The Poetry Kit
Writers Forum (Workshop & Publications)
We have been called Writers Forum since the beginning, since 1952. We have published under that name since 1963.
Others have used the name; and that’s permissible, if odd. One such has an Editor, a Consultant Editor, an Assistant Editor, a Travel Editor, a Design person and two Editorial Assistants plus an Advertisement and PR Manager and an Advertising Sales person. As well as being a magazine, it provides information on competitions and resources, and makes book choices.
I mention all this because it is the first website which currently comes up on Google. My search on “Writers Forum” produced 21 million hits.
The assumption of our Writers Forum Workshop is sane: that people learn from each other and learn most constructively when they are encouraged. Each meeting is chaired lightly; negative comment is strongly discouraged; regular attendance is encouraged. All who want to be heard are heard.
Meetings last two hours, with a short break half way. Often the second half includes a launch of publications from the press, Writers Forum. Occasionally, we invite guest poets.
The greater part of most meetings is given over to the individual poets attending. Everyone is encouraged to bring material that they are working on; but the opportunity is often used also to update one's peers in the workshop by performing completed poems and even sequences.
We try each to take a fair share of the time available; and that depends on how many attend. If necessary, one may take more than an equal share of the time. Wherever possible, the judgements are left to individual members, with the chair actually intervening rarely. It teaches one to listen to the others. We encourage mutual respect and tolerance.
There is no set reading order. One offers to read when one feels ready. Sometimes nothing happens for a while; and there is no compulsion to actually contribute at all.
It is open to all; but the focus is upon experimentation and innovation, overworked words, notoriously difficult to define... A little history may help.
The WF workshop grew out of a set of arts activities in the 1950s - a painting group, film group and so on, under various umbrellas, e.g. Arts Together. One was called “Writers' Forum”. In 1963, Writers Forum separated itself and established a small press, founded by the late Bob Cobbing and others; but it continued as a workshop too, often meeting every two weeks. The workshop remains the energy source of WF activity. (Notice we dropped the apostrophe in 1963.)
In the 1950s, the workshop was like many writers' workshops. It was a membership organisation with unpaid officers. Poems were mimeo-circulated in advance; its function was to provide criticism. In such circumstances, one often needs to be thick-skinned to participate because they attract the unreasonably dogmatic.
Under Cobbing's direction, the practice changed rapidly; and the workshop was in something like its present form 30 years ago when its then members, of whom I was one, tended to use the opportunity to make and show new work, rather than telling others where they were going wrong.
There has developed an informal protocol whereby negative criticism could be heard, by mutual agreement, over drinks after the actual workshop; but one accepts the aims and practises of each poet as they perform; and attends to them on their terms.
There is little comment, lots of performance. Those who wish to stay and talk do so; and we are often there quite late.
Writers Forum Workshop renews itself repeatedly. It welcomes a very wide range of ages.
The day before he died, in 2002, Cobbing passed ownership and direction of both the press and the workshop to Adrian Clarke and Lawrence Upton.
Five years on, we continue as convenors of the workshop, aiming to continue with the principles as they have evolved; they work. Those principles make it possible for people to perform their poetry without fearing that they will be attacked verbally; they encourage mutual esteem; they make it possible to learn by example. All who support our ethos and focus may attend; and we are keen to meet new people.
Which brings me to the kind of poetry one might bring to a WF workshop. Anything!
Cobbing was interested in a broad variety of poetry; but, in particular, extended the poetry’s range into what is sometimes called visual and sound poetry and the indefinable linguistically-innovative poetry. . That became the workshop’s unexclusive focus, and so it remains.
We put emphasis on performance, though that does not imply a great concern with much of what is now called "Performance Poetry". It may just mean being heard clearly. We have an eclectic interest in poetry as an art and craft, including as a matter of course what has been called "Experimental", often in hybrid forms. There is a fascination in hybridity, crossing of boundaries and confounding of categorisation. We are interested in poetry / dance, poetry / music and poetry / painting.
WF Workshop is not an open mike... It remains a chaired private meeting to which all who support the hard to define aims, objectives and methods are invited, to see if it suits them. No one who respects what we have made will be turned away.
But for people to attend, there has to be a venue; and finding and keeping a venue has always been a problem. The workshop abandoned charging over forty years ago, Cobbing determined to remove blocks to attendance. We receive and welcome donations. They help us with incidental admin costs; but it would take large donations indeed to pay some London venue rents. So we have to do as best we can.
We might obtain public funds. Cobbing did, but only a little and intermittently, so that one could not rely upon it. We might obtain large sums; but I am not sure that it would be worth it, perhaps having to act on recommendations to create “professional management” posts, whose activities would use up the money and perhaps alienate the existing members, only to then have to act on new recommendations to change everything back several years later.
Once, meetings were held in members’ houses, which had many disadvantages. The slight formality engendered by a public space owned by none, together with the presence of a chairperson – the two convenors take turns – facilitates a sense of welcome; and that is most important.
When I first attended, we had the use of National Poetry Centre in Earls Court. From around 1990, we were at The Victoria in Mornington Crescent for nearly a decade. Then they turned their meeting room into a restaurant.
We moved, following Sub Voicive Poetry, which I ran, to The Churchill at Mount Pleasant, an idiosyncratic place. The landlord would go away, taking the meeting room key. Sometimes the pub was shut; and once I launched a book in the street: soon windows opened for surprising performance suggestions.
Meetings were criss-crossed by kitchen staff carrying plates of food to the bar; and eventually they decided to turn the room into a restaurant.
SVP moved to The Betsey Trotwood (I heard tell of the availability of the pub room in a woods near Leipzig, but that’s another story) and the workshop took the hint.
The Betsey did not treat us considerately and the workshop was locked out more than once. Later they handed over bookings to a management agency which assumed we were either a slam or should be. Clarification proved pointless. They said: “We’ll advertise you. We’ll fill the place. We’ll both benefit.” We declined and they laid siege.
For example, techies would arrive, demanding access for sound checks during our time. The urgency arose from the needs of their schedules. In response, the landlord was mendaciously polite, while an uninterested party advised that I would be killed if I made one more objection to masons highjacking a booking.
In September 2002, Adrian and I took over; and, some time later, we moved to Camden Peoples Theatre.
That worked. But after Chris Goode, the Artistic Director who invited us, had left, the new Director announced WF as a “resident company” in the January 2006 publicity material and hosted a WF Benefit reading by Peter Manson, then served notice on us in the same month because of an unspecified conflict between our work and his programme. Neither he nor any of his staff had ever visited a workshop before or after before supporting or condemning our events.
For three months we were without a venue, till, in the late summer, Torriano Meeting House provided us with a venue which lasted until early 2007.
By then, a new and sympathetic management at The Betsey Trotwood had invited us back; and so we have a convenient central place to meet. It is now a welcoming pub with good beer.
Bob Cobbing not only wanted to publish work he believed in, but also wanted to encourage others to have faith in their own writing by being published; to make exciting writing available to others at low cost; and to ensure that his own work was available. He was a generous publisher; and a print craftsperson using machines designed to obviate the need for craft. The books he produced were always functional, but the production itself was often quite beautiful and consonant with their content.
He published a huge list, some of which was not fully documented. Nor was the British Library always of use subsequently because the work was sometimes formally so unfamiliar to them that the books were not always catalogued and archived. It now seems that the total produced might be 1200, roughly one title a fortnight for half a century.
Nowadays, WF does not publish at that rate. However, work has gone into clearing the production centre of the press – a room in Cobbing’s home. We’ve retrieved books which seemed not to be archived anywhere. We’ve made available books long since out of print, collating printed pages which had been forgotten. There were cubic yards of paper to be inspected. That’s still happening.
We are republishing items; and deciding what should not be reprinted.
Cobbing’s own work is something of a priority for us; but we are also publishing new work and are open to submissions – all we ask is that the author takes the trouble to research our interests and only submit if it seems appropriate - so that our list now spans more than 4 decades. Not a few publications arise from workshop sessions.
There have been occasions when one realises, retrospectively, that people have put in time at the workshop in order to be published by the press or to gain other kudos. Note: not to be published, but to be published by the press. I suppose that is praise, though it is more than irritating for effort to be made on making a publication only to have the author disappear.
Certainly, there is seen to be a kudos to being a regular at the workshop, though the group is actually self-selecting; and to my memory only one person has been told not to attend – that was for destructive misbehaviour over a decade ago. One knows this because attendance has been claimed by people who do not attend. They must have a reason.
Our philosophy is ambition for the work, not personal careers; and we trust the good faith of the majority
Thursday, 14 June 2007
WF Website / blog
Our website ceased this year when our ISP closed. It will be revived.
We maintain a blog on
The Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3BL
Submission address (postal only)
32 Downside Rd, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5HP – please send s.a.e. and keep a copy
Saturday 24th November 2007
Saturday 8th December 2007
Meet 3.30 and 4 p.m.; workshop from 4 p.m. till 6 p.m.
There is no procedure for joining! You just turn up and introduce yourself to Lawrence and Adrian and the others present. However, it is strongly recommended that anyone intending to attend should join WF E-Mailing List to be sure of receiving notice of changed arrangements..