Moving to Paris has meant, despite the easy-peasy but not-so-cheap Eurostar, that I’ve not been able to get to as many London-based events as I’d like. It also means that it has been harder to attend my workshop groups, the monthly Highgate Poets (I’m still a member and currently one of three editors working on the new anthology due later this year) and the fortnightly Lambs (we meet in The Lamb on Lamb Conduit Street). So it was fantastic to all meet up the weekend before last, not in the tight confines of an upstairs pub room (even if we hire a roomy room, when not confined to ‘The Snug’), but in the wide flat spaces and under the big skies of East Anglia. Having grown up in Cambridge, I love the flatness of East Anglia, and always feel as though I’m being pulled back when the London train curves right after Hitchin and heads round towards Baldock, Letchworth, Royston…
A real indulgence to be workshopping poems as we would on a Monday evening but now with expansive lawns and warm sunshine. In turn, each of us led a small writing activity for 30 to 60 minutes, so that we brought different approaches to the group. Many of us have been on residential courses, such as with Arvon or with Anne-Marie Fyfe who runs the Coffee-House Poetry reading series at the Troubadour, or taken classes with the Poetry School, so it was a chance to reflect on the exercises that had worked best for us and helped stimulate poems, and as such, ideas we wanted to share with the group. We ended up with a happy pick ‘n’ mix of techniques, from using objects and playing cards as props, to drawing clocks to create word associations, going on walks with the notebook, lending each other stories that might be reinvented and morphed into poems, writing abridged CVs, exploring an abstract noun, going from furniture to animate being….
We introduced each other to poets we have recently discovered and discussed what we liked and why. Just as we were winding down, feeling all poemed out, I circulated a poem that interspersed long and short lines to the group – the kind of thing that would not be out of place in the US, but would rarely see the light of day in many UK magazines. I often find myself writing in neat stanzas by default so this kind of free verse taken to the limits of the page really appealed to me. The poem was from a recent issue of the beautiful Norwich-based new-kid-on-the-block Lighthouse published by Gatehouse Press (fours issues so far). The poem had a joyous shape and just invited you to play with line length, to write quickly and not worry about punctuation or sentences. I circled eight different words or phrases and then the challenge was for everybody to join up the words, filling in between with whatever came into their head, but filling fast, with urgency, not stopping to police themselves. The sheer energy and range of what emerged was truly amazing! So now a heap of scribblings to go back to, a wealth of new beginnings, if only I can find the time.
You must find the time. Too many beginnings fizzle out or get lost. I was reminded of the exercises we used to generate spontaneously when I was at Art College. If someone felt like a shift they would suggest a ‘workshop’. A few of us would gather round and one person would pick up some material, it could be anything – a piece of clay, someone’s hat, two pencils, a handful of Plaster of Paris – and pass it to the next person who would add to, subtract from or change the object. This continued round the circle as long as it felt interesting, then we would break or start a new thread. Some creations could be enormous and last all day, or the exercise could last five minutes. One of my best pieces came out of a ‘workshop’. The joy was to not ‘own’ the sculpture, but simply be a part of the process.