Saturday, 16 January 2010

Workshops and Six Degrees of Separation from The Valkyrie, Mrs Thatcher, and Sean O'Brien

It is a wet Saturday and cold so settling down to do some writing seems enticing as the outside world does not really appeal. I have been putting together a 100 lines of poetry to send off to Sean O’Brien for a master class day workshop I am doing with him in March. I have done such classes before and I am again observing myself go through the usual trauma of what to send. There are two routes, 1) send him work intended to try and impress with your grasp of the craft or 2) send poems that you know need a lot of work and where advice would be welcome. It is an odd sort of dilemma because all poems, no matter how accomplished or finished you think they are could benefit from more work, more thought. I usually do the Camembert method of poetry which is to put a poem away, allow it to ripen and than get it out days, months even years later and see whether it just stinks or whether the stink may still hold something worthwhile and still invites exploration.

I am told by others, because I have been na├»ve enough to ask, that most people go for the ‘to impress’ route with the proviso that you are more than open to criticism on the poem. Send off the very best you know how to do and see if criticism can push it further. This seems more sensible perhaps than sending off work you know needs a lot of work but somehow the poem won’t let you go. Now and then what you need is someone with an opinion you respect to tell you to put the poem down, step away with your hands up. Learn from the disaster certainly, maybe even salvage one line from a three page epic (not that I write long poems) but don’t flog the dead poem when the glue factory beckons.

Criticism is a strange beast, I know that from those times when I have led a workshop. You have to be true to yourself and the craft of poetry, in all its forms, but at the same time be totally open to your blindspots that spring from your particular tastes and opinions. You also have to be intuitive enough to access what level of criticism people can take. Some are fine and in fact demand that you give their work a robust kicking whilst other more fragile souls need a far more nurturing and gentler approach. Everyone should come away from a workshop feeling that something they have written at least shows real promise. They should also be given something to think about, a take on their work that lets them grow as a writer and become more able to criticise and approach their work in a creative rather than destructive way. The old adage of two specific pieces of praise to one specific criticism is too simplistic but it at least makes you think about what you are doing.Those apocryphal tales of writers and poets haranging students and throwing their work out of windows or setting fire to it with a cigarette was way before Health and Safety and the ubiquitous evaluation forms that participants in the workshop give in under the heading of customer relations. I would have loved to see what some of the evaluation forms would have looked like for Robert Lowell as Philip Levine described him as being a little on the hornery side of testy to say the least.You had to be tough for you or your work to survive some famous workshops or seminar groups in the 'good old days'.No-one saw the student or the attendee as a customer or client back then.If the workshop leader was drunk , all the better for the stories you could tell about the course later and some poets could still give useful feedback even when totally pissed and the feedback did have a whole raft of swearwords laced through it.

I do know writers and poets who are so hard on themselves that they verge on editorial masochism, then there are those who believe that a poem is so intimately connected to who they are that by criticising one you are criticising the other. Taking criticism, no matter how creatively it is shaped, personally is death to any progress you may want to make with your work. I have sat in workshops and wanted the ground to swallow me whole along with my poem because I suddenly realised how far from even adequate a poem I had brought was once others gave me a good critique but I have a solid sense of self and learnt from that.

There are sometimes those that criticise badly, who bring to the experience something other than their knowledge of the craft and their experience as a writer. Sometimes someone can have had a bad day, a row with their husband, wife etc, be in a very bad place emotionally and allow that to spill over into their role as a workshop leader or mentor. Writers and poets are human beings, even the most professional of people can have an off day, unfortunately if this off day coincides with a fragile poet or writer who has no internal resources to cope with what perhaps may be a bit of a mauling of their work, then some real damage can be done. To all those who chant the old ‘If you can’t stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen’, I would raise two fingers because such statements are vacuous and fail to see that we may be writers but we are firstly human beings who should exercise the old doctors motto of ‘first do no harm’.

I know there is a view that writers and poets sometimes have to step way beyond the customary polite boundaries of human interaction in order to produce work that challenges and demands the reader step outside too and see other worlds. I think this is true but care for another’s emotional well being is nothing to do with custom or politeness it is to do with what I personally value in the human experience. There are a few poets who write or who have written work of such genius and amazing insight that it makes you re-explore something in yourself and in the world, these people do not necessarily make good workshop leaders. The art of leading a workshop requires a skill set that poetic genius does not. I have experienced really helpful workshops given by poets and writers who may not be the most lauded of poets or writers, who are not in the premier league of awards, sales or demands for readings. Great poets do not automatically make wonderful workshop leaders, mentors or even teachers of creative writing. Sometimes they do and that is the win/win situation.

A good workshop leader will always admit that they receive as well as transmit in the work-shopping process. If it is all transmit a guru/cult like atmosphere can prevail. I have seen that happen in workshops where people have gone on them solely to meet the person leading it and tick them off on some twitcher list of great writers/poets I have spent a day with etc. That is as valid a reason as any but the mismatch of expectations that everyone has of the workshop can be a recipe for disaster. If half the people who are attending the workshop are happy for the leader to spend most of the session reading from their own work and expounding on it and the other half have come to try and work specifically on producing something themselves, there can be blood on the carpet by coffee time.

I love those sessions when you go round the table saying why you have come and what you want from the day. You could play the game of spotting who is really being totally honest or who is circumventing it diplomatically. No–one, in any workshop I have been to has ever said, ‘I have come just to meet you (workshop leader) as I really admire your work which is lauded by all and sundry. I hope this workshop will make me feel slightly connected in some tenuous way to you so that I may be able to approach you about publishing my work and/or you may be able to further my career in some, as yet undefined, way in the future because now by attending this workshop I just might be on your radar. I have therefore come primarily as a networking exercise and anything else I get from the day is just a lovely bolt-on extra.” This I think I would have to stand up and applaud. I said something along those lines once at a workshop with a novel writer, although I chickened out on total honesty about networking.. The workshop leader came up to me afterwards and told me how refreshing it was to have someone actually voice some of those sentiments as he knew that they were always the elephant in the room at every workshop he gave.

I have thought long and hard about writing this in the blog, especially as I have met and stayed in contact with some wonderful, kind, writers and poets as a result of workshops and courses I have been on. Hopefully they know I am a genuine person who does go through the long dark night ( well more than one night) of the soul if I think I am ‘using‘ anyone and being disingenuous about it all. I suppose it is all balanced by the fact that hopefully I have been more than happy to help others along the way by just knowing a tad more about the writing world than them and being more than happy to help push them in the right direction on practical things. I am not in the league where networking with me is of any earthly use to anyone’s career so I am free of any grandiose expectations on any ones part.

All this is of course put into proportion by the news from Haiti. Huge piles of the dead are being built up, even as I speak more and more are dying through lack of treatment and resources. Any concerns I have about what to send to Mr O’Brien seems of little real consequence. Why bother writing at all in the face of what huge need there is in the world in general? I believe that a good poem, short story or book that people find they can relate to, get something from or simply enjoy for a moment adds something intangible yet important to the world. Even in the face of huge disasters and the small ones ( in the end huge disasters are just the sum total of individual personal ones) adding one tiny feather to the scales on the side of creation rather than destruction has its part to play. I always think of Mr Creosote in that Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life, about the man who kept eating and eating and it was just the wafer thin mint that made him explode. It is the accumulation of all the tiny things (for good or ill) that can cause big things to happen.That scene also makes me think of some bankers as well who just took just one fat cat risk too far before the whole thing exploded in their face and ours, as we are the ones in the end that as tax-payers had to pick up the pieces in some cases. Still I never thought I'd have a share in a bank. WARNING....Don't watch this Youtube video if you are about to eat,are of a delicate disposition or if you have any phobias about vomiting it could seriously damage your psyche not to mention put you off your tea.

I have sent the poems off to Mr O’Brien. I have probably made some terrible gaff, I always do; I have certainly found two punctuation errors and the odd typos since I sent them off but hey-ho. I get to meet Mr O’Brien, whose work I admire and I am curious to know how he goes about reading and critiquing a poem. The title of the workshop is ‘What the poem demands of the poem’ so I am interested to see if he thinks my newer poems have not demanded enough from me or if they are demanding something I have singularly failed to see. There will also be some other fine poets there as well that I can also learn something from on the day.In the end I just want to be a nudge closer to writing one better poem ( I can only think of one poem, writing good poetry en masse feels meaningless) . I am trying to be as honest as I can without sounding sycophantic or cynical.

Sean O’Brien has Dupuytren’s contracture which he has written a poem about. I also have this as did many members of my family on my father’s side. It is sometimes seen as an indication of past Viking blood as it is very prevalent in Scandinavia. Mrs Thatcher also suffers from it, so the image of her in past cartoons as the Valkyrie type figure may not be too far from the truth. Who knows, there may only be six degrees of separation from me and Mrs T, genetically speaking, which is quite worrying but the same might apply to me and Sean O’Brien? You win some, you lose some. Anyway Sean O'Brien does also have a poem about snow which seems approriate, given recent weather conditions.

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