The ins and outs of poetry workshops: residential courses
Over the last three or four years I’ve shared various thoughts about writers’ workshops of various shapes and sizes: from groups of like-minded friends who meet regularly in pubs to listen to and advise on drafts at different stages of development, to full-on residential writing retreats where you’ll go in the hope of being inspired to write new stuff.
My starting point was to reflect on the fact that I’ve had five pamphlets and two collections published in the last six years; I’ve twice had poems in the Forward Book of Poetry. How did that happen?
In my case it’s because I started by going on day courses, and then won competitions. One of my pamphlets, and my first collection, were published as the prizes for winning, first the Camden/Lumen, and then the Poetry Business pamphlet competitions. And now the latest one, Much possessed. There are other routes, and tougher ones, especially those taken by the writers who submit and submit and submit and submit to journals and magazines, and build up a painstaking porfolio of published work. They’re the ones who win my admiration and respect. They know who they are.
But the thing is, how did I come to write enough poems in the first place? Well, it started, as I say, with one-day workshops, and with small writers’ groups, but at some point I applied to go on a residential course. Moniack Mhor. That’s it, pictured with the Wagnerian sky in the background. I’m not sure I would have done, had I not known a bit about Arvon courses in the first place. In my case it was the ones at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire.
I've always thought the real character of the building and, indeed, the place, is in that back yard with its hard granite setts. It’s always, for me, been the setting of 'Full moon and Little Frieda'. It’s the spirit they went for in a TV Bronte drama. Uncompromising. It’s leaked into a couple of poems in the last two years. In 'Banked up':
somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over
rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage
like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall
and sing about the blood
and in 'So I’m thinking':
… of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,
that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,
that valley of unsmoking chimneys,
knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,
an old artillery firing blanks at a Pennine moon
It certainly made a big impression when I first went there in the mid-80s, not as a course participant (because I’d never heard of Arvon or Lumb Bank till then), but because as part of my job as an LEA English/drama adviser I co-ordinated an annual residential course for selected sixth formers from the Calderdale schools. It was how I came to meet Berlie Doherty, John Latham, Terry Caffrey, Lemn Sissay and Graham Mort, among others. Maura Dooley was warden then, and for a few years it was a retreat and a bolthole when I needed to avoid the increasing misery of being turned into an inspector. I’m very fond of Lumb Bank, then, though I’ve never been on a course as resident member. And that’s how I became aware of Arvon, though I didn’t write poems until a good deal later.
Like I say, in the late 90s I discovered writing days, at The Poetry Business which made me write stuff, even though my heart wasn’t yet in it. And I began to meet more like-minded folk and make ‘writing friends’ and think there was something to the whole business, though I wasn’t sure what. It was my partner, Flo, who was the one behind my going on residentials. Determined that I wasn’t going to mooch through retirement like a mental tramp, she looked things up, told me Liz Lochhead was tutoring a course at Moniack Mhor, and told me to apply for it. So I did. I liked Liz Lochhead’s poetry. That was the only reason. And I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. Not at all.
But my partner was indefatigable. I’d become a Poetry Business Writing Day addict by then. Look, she said. Your friend Ann Sansom is running a poetry course in Spain. Spain! I might not have gone, but my oldest friend lived only 100 miles south of where the course was, and had been very ill, and I reckoned I could go and visit him, too. I’m glad I did, because he died a couple of months later. And I’m more than glad I went to the Old Olive Press, because that’s where I met Hilary Elfick who told me, without qualification or hesitation, that I should and would be published. It was truly astonishing.
Everything about it was astonishing. Heat. Mountains. Walking. A swimming pool. En- suite bedrooms. Food. Writing every day, for day after day. Amazing. I keep going back. And here’s the thing … it cost less for a Saturday to Saturday course in Spain (including the air fare) than it cost me to drive to Inverness (which involved a B&B stop … it’s a long long way) for a Monday to Saturday Arvon course. Money’s an issue, but so is value for money. I’ll come back to this. The thing is, I enjoyed it so much, got so excited by it all, that I went again, for a course tutored by Jane Draycott, which was brilliant, and on which I wrote a poem that won a prize that paid for a return to Spain the next year, a course with Mimi Khalvati, and something towards another with Ann Sansom.
And so it goes. I’ve been on others … to Cumbria, to Whitby, to Keswick, and to St Ives (where I’m going again on Sunday) … and it’s on these days and weeks that I’ll base what I’ll write next. But, caveat emptor. This will be partial, subjective, and possibly unreliable. I can only share what I’ve gathered from experience that is probably not typical; I’d love to hear from others who may have quite different perspectives. Still, here we go: the ins and outs of poetry residentials. as far as I can tell.
You need to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. The first one I went on, I think I expected some kind of magical transformation. I was very vague about what I thought that might mean, but I supposed that by spending time in the company of a famous poet, I’d achieve poems by osmosis; inspiration via proximity. Forget that. I rather hoped that someone would show me ways of thinking and working that would help me to be a better writer. That didn’t happen either, and it made me cross. I expected to be pushed and stretched and challenged. That didn’t happen, either. So, what can you look for before you commit yourself?
What to look for
Firstly, don’t just go on the ‘name’ of the course tutor(s). Ask around. Facebook’s a good place to start, because I’m assuming that you’ll have acquired poetry chums. But ask people to message you in response. You don’t want poets being slagged off on a public forum.
I want to know how the tutor normally works. I know what works for me, and I want to find a good ‘fit’. For instance, I like to work fast, under pressure. I know in advance that a Poetry Business workshop will do that for me. But you may like a gentler pace, something more reflective. You know how you learn best. So think hard about that.
Alternatively, I like structure. The most productive courses I’ve been on have been carefully and explicitly structured, and they tell you explicitly or implicitly what the course objective will be. So, a Jane Draycott course very quietly, day on day, focused on building up a toolkit of techniques that let you dramatise your poems: place, voice, character, (the who, where, what, when and why of things). The techniques were illustrated via the ‘starter poems’, and the whole thing was purposeful and accretive. I loved it.
A Kim Moore/Carola Luther course focused on myth, and ways in which its retellings enable you access ways of understanding and communicating your own life experiences and belief. It actually changed the way I thought. It was hard work. I loved it. A Kim Moore/Steve Ely course focused on voices and ventriloquism. I don’t know a better way of breaking out of your own default voice and its rhythms. Anyway. You get the idea.
On the other hand, I went on one course tutored by someone who came highly recommended by folk I trusted. What I failed to do was check out the tutor’s own poetry, which is technically amazing, but essentially lyrical and doesn’t ring my rhetorical/narrative bell. Maybe I hoped it would challenge me more than it did, but there was a lot of analytic/reflective discussion and all I wanted to do was crack on. So, make sure you know, as far as you can, what the ‘teaching/practice’ is going to be like before you commit.
What's the accommodation like?
Secondly, think about accommodation and setting. This, I think, is much more important than I recognised at first. Ask yourself: do you want a spartan room, a novitiate’s bed, and a walk along cold landings to a distant shower/bathroom? Do you want to prepare food for other people? (As it happens I love doing that, so my Arvon course was saved by my being able to spend every afternoon prepping and cooking in a big kitchen with an industrial-sized range. Very few people understand my enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t want to have done it at Lumb Bank). It’s a simple fact that residentials in hotels are more comfortable, and you get your food cooked and served by professionals. In dining rooms. Counter-intuitively, they also tend to be significantly cheaper.
However, it can also feel slightly odd to be writing in a hotel, where there may also be a convention of Charismatic Christians, or water polo players or whatever. You can lose you concentration, whereas at Arvon it’s wall to wall poets and poetry. So think about that. Equally, about the locality. I want to be in a space that I’m happy in. I want distance, I want to be able to walk but not in streets or in constrained, fenced countryside. I don’t want to be in woodland. I want to be able to get away for an hour or two each day, just to let my brain stretch, and to stop talking to people. Think about where you’re likely to feel happy. Seriously.
What about the people?
Thirdly … this doesn’t bother me so much, because I’m able to switch off from my surroundings when I’m working, to blank out what’s going on around me … but what about the people? This sounds misanthropic, and I don’t intend it to be. If you’re not convivial, then being in close proximity to the same (intense) group of people for several days might not be what you want. You’re not going to have the tutor’s unlimited personal attention. And then there’s the business of what everyone else does when you’re not in a timetabled session. You’ll see people earnestly writing on and on, at tables, in armchairs, tapping away at laptops, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to worry because you’re not. And you need to blank out the conversations about ‘how much have you written?’ Because it’s not a competition. The only person who matters is you. You’re there to get better at what you want to do. One more thing. It’s possible to find out by asking around if a given tutor is always accompanied by the same group of acolytes. I’ve seen this twice, and learned from it. You can feel frozen out. I’m thick-skinned but it still irked me. You have better things to do with your life.
Think about the cost
Lastly (because I’ve gone on for too long, and I’m rambling). Residential courses are not cheap. For me, they are actually my holidays, but you can be forking out anything between £500 and £1,000. (which partly accounts for the demographic. Don’t expect too many young folk in the group). And if they’re any good at all, they’re hard work, if not exhausting. It’s important that you do everything you can to make sure you’re going to be in good company, in a place you like, which is comfortable, with a tutor who will drive you up a level or two. Even when they’re not very good, residential courses are places where you strike up important friendships, and, in my case, where your life may change. So don’t for a second let me put you off by saying: think about it, check it out, ask.