Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Workshop

Although Alexei Sayle has been very unflattering about anyone 'who uses the word workshop outside of light engineering', workshops are undoubtedly a major feature of the world of contemporary poetry. I've attended a fair few and have delivered them myself for various groups, most recently for the Poetry School. Workshops can focus mainly on providing writing prompts or discussing particular techniques for inspiring new work, but I've been wanting for a while to write a post about the other kind, where groups of people get together, whether formally or informally, to share and discuss their work. These can be led by a tutor or facilitator, or can be entirely self-managing. Whatever the permutations, to get the best out of giving and receiving feedback in a workshop, I'd recommend following these pointers.

Giving Feedback

1. It perhaps goes without saying that the feedback needs to be constructive. That doesn't mean you can't say that you don't like something, but you need to offer reasons why. 'Not my sort of thing' or 'I don't see the point of it' just won't do. We all know that we don't all like every poem ever written. A writer will be pleased when others say they enjoy his or her work, but it is not necessary to like something to offer helpful critique. Try to understand what the poem wants to achieve (this may not be clear to the poet themselves!) and suggest ways it could achieve that more effectively.

2. Try not to be absolute in what you say - remember you are expressing an opinion, not a fact. Saying 'that phrase doesn't work' or 'that image is weak' leaves the person receiving the feedback no room to think about the advice on their own terms and will probably just make them defensive. Far better to formulate your feedback as a set of questions: 'How would it be if you took out or moved that stanza?' or 'How would it be if you weeded out some of the less original imagery to allow the rest to really shine through?' are questions much more likely to get the author of the poem re-thinking what they are doing than categorical statements.

3. This is, for me, perhaps the most important thing: Don't kill the negative feedback! Sometimes, you will disagree with the feedback that others offer, but this isn't about who is right. Too often, someone listening to a piece of negative feedback they disagree with will want to jump in and say, 'No! That's wonderful - don't change it!' This effectively prevents the person receiving the feedback from thinking seriously about these negative points. It is a given of the psychology of feedback that we listen to the positives and tend to ignore the negatives, and 'defending' the poem from others' criticism will only only reinforce this. You can disagree with what others say, of course, but try to present that disagreement in an open way. For instance: 'Well, I didn't have such a problem with that line as Kevin does, but that's for you to decide.' The feedback is, after all, for the author, not for you. So let them take away the positives and the negatives to process in their own time.

Receiving Feedback

1. Paradoxically, given some of the suggestions I have made above, the most important thing is to know when to accept and when to reject feedback. This is something that needs to happen after the workshop, though, when you have really had time to think. Write down what people say, but don't start formulating arguments to counter what they just have told you. You will hear very useful things and some frankly very unhelpful things, but you need to give yourself the space to decide which is which after the event. Sometimes this may mean being brave in terms of getting rid of elements that only you will ever like, but also in terms of keeping those elements that you have faith in. Remember that the workshop is not there to re-write the poem for you, but to get you thinking about it in new and productive ways.

2. Take the work you are not sure about. If you need affirmation, send your completed poems to good magazines or enter them into competitions. A workshop is a place for work in progress, not an audience to applaud your poetry. Sometimes, it may turn out that a poem you thought was only half-done and directionless is hailed as a work of genius. If so, lucky you! But if you go hoping only to be told how good your latest masterwork is, you may find the experience bruising.

3. Show your fellow workshoppers that you value what they have to say. It is natural to feel protective of your work - you want this poem to be good and you care deeply about it. However, when everyone is telling you critical things and telling you how much work you may still need to do, there is a temptation to try to counter their suggestions. The person who makes it clear that they are not going to take any of the feedback on board and also that they do not value the insights of others is the person who, from that point on, is only going to get vague and unhelpful comments. Other participants in the workshop will soon learn to avoid saying anything critical, as they realize that they are wasting their breath.

I hope that this is useful to some of you who may be just starting to attend workshops or who would just like to get more out of them. Do you have any do's and don'ts you want to share? If so, why not leave a comment?

Image Credit: Carpenter by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, Regensburg ca. 1480–1538 Regensburg), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Year, New Poetry!

A belated Happy New Year!

I've been very pleased recently to have a number of people speak to me about this blog and about the posts they've enjoyed reading here. I hope in 2017 there will be more thoughts about poetry to share with you, and perhaps not quite as much posting about my own activities, which I will try to confine as much as possible to social media (I'm @davidcchelt on Twitter, by the way...).

Nevertheless, I do want to use this first post of 2017 for an announcement about my own work.

My next pamphlet, entitled Scare Stories, is scheduled for publication with the amazing V Press in the first half of 2017. It contains a sequence of 25 new poems, all of which are written in the first person plural, and all of which imagine possible near futures or versions of the present.

I'm hoping also that the pamphlet will evolve into a performance and I am currently discussing this with some potential collaborators. More details will follow!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Get ready! You're in for it!

So opens a stimulating new anthology of French poetry, Writing the Real, edited by my good friend Dr Nina Parish and her colleague Dr Emma Wagstaff. The words are those of Christian Prigent, whose oblique, surreal, linguistically playful work opens a collection as varied as it challenging. Rather than foregrounding any one tendency, the editors have done a good job of introducing a range of voices that (outside of a few translations through mirco-presses) will be largely unfamiliar to a UK audience. While the experimental end of writing practice is very much the focus here, those experiments are of many different kinds, ranging from the more process-driven approach of Jean-Michel Espitallier ('Tales of up to 15'), or the interrogation of the banalities of everyday language in Christophe Tarkos' poems ('Song 1' and 'Love'), to the New York School-ish work of Stephane Bouquet. Female poets are strongly represented (for example, Anne Portugal and Sabine Macher) and the editors have done an excellent job of providing an introduction that sets the scene and gives us a sense of who the key players are, while at the same time leaving us free to come to our own judgements. Where further translations are available, details are provided to allow us to follow up on other publications by the poets whose work most holds our attention. The translations themselves are by various authors, many of them practicing poets themselves (such as Keston Sutherland), but the texts are presented alongside the original French, which is always a bonus in this sort of edition. Even if our own grasp on the language is not so strong, we can begin to approach the original texts once we have absorbed the translations.
French poetry seeps into the consciousness of UK readers in a fairly sporadic way, driven by the enthusiasm of translators and other advocates for particular authors, so it is a great thing to have this overview of writers whose work might not yet have appeared on our radar. What is most striking about the differences between French writers and UK poets, if this anthology is anything to go by, is the extent to which longer sequences rather than self-contained short poems appear to dominate, alongside a strong tendency towards the prose poem. French poets are clearly working on larger canvasses than many of their UK counterparts, and that alone is a good reason for UK writers and readers to be grateful for this book.
Enitharmon are also to be congratulated on the design on this volume, which looks great!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

True confessions

I have recently been reading the work of Danish poet Yahya Hassan, the son of Palestinian refugees, who was jailed in September over the shooting of a 17-year-old boy. Hassan has been a literary sensation in Denmark, selling over 100,000 copies of his book (there's currently no English translation of his work that I am aware of, so I am relying on the German version here).

Hassan writes of a life of brutalization, both by his parents and the Danish authorities, describes what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Danish Muslims, and details his own (sometimes brutal) juvenile crimes. His direct, unflinching poems, written exclusively in capitals with no punctuation, have made him famous, but the financial success they have brought has clearly not allowed him to transcend many of troubles of his early life. Not only that, but he has found himself alienated from elements of his own community, which have reacted angrily to what they perceive as the attacks on them in his work.

Hassan is part of a wider trend in recent years towards a new kind of confessional poetry from previously marginalized voices, speaking uncomfortable truths about violence, discrimination, mental health, illness and disability, addiction, economic disadvantage, and a whole range of other issues. These texts live from their authenticity. The poet does not hold back from revealing painful, even shocking details from their lives: In the case of Hassan's book, there is a particularly disturbing episode where the teenage protagonist assaults and robs a Danish girl who has rejected his sexual advances and racially abused him.

Image result for yahya hassan book
There are, of course, questions to be asked about the construction of such authenticity. Charles Bukowski is arguably the granddaddy of this kind of writing, yet his 'Henry' persona is very much a fictionalized version of his own experience and not to be confused with the writer himself. However, the fate of Hassan, whose welfare and state of mind have increasingly been cause for concern, also leads us to ask moral questions about the audience's role. Hassan's readers may be fascinated by his life-experiences, but is there a danger of that fascination becoming a high-brow version of the gawking at 'car-crash' celebrities we encounter in the tabloid press? Some are beginning to question whether Hassan's publisher had a duty of care to counsel him against revealing certain experiences or expressing certain views, or at least to talk to him about possible consequences.
There are clearly no easy answers here. One might hope that poetry of the kind that Hassan has written will have a therapeutic effect, allowing the writer to deal with their experiences productively and taking on a positive social role in terms of breaking down taboos and encouraging tolerance and change. Clearly, even if those positive social effects are achieved in this case, the writer himself has paid a high price.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Best Blogs of 2016

Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands has been kind enough to include 'A Thing for Poetry' among his best blogs of 2016. Good to know that the blog is read and appreciated, and also very helpful of Matthew to have provided this excellent list of the best in UK poetry blogging. There are certainly some here I need to explore more thoroughly.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unexpected Encounters is online

Poems from my residency for Stratford upon Avon Poetry Festival, along with the work of the other poets who took part in 'Unexpected Encounters' are now free to read on-line in this electronic publication.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

New publications from John Freeman

What Possessed Me

I have taken great pleasure in the last week reading two new publications from John Freeman, whose excellent collection of prose poems, White Wings, I reviewed a while back. Now retired from his teaching post at the University of Cardiff, John has clearly entered a highly productive phase, with a chunky new collection from Worple and a pamphlet just out from Knives, Forks and Spoons.

The collection, aptly titled What Possessed Me is resolutely personal in its focus. The poems often start from everyday or even mundane experiences (a walk around the village, going to the dentist), or from encounters with people and places (there is a sequence on a visit to Athens, another on a series of visits to Llandaff), but this is not autobiographical or even confessional work in the narrow sense. The poet does not have any revelation to make about his own life, rather the poems are a record of his concerted paying attention to his surroundings, his cultivation of a state of receptiveness and careful observation, in which he wishes 'to be fully open like wild roses, / wanting only this, nothing more than this.' ('Summer Solstice, Cornwall'). Reading the poems opens the reader to such attentiveness, too -- a welcome corrective to distracted the consciousness of our digital age.

The pamphlet, Strata Smith and the Anthropocene, mixes prose poetry, verse and essayistic fragment to address the legacy of William Smith, the founding father of geology, whose 1815 map surveyed and classified the various geological strata to be found in the British Isles. The texts deftly interconnect Smith's life story, the poet's investigation of that life and our shared ecological predicament, expressing genuine admiration for Smith while not losing sight of the wider historical and political ramifications of his work. To me, this felt like a taster of what could be a longer account, although the pamphlet stands up very well on its own terms. I can certainly recommend both books.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Guest Poet - Stewart Carswell

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended some excellent events at Bristol Poetry Festival, including a reading featuring Stewart Carswell, a young poet and a fascinating new voice. I first encountered Stewart when we attended the same Poetry School course a few years ago. He was living in Bristol while he studied for his PhD in physics and was, amazingly, managing to combine this with his writing life. He was included in Eyewear’s Best New British and Irish Poets anthology this year and they were so enthusiastic about this work that they have now published his first pamphlet, Knots and Branches, which reflects both Stewart’s interest in the natural world and his strong sense of place.

Many of the poems reflect the landscape of the Forest of Dean, not far from my own Cheltenham home. That attention to the natural world, particularly the world of trees, rivers and weather, combines a closely observing eye with a search for revealed wisdom in the poet’s surroundings. Many poets with Stewart’s background might have gone down the route of ‘science poetry’ (there is certainly a good deal of that about from poets with similar professional experience), but the influence of his academic training is worn more lightly than that here. We see it in the close accounting for the physical interrelatedness of things and the processes by which they are transformed, yet it is ultimately through the act of imagination that the poems’ epiphanies are quietly achieved. There is an assuredness to this voice that is rare in debuts and I’m sure we can look forward to further publications.
Stewart has kindly agreed for me to publish the poem ‘Instructions for Winter’ here, with the following words of his own commentary. Stewart writes:

'As a poet with a scientific background, I'm quite often asked how I got into poetry. To most people, poetry and science seem to be two very different disciplines. But I would say that they're actually quite similar.

Typically with science research, the procedure is that you make an observation of something interesting, and you try to understand what is happening. You then communicate what happened in a way that people can understand, often using equations where letters are symbols representing properties of the system you observed.

It's the same with poetry, I try and communicate my observations and thoughts concisely through the symbols of poetic imagery. On the surface, the poems may be short and simple, but underneath they are communicating something deeper and more complex through those symbols. I think it is important to make the poems accessible, in order to share the knowledge with a wide audience.

Research is a series of experiments, a journey to find out something unknown.  The process of writing is a little like finding out what is inside yourself.

This poem, Instructions for winter, looks a simple one. I wrote it I think at the start of a winter, or at least it was the first snow of the season. I was walking home through those gentle flakes. The movement of the walk moved me physically, and the falling of the snow moved me emotionally. I wanted to combine those movements, while illuminating something about poetry and observation at the same time.'

Instructions for Winter

If the snow is still falling as you read this
then stop reading and go outside.

Go outside: feel the snow melt upon you.
Some things are not meant to last

and this moment is one of them.
Go outside.

Let the snow do its falling and melting,
stay until the moment has changed you

but don’t forget: when you return,
this poem will also be different.

This poem was first published in Sarasvati.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Poetry, Left and Right

Recently, my contributor copy of the New Boots and Pantisocracies anthology plopped through my letter-box. It is a good-looking book, with many startling poems by some of the best contemporary British poets, engaging in sometimes angry, sometimes oblique fashion with the outcome of the 2015 general election; an election which, as we all know, has had untold ramifications, setting the country on the path to Brexit.
Sheenagh Pugh has quite rightly raised the question of the apparent political homogeneity of the work offered here, and of that submitted to the original (and ongoing) blog that gave the anthology its name. As W.N. Herbert says in his introduction, it is (or has become) an avowedly left-wing project; and, indeed, is published by Smokestack Books, who specialise in publishing work in that tradition. That in itself is not a problem for the book, of course, but Pugh and others have worried why such consensus reigns in the world of poetry; or, at least, appears to.
Public Writer, Jean Jacques de Boissieu, 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In one discussion I noticed on-line, a poet who is not included in the anthology, and who clearly doesn't share its political leanings, has argued that this left consensus among poets is a reason why poetry is alienated from a public he considers to be made up of a majority of conservatives. On a number of levels, this seems rather tenuous. Plenty of contemporary poetry, even by those who are part of this alleged left-liberal cabal, is not overtly political, or is perhaps at most vaguely humanistic. There are plenty of other reasons why people are not interested in poetry, which have nothing to do with its ideological content. Nevertheless, this does leave us with the slightly embarrassing question of why there is so little political diversity to be found, not just in the New Boots anthology, but in contemporary British poetry more widely.
The problem, I think, has to do with the nature of the contemporary politics more than with contemporary poetics. Quite simply, the dominant political ideology of our time makes the adoption of what we might call a conservative position in poetry a vexed undertaking. Our on-line commentator, who finds it problematic that poets don't represent the views of the alleged majority, is wrong-headed in a number of respects, not the least of which is to assume that voting preferences actually tally with the views that voters hold on particular issues (that link is not as strong as commonly imagined). Yet the chief misconception here is to assume that it is the function of art to reflect back to 'the majority' what it already (thinks it) thinks. This is a dubious assumption, even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of other social institutions already doing this job quite efficiently. There is ultimately something authoritarian about it, as if the only thought that should be expressed is the kind that everyone can agree on and that will trouble nobody.
The point about poetry, or art in general, is that it is not affirmative of the status quo. This does not mean that it cannot affirm something (the beauty of nature, the value of human relationships, etc.), but it does so in a context in which those things it affirms are not to be taken for granted or are fragile and threatened. Poetry is a response to a world that is not as it should be (when was the world ever as it should be?) and is a corrective to those who peddle the notion that everything is in its right place. This certainly leaves room for conservative or right-wing writers (understood here as a very broad category), as the likes of Eliot, Pound, Benn, Hamsun, Celine, Nietzsche, Waugh, or, today, Houellebecq demonstrate (I'm not going to draw any conclusions here about my inability to name an example of a female writer. This is probably my ignorance. For reasons that will become clear, I don't think Ayn Rand really fits). However, what links these writers is their relationship to progress, or what their contemporaries consider as such. The writer of the right, or the conservative writer, is the writer railing against what everybody else consider to be the great advances of their time. All of those things the left tends to think are inherently progressive (technology, democracy, cosmopolitanism, equality, materialism, humanism, etc.) are held up to scrutiny by the literary right, which looks back to the values of a world (very possibly of their own retrospective construction) that is being bulldozed by a new form of society that they abhor. The left's relationship to progress is perhaps more straightforward: They think progress is a good thing, just not the kind of progress we are getting now. Their writing is against a variety of progress, not against progress itself.
In the prevailing ideological climate, the position of the left-liberal poet is clearly easier to negotiate. If we restrict our view to the UK for the moment, we are currently witnessing the dominance of an ideology that calls itself conservative or invokes the position of conservatism, as in the case of UKIP and its demand to 'get our country back'. However, this 'conservatism' is an ideological smoke-screen for a brand of neo-liberalism that worships the 'creative destruction' brought about by increasingly restless flows of global capital and rejects any impediment to such flows as they tear down borders, uproot ways of life and trash the global environment. This is not a conservative project, but a revolutionary one, yoked to a notion of progress that has increasingly lost sight of the needs of individuals and communities in favour of the needs of corporations and their shareholders. Frankly, conservatives should be in up in arms about it. This would, surely, be a position from which to write, but one looks in vain for British poets who can take up this tradition. Where they do exist, they seem to fall into the trap of endless attacks on the 'liberal intelligentsia'. Not that that this intelligentsia doesn't deserve and need critical scrutiny, but at the moment this seems to me to be largely an excuse for not addressing the real nub of the problem, which is the nature of the contemporary capitalist system, from a conservative standpoint.
Conservative writers of the twentieth century recognised that the society that capitalism had created was the target of their critique – they just formulated a different kind of critique to that proposed by the left. The fact that conservative writers, if they exist outside the pages of the opinion columns in the tabloid press, fail to rise to recognise this today, must surely be due to the ideological confusion that has been brought about by the importation of neo-liberal ideology into British politics. Free-marketers have found no ruse more effective for selling their project than to drape it in the colours of reactionary cultural conservatism. While UKIP and the Conservative Party strive for a society of the market, dreaming of a future UK as a kind of new Singapore off the European coast, they promise the electorate that such a society will return them to a culturally homogeneous, insular world of national sovereignty, when exactly the opposite is the case. For truly successful conservative writers to emerge, I would argue, this is what they would have to write against, not just against the 'left-liberal elite', which is (let's face it) by far the lesser threat to the things conservatives (in the true sense of the term) hold dear. That we do not have such writers is an impoverishment, even if I would have to spend a lot of my time radically disagreeing with them about almost everything.