The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.

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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!..at 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?

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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.

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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 thing..it 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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.

  1. Great article John. I couldn’t agree more about doing some research beforehand. I’ve only experienced one residential and I learned from that what I did and didn’t enjoy – having to prepare, cook and wash up for a group, when dead on one’s feet, and paying for the privilege, being a particular bugbear! Good points also about what writing/workshopping style suits you and also whether the tutor is known for his or her acolytes – ugh! I loved your intro about all that’s happened to you along the way. I’m a long way behind you but hoping to get there (somewhere?) at some point. Cheers!

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  2. Good advice. I’ve been on one course- went because I got an award and so could afford it. Tutor’s methods and interests not really suited to me at the time and I hardly wrote anything, although after a one to one I did change one word in a poem which (seriously) made all the difference. The best thing was meeting other people whom I am still in contact with. Sorry to hear about your non-communicating issue with joint publication. I get very annoyed when people don’t respond and find it hard to forget when, for example, a magazine editor does not get back even after a follow up e-mail, which has only happened a few times over the years. Rx

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    1. still waiting for a reply, Roy. It’s very annoying/frustrating, and gives me little confidence about what to look forward to when it comes to the editing. And your first comment is telling….the folks who probably would get most out of a residential are the ones least likely to be able to afford it.

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      1. Hmm, no reply not cool (so far). I do hope it comes good but the issue throws up questions of where one sends things- we send work in good faith and rely on the integrity of recipient to deal with it properly. I’ve been quite lucky but remember odd things- an anthology editor once enthusiastically accepted a poem of mine. After a year or so the book came out without my poem in it I politely wrote to ask what had happened. The editor had forgotten to include my work. Maintaining humility, I told her not to worry- but this was early days for me in terms of sending things and now I look back it was a ‘big deal’! Human error occurs in poetry publishing- things get lost, life events cause delays. Then there are those occasions when you wonder if some people involved are suited to what they are doing because they don’t seem to be taking things seriously or extending basic courtesy etc. I struggle with this, but only because I am perfect in every way.

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