Thursday, October 21, 2010

John Siddique's poetry workshop was no leisurely head-scratching session!

Odes On Lancashire Vases: Poetry Workshop with John Siddique – Day Two

I'm reckon I'm cheating already when I sidle into this workshop – it's Day Two of a weekend course, and I haven't attended Day One. I try to look inconspicuous as the real poets arrive, six of them, enthusiastic ladies all fired up with notepads full of yesterday's productivity. I take out my pen and chew on the end of it. My imposter status must be flashing red – not only have I snuck into the workshop for free (my secret password was blogger) but I'm not even a poet. I've got PROSE stamped on my forehead. And: TERRIFIED. Not to forget, of course, that I'm also a day late.

The mission this weekend is to create poetry based upon and inspired by Manchester Art Gallery's current exhibition, Exporting Beauty: Pilkington's Pottery and Tiles. The sessions are held in the Art Gallery itself, in a large workshop in their dedicated education space, and they're led by John Siddique, an immensely prolific poet, children's author, drama and fiction writer and workshop leader. John's fiction-writing past sets me at ease – which is, of course, exactly when he pounces and says that I must join in and write poetry, because otherwise, as he says, what would I have to blog about? Okay, that's a solid point and hardly unexpected, but I'm inexperienced and I'm talking poems plural – this is no leisurely head-scratching session, but an action-packed five hours in which we do exercise after exercise, writing four short poems, two longer ones and then a set of haiku, and sharing the results out loud with the group. I've done my share of writing classes, so I'm no stranger to the workshop set-up, but this is poetry – what if I don't rhyme? Yet by the time the Art Galllery officials knock on the door to evict us at four o'clock, I've quadrupled my previous lifetime record for verse. I feel triumphant and excited and more than a little tired. The other participants are rather less shell-shocked – poets to a woman, they've got this thing under control and I'm mightily impressed by how everybody deals with each brief in such different and interesting ways.

Without giving away John's trade secrets and telling you exactly what exercises we did, I'll say that we started off by talking about beauty, and how beauty can be found in unexpected places, and how, as poets or artists, our task is to observe and uncover that beauty and to then express it. Take a risk, he said, in your art and your expression, or else nothing will get made. The Pilkington exhibition, with its glazed ceramics, vases, brooches, tiles and ornaments, is startlingly beautiful and definitely inspirational – we're sent off to check it out, and when we come back he's got an assortments of writing exercises for us. We get limbered up as the session goes on, and it becomes easier to write spontaneously and to share our results with the group.

The setting is great too; we're all sitting clustered in a group around a makeshift desk made from four smaller tables pushed together, so there's no teacher-pupil hierarchy. Behind us is a glass wall overlooking Manchester's Chinese Quarter, and in the room with us are cupboards and boxes full of art equipment. We've got paper and pens and kettles and biscuits, but we're also free to walk around the galleries to write – there might be plenty of work to do, but the atmosphere is supportive and friendly and comfortable, and before long we're all laughing and chatting in between compositions. John tells us about different poetic forms, and how they incorporate the elements we're looking to examine – observation and reflection and the musicality of poetry. With the pottery exhibition and the rest of Manchester Art Gallery's collection within easy reach, and an enthusiastic and encouraging tutor egging us on, the afternoon couldn't be better designed for imaginative productivity.

The day passes quickly. I look back through my notepad and make quick scribbles next to a couple of my poetic efforts. That wasn't so bad, I thought, feeling far less daunted than I did on my way in this morning. John tells us to leave the work to simmer for a while before we type it up and edit it; I figure I'll leave it a month and see how it all looks in November. I sneak another look at the Pilkington vases on my way out. I may not have written an ode, but I've got at least one haiku I'm not afraid to call my own.

Valerie O'Riordan is a Manchester-based writer, and she blogs at

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for joining in, and for blogging the event so beautifully. It was really lively to have your input throughout the day