Sunday 12 June 2016

Poetry workshop - how and why; practice and theory

When I do a poetry workshop, it tends to take place in the circumstances of a primary school, in a fixed period of time, with about a hundred children.

As these are the circumstances, I tend to do things along the following lines:

1. Tell everyone that what's going to take place is only one way of writing poems, there are hundreds of ways and that the easiest and most enjoyable way is to simply read a poem and say, 'I could write a poem like that'...and anything that comes into your mind, you can write it.
2. Because the workshop usually comes after I've done a performance of my poems, I often say, if there was anything you heard me say that made you think, you could write something like that or suggested by that, then you go ahead. One of the things that I make a point of saying and talking about in the performance is what I call 'talking with my pen' or 'talking on to the page'. Another is showing how some of my poems are made up of people talking.
3. I then share a poem that I haven't done in my performance. I  read it out loud twice
4. I draw everyone's attention to one of the features of it - often - for reasons of the circumstances - this is the fact that it uses a 'chorus' or a repeated phrase.
5. I say that we could write a chorus poem together by using the same chorus.
6. I write the chorus on a huge bit of paper that everyone can see - we all say it, 'with feeling' ie in the mood of the words e.g. whispering 'after dark, after dark'.
7. I invite everyone to think of things they can 'see going on, after dark' and to talk about these with the person sitting next to them.
8. I ask to hear some of these.
9. I write three of them up without 'correcting' or adding anything.
10. I put the chorus at the end of the three lines. We all together recite it 'with feeling'(!) perhaps whispering it.
11. I invite everyone to think of things they can 'hear, after dark, after dark' and to talk about these with the person sitting next to them.
12. I ask to hear some of these (usually three) and write them up.
13. I put the chorus at the end of the three lines. We recite it.
14. I invite everyone to think of things they can 'hear people saying, after dark, after dark' and to talk about these with the person sitting next to them.
15. I hear some of these (usually three again) and write them up.
16. I repeat these steps with 'things you might be saying yourself' and 'things you are thinking or dreaming'.
17. We now have what is in effect a five stanza poem made up of a chorus, and stanza 1 made up of things we can see going on, stanza 2 made up of things we can hear, stanza 3 made up of things people are saying, stanza 4 made up of things you are saying, stanza 5 made up of things you are thinking.
18. We say the whole poem through.
19. I now say that we can choose what we want to do with this between
a) making up your own, using exactly the same way of writing - same chorus, same 'questions', same number of answers (usually three).
b) changing any or all of these e.g different chorus, different questions, fewer questions, more questions, different number of answers, in a completely different order from the one we just did together.
c) we talk about what kinds of different choruses we might make up, different times of day, different places e.g. in the dinner hall, on the beach, in my head, in my room. We talk about how it doesn't have to be a phrase, it could be a sound like swoosh, or 'hmmm'.
d) we talk about what the different questions could be like 'what's annoying you'.
e) I tell them that they can do it on their own, or in pairs, but that it's usually pretty difficult to do it in more than twos, possible but difficult.
20. I leave them to write, telling them that if they finish one, they can write another one.
21. After about 15 minutes I say that we going to hear some of these.
22. In the hearing time, I say that we do the 'respect agenda' where we are absolutely quiet while the person reads. We can go on writing while the person is reading but no chat so that the person reading gets the same respect that you would want if you were reading.
23. After some reading where I say what I like about each poem, I say, 'now here's something to think about: what if you wrote a 'chorus poem' like this but after you've finished it, you kick away the chorus and look at what you've got. Does it make sense? Does it need the chorus to come back one or two times, perhaps? That's something that people could experiment with after I'm gone? I mention to the teachers, if there's time, that one of the best ways to get performance going is to set everyone the target of helping everyone to perform. The best way to do that, is to observer, collect up and share what are the best bits of the way anyone performs a poem.
24. Then I say to the teachers and everyone how much fun it would be to put all the poems together in a book and/or that they could go on a school blog and/or people could turn it into a show, with music that the children make and/or with a powerpoint made up of pictures and words that match the poems.

Lying behind this are various theories.
1. Everyone has ideas.
2. If you talk about ideas with someone, you get a chance to hear yourself saying things and you get a chance to hear what someone else says. There's no obligation to stick to either of these, it's like a rehearsal for what you might want to write. It is part of 'dialogic learning'.
3. Poems are one way to give us ideas for shapes to write with or themes to write about or both. This is a form of 'scaffolding' or 'modelling'.
4. By hearing what others write, it gives the possibility of people who see themselves as similar to those reading, what are interesting ways to write.  This is similar to the idea of the 'zone of proximal development'. (As I've been walking about looking at what the children are writing, either I or the teachers make sure that some children who are not the most fluent either in writing or speaking get a chance to read out what they've written alongside the most fluent.  Good ideas and good poems are not restricted to people who write in what are conventionally regarded as good or correct writing.
5. Though this is poetry ie 'creative', there are various kinds of knowledge involved: what is poetry? poetry involves many different ways of writing; one way is to use a repeated element; poetry can be built up step by step; poetry can combine with other art forms.
6. Poetry is a way of giving shape and form to experience.
7. It's not useful to think of poetry as a set of rules. It is more useful to think of it as a way of experimenting with sounds, words, phrases to express things that will interest yourself and/or others.
8. As I've said before, any poem can be used as a starting point in this way. This is not about saying that this method or this poem is the best or the necessary one. By saying this, I'm saying something about the nature of poetry and its diversity.
9. Just as importantly, a starting point doesn't have to be poetry. It can be an emotion, a painting, a moment in a story, film, TV programme, song, piece of music and so on. One way of doing this through making the poem speak as an 'I' from within a moment and a character within a play, story, film or other poem: the 'monologue' - rather like the solo in a musical or aria in an opera. This shows us that poems can be ways of interpreting literature. We aren't restricted to 'comprehension' as a way of understanding. Understandings and theories about what literature is about can come from writing expressively from within literature.
10. It can be a 'cultural' moment, like a festival, celebration, food, 'things we say' and so on. This is about saying that poems co-exist with our lives and not just with other poems. Poems can talk of 'who I am' and/or 'who we are'.
11. Just us importantly, a starting point can be a moment of experience that the workshop attendees go on: a walk, an outing, a visit, a trip, a view out of the window. This reminds us that poems can be of a moment, and can express what has just been seen, heard, and felt.
12. At every stage, before, during and after these processes of writing, sharing and reading, we can and should encourage talk. This enables everyone (and we should make efforts to involve everyone) to raise questions, talk about emerging ideas and thoughts, listen to others as their ideas and thoughts emerge. This is a crucial part of learning something about this field of human endeavour - expressive and figurative writing.
13. One of the functions of literature is that it 'contains' us. This means that when we read literature, our daily and real concerns are 'contained' by the scenes and characters portrayed in literature. They are not us but we put ourselves in their shoes, or we view ourselves in comparison to them in a 'safe' way. It is not a real us who experiences what the protagonists of a piece of literature go through. The dangers, fears, loves, hopes, desires are not ours but we can experiment with ours as if they are. We can consider various kinds of 'what ifs' safely. We are contained by the 'figures' (characters, motifs, scenes, outcomes). This idea comes from psychoanalytic theory. By listening to other poems, and our peers' poems, we engage in this process in a very intimate and immediate way. Poetry is not the only way to do this. All art, in its various forms, can do this for us. By making poetry immediate and available - something relatively easy to do in schools - we tap into this function of 'containment'.
14. One of the functions of literature is that it expresses our place in society and/or 'culture'. This means that there is a strong social function going on here. Many of the children we work with get very few chances to say who they are - to be 'heard' if you like. This is about enabling children to find a voice, to explore what voices they have. This has a component of 'entitlement' and 'diversity' to it.