Sunday, 16 March 2014

Inspiration overload at 'Is there a doctor in the house?' day

I am still on a high after yesterday which is why I’m up this morning while the stars are still out writing this piece. I’ll explain.

I attended a jammed packed day with The Poetry School entitled Is there a doctor in the house? and the speakers were students who were or had just completed a PhD in poetry and were using subjects studied as a basis for lectures and workshops. The event was held at the 1901 Arts Club in Exton Street, London, just around the corner from Waterloo Station. The venue is quaint, intimate and cosy. The day began upstairs with registration, refreshments and signing up to workshops. There were a total of eight lectures downstairs, a room able to could cope with everyone attending, if necessary, and eight micro workshops upstairs. We were able to choose up to four workshops. I’d previously been emailed the programme for the day so knew which workshops I’d like to sign up for and I arrived early enough to get my name on each. Workshops were restricted to twenty students. I got talking to a lovely young lady who works part time for Arvon and had been on one of their courses. She enthused about the course which really kick-started her poetry writing. I realised that I was perhaps talking too much and put this down to not normally having enough contact with other writers so suddenly I go into overdrive. I hope I didn’t bore her! Also when I’m nervous I can go from not saying anything to not being able to stop. Gee why can’t I hit the happy medium!

After a short welcome and an explanation of how the day would pan out it was down to business. For me the first event was a lecture by John Challis on The Poem Noir which he explained crossed the genres but borrows from the visual language of classic film noir such as Double Indemnity. John used images from films to show what he meant – the dark stranger, unusual camera angles and the subject matter of complex study of the human condition including hopelessness, failure and betrayal. John also mentioned newer TV programmes which fall into this category, Luther, Breaking Bad, The Killing, Broadchurch. He looked at how the stories come across with loss of identity being a key feature and the use of atmosphere in dynamic dark death and mystery, nightmares, drug state and the underworld. He mentioned the author Chandler who I don’t know and talked about the detective breaking the rules to get the result.

I’d signed up for John’s workshop which came directly after the lecture. I should say here that each lecture and workshop lasted just thirty minutes so a lot was going on in a short space of time and the day whizzed by. In the workshop we had the chance to try out some writing using the imagery of film. As a way in, we were each given a sheet of poems that John felt fell into the category of Poem Noir. They included a series of poems from Fetch by Tamar Yoseloff and Tail by Deryn Rees-Jones from Quiver. We spent a few minutes looking and discussing the poems and then had a go writing our own. We were told to write it as if we were following ourselves like a detective. Some people shared their efforts. My draft wasn’t brilliant but I have since realised that I can use this as a way into a poem I’ve been struggling with for a while. Suddenly I see its potential!

From that workshop I dived straight into the next lecture which was by Tara Bergin, Bloodaxe archive film screening. After a short introduction there was a fifteen minute film which she and one other poet had made while looking through the Bloodaxe archive which now resides at Newcastle University and which had so far been un-categorised. The film included some interviews they had made with JohnHegley, Simon Armitage, Gillian Allnutt and Anne Stevenson.  A very interesting film and project – all this stuff unseen! After the lecture it was upstairs for the workshop entitled Archive into Art. Tara gave us some pointers and we set to work drafting a poem as if we were the archivist coming across something of our own – writing first something from academic stance which then flood into emotions. I found this workshop difficult and couldn’t get a handle on it in the time, though I did share my measly first line!

And then it was lunchtime! I headed off to Sainsbury’s Local only to find the cupboard bare. The few lefts overs were all meat based so I headed over the road to the station and picked up a cheese and tomato baguette. I should have bought lunch when I arrived but you learn. I took my lunch into the Mosaic Garden around St John’s Church where I’d been before to photograph the mosaics and sat in the sunshine. It was a chance to switch off and re-charge the batteries.

The afternoon session for me began with Helen Taylor’s lecture on the Merseybeat Poets, Henri, McGough and Patten. She explained how they worked together making poetry accessible to everyone as an entertainment. I’m a big fan of McGough’s poetry having seen him live – I have never laughed so much – and enjoy the play on words and the sheer humour. Helen showed some examples from the days of performing together and how their methods worked. One example I loved was the play on the You Never Walk Alone song title which had been written by Henri (I think) as You Never Wore Cologne. Say it quickly and see! I just love this stuff and wish humorous poetry got more recognition and was not dumbed down. I wonder how many ‘light’ poems win prizes. I don’t think humour is taken seriously….mmmm!

I then took some time out as there was nothing that really appealed to me in the next section so I grabbed a tea and headed up to the roof terrace which was open all day for those who wanted some space to write or relax. It was lovely up there in the sun and I was joined by two others. We all did our own thing. One lady was busy writing up her poem on her laptop, another had a quick ciggi and read the paper and I dived into my latest read – a biography of Charles Dickens. Afterwards I headed down to the workshop by A B Jackson on Erasure. Wow! I loved this. A bit like found poems but you take a text and basically rub out all the words you are not using leaving only the ones for the poem.  Tom Phillips has done this and is still doing it with a book of around 300 pages which he is erasing leaving only what he wants. See his website here. A B Jackson gave us some extracts from South: the Story of Shakleton’s Last Expedition and we got to work with pen and coloured pencils making our own poems. Those who shared came up with extraordinary poems. I was very impressed. I was also hooked. I love found poems. They are a fun way to relieve writer’s block and the results can be quite liberating. Now I’ve found a new obsession and will be using these methods for sure.

The final lecture I attended was Sound in Poetry by Janet Rogerson. We looked how inseparable sound is from writing poetry, not only in its rhythm and used of assonance and other techniques but our own sound – the one unique to us. Janet calls this our Poetic DNA and often the subconscious will kick in when we write. This is something I have noticed in my own writing. Often when I read something back I realise that I have internal rhymes that have formed automatically, they were not intentionally formed. That always amazes me. This is what engages the reader and often it is this that makes them say – I like that poem but I don’t know why. YES, I know that too. Janet is really onto something here. Our sound also identifies us and forms a thread which runs through all our work. I’d say that it takes some time to find our own voice/sound but I do see things in my own poetry that I would now identify as me. Perhaps others would see that too.

Here the day ended. There was a wrapping-up and goodbye session. I found myself sitting next to A B Jackson and we got into a conversation about his workshop and how much it inspired me. Another lady joined us and we touched again on the copyright issue that came up in the workshop (using the text by another writer even chopped up was a worry for some, including me, on how we stood on publication, did we need to acknowledge sources?) This issue could run but the consensus seems to be that as poets we are making something new and words used are individual or a string of perhaps four together and taken out of context. When I use found poems I often use more than one source and they are all mixed up. Anyone want to comment on this please do. It would be interesting to see how others approach it but on the whole no one says this is a found poem when they submit. It may be obvious but often not. Sometimes the source is acknowledged on a project, instances were given in the workshop and one I know of is Ruth Padel who wrote a series of poems, a mix of her own words and those of Charles Darwin from his scientific notes and journals. Really interesting take on poetry. Like other art forms poetry evolves.

I’ve always like playing with words and using poetry ‘games’ as a way in to new ideas, especially when I’m stuck as it gets the mind working in totally different ways and the work produced is often very different from other poems I write. I find them surprising and exhilarating. The lecture on sound and the one on erasure brought it home to me how much I love working this way. I enjoy experimenting and off the way ideas often appeal to me. I have much here to play with after yesterday, enough to keep me going on those bleak, arid days when words will not come.

There were other lectures and workshops on offer that I was not able to attend or did not quite appeal. I had to toss-up between the lecture on sound and the workshop on Identify with Kath D’Arcy. In the end sound won. All the lectures were filmed by Pighog Poetry and highlights will be appearing soon. I will let you know where. It might just be on The Poetry School Campus site or their main site, possibly Facebook too. Photos were also taken in lectures and workshops. So if you feel you missed something (and you did!) you may still be able to get a piece of the action. I will post links when I have them.  Maybe the success of the event will prompt The Poetry School to make this an annual occurrence. 


  1. This sounds like a very inspiring day and I'm interested in all the workshops you did - especially the one on sound. I sometimes find in workshops that someone suggests a different word or phrase for one of my poems and to me it doesn't scan, interrupts the rhythm although to them it sounds fine. So I have thought perhaps poets have their own internal rhythm - and how does that balance with traditional rules about rhythm and metre. Will the common reader find it jarring or do they get used to that particular poet's mode of expression? I suppose it depends how unusual your own rhythm might be. The Poem Noir sounds interesting too. It might be fun to watch a Hitchcock film and chart the camera angles etc in poetry as they interweave with the storyline.

    Here's a write-up of an exercise I did on sound rather than meaning you might like to try:

  2. Thanks Hilaire, a good exercise you shared. Sound also came into the Merseybeat Poets with McGough using an expected word where the reader is expecting something else that rhymes. Can't think of an example now! Yes, the day was brilliant and this afternoon I managed a new draft of the poem I was struggling with - not wholly Poem Noir, but along the same lines. This could turn out to be my longest poem yet, suddenly I had so much to say. Be interesting to see edits go.

    I've had that too where someone has suggested new words which I don't feel work. I think you should go with your gut instinct because at the end of the day it's your poem. If several people were to make the same comment I'd listen but I think a poet knows when if feels/sounds right. Yes, perhaps we do each have an internal rhythm and that's why someone elses choice won't always fit. We maybe wish to edit other peoples poetry to our own internal rhythm. Good point.