Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Learning from others

Poetry Business Workshop, Saturday 22nd October, 10.30am, Becker Room, City Library

Words by Jo Bell.

"If you’ve been up all night or you’re hungover, then you might get some particularly good work out of today," says Ann Sansom. Well, this is promising: I am fresh (or not) from a 12-hour train journey after a break in Skye, and not at my scintillating best. Perhaps I should strive to always feel as if I have lived on fish and chips for a week, and travelled in grubby trains for a day at a time. Actually, most of the time I do feel like that; so by Ann’s reckoning I’m ahead of the game.

Ann and husband Peter run The Poetry Business. They lead workshops across the UK and regular writing days in Sheffield; they produce the fine poetry journal The North and the Smith/Doorstop series of pamphlets; and, for 25 years now, they have fostered new poetry talent with quiet kindness and generosity. This workshop has sold out quickly: a dozen or so poets, most fairly experienced, gathered in the Becker Room of the City Library to share some creative chemistry.

The Sansoms favour a fluid, write-it-fast-and-leave-it-be style of writing, which might indeed work especially well in a fragile or altered state, and which certainly generates four or five nascent poems in this 2½ hour session. It’s a standard format - write and read back, write and read back - with poems by Paul Farley, Denise Levertov and others to spark off particular trains of thought. Peter and Ann are old hands at making their workshoppers feel comfortable, and everyone is willing to share their work.

The exercises are pitched rather low for a group which includes several experienced writers – "write about an inanimate object", or "write about yourself at a younger/older age" are long-familiar fare. But perhaps any exercise that jolts us out of a rut and into a new way of telling the truth is worth playing with, and certainly any new writing shared in a workshop deserves to be heard with respect. The poet’s job, after all, is to notice and to report back from the front line. Your front line will be different to mine; your inanimate object might be a button, mine a narrowboat. The point of a workshop is not just to get us writing but to get us writing together – to encourage those who aren’t sure where to start, to motivate those who fear they have stopped, and to catalyse that creative chemistry that can only happen when writers get out of their garrets and sit around a table with a shared purpose.

Stepping out into Deansgate, several of us go on to the Poetry Takeaway at the Whitworth Gallery, where Manchester performance poet Dominic Berry is among today’s "chefs". It’s my birthday tomorrow, so I order a poem on that subject and Dominic obliges, delivering my freshly prepared order on the gallery steps. It’s a bright, breezy day on Oxford Road and the afternoon lies ahead of us. I think I might go and write a poem…

Jo Bell is a poet, promoter and producer of live literature. She is the director of National Poetry Day and currently working on a new live show, Riverlands, with storyteller Jo Blake.

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