Workshops – during and after

Hello! This is for anyone who would like to know what kind of stuff happened in my recent creative writing workshops for The Forge in Stanley. It’s also a bit about how poems might develop after such a workshop. If that’s not for you, then no worries, see you later xx

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I recently ran two versions of the same workshop, one as an open public 3-hour workshop for Northern Writes Festival, and a shorter 2-hour version this morning for the Just For Women group. The basic structure was the same, but with 3 writing exercises in the longer version, 2 in the shorter session. In both, we start by drawing a map of somewhere we knew well as children. Over 30-45 minutes, we add on layers of details – street names and nicknames; people, animals, significant trees; places where stories happened to us and to others; urban legends; colours, sounds, textures and smells. It’s incredible how much detail you can recall using the technique of mapping.

Then we read a couple of example poems. I think of this bit as a choice between ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’. The poems I’ve been using have been The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop, and Jean by my friend Jane Burn. We talk for a while about images, how to make them vivid, how to make verbs work hard for you. (Jean’s hair doesn’t curl, it ‘fizzes’, for example). Then we free write a landscape or portrait of our own, using the maps and their memories as our inspiration.

In the longer workshop I also ask people to try a short prose-poem or piece of flash fiction telling a real or imagined anecdote, and hand people some examples of ludicrous but real headlines to get them going. (One person in Stanley used this one – Ghost Hunters Stumble On Graveyard Porn Shoot). At some point we have tea. At the end we give our pieces a bit of spit-and-polish, talk about what editing we might do at home, share the bits we like so far. And then…

Well this is what happened to mine – huge frustration, followed by a couple of edits that got me quite close to a finished poem. It may not be brilliant, but it’s more interesting than versions 1 or 2. In my opinion.

Blackbirds

Sleek among the rotten

leaves are blackbirds

dandily stabbing

swallowing small things

whole; should a brother

wear a white patch

volleying pecks at him

(naturally to death)

other as he is to the Race

and Nation of Blackbird,

that reaches in the dark

to the outermost edges

of the next bird’s song.

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Some Advice On Editing Poems

None of the advice below is written by me – it was given to me at last week’s Wolf At The Door retreat, by one of the retreat leaders. I have no idea if Vishvantara wrote these points herself, but if she did she’s a genius. I hope and trust that she won’t mind my sharing them on.

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Fifteen Ways Of Working On A Poem

  1. Take an unfinished poem of twenty-five to forty lines or more. Remove half of the lines (whichever hand-picked lines you choose). Now cut it in half again. Scream as loudly as you like.
  2. Take a poem of ten or twenty lines and make it forty or fifty. Stretch it, milk it, pad it, free-associate, spider-diagram it and repeat things in Spanish if you have to.
  3. Find the energetic points. Where are the ‘hot’ areas? Put one as your first line. Put another as your last line. Rearrange the other lines or verses in between.
  4. Divide your imagery into ‘heart’ and ‘head’ and cut out everything not heart-felt. Where there used to be ‘head’ imagery, try using simple language that doesn’t compare anything to anything else.
  5. Make sure you consider cutting your last line and the few above it as well. Where does the poem itself want to end? (Beware of the ‘it’s not over until the fat lady sings’ feeling). The end must come as a surprise to you as you write, not be the one you started out thinking you must have. Have you strained the poem into finishing where you want it to go? Poems often delight in stopping midstream, taking off, drizzling away or turning around and biting us playfully. Only rarely do they delight by ‘the moral of the story is’ or ‘so this is how it all ended up’.
  6. Find a phrase or a line or two that you are a bit complacent about, a bit of writing you think is quite good, and rephrase it noticing how attached you are to the previous version. Ask a friend which is the better option.
  7. If you are writing from or about a memory, insert a detail from you present experience. If writing from or about the present, include a memory.
  8. Imagine that at a certain point you rose a hundred feet into the air and looked down at the tableau vivant of the poem. What is its gesture? Can you somehow include this in the poem?
  9. Imagine that at a certain point in the poem you became very tiny and sat within a phrase that you had just written. Write what you see around you.
  10. If you have too many little prosy words, articles or linking words, try re-writing those phrases with fewer small words.
  11. The word ‘of’ is a poetic cliche, so delete the ‘of the’s, e.g. ‘the gate of the mind’. It should be ‘the mind’s gate’. Also beware of any words you wouldn’t use in conversation – e.g. ‘aplenty’.
  12. Try translating your poem for the benefit of someone with limited knowledge of your language.
  13. Try explaining your poem to a philosopher. Add some of this explanation to the poem.
  14. Always keep you original draft – that’s very important.
  15. Put your poem in a drawer for three months and start something else.