Keep on running: poetry workshops

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Two Sundays ago, I was writing a post about a week in Spain, about feeling alive because I was cushioned from the horrible realities of a blazing tower block, the cynicisms of English politics (I purposely don’t write ‘British Politics’, and I suppose that by ‘English’ I mean an England that is not mine, not one I belong to or want to live in. There’s another England that’s not a Tory or a UKIP England. An England that knows its hard-won history.)

I went on building a kind of cultural jet lag, and I’m not sure that I’m over it yet. As soon as I got back, I was busy preparing for something I’ve never done before…I was getting ready to go to my first poetry festival: the South Downs Poetry Festival in Lewes. I was getting ready to run my first full-on writers’ workshop. I’ve never prepared for anything as hard in my life.

I had a rehearsal for it in Spain, when I ran a couple of mornings of workshop activities on a ‘retreat’ for just four of us. That was a real eye-opener. In the event, it was a lot harder than running a workshop for the 13 lovely folk who signed up for last Sunday afternoon in the Linklater Pavilion in Lewes. I’d driven down to Lewes on Saturday. It’s a 250 mile trip that in theory takes about five hours. In the event, having experienced the delights of the west-bound M25, it took seven and a half. Nigel Planer reading Terry Pratchett kept me sane all the way there (and, indeed, all the way back), but I was knackered before I started.

I dozed through the PigHog open mic for an hour or so. At 6.00pm I was reading a couple of poems along with the winners of the Havant Poetry Competition. 7.30, and it was two hours of reading from Ann-Marie Fyfe, Tole Agedolusi, John McCullough and the timeless Grace Nichols. By this time, fine poetry was turning into sludge in what passes for my brain. And then, a drive to Haywards Heath  to stay the night, along with Rebecca Gethin, courtesy of the indefatigable and wholly lovely Wendy Klein. I’d been meeting all sorts of heroes, and doing none of it any justice.

I guess I started Sunday morning in a punch-drunk haze, but had a solitary hour in a very nice coffee shop, and a calming sit by Lewes’ fascinating tidal river. There’s something entrancing about a river that flows confidently in two directions on a regular basis. Isn’t the moon wonderful! So I was well refreshed and happy by 2.00pm and utterly chuffed to find 13 had signed up for the workshop. Mandy Pannet was there; Sarah Miles, too, and Rebecca Gethin.The real deal. And new faces….Louisa, Laura from Hull, Penny, Morven,Adele, Kai, Mike, Eileen, Sam, Ellie Dawes…you worked and worked and I love everyone of you.

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I’m going to reflect on the business of running a workshop, as opposed to being a punter, but I had a job remembering it clearly. At 4.30 I was doing my Desert Island Poems…along with Tim Dawes (the driving force behind it all) and Grace Nichols!  Blimey. On the same bill as Grace Nichols!!  At 6.00 we were in for two hours of readings. Wendy Klein, Rebecca Gethin, Naomi Foyle and me. I was up last. I said I felt something of what Hendrix must have felt at Woodstock. By 7.50 what remained of the audience was glassy-eyed. There was no litter blowing about, but you get the idea. I did four fast poems, and we all went home. Or, in my case, back to Wendy Klein’s in Haywards Heath. You’ve heard that line about sleeping on a clothesline. If you know your Orwell, you’ll know this was literally true: there were doss-houses where the clients sat on benches, a rope was stretched in front of them, and they slept with their folded arms over the rope. In the morning the rope was untied and thus they were woken. I could have done that. Fallen over, that is. And that was my first Poetry Festival. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the stamina for another. Bits of one, maybe. But what a remarkable achievement for Tim Dawes to pull it off…each year it gets that bit more (or lots more) ambitious. He should have a medal.

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OK then. Workshops. As I said earlier, this is reflective. I want to figure out what I learned by running my first workshop for paying customers, and acknowledge where I learned it, and who from. Because I firmly believe you learn from the company you keep. Specifically, the four workshop I’ve learned most from are:

Ann and Peter Sansom: they’ve taught me more than anyone about the need to put people at their ease, to distract them from that nagging inner voice that does its damndest to persuade you not to put pen to paper in case something awful happens. They remind me that people need to be reassured that what they’ve done is worth listening to. And they’ve taught me the deceptive business of timings and pacing. Oh..and the need, every now and them, to make people laugh.

Kim Moore: as a teacher and trainer with 40 years of the job, one way or another, I know that preparation’s important. But when it comes to the business of preparing and presenting materials, she’s the one I’ll choose to model myself on. What I also learn from Kim is the value of a holding frame …a particular focus, or topic..for a sequence of tasks. All her residential workshops will have a theme that implies a unity of purpose and a potential outcome. I think this is really important. Her enormous enthusiasm for the work and her pleasure in the company of her writers goes without saying, but not unnoticed.

Jane Draycott. I go to lots of poetry workshops, but I’ve never been on another course which so subtly and purposefully created a sense of building and building from task to task. In the case of the residential I went on with Jane, I became more and more aware of how we were being given a step-by-step, piece by piece, tool box of ways in which you can dramatise your own poems and poetry…and all based on the crucial five Ws. Who, where+when, what, hoW, and…crucially, why.

The thing is, I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I’m a magpie, a hoarder of anything that works for me, or I see to work with others. This was true of my English teaching and, especially, of my drama teaching. The thing about drama is that its sort of amorphous..but unless it’s purposeful, there’ll be no true discovery or learning. And you can’t do it unless you have tools to do it with. It’s not unlike this strange business of writing poems. And I decided early on that if I had a large group I’d tap into some of what I learned from teaching drama. Including breathing and stretching to get rid of kinks and clear your mind. So, OK, in the event, what did I do with those thirteen lovely folk in a calm room by a river in Lewes? Or more accurately, how did I script it. Because script it I did. Here we go.

  1. Clear the space. Make it clean. Water. Glasses. Paper. Work out sightlines. Make it look like a space in which things are meant to happen.
  2. I’m rubbish at names and faces. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’ve never got any better at it. So, appear to know the names. Send a sheet of paper round, clockwise. Ask your writers to write their preferred name in capitals. Once it’s gone round and it’s in front of me, I feel better. I rely on the curious fact that folk hardly ever move from the seat they first sit on.
  3. Plan timings. For me (this I learned from the Sansoms) the key is to work at a pace that won’t allow for distracting ‘what if’ editing reflection. So the first task has to be pressured, no longer than 4 minutes. Subsequent tasks can take longer as writers hit their rhythm and stop being anxious. Plan introduction and feedback time, too. If you want to get through 5 or 6 writing activities, as I did, you’d better be sure to get the time right. Because you need to tell them (well I do) how much they’re going to achieve. Timings involve a reliable watch. I’ve always liked Ann Sansom’s big fob watch. I like the theatre of it.

Introduction. I want them to hit the ground running, knowing why they’re there, and what to expect. I put this in my script:

The object of this two hour session is to write in different voice from your own..ventriloquism, or acting, if you like. Why? Because we fall into a default voice that’s comforting in its known rhythms amd lexis. But it can stop you from surprising yourself. And what I want to do more than anything is to ambush you into saying things you never knew you knew. I want you surprise yourselves

Needful things

* Regardless of what you’ve done, you’re all equal

* You’re not here to write poetry. Poems, perhaps, because they’re short

* What we’re after is THE MOMENT…when we/you/I find we/you/I urgently want to say something we never knew we knew

* We’re here to be ambushed

* THE MOMENT. This is what Clive James say…and I believe him

    ‘There is a phrase, something you want to say aloud

    * it seems to be memorising itself as you read it

    * it’s the moment that ignites

    * everything depends …on the quality of the moment

   SO just be open for it. You can’t make it happen. Just be open. Don’t second guess, don’t edit. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. The only one who matters is you. You are going to say things that will surprise you. You are not an editor. You are a voice.

  1. And without further ado, we’re into the first task. It’s one I’ve been asked to do more than once at the Poetry Business. We read a poem ‘(When this is all over, said) The Swineherd’.  The Swineherd’s dream is of a life utterly different from the one he has. He doesn’t say what it inolves. You understand that from what he dreams of. Now, Pick a task or occupation. Maybe you’ve done it, dreamed of it, would hate it. Lighthouse keeper, pigs head boner, chiropodist, dentist, mudlark, lady’s maid. What will you dream of doing once it’s all over.GO GO GO. FOUR MINUTES. Don’t stop, cross out, look up, do line breaks, write poems. Just write. Don’t think.

While this is happening, I’ll watch for the ones who are looking around, not writing, crossing out. Every now and then I’ll remind them all of the rules. Keep going. It doesn’t matter. Just write. It’ll happen.

Task two. I like to go straight on, no break, no feed back, just so we don’t lose that rhythm. The next task will involve some kind of memory, some sort of narrative.

Five minutes. No thinking, no editing. No stopping to ask yourself questions or cross things out or punctuate or line break.

First line: That was the day when

I think that was the day when

That would have been the day when

Another . I remember it was a………

Another   If I could, I would have

Another.  Because/and …….use it three times or more

Because what I want to do from now on is build in some sort of linguistic structure. And repetition gives you a list, a rhythm, and a forward momentum, as well as a shape, and possibly and ending. Which is a bonus.

  1. By this time we’ll need a break, roll our shoulders, stand up, stretch, breathe deeply, anything to shift the tension of writing fast. And we could do with asomething like a laugh. Peter Sansom is good at this sort of moment. So I copy him


SET HOMEWORK. what happens if you change from I to you to he to she to we?

I want my witers to go home with an idea of how to revise or tweak or restart a draft. And to notice just how powerful those pronouns are in shifting the voice of a poem

INTERLUDE: Introductions

I’m John from Ossett and in a previous existence I was…. whatever we chose in our last writing task; we go round the table. I’m delighted by the answers. Magician’s assistants, chiropodists, dentists (I liked this one), escapologists….great

It’s a good time for a bit of read back. Not necessarily a full ‘poem’ yet. Just an extract.

What are the rules? Listen for the ‘moment that draws you in’. Pick out a phrase that you never expected to write. One that you know will take you somewhere, something we’ll probably remember. There were ones I really loved during the afternoon. The dentist who would ‘put my tongue in your mouth instead of metal’, the one whose experience of magic tricks was ‘claustrophobia’,  and especially ‘that hat, that hair..I’d like to fast fry it and feed it to him’ and the one who wanted one to ‘run to me over the waves’, and the one in an uncomfortable conversation ‘picking up the undertow’. You get the idea. And it’s fast and focussing, before we crack on with the next four tasks that get that just bit more complicated or challenging, and involve thinking our way into images…painting and sculpture..of people at some significant point of change. We’ll do the poetry equivalent of those drama conventions: tableaux, thought-track, dialogue, narration. And we’ll recycle some of those earlier elements. ‘I remember’. ‘That was the moment/day when’. And some of the structural elements. We’ll have a ten minute break after the third task..and we have longer for that one. Because we’re warmed up and buzzing. So it goes.

6.Winding up and reviewing.

This was in my script, and because we seemed to be having a great time, and because folk were writing wonderful things…yes they were….I forgot to do it. Just didn’t allow for that last timed five minutes. Because I truly believe we need to reflect. What did I expect? What surprised me? What do I know or understand that I didn’t before I came in? What can I do that I couldn’t do before? Mea culpa, you folk of Lewes. You didn’t get your moneysworth.


Too late to put that right. My first workshop with paying customers. Did I enjoy it? You bet. I’d forgotten just how much I love teaching receptive bright creative talented people. I’ve liked teaching the foul-mouthed, aggressive and recalcitrant in my time . But that was in the past. Another country. They do things differently there.

Is there anything to regret? Yes. I’d not explicitly taken this into account. I know there were some really good things being written last Sunday afternoon. Poems, even. And I never get to read them. Here’s a thought. When I post this on Facebook I’ll add all the course memebers’ names and ask them if they’d like to send me stuff they have written up and feel chipper about. And if it’s as good as I suspect, then I’ll put them on the cobweb. Best I can do.

Right. I’ve run out of time. I’m off to Leeds and I’m going to watch Minions with two of my grandchildren. Poetry’s all well and good, but Minions are important. I meant to post some of the translation work we did in Spain, and reflect on the process. And I’ve started to build a queue of guest poets. Tell you what…I’ll do three posts in the next week in which I remind myself what sort of things I’ve learned from trying to translate from the Hungarian. There you go.


7 thoughts on “Keep on running: poetry workshops

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