Monday, 12 November 2012

A Workshop with Michael Laskey - October '12

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Poetry Business in Sheffield for a workshop with Michael Laskey. You’ll probably know that Michael is the editor for Smiths Knoll and you might also know that the magazine is calling it a day after 50 issues. I was never lucky enough to be published in Smiths Knoll but I also enjoyed reading the poetry within the covers. Michael was a generous editor who always commented on positive aspects of poetry submissions. This was much more encouraging (and useful) than an anonymous photocopied slip. Michael Laskey is also a fabulous poet and one definitely worth looking up. You could start here. For the workshop we had to bring a poem along, rather than write one from scratch. So the whole focus of the workshop was to look at a poem in detail.

I knew the workshop would be an interesting one and that I’d probably learn a thing or too. I did, and I’d like to share some of my experience with you. Here’s a good starting point: as an experienced editor, Michael was very definite on accuracy. If you’re going to write a poem on a particular subject then make sure you get your facts straight. Don’t take a chance. Research your topic area, but maybe do so after you’ve written a draft or two, so you keep the poem spontaneous and not rely on dry facts.

Michael was keen on clean poems that didn’t waffle or use superfluous imagery or language. By ‘clean’ I mean poems which have a tidy structure and the form works with the content and meaning rather than being imposed on the poem. I’m reminded of Basil Bunting here, ‘trust your reader, they’re as clever as you.’ A shorter more focused poem is better than one which feels it has to mention everything.
Michael also liked simple, direct language and not overblown diction. If you've ever read Michael's poetry or taken a look at 'Smiths Knoll' you'll see that on the whole the poems have a conversational style. Simple words, used appropriately, can work harder than ones randomly found in a thesaurus. This is something I’ve learnt to appreciate over the last couple of years. I still use a thesaurus and dictionary, though nowadays I’m looking for a more accurate word rather than one which sounds flash. I'm being a little more scientific. That doesn’t mean you compromise the beauty, it means you’re more definite and that words ring true and ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ and ‘that is all ye need to know,’ to bring Keats into this. There I go again. I can’t help making connections on this subject with other authors.

Imagery was also key; it’s best not to cram your poem with images that fly around from one thing to another and keep it original. Too many sights, sounds, images can be disorientating and confusing. You might think you’re treating your reader to a banquet, but without control and clarity it’s too much.

The last thing to mention was Michael’s enthusiasm; he obviously cares about poetry and is a meticulous reader and editor. He’s one of those people who’s doing remarkable things with poetry. I enjoyed meeting him and enjoyed the workshop.

The Great Lost Blog Entry

It's November. Haven't updated the blog since September and we've gone from summer to autumn without so much as a squeak. Right now I'm really busy so I thought this was a perfect time to ignore my tasks and displace my energies into the blog. Back in September I wrote the following post and for whatever reason forgot to post it. Well here it is:

Does A Poem Have to Know Where It’s Going?

One of the phrases I hear a lot at readings is ‘I don’t know what this poem is about’ or ‘I’m not sure why I wrote it.’ There is probably no point ever writing a poem maybe, but perhaps what the speaker intends to say is that the poem came out of nowhere. Whenever I wonder where poems come from, I imagine a big black forest somewhere, with poems climbing trees and digging holes like animals. I would argue that many contemporary poems try and imitate the dream, whereas older, traditional ones, many of which were and still are studied at school are the ones which are more immediate on the whole. They explain themselves, there’s more rhetoric, they make statements. I suppose in terms of new poems we’re talking Imagiste onwards, which can be dated around 1912, (Bob Richardson taught me everything about the Imagistes at the last Leicester Shindig, there were even visual aids involved). Virginia Woolf would say the First World War changed everything, poems stopped making sense because for many people the world did. It became gradually harder for poets to use such emotive, abstract sentiments after the Somme and Paschendale. Woolf famously uses this example in 'A Room of One’s Own' to illustrate the kind of poetry which she says would never be written after 1918:

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;

However, I would say that for most people who don’t write poetry this would be their idea of a poem: lyric, beauty, sentiment. It’s these new-fangled poets who don’t write like this. ‘All those similies; all that juicy fruit and halcyon sea, eeesh’ says contemporary poet. This poem knows where it’s going, people on the whole (let’s argue this one if you like) don’t write like this anymore.

‘Ok’, says the poet, ‘poems have to make sense in terms of dream logic, off to my notebook I go.’ My own view is that all poetry from different time periods and cultures must be enjoyed. For this experiment, however, the poet wants to be contemporary. To test this I have opened a copy of the latest Rialto – the closest thing next to me at the desk – randomly. Below are the opening lines to a poem, ‘The Last’ by Robin Houghton:

They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats

Ok, so who are they, they sound a bit ominous, not friendly, there are cowboy hats involved, what if they have guns? Later on the poet describes: ‘And still they would come, insistent. / They left my body as they found it…’ To me that’s chilling, but I’m still none the wiser as to who they are but they are interesting. On closer reading maybe they’re not so bad, I’m thinking about them as heroic figures perhaps. The poem mentions ‘they’ are dressed in Liverpool shirts and the person in the poem wrote about them in ‘diaries’. Maybe they’re people he/she wanted to be or dreamt of being when young? If he/she had known when the ‘last’ of them had arrived they would have ‘thrown a party.’ Sounds sad, or a tribute to something lost.

Having thought about the poem I’m reading it again and enjoying it and unpeeling it with interest. I plucked that poem from the air of course. One poem isn’t enough perhaps, but this is a blog post not the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures. You never know where you are going, you just go with the poet. You have to trust.