Jean Sprackland - 2 November 2009
I've just about recovered from a busy week tutoring a lively and intense residential course at the Arvon Foundation's Yorkshire house, Lumb Bank, with a group of poets interested in leading writing workshops. This groundbreaking course was organised by the Poetry School, and we spent the week taking it in turns to run demonstration workshops and discussing the many issues involved in this kind of teaching.
Athough the Poetry School course was a new venture, writing workshops themselves have been part of the landscape for a long time now (just think of Byron and the Shelleys challenging one another to write ghost stories in Switzerland during that long wet summer of 1816), and many poets, starting out, have found their voices by writing and sharing constructive criticism in the safe and supportive environment environment of the workshop. Workshops take place in all sorts of contexts, and each works in its own distinctive way, but they often include exercises designed to stimulate writing - writing that happens quickly and under a certain degree of pressure: you've got ten minutes, and you may be expected to read out what you've written! If the pressure is too intense, it can result in a kind of paralysis; but if the tutor is skilful enough to calibrate it just right, it can be a very powerful driving force. Ted Hughes, one-time owner and presiding spirit of Lumb Bank, described this effect brilliantly: "These artificial limits create a crisis, which rouses the brain's resources: the compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions, flings everything into top gear, and many things that are usually hidden find themselves rushed into the open. Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells." Is this something you've experienced? Do you have any thoughts on the usefulness (or otherwise) of writing workshops? What, in your view, are the factors which make a workshop good, bad or indifferent?