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Poetry Workshops with Susan Lindsay

Article by Susan Lindsay ©.
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Workshops provide the synergy of teamwork for the solitary art of writing poetry. This week I mailed a fellow member of the Skylight Poets workshop to ask if my edited translation, of ‘Bruscar Litter Box’ into ‘American’ had worked. Whether or not it needed to be translated is arguable.  We both know that. What was important is that she brought the choice to my attention by pointing out, during the communal critique of the current draft, that the meaning of the lines could be obscure outsideIreland. At the Poetry Now festival, in Dun Laoghaire a few years ago, the poet giving a workshop used my submission to highlight the use of language that may make it difficult for a poem to travel. Along with my co-students, he did find things to like about the poem as well as things to question – a new title was recommended. A Life of Her Own can be read in Whispering the Secrets, the first published collection of my poetry. He concluded the work-shopping of the poem with the words, “…and as to the last line, I simply give up” to the general merriment of all around the table – including the poem’s author! But ‘…as she lifts the lid of the last wheelie-bin’ remains in place because it worked in others ways that were ultimately given priority. These examples offer a flavour of valuable workshop experience. A word, or words, of appreciation carry far more weight amid a varied and dispassionate discourse so long, that is, that the conversation is – in general – sensitive in tone. There are plenty of reasonable ways to give valuable criticism.  Poems presented in a workshop can be used to highlight issues of general interest in writing poetry.  The way a small and relatively diverse group of people read a particular poem, how it impacts – in other words – on a sample of readers, can be considered before writing the final draft or drafts. Clear weaknesses and strengths – often equally over-looked  – can be identified and it becomes clear that not every reader will find the same things in a poem and more  informed choices can be made in final edits. A Life of Her Own She can’t be doing with red and yellow butterflies on fluted white china cups, afternoon tea from the solid silver teapot its curved handle and spout made from the best of Irish. Her resting place is a doorway out of the wind, when possible. No barbecue brazier on a patio for her. She drinks wine straight from the bottle. Brandy is better, warms the sagging contents of the brassiere that supports her rotund form wrapped in shapeless garments selected  from rails in the Simon shop and House of Mrs. Quinn.   She can’t be doing with the ways of her own kind. Prefers the company of a stray dog that lifts its leg on the opposite door jamb before following his  nose and sauntering off. She converses with an occasional rat more often talks to the cat with the humped back and upright tail and the black-headed grey crow outside the door of the hotel kitchen as she lifts the lid of the last wheelie bin.   Best work is not necessarily the best work to workshop. It is best, when the selection process depends on poems submitted, that students are then further requested to submit a poem/poems they would like to have scrutinised. The pure raw material of a first draft is probably not ideal either but a poem that still has rough edges has more potential for learning than one that has been so refined and polished that the choices and original potential of the work may be obscured. It also allows a piece that is challenging  in a particular way to be brought to a Master class where  it is  likely to find resonance with others to the interest and benefit of all concerned. If everyone brings beautiful finished poems the class dialogue may well be dulled by the dearth of material issues This kind of one-off Master class offers opportunity for expert advice and participation with a wide array of scribblers. The backbone of workshop writing support and learning comes, however, from regular participation with a core group of members that facilitates the development of a community. Hopefully a good working relationship can be established and the inevitable group dynamics become sufficiently resolved to interfere less with the task. They are always present so some consciousness about competition, strokes and plays going on can be useful – as with any group of people. This particularly applies in groups that have no formal leader when it is probably wisest to appoint one – either for a period of time or to have the leadership rotate. Pat Boran, having first acknowledged that the arguments for and against workshop participation will continue to be debated, says: ‘… you can’t teach people to write poetry, but you can coax, provoke, stimulate, encourage and challenge people who have some interest in writing to at least pursue it long enough and with enough dedication to discover whether or not they have whatever it is that it takes.’  The Portable Creative Writing Workshop, 2nd Edition New Island 2005.  Classes can be found now throughout the country. With a good teacher, they offer terrific work-shopping opportunities to develop craft. I have to admit that when I returned to the pleasures of poetry seven years ago and then wanted to try out writing it myself (initially with a view to understanding it better) I just didn’t understand the difference between the development of craft and the raw material of a poem – which is how I have to come articulate it for myself. The reward of putting down the raw material is great but the pleasure of crafting the poem to be best you can manage is another absorbing challenge although the many who work with both from the start might not make that separation as they re-write. The challenge to chisel at excess adjectives, clumsy line breaks, to hone rhymes, half-rhymes and favoured lines that belong elsewhere is crafting joy. A poem doesn’t have to translate easily or be readily accessible. It may be best if there is more to found on return reads.  Essentially, every poem is an act of translation – the act of a writer endeavouring to create a piece of writing that expresses, or endeavours to invoke in readers, a view or experience that is a translation of the original inspiration. It doesn’t, even, have to make sense but it, at least, ought to convey the best sense of itself that can be achieved. Writing takes place in the context of an immediate societal culture and of culture archived in the cannon of literature. So, there is value in sharpening work and highlighting an awareness of where it fits within both aspects among a representative body of peers and teachers before presenting it to the world.

(c) Susan Lindsay September 2011. Susan Lindsay was a psychotherapist and workshop facilitator for thirty years before turning to writing. A first collection of her poems Whispering the Secrets was published by Doire Press in March, 2011.

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