and weeks that I’ll base what I’ll write next. But, caveat emptor. This will be partial, subjective, and possibly unreliable. I can only share what I’ve gathered from experience that is probably not typical; I’d love to hear from others who may have quite different perspectives. Still, here we go: the ins and outs of poetry residentials as far as can tell.

You need to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. The first one I went on, I think I expected some kind of magical transformation. I was very vague about what I thought that might mean, but I supposed that by spending time in the company of a famous poet, I’d achieve poems by osmosis; inspiration via proximity. Forget that. I rather hoped that someone would show me ways of thinking and working that would help me to be a better writer. That didn’t happen either, and it made me cross.I expected to be pushed and stretched and challenged. That didn’t happen, either. So, what can you look for before you commit yourself?

Firstly, don’t just go on the ‘name’ of the course tutor(s). Ask around. Facebook’s a good place to start, because I’m assuming that you’ll have acquired poetry chums. But ask people to message you in response. You don’t want poets being slagged off on a public forum.

I want to know how the tutor normally works. I know what works for me, and I want to find a good ‘fit’. For instance, I like to work fast, under pressure. I know in advance that a Poetry Business will do that for me. But you may like a gentler pace, something more reflective. You know how you learn best. So think hard about that.

Alternatively, I like structure. The most productive courses I’ve been on have been carefully and explicitly structured, and they tell you explicitly or implicitly what the course objective will be. So, a Jane Draycott course very quietly, day on day, focussed on building up a toolkit of techniques that let you dramatise your poems: place, voice, character, (the who, where,what, when and why of things). The techniques were illustrated via the ‘starter poems’, and the whole thing was purposeful and accretive. I loved it.

A Kim Moore/Carola Luther course focussed on myth, and ways in which its retellings enable you access ways of understanding and communicating your own life experiences and belief. It actually changed the way I thought. It was hard work. I loved it. A Kim Moore/Steve Ely course focussed on voices and ventriloquism. I don’t know a better way of breaking out of your own default voice and its rhythms. Anyway. You get the idea.

On the other hand, I went on one course tutored by someone who came highly recommended by folk I trusted. What I failed to do was check out the tutor’s own poetry. Which is technically amazing, but essentially lyrical and doesn’t ring my rhetorical/narrative bell. Maybe I hoped it would challenge me more than it did, but there was a lot of analytic/reflective discussion and all I wanted to do was crack on. So, make sure you know, as far as you can, what the ‘teaching/practice’ is going to be like before you commit.

Secondly think about accomodation and setting. This, I think, is much more important than I explicitly recognised at first. Ask yourself: do you want a spartan room, a novitiate’s bed,  and a walk along cold landings to a distant shower/bathroom? Do you want to prepare food for other people? (as it happens I love doing that, so my Arvon course was saved by my being able to spend every afternoon prepping and cooking in a big kitchen with and industrial sized range. very few people understand my enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t want to have done it at Lumb Bank). It’s a simple fact that residentials in hotels are more comfortable, and you get your food cooked and served by professionals. In dining rooms. Counter-intuitively, they also tend to be significantly cheaper.

However, it can also feel slightly odd to be writing in a hotel, where there may also be a convention of Charismatic Christians, or water polo players or whatever. You can lose you concentration, whereas at Arvon it’s wall to wall poets and poetry. So think about that. Equally, about the locality. I want to be in a space that I’m happy in. I want distance, I want to be able to walk but not in streets or in constrained, fenced countryside. I don’t want to be in woodland. I want to be able to get away for an hour or two each day, just to let my brain stretch, and to stop talking to people. Think about where you’re likely to feel happy. Seriously.

Thirdly ..this doesn’t bother me so much, because I’m able to switch off from my surroundings when I’m working, to blank out what’s going on around me…but what about the people? This sounds misanthropic, and I don’t intend it to be. If you’re not convivial, then being in close proximity to the same (intense) group of people for several days might not be what you want. You’re not going to have the tutor’s unlimited personal attention. And then there’s the business of what everyone else does when you’re not in a timetabled session. You’ll see people earnestly writing on and on, at tables, in armchairs, tapping away at laptops, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to worry because you’re not. And you need to blank out the conversations about ‘how much have you written?’ Because it’s not a competition. The only person who matters is you. You’re there to get better at what you want to do. One more thing. It’s possible to find out by asking around if a given tutor is always accompanied by the same group of accolytes. I’ve seen this twice, and learned from it. You can feel frozen out. I’m thick-skinned but it still irked me. You have better things to do with your life

Lastly  (because I’ve gone on for too long, and I’m rambling). Residential courses are not cheap. For me, they are actually my holidays, but you can be forking out anything between £500 and £1000. (which partly accounts for the demographic.Don’t expect too many young folk in the group). And if they’re any good at all, they’re hard work. If not exhausting. It’s important that you do everything you can to make sure you’re going to be in good company, in a place you like, which is comfortable, with a tutor who will drive you up a level or two. Even when they’re not very good, residential courses are places where you strike up important friendships, and, in my case, where your life may change. So don’t for a second let me put you off by saying: think about it, check it out, ask.

And with that, that’s me for a couple of weeks. Because I’m going on (surprise) a residential course next Sunday. And I couldn’t be happier.








Shifting gear and a gem revisited: Julie Mellor


Do you go through spells when you feel as though you’re ploughing the same ground and wondering why nothing fresh is coming up? I just noticed that last Sunday I posted my 200th cobweb strand. That’s about 400,000 words. Not all of them have been mine, obviously. All our generous guest poets have contributed a goodly number of those, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Because I become uncomfortably aware that though I don’t exactly run out of ideas, I do find myself revisiting things I’ve said before, sometimes without being totally conscious of it. And the same goes for poems.

One of my wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, told me that I wrote so much in a relatively short time because I hadn’t written much for decades, and it had all been dammed up. (Ironically, I realise that I’ve written this before, somewhere in the cobweb. There you go.) In the best of times, you’re on a roll, you have something, a theme let’s call it, that insists on being explored, on being written. You don’t have to force it. It has been given; it is a gift, and you only become properly grateful in retrospect. For ages, for me, it was the landscapes and stories and people of Skye. For a spell, it was my fascination with the notion that if great sculptures had a voice they would have startling things to say. I mined the reach seam of stories of my family…my parents and grandparents…for a good while. The story of my son’s death, and my feeling of complicity in that, too. For some reason, at the moment there are a lot of Vikings and the shores of the North East demanding some attention. But sooner or later that will run its course, and there’ll be a time when nothing demands to be written about. I’ll go on ‘forcing’ poems, but they won’t amount to spit.

And then there’s the ‘voice’. It’s seductively easy to fall into a default rhythm. Mine is iambic, possibly because it’s the closest to the rhythms of English speech. (Not my observation; Tony Harrison’s, among others). With the iambic comes an easy shift into a default line length. Mine is between 8 and twelve syllables. Another default element in my writing is long sentences that run over a lot of lines. Not bad in itself. Kim Moore does it. David Constantine does it…and they’re  gifted . I can muck about, and cheat it by playing with line breaks…and I do, but blank verse line breaks are rarely just arbitrary; those lines tend to hold a rhetorical unit very handily. I could go on, but for whatever reason, I’m not very good at short poems, at compression. I think that also tends to mean that I’m not very good at lyricism. And it’s just too easy to go along with the tried and tested without noticing that it’s getting a bit tired and predictable. At some point you need to shift a gear. Or maybe buy a new car. (a weaselly voice in my ear just reminded me that when I was teaching English, I used to tell students that if you’re in an argument and you resort to metaphor you’re probably losing the argument. And that the same thing applies to your opponents. I should listen to my own advice).

What I’m not going to do today is to write about what to do when you find yourself in this situation. I’ve done it before. It may make no sense, but you’re welcome to have a look. Here’s the link:

It doesn’t address the business of ‘the voice’. I’ll go and have a good long think about that. For now I’m just happy to move on to today’s guest, Julie Mellor, who has in her latest writing given me great hope. Because it seems to me that she’s one of those hardworking writers who sticks at it…and, I think, one who has shifted gears in the last year or so.

When she was last our guest in August 2015, I wrote this as introduction:

“My guest for today writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, (not the one in the pictur), fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts, volcanoes …in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor


While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things.Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of  her poem Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.


Now, if you follow her poetry blog  [   ] you’ll have noticed that recently that curiosity of hers has taken her through the streets of Sheffield and that particular graffiti have sent her off in unexpected direction. You might also notice that her verse form and lines have been more experimental, more risky; she’s changed gear. Which is a metaphor with more than one layer. Essentially she gives me hope, and I’m delighted that she’s back today to share new poems and to update us on what she’s been up to since she was here last. Here she is:

Julie lives near Sheffield and holds a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. Her work has been widely published in magazines such as Ambit, Mslexia, The North, The Rialto and Stand. Her pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones was a Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner and was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2012. Her new pamphlet will be published by Smith/ Doorstop later this year. She writes:

“I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in lots of interesting and exciting things since I was last on your blog, John, including, in no particular order, the Urban Forest project lead by Oliver Mantell, Millstone Grit (an anthology edited by Rosemary Badcoe, Carolyn Waudby and Noel Williams), Voices in the Landscape (led by John Anstie and Ann Hamblyn at  Wentworth Castle, Stainborough) and currently, the Hear My Voice project in Barnsley, which has put on free readings and workshops by some stunning poets, including Suzannah Evans, Steve Ely and Helen Mort. I also completed the Poetry Business Writing School last May (a fantastic 18 month course run by Peter and Ann Samson).

I’m sending you three new poems which give a flavour of where my poetry is at the moment.

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist was commended in last year’s Ilkley Lit. Fest’s Walter Swan Trust poetry comp. judged by Andrew McMillan.

Darling, What If … was written at one of Nell Farell’s wonderful workshops at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet (another group I was involved with last year). The poem also won second prize in the Nottingham Open, judged by Liz Berry.

Finally, I’ve included The Lodging House, which was first published in Stand magazine last Spring. Focussing on the last line of this poem has helped me clarify my thinking around my new pamphlet, so I have a bit of a soft spot for it!

Let’s start with the first one, which Julie featured on her own blog in January; her introduction to it couldn’t be more appropriate to the business I started this post with:


[Sheffield graffiti, artist unknown. Photograph by J. Mellor]

“As far as the New Year is concerned, I’m all for looking forward, rather than looking back. However, many of my recent poems have purposely involved looking back in order to try and make sense of the past and my place in it. The writing has taken a more personal turn, something that feels quite new to me, and at times difficult to manage. Sheffield’s graffiti continues to amaze and inspire me, as do the many wild poets out there. One of the books I received this Christmas was Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. I’m only 6 poems in and already I can tell you that it’s edgy, energetic, playful with language, and very aware (almost self-consciously so – and this is a strength) of the extraordinary power words have to unnerve and surprise us. What a gift!”

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist

Yellow stars of skin where the break was pinned,
a car crash, Hereford, student weekend
of Pernod and black, my friends,

Susan with the cowlick fringe,
her boyfriend from the Rhonda,
and Steve, who would run naked down any street

at midnight for a dare, all of us in a hire car,
speeding down that road with the hidden bend,
scream of wheels spinning mid air,

the roof crushed in the long roll down the bank
and us, after our minute’s silence,
clambering out with no more than a graze,

except for the compound fracture to my wrist,
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night, quoting Talking Heads,
this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,

 this ain’t no fooling around, me with my arm in plaster,
flirting with the fireball from a box of matches,
a pub trick that set my face alight.

I see what she means about the poems taking a more personal turn; there’s a more immediately personal voice in this poem, too, something of a swagger, and also something of the trangressive. I’m much taken by these lines that colour the whole of the poem:
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night

I love the double-edged ending: flirting with the fireball from a box of matches, / a pub trick that set my face alight.

The next poem strikes off in new directions, too. When I wrote about Julie’s poetry before, I focussed on the way so much of it was rooted in a clear-eyed process of fascinated research. This is a different, freer kind of fascination, I think. It’s a remarkably potent and liberating thing to simply say  ‘what if?’…and then follow it through:

( a PS. I was rechecking this post about 4 hours after it went out on Facebook and Twitter, and saw to my distress that whilst it was fine when I posted it, WordPress has, as it will, closed up all the stanza breaks. Nothing I have done persuades it to do as it’s told. I shall have one more go to make it right, but just in case, the line count of the stanzas is as follows: 1/4/4/2/4/2 )

Darling, What if …

What if I choose this one small fly, iridescent on the daisy’s white ruff.


What if I choose to follow it with my eye from flower to flower

as I sit on this bench, a wooden sleeper resting on two grindstones.

And what if other flies circle, for example, that fat atheist the bluebottle,

searching for something more akin to a shopping mall than a lawn.


What if nothing happens but sound, trains across the way

sliding in and out of town like pharmaceutical salesmen or lovers

who’ve met on the internet. What if the wind repeats rumours

of their wedding vows from mid-week town hall ceremonies.


What if the fly disappears, only for a minute, but completely,

dizzying blindly through a portal into another world.


I know this can’t happen, because a fly has a thousand eyes

and can’t go anywhere blindly. Imagine our world as it appears to the fly,

like a shop front on a 70s high street, stacked with t.v.s,

all tuned to the same channel.


This is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding, not being a fly,

but at least being able to picture it, the feeling inside my messed-up head.



I can leave you to speculate, if you wish, on who is the ‘darling’ of the poem, why it could be some sort of letter, and, indeed, why it’s being written. What I will hold on to at first, is its specificity, the  dreamlike clarity of its images. I loved the trains that slide in and out of town, like pharmaceutical salesmen. It’s an image that’s simultaneously funny and sinister. I think I’ll keep revisiting this poem, because bits of it insist on memorising themselves. And so to the last poem, whih has a different voice again, that improvises on shapes on the page, leaves (apparently) unaccountable gaps.

The Lodging House

after L.S. Lowry

Light burns above the doorway

grey as a pearl             faces queue

without bodies                        men whose lungs

are clogged with cotton dust

hands in empty pockets

tongues            without words

this is the time of day

when pigeons attempt to coo

where the breath moves

like a child amongst overcoats

and net curtains shift       against

the casual undressings of the heart.

I remember being entirely puzzled at the age of 17 by the regard in which my English teacher held the Imagists, how excited he got about early T S Eliot. I just thought it was pictures of things in streets. I think I know better now. That line about breath moving like a child among overcoats says as much as I care to think about suffocation, the negation of the purposes of breath. The shift of net curtains gives a textured physicality to the disturbance of  the figurative draught in the last line which seems like a bleak prohibition. Or not.

Anyway. I’m going to offer up my own personal thanks to Julie for coming back to the cobweb, and above all for reminding me that we can all change gear,and that it’s exciting.

I hope to see you next week. I think I’ll be musing on the business of residential poetry courses. Or not. Depends which gear I’m in.