Behind the scenes at a workshop

IMG_0148Last Wednesday I gave a workshop to the writers’ group at Hartlepool Library, as part of my role as poet-in-residence at the Heroism & Heartbreak WW1 project, (latest poem now available here) which was a lot of fun to plan and research. So I thought I’d tell you what I did, in case it’s useful for anyone.

I knew that the group were split between poetry and prose writers, with some of the prosers habitually reluctant to try verse (which can seem daunting even to those of us who are poets by temperament). So I thought I’d trick them all by doing a session on prose poetry!!! Mwahahaha!!! This entailed me researching what the hell prose poetry is, which I did by reading stuff online and an anthology about The Great American Prose Poem (thank you Degna Stone for the loan). About four hours of this, on and off, on trains, et cetera, and I had selected four prose poems that I thought were accessible, memorable, full of interesting formal devices, and related to themes of war. The poems I chose were The 12 O’Clock News by Elizabeth Bishop, Monument by Mary Ruefle, No Sorry by Catherine Bowman and The Most Beautiful Word by Linh Dinh.

The workshop featured an intro to prose poetry, where I went off on a bit of a passionate rant about how they are fired by a similar impulse towards documenting the subjective experience of modernity as also powers many early twentieth-century visual movements like Dada, Cubism, Vorticism, and how the fragmentation and re-configuration of form, and therefore meaning, is common to all of them, and I may have totally made all that up…

Then we played a game I made up called ‘The Prose-Poetry Venn Test’, where I had made a load of cards saying things like ‘humour’, ‘formal rhyme structures’, and ‘true stories’ and everyone had to decide if they were features exclusive to prose, to poetry OR…..wait for it….could be used by both! In this way we laid the foundations for a world where poetry and prose were almost entirely overlapped.

After that, we read the four poems out loud and discussed them, which was GREAT, love a bit of controversy! At this point I was massively over-running my lesson plan, and everyone’s brains were dribbling out of their ears, so we had some tea and came back for two short free-writing exercises. In the first one, I read out Carl Sandburg’s WW1 poem ‘Iron‘, but line by line, with each line acting as a prompt for 45 seconds of free-write, which rolled on line by line to a full time of about 10 minutes. Then we immediately did 5 minutes free write in response to a variety of prompt questions inspired by my looking through the online archive. Then we had another 8 minutes to edit one or both of our source writes into a prose poem, which I assigned the arbitrary ‘rule’ of a 100-word limit.

I pushed them hard, really hard, but the final pieces when we shared back were uniformly excellent. As usual, I just have to remember that what I tend to plan for a 2-hour session is invariably 3 hours-worth of activity….

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