Between the lines: drafts, workshops, and how to survive them


A spot of deja vu this afternoon. It’s lovely to be back after a two week break, but I notice the last  post I wrote (about poetry residentials, just before going on one) starts with a moan about the weather AND the unpleasantness of watching my RL team Batley Bulldogs on a cold day with rain siling down. Guess what. I’m off to Mount Pleasant, the most ironically named ground in English rugby league, and it’s cold, horrible and tanking down. I may have to thaw out before I can finish this week’s post. Fingers crossed we get a win. (why do managers and players of football teams always say they wanted to get ‘a result’? A draw is a result. So is getting hammered by a team you should walk all over. Just a thought. Anyway, I’m off to get layered up. I’ll be back in a while. Behave, while I’m away.)


Well. You’ve been very patient. It’s Monday afternoon.This is what it looked like yesterday. Detail from a brilliant photo posted by Paul Butterworth on the supporters’ facebook page. It was cold, it was wet and it was unrelentingly nailbitingly brutal. It’s taken me till now to get warm, and I was only watching. Right. Back to business.

I had great week in St Ives with writing tutors Kim Moore and David Tait, in the company of talented, committed folk who I already knew, like Meg Cox, Martin Zarrop, Rachel Davies and Hilary Robinson, and a whole bunch of folk who I met for the first time and taught me lots.

Because they are gifted teachers, Kim and David did three things that a good residential ought to do. 1:They are very clear about what the course is for, about what to expect, and, day by day, what’s coming next, and why. 2: They surprised me with poems I’d never seen before, and put them in a context that shifted the way I read them and wrote out of them. 3: They gave me tasks that disturbed and challenged me. 4: They gave me the security to handle it.

It was a week that did what a good residential should do: it took me out of my comfort zone, it made me look at stuff that I unconsciously try to avoid. It will eventually make me write differently, and, hopefully, better. And it also made me think very hard about workshopping my own poems and those of others…which will be the point of this delayed cobweb strand.


Just to be clear; what do I mean by a workshop? In this context, it’s not one where you write new work from prompts or whatever. I mean workshops where you take a poem that’s unfinished or unsatisfying in some way, in the hope that someone will spot what’s going wrong and suggest a possible solution, or to discover that it’s unsatisfying because it’s actually not very good and probably not worth persisting with. The two I go to on a regular basis are the (theoretically) weekly meetings of The Albert Poets at The Sportsman’s pub in Huddersfield, and the ones in the afternoon sessions of the monthly Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. They’re the ones where I feel simultaneously safe and challenged. I’ll try to explain why I think both of these conditions are essential as I go along.

Safety/security first. Groups like these work because they have very clear ground rules. On residentials where there’s a critiquing workshop, and where there are people who haven’t met before, its good to be told what they are.(They include making enough copies of your poem for everyone to have one) David Tait reminded me of the importance of this in St Ives, because he told us all very clearly, and I’m going to borrow what he said.

First: don’t bring a poem that you’re unwilling to change; a workshop isn’t a place to go to be told how much you’re loved. If you want applause, go to open mic.s and take your chance with the rest. Now, you might think this is obvious, but nothing is more uncomfortable than dealing with the ones who don’t get this basic premise.

Second. Everyone’s got a copy. You read your poem aloud. And then you keep quiet. You don’t explain why you wrote it, or its backstory..none of that. The poem has to stick up for itself. You don’t argue or interrupt. You listen as people say what they think. You may think what they say is stupid. (a few weeks ago, a newcomer to one group gave my poem nul points, saying that it was full of similes that have no place in poems any more…something of the sort). Grit your teeth. There should be a time span for this bit..depends on the size of the group. 5-10 minutes. At the end you should have the chance to respond. Not indignantly.

Third. What about the critiquers? Rules vary, but I like the format of the Poetry Business. When you respond to a poem you start with some thing(s) you like..two or three….and then things that puzzle you, or don’t seem to work. What you say needs to be helpful, potentially. And it needs to be about THIS POEM. And even if you love it, you need to say why. And if you want to suggest changes, PLEASE make them provisional. You have to believe that you don’t necessarily have the answers or solutions. Preface your comments with something on the lines of: what happens if ….what happens if you cut this line/if you shift these stanzas to the beginning/ if you make the title the first line. That kind of thing

Fourth. I nearly forgot this. It’s a rule I personally want to add. When you listen to someone read her poem, listen to what it’s saying. Think: what’s this about? Too often people jump in with a comment about details and techniques without giving any indication that they’ve listened to what the poem means. So say what you think the poem means. The poet thinks she knows but if you’ve heard something different then that’s important. It tells her that she hasn’t got the message/significance/meaning across to one reader at least, and she may need to think about why.

In other words, there’s a contract between the poet and the readers, and everyone has to trust everyone else. I tend to think this works best in groups of a certain size. For me, 5 or 6 is optimum, 10 is manageable, and bigger than that means that whoever is in the last three of the session will not actually be heard by anyone. Because it’s a tiring business. It really is.

Fifth: (actually, I’m not sure this part of the sequence BUT it’s coming here nonetheless).

It’s about one-to-one workshops. These are a feature of most, if not all, residentials. David Tait, again, is very clear about ground rules.Let’s assume this is not a session where you are asking how to get published, or how to sequence a pamphlet, or how to get readings, or how to become famous.

The first is that you will have a time allocation. Whatever it is, both you and the tutor must honour it. You will be punctual. The tutor will be punctillious. When you time is up, it’s up.

Secondly, you supply the tutor with two or three poems that you want advice about. You do not turn up with a manuscript, or ask the tutor to read a potential collection. You’re going to get twenty minutes. Deal with it.

Thirdly, you do everything you can to help the tutor to help you. Ask the tutor if s/he’d like you to highlight the bits that you think are not working. S/he may prefer to read the poems blind, but it does no harm to ask.

Fourthly, in any case you should go to your workshop/tutorial with your highlights ready. It might be the title, the last line, the pivot; it might be that you think there’s too much or too little; it might be that you can’t make it dance…but have an idea what you want to focus on.

Now, you might think this is obvious, commonsense, doesn’t need saying. But I’ve been in a blind-reading workshop (all the poems anonymised) where an extremely famous poet said that my contribution was a ‘crock of sh*te’. And to be fair, it wasn’t much good, but the point of a workshop’s being to make poems better vanished right there. It didn’t do much for the ambience either. Tutors can break the contract, but so can ‘students’…the ones who, despite everything, want to be told how to write a collection or get on the radio or whatever, who want to criticise the course, or just turn up for vaguely poetry-related therapy. The rules are crucial, and we have to trust that we all make them work.

So what’s it like, chucking your poem into the ring, like a prize-fighter’s hat. I thought I’d finish with a sort of case-study. Let’s start with the version of the poem I wanted to workshop because it wasn’t working.

Inside out


Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it. Light fills it

like a cistern, to the brim.


Outside : cliff-face, course on course

of great stones shutting off the sky,

the earth breathing its last, pressed to death.


Inside: suspended gravity.

Mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…


cobweb banners of dead regiments –

small dry waterfalls,

the arrested drift of falling leaf…..


where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, its fingers

that it clasps in prayer.


where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God;

sounds like the oldest music


that murmurs and whispers;

a shout would vanish,

a pebble in a well.


Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;


make yourself remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled


by men with callouses,

fighting brute inertia,



who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.


The copies circulated round the group weren’t highlighted in red, but just for convenience, they are here..they’re the bits I wasn’t sure about. I’d started from the simple idea that great Gothic cathedrals are bigger inside than out, that enchantment of stone to create the illusion of weightlessness. When I was writing, in my mind I was standing outside Durham Cathedral, outside York and Lincoln and Winchester and then walking inside into that rare light. see what it does when I tell you that;  it’s special pleading before you can read what’s in front of you. I started to think that maybe the idea is a) blindingly obvious, b) the poem was just assertively arguing a case that didn’t need arguing, and c) that it probably wasn’t worth salvaging, but we could give it a chance. Intriguingly, some readers didn’t see that it was about cathedrals; maybe I was making too many assumptions. (I grew up with Bannister-Fletcher’s history of architecture). Anyway, it made me think.

As well as people in the group making oral suggestions, several will annotate their copy and give it to the writer afterwards. I think this is great, regardless of what they write.Here’s two to make a point:


What do I make of this? The left hand one reinforces my unease about the title. It means I need to do something about it…I trust this responder, as it happens. Ditto the suggestion about omitting two stanzas. Why? Because I’m not sure about the introduction of scent and sound into a poem that’s focussed on sight and touch. I really like the images, but I have to ask if they belong, if they earn their keep. What about the right hand one?  Well it’s curtly radical, isn’t it. It would be easy to take umbrage or shrug it off. But maybe I need to listen to the voice that’s saying: this poem is too long, there’s too much stuff going on. It needs some cuts. Possibly not these.

Meanwhile, as group members are making their annotations, I’m making mine.


What’s happened is that I feel confirmed about the title. Lots of folk mentioned this. Ditto, the inside/outside opposition which tips the rhetoric of the poems in the wrong dirction. It’s clunky. Get shot. As I read the poem to the group I heard what was wrong with the the line about the leaves…I heard it before I got to it and changed it as I read. You think you’ve read your poem aloud, but it’s different reading it to listeners. I decide to get rid of the pebble in the well, much as I like it. It’s distracting. And so on. On the other hand, no one has found that those imperative verbs, press, make yourself, are a problem. Maybe I can keep them. A week later, I go back and edit. I don’t think this poem is up for submissions or competitions. It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it. On the other hand, I think it’s better than it was,thanks to that workshop. Here it is.See what you think.



Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it, a cistern,

full to the brim with light,


suspended gravity,

mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…


cobweb banners of dead regiments:

small dry waterfalls –

arrested drifts of falling leaf;


where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, flexes fingers

that it clasps in prayer;


where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God,

sounds like the oldest music.


Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;



this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled


by men with callouses,

fighting bulk,weight,

awkwardness;  men


who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

I’m sorry you had to wait till Monday. Thank you for turning up and thank you for listening. As a treat, next week we’re having a guest poet I’ve wanted ever since I started writing the cobweb. See you next Sunday (or Monday)

PS. If you’ve been persuaded by the last two posts, you could do a lot worse than have a think about this tasty-looking course coming up shortly. It could be just what you need:

Residential Poetry Course
April 10th – 14th 2017
Tutors: Kim Moore and Jennifer Copley
Abbot Hall Hotel, Kents Bank, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
£396 To book please contact hotel  015395 32896

Two cultures, and an (un)discovered gem: Liz Venn


Three big influences when I was growing up..or growing older. Richard Hoggart’ s Uses of literacy; Raymond Williams’ Culture and society and The long revolution; and C P Snow’s lecture on The two cultures. It’s a curious triumvirate. The son of a Welsh railway worker, a working class lad from Hunslet, and then C P Snow, riddled with class insecurity, a scientific career civil servant, Private Secretary in the Wilson government, a man with a PhD on spectroscopy, and successful writer of turgid novels that, unaccountably, I read avidly at the age of 17. What they had in common, apart from the fact that they were never quite seen as ‘one of us’ by the great and good of academe, was a deep and heartfelt concern about the fragmentations of ‘culture’. The fact that Snow and Hoggart in particular set up a rhetoric about dichotomies didn’t help the cause, but they were, at the time, enormously influential. Snow had an immediate impact on sixth form education, in as much he he threw a strong light on the grammar schools division of their 6th forms into Arts and Science Sixths ( he was, I think, also indirectly responsible for the appearance of the Use of English exam I sat in 1961, and which I ended up teaching a few years later). This division led to earlier ones. I dropped all science subjects at the age of 13. The choice in my school was between History/ Geography, and Chemistry/Physics ….there we were. O level courses sorted. It seems unthinkable…and Snow was right. It was absurd that,culturally, a knowledge of Literature and Art and Music (with capitals, so you know what sort we’re talking about) had cachet. F R Leavis regarded Snow as little more than a PR man for engineers. It seemed OK in polite society, as Snow pointed out, to be effectively innumerate, and ignorant of how the world was physically put together. Maybe it’s something to do with the snobberies that are the truly unpleasant thing in English culture and society. But it’s an old division. Dickens saw the damage done to education when it chooses between Mr Gradgrinds ‘Facts Facts Facts’ and the fancy of Mr Sleary’s horseriding. Maybe it goes back to Descartes; maybe it’s even older, even though we may no longer believe in angels or think science is witchcraft.

So what’s this to do with a chatty poetry blog on a Sunday afternoon? You didn’t sign up for this, did you? It’s just that at one time art and science and music and maths and literature weren’t compartmentalised. Maybe the Industrial revolution, and the mechanisation of print and imagery have something crucial to do with it. And maybe that’s for another day. But painters like Joseph Wright were fascinated by science and its attendant technologies. Milton thought it obvious that Adam and the Angel would pass the time discussing the structure of the cosmos. Da Vinci was fascinated by the structures of everything, the way water fell, how a tree grows, the technologies of destruction, the wonders of human anatomy.

My art teacher in the 6th form was more concerned that I dabbled with Taschism and Cubism, so I didn’t get to know much about the Renaissance. But I did get Metaphysical poetry as a set book for English A level, so I got Andrew Marvell, and coy mistresses, and above all, John Donne and those ‘stiffe twinne compasses’. For the first time in my life I thought I could see how and why a metaphor worked, and fell in love with that fusion of sex and wit and science and passion and religion, and all that cleverness. Well maybe it’s predictable, that appeal to a smartass grammar school adolescent. But I’m still glad of it, and still happy to find poetry that embraces politics and passion and technology…and, well, knowledge. I like poems that think it’s OK if the reader sometimes has to look things up. You can see why I like Tony Harrison…when I read his early stuff I thought I’d met a real-life Metaphysical poet. I got the same buzz when I first saw Bronowsky’s  Ascent of Man, which I can watch again again (thankyou BBC DVD) but less of a buzz from the patrician Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation. Though I still watch both. Technology, eh?

And, if you’re still with me, this is why, when I met her at a Poetry Business writing day, I was much taken by one of Liz Venn’s poems, and why  I want to share my enthusiasm. I would have loved to have posted The bone man and the way it easily wove a knowledge of bones and antomy into a poem full of a sense of wonder; but it’s out with a magazine at the moment. I shall look out for its acceptance with some eagerness. I said at the top the page that she’s an (un)discovered gem.  This is to cover my embarrassment…I discovered her in much the same way as Europeans discovered America, as though the Oglala Sioux and Commanche and Seminoles and all the Nations had not previously noticed they were already living there. Liz is actually the House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series of poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She did a distance learning writing course tutored by the immensely-talented Bill Greenwell; she did a creative writing MA at MMU. In the same year as Kim Moore, and at the same time as David Tait. It’s a small world, and I still don’t know much about it. Mea culpa. She’s been published in the splendid CAST** anthology: The Poetry Business Book of new and Contemporary Poets. She’s been published in lots of quality magazines..The North, Iota, Magma, Smiths Knoll. She won the 2014 Poets and Players prize. So all of you who knew this can smile quietly….keep up, Foggin. Keep up. She also teaches creative writing for science communication, to undergraduate life scientists, and I think her easy synthesis of scientific knowledge and poetry is what I responded to. She can write matter-of-factly, and with a great sense of fun (as she does in The women I’ve worked with) and a nice ruefulness about her dad who’s out shopping for grout and wishing I’d found a man to do these things for me, but I’m going to choose just one poem today, and tell you to check out the magazines, to buy your copy of CAST**, and to visit her website:

I’m assuming that I’ve made you want to. And think on; next week I might be asking questions. Just in case, here’s the poem.

And though I’m not the believing type

I’d believe in the iron souls of trains,

a hollow soul for carrying things

with a spark blown through its fingers.

I’d believe in the souls of drystone walls,

that rise up in rough hands and hold themselves.

That wear the wind on one side, moss on the other

and stand fornothing, except to turn sheep back.

I believe in the fragile souls of light-bulbs,

metallic and easily broken, or dig

to find the ugly clay soil of the North.

I’d believe in souls like chocolate buttons,

that start to melt as you hold them,

in souls that aren’t actually souls,

but chemistry, in the way that carbon breaks

and heals itself through all its different faces,

from the slippery memory of pencil lead,

to the beautiful laboratory of leaves.

There are great images, here. I like the blown spark, and I particularly like the walls that (ambiguously) stand for nothing. But what’s memorable for me is that ‘beautiful laboratory of leaves’ and that conceit of carbon, metamorphosing itself into the souls of everything. So there you are. I’m delighted to have (un)discovered Liz Venn’s poems. Just one thing before I go. Distrust those who spell Culture with a Capital, and equally, Literature, Art, Poetry and Music. They’re trying to keep it for themselves, behind their upper-case fences. Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart got me starting to see that (and, later, John Berger). When was the last time you saw science, and mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biology in capitals (except on an exam paper or a university prospectus)? C P Snow got me to think about that.

Next week, we’re coming from Spain. I want you to meet a Hungarian sculptor who writes poems in English. I was lying about the questions.

**CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets ed Simon Armitage, Joanna Gavins, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom [Smith/doorstop. 2014] £10