MORNING WORKSHOP REPORT 24TH MARCH 2018
with Chrissy Banks, Verona Bass, Claire Dyer, Marilyn Francis, Sarah Gregory, Nikki Kenna, Ann Preston, Graeme Ryan, Linda Saunders, Tessa Strickland, Harry Thurston.
The brief for the March workshop was to provide a poem with IMMEDIATE ALLURE – the kind of poem which might open a successful collection, or which, when discovered, would make a reader want to read more poems by the same hand. Self-evidently, all poems submitted to magazines and competitions ought to have this quality. I did not frame this workshop requirement from caprice.
The variety of poems was quite startling and lead to an absorbing and wide-ranging debate. Here are a few of the thoughts I brought away. Workshop participants who are also editors of the blog are extremely welcome to add their own. If you are not an editor yet, please sign up now and add contribution to the rest.
There are very good reasons to discipline a poem to occupy a single page. Printed poems have a visual/graphic dimension which is pleasing, expressive and reassuring, and are probably most visually pleasing when, like a well-framed picture, they occupy a single page. A poem which spills beyond its one page is making a sacrifice of one of the great proven pleasures of good poetry. Unless it has a clear and compelling narrative arc, when read aloud, it is also probably asking too much of a listener who cannot see the printed text. The workshop rule of 28 lines maximum was broken by one of the March subscribers, and he was unreasonably forgiven, but in future this 28 line/double sonnet/single page/maximum words rule will be an absolute.
The March workshop raised fascinating issues of clarity. I personally believe that the right to difficulty must be earned and that most often difficulty and obscurity arise not from profundity of thinking, or depth of emotion, but from failures of editing, imagination, empathy and basic courtesy. A poem ought to communicate effectively with its audience. The deeper and more subtle the meaning, the greater is the obligation to express it with clarity and care. Think the Duino Elegies. Think the Four Quartets. I found three of yesterday’s workshop poems stubbornly resisted my questions: what is this about? what is this trying to say? how do these parts cohere into a whole? I thought this was a sign of weakness. But several people in the workshop were intrigued and attracted by precisely this kind of puzzlement. Please reply to / comment on this in the box below this post.
In a short poem, every single word must do its work. No word should disrupt the authenticity of the speaking. No lazy/insentive selection should let the poem down. The happy corollary of this is that when a poem has been properly written with meticulous attention to the choice of words, it can hardly fail. There were particularly good examples of this achieved excellence yesterday from several writers in the room and it was joy to spend time with so much good writing. When all the words in a poem have been chosen well, it becomes possible to rejoice in identifying the real ‘stars’. The way Marilyn Francis used the word ‘bosky’ with such cunning awareness of its poetic history. Nikki Kenna’s description of the ‘bony’ earth. Harry Thurston’s immaculate description of a wasp’s nest as a small planet – his fine poem weakened only by his choice of the word ‘cup’ to describe the beginnings of the nest building. He meant an inverted cup, but the poem didn’t give the reader the space to imagine this . Nor would ‘dome’ have done the work, unless he had a way of giving us a tiny dome, as in Hopkins’ ‘thrush eggs look little low heavens. ’ ( There’s no harm in such an already good writer as Harry aiming for the stars.)
The curse of the backstory. Strictly speaking, a stand alone published poem has no context. Everything it wants to communicate has somehow to come into existence on its printed page. The magic of a really good short poem is to create its world partly by actual words and partly by the power of suggestion, by the inseparable marriage of what is said and what is left unsaid. Most of yesterday’s poems were beautifully self-contained and ready – with perhaps one or two tiny tweaks – to go out into the world but a few still seemed stubbornly over-anchored in their writers’ heads. A backstory should be glimpsed as a ghost in the machine – evident, important, enriching, alluring, sparking the imagination, catching at the throat, but never creating the impression that the words on the page are not doing their full work. This becomes particularly challenging when the backstory comes from undeclared areas in the writer’s private life – a hugely difficult issue, which surely needs a whole day workshop of its own.
Yesterday’s writers were forbidden to include titles with their pieces, which had the very good effect of making the poems stand, as they should do, on their own two feet. It seemed to me that this absence of title was only damaging to the poem in one case out if the nine. Harry Thurston’s poem about wasps and their nests was impeccably expressed, beautifully detailed, very well shaped and very well disciplined. But not everyone recognised that the subject was wasps because not everyone has seen a wasps’ nest up close. Having the title put this right immediately, of course. What was interesting, when we heard the other writer’s’ titles, was how little they added to our understanding and appreciation of the poems which by now we knew quite well. How much can, or should a title add to a poem? How can we learn to use them well? To good advantage? Can a poem be over-titled? Are some titles anything more than a useful device for indexing?
Please add your comments on the March workshop in the comments box.
The morning workshop in May will concentrate on FORM.