Poetry workshops

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?


Hi Jean. The kind of poetry workshop I envision is a collaborative one with one other writer - the way Ezra Pound gave advice on T.S. Eliot's poetry, and Sigfried Sassoon on Wilfred Owen's. I don't believe in the power struggles and in-house politics that come with working in large groups. I believe in one writer and one writer-editor-advisor, and possibly, the two writers taking turns editing each other. No entry fee, no prospect of public humiliation, no gossip, no sabotage... Symbiosis and understanding. Two artists working in harmonious and productive tandem toward a common goal for a period of time. It would probably have its own challenges, but this is my ideal workshop scenario.

I had a teacher who did that exercise. It did not work for me. I cannot be creative with a gun to my head. It does not "fling me into top gear" it slams me into neutral! Our teacher was visibly angry when we read out what we had written and it was so little and uninspired. I do not think she was "skillful enough to calibrate it just right". I personally did not think much of theexercise. I think there are better ways to get to the writer's subconscious than to apply pressure. Of course I am dyslexic (like so many writers) so this would not work for me anyway.

Interesting comments, Ralph and Lucian. The one-to-one relationship you describe, Ralph, can be immensely valuable, I think. The collaboration between Pound and Eliot was indeed an editorial one, but something similar can also happen in a 'mentoring' situation, with one poet in a sort of apprenticeship role to to the other. Its success depends heavily on how well the two people involved get on - a meeting of minds, a kind of chemistry is required to make it work, I think - and this element is an unpredictable one. The workshop model comes in for a bit of a bashing from both of you, and it does sound as if you've both been unlucky. But in its defence I would say I've witnessed (as a participant as well as a tutor) marvellous and unexpected writing happening around the workshop table. Larger gatherings, led well, need not feature public humiliation, power struggles or guns to the head. If you go to a workshop and get nothing out of it, then don't go back. But uncomfortable challenges can be a good thing, helping to move your writing on in ways you might not achieve alone at your desk.

I did not realise I was "bashing" writing workshops. Actually I have never been to one. I was talking about that exercise you described. I thought that it was a constructive comment from out of my own experience. I was referring to a teacher at school.

Sorry, Lucian, I got the wrong end of the stick - I see now you did clearly say it was a school experience. It's good and interesting to hear about it, anyway. And in case I seemed to leap too readily to the defence of this way of working, I should add that I too have had one or two pretty unhelpful experiences in the past. Like everything, I guess workshops can be done well or not so well...

That's okay, Jean. "Larger gatherings, led well, need not feature public humiliation, power struggles or guns to the head." You should turn up to one of our family get-togethers!

I focused on the potential shortcomings of workshops quite a bit - sorry. They can be beneficial too, as you say Jean. One person might try the pressure of time, another drugs... I find drawing to be helpful. Not being an illustrator or anything, I'm not concerned about the outcome at all. It's purely a means of loosening things up so that I can go and write afterwards and not be stuck. Sometimes, the drawings surprise me with their poignancy. Sometimes, they don't. I don't know if I would be able use words in the same way - I care about writing too much. But then, perhaps that's a barrier. The photographer Man Ray once said that the artist needs to harbour a certain disregard for his/her medium, to 'get over it' being special.

P.S. Let me know, Lucian, when the next family get-together is to take place and what sort of protective gear I will need.

Dear Ralph, I would suggest ear plugs, a hard/protective hat, a fixed smile, indigestion pills and a getaway car. P. S. You might need notepad and paper to pass notes to deaf/elderly members of the family who might or might not have a sense of humor.

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