Last Saturday I took part in an all-night poetry workshop at Writers’ Centre Norwich that ran from midnight til 6am. I didn’t know what to expect, aside from tiredness. Titled ’16 Ways of Writing a Poem’, it was run by Mario Petrucci.
I won’t go through his 16 ways – I’d like to preserve the mystery and I think they’re rather beside the point – but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, and that’s why it was so good.
I think I’d expected we would just sit down and thunder through 16 simple workshop exercises, and I would come away with a few extra tricks for approaching poetry. Instead, we were encouraged to question our assumptions about what a poem ought to be, about how and why we write, about what we ought not to write. If you’d described it to me beforehand I expect I would have rather haughtily dismissed it as pretentious, but it was precisely the opposite – a ruggedly practical, no-nonsense approach to poetry, which – crucially, almost radically – focused on process over product.
When we did an exercise, instead of reading back our poems, we were asked to share our experience of the process of writing it – thoughts that occurred to us, any anxieties we had over what we producing, why we chose one approach over another. Now, I like to think – with my projects such as The Poetry Takeaway and 100 Poems In A Day – that I’m a bit more cognisant of process than most, having had to produce a huge volume of poems on a variety of subjects – often not to chosen by me – under timed conditions, but I was surprised at how many unexamined assumptions I have floating around in my head in the moments before I put pen to paper.
I started to notice certain lyrical tactics I fall back on – listing three odd, specific objects, throwing in a recondite simile, closing with a rhyme – when I’m worried that a poem isn’t working. I realised – to my surprise – how anxious I am about looking silly when I experiment, even if I know that nobody is going to read the poem, even if I tell myself ‘it’s just an experiment’.
Just as useful – to me, at least – was clarifying some of the things I don’t want my poetry to achieve. We discussed Larkin’s famous conception of poetry-as-lyrical pickling, his goal being: ‘to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem’. I find this fondness for capturing small, discrete moments both inutterably twee and sheer folly. It’s the great cliché of page poetry, so often considered the true business of the poet, and it seems to me pointless and sinfully unambitious. It’s not even true of Larkin’s work! He’s all about character and viewpoint and conflict and rhyme and verbal rug-pulls. Perhaps he lauded it precisely because it was something he wasn’t very good at.
Poets make words work harder than they usually do. That’s it. I’m not interested in the poet who goes round pickling songbirds and chuckling cataracts beside millponds and rain-soaked alders and banal slivers of their middle-class reveries. When Larkin works, it’s because he has a point of view, emotion, and lyrical craft. He rants:
Morning, noon & bloody night,
Seven sodding days a week,
I slave at filthy WORK, that might
Be done by any book-drunk freak.
This goes on until I kick the bucket.
FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT
Perhaps he is reproducing an experience here, I don’t know. When a stand-up delivers a bit about being stuck in line at the post office, is she reproducing that experience in the audience? Only if the routine is crushingly unfunny and makes them feel angry and impatient. Otherwise, the stand-up is creating a third experience – that of an ideal self, looking down on life from a godlike perspective and finding the humour in it.
Even pickling itself doesn’t preserve food as it was. I’m a big fan of pickled eggs, but let’s not kid ourselves people – a pickled egg tastes mostly of vinegar. I don’t need a poet to recreate ersatz facsimiles of the real world – I live in the real world, thank you. What I want is a new experience, right here and now. That’s what I get from watching brilliant performance poetry – it’s not some faux-mystic transport to another time and place, it’s an engaging, thrilling experience happening right there in the room.
This is one of the things the workshop helped clarify for me. I’m not interested in the poet-as-archivist, rather the poet-as-stuntman. Whether through lyrical dexterity or character or raw performative brio, I want to be wowed. I want that sense of wonder, that sense of the old certainties crumbling before my eyes.
I don’t want shrivelled, vinegary morsels tonged from a dusty jar – I want a tangerine twisted fresh off the branch.
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