I'd never been to Yorkshire before. All I knew of it was what I had gleaned from Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books and the occasional 'Last of the Summer Wine' episode as a child. It's easy to surpass expectations that don't exist, but I think I would have been impressed regardless. It was a great time.
A group of poets called Write Out Loud, based in Hebden Bridge, had booked a hostel for the weekend and filled it with poets and poetry. There were 46 people signed up, more when you count the organisers, workshop leaders and invited performance poets.
There were workshops on a wide variety of literary subjects: comic poetry, war poetry, script writing, experimental poetry, performance techniques, etc. There were 9 different workshops in all, but alas, only time to do 4 of them. I chose 'starting from a blank page', experimental poetry, Chartist poetry (more on this below) and 'getting pithy with pity', a study of the poetry of war.
My first workshop was 'starting from a blank page' and was a series of tricks that a constipated poet can use to get the creative juices flowing again. Some of the exercises were quite useful. For example, you can take a couple of lines from an existing poem, add new lines of your own and then delete the existing lines and see where the new direction takes you.
For example, we were given the lines 'I found them huddled on the bed / the paperback opening by itself'. We analysed this snippet (who were 'them'? Words? Children? Lovers? What did 'huddled' imply? A threat? Comfort? Intimacy? What about bed? Could it also be a flower bed or a river bed? Etc). We extended the two lines, based on what we'd discussed. When I had added my new lines, it came out as:
I found them huddled on the bed,I probably won't be taking this poem any further, but it's an interesting trick. I may use it if writer's block gets too troublesome.
The paperback opening by itself,
Its spine damaged by the weight of favoured memories
As its words embrace,
Breath on cheek,
Sniffing each other's hair.
We also experimented with automatic writing techniques and self-hypnosis, letting the eyes defocus and writing about what we see. The most interesting thing in my field of vision were the crocheted flowers on the blouse of an elderly lady sitting opposite me. This inspired the following:
Flowers on a blouseNot a great poem, perhaps, (I was still warming up) but an interesting exercise. I gave it to the lady whose top had inspired it, and she was delighted. Poetry is for sharing.
Made of fabric
Shot through with thread
That catches the light
Like a net catching butterflies.
Flowers on a blouse
Made of hearts
Three hearts making six petals
Holding hands at the corners
A blossomed brocade
At the top of a top
In the foyer of a hostel
We were then split up into pairs, and read our embryonic poems to each other, choosing four words randomly from each. My partner chose fabric, light, butterflies and hearts, and these words then had to be included in a new poem:
Butterflies flyNo-one said it had to make sense! We were then given postcards to write about but my poem on this was shit, so I'm keeping it to myself. It wasn't all my fault. I was given an unused German postcard of quite a bad painting of an unimaginative flower arrangement. There was little to say about it, but the idea of writing based on a picture was a good one. I've done it before (click here for details).
Made of light,
Their hearts aflame,
The fabric of their wings akimbo
As they crash,
Into the grill
Of a Volvo
I took the experimental poetry workshop not knowing what to expect, but discovered that poetry can be very weird indeed. My musical tastes include things that some people would consider a bit odd, but my poetic tastes are generally quite conservative and I wanted to stretch myself, but I found this workshop a bit challenging. Poems are discontinuous, sections cut and pasted from line to line, breaking up the narrative. Sentences are incomplete and sometimes just made up of punctuation. Some are very short (eg, 'So much depends/upon//the red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain/water//by the white//chickens', by William Carlos Williams. And yes, that is the whole poem). Experimental poetry is the written equivalent of abstract art, the non-representational paintings of Jackson Pollock. But I don't really get that either. I did write a poem based on these ideas, but I don't really like it very much so I'm going to keep that one to myself as well.
The Chartist poetry workshop was a revelation. Chartism was the world's first working class revolutionary movement, and started in about 1838. At the time, there was little democracy in Britain. The common man had no voice in Parliament, no vote, and was banned from standing for election. Chartism resolved to change this by the charter that gave the movement its name. It wanted secret ballots, a vote for every sane man over the age of 21 (if he wasn't in jail), wages for MPs, so the ordinary man could afford to represent his constituents, etc. While all but one of their demands (that parliaments be dissolved after a year) were set in law by 1918, in the mid 19th century, a very nervous government sent in the soldiers time and time again, leading to events like the Peterloo Massacre. And what was the driving force behind Chartism? Poetry. Newspapers in the industrial centres like Manchester and Sheffield printed thousands of poems by Chartists, calling members to arms and reflecting on the hypocrisy of their social betters. Even poets like Shelley were involved in this. The Chartist years could have been the time that poetry was the most effective instrument of social change. And yet, the poems from this time are largely unknown to us. They have been collected precisely once, in 1956, by a Russian publisher and translated back into English. And some are excellent. Here's an example, by an anonymous Manchester poet:
O, instinct there is none - nor show of reasonThe final workshop I took was on war poetry. This was one of the best of all, not least because we did the most writing. We discussed the First World War poets, mainly Wilfred Owen, and more recent writers that discussed the Second World War, right up to Simon Armitage who wrote a wonderful piece about the Iraq conflict. We were given an exercise to come up with a poem that expressed what it would be like for a soldier to miss his home comforts and compare his old life to that of a soldier at war. I wrote the following (probably my favourite of the poems I wrote this weekend):
By outrage gross on God and Nature's plan,
With rarest gifts in blasphemy and treason,
That Man, the souled, should piecemeal murder man.
The memories of beer and sexWe were then asked to consider a war that had affected us personally, and reflect on who had won, who had lost, and what had they won or lost. When I was about 12, the Falklands War was happening, and like any young boy, I got caught up in the excitement. My broken Action Men stopped being Germans and started being Argentinians. So I wrote this:
Are faded now, already dead.
My iPod and my MTV
Replaced at last by IEDs
And UAVs and Taliban,
The poppy fields of Flanders fame
Transplanted to Afghanistan
By deep-set men in shallow graves.
The sheep clung to the hillsideI'm not happy about the end of this, but I ran out of time. I may revisit it later. The last war poem we had to write was one about the delivery of bad news to a relative. I came up with the following:
As the South Atlantic wind
Had Argentinian accents:
The army's coming in.
Franco on the cheap,
Had launched a quick invasion:
Give me back those British sheep!
Thatcher was the winner,
The election was khaki.
I may have been a schoolboy
But I was old enough to see
If the government's in trouble,
They make the soldiers roam.
If they give us outside enemies
We forget the ones at home.
Gloved knuckles on a painted wooden doorMaybe I had learnt something from the experimental poetry class after all. I usually have much more punctuation and full sentences in my poems.
Sergeant-major, crown and stripes on his arm
Beret under epaulette
Drained, drawn face
Long hard swallow
He says "I'm afraid I have some bad news"
She says "I know"
He walks to the staff car
And drives to his next victim
One down, six to go
All in all, it was an excellent weekend. Half a hundred people were brought together by a shared love of poetry. We drove for 5 hours to get there (thanks Michael!). Others came from much further. One came from Exeter, another from Cornwall. The quality of the poetry was amazing. We had open mic nights on both Friday and Saturday evening, where we would read our poems to a rapturous audience of fellow enthusiasts, and to be honest, just being with that many poets would have been worth the cost and travelling alone. Factor in the excellent (although mainly vegetarian) food, the workshops and the accomodation and the £50 fee was embarrassingly low.
And poets are so eloquent. I couldn't get up the seven-foot vertical ladder to my bunk bed (dodgy knee playing up) and had to sleep in the lounge, but no-one said my snoring was merely loud or offensive. It was described as 'operatic, in a full-blooded baritone'.
You've got to love poets. They can find a decorative way to describe anything.