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Katherine Gallagher
To workshop or not to workshop?
This topic usually brings out strong feelings ranging from the affirmative views of people who got their start in writing through workshops to others who’ve found the process time-wasting and worse - destructive in various ways, producing sameness and a corresponding lack of originality. Take this letter in the latest Mslexia 31, Oct/Nov 06.  Writing of the current crop of competition winners chosen by Wendy Cope for the 2006 Mslexia Poetry Competition, the writer, E. Fox says: ‘Most were curiously lifeless and could almost have been written by the same person, or indeed a committee.’ (p.4)    S/he goes on that s/he’s not specifically criticising women’s verse ‘as a similar “cosiness” can be found in men’s verse and that of British poets in general.’ – producing a lack of originality in style and subject-matter. And here’s the crunch. E. Fox blames ‘the explosion of poetry workshops for the proliferation of such clonic irrigation (or irritation)’.
            Food for thought. I’ve heard this argument before but am unconvinced. It is certainly debatable as to what workshops achieve in the short-term and whether they can be blamed for the shortcomings of poetry in general. Workshops are only as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as the poets attending them, or more importantly, those leading them. That said, I think every poet who’s been a keen workshop-attendee could look at his or her writing in terms of ‘Before and after workshops’. I’m sure all poets remember their first tentative entries into the workshop world. My first was with two Australian poets back in 1968: Bruce Dawe and Judith Wright – both important influences on my work. Particularly, Judith Wright, one of Australia’s greatest poets whom I call my ‘poetry godmother’. Since then, I’ve participated in many other workshops including a week-long Arvon Course and many one-day themed ones. I’ve also been in groups that met weekly or monthly. All these have helped me to make progress with my poetry. I still attend workshops but also lead them – face-to-face and distance-learning.
            Which brings me to the main reasons for workshopping. Practically, workshops provide the best means of getting started, of learning groundwork techniques (exploring the forms, use of the notebook, commonplace book and journal); of meeting new poets on the page as well as a host of practising or beginning poets; of developing critical parameters – above all, of developing confidence in one’s own abilities. I believe that while writing can’t be taught, the craft can. Would-be poets need to read widely.‘Read the Moderns, but also the Metaphysicals. Read European poets, read Asian poets, the Chinese and the Japanese,’ Judith Wright advised me, saying how she’d dropped out of her University Course of seemingly endless Beouwolf to spend time in the library. Certainly, reading ‘widely’ is one of the best ways of introducing spark and surprise into one’s writing: reading the work of other poets but material from other disciplines as well. The poet is a magpie and needs to be forever on the lookout for new subjects and new angles. Pound’s ‘Make it new’ is forever relevant. But back to workshops. Poetry is a broad school and I often wish there’d been more workshops around when I was starting out.
            For they are fundamentally a support-system, an opportunity for finding suitable experienced mentors. Where else are novice poets to learn the basics? At the same time, workshops are to be enjoyed as a way into the ‘adventure of poetry’, including the excitement of finding new poets. Like all art, poetry is a place where the ground is constantly shifting, where vistas are being opened up, where gravity makes you hold your breath – a learning curve. Workshops can’t necessarily initiate great enthusiasm for poetry, but they can certainly help to sustain it. I love the poem Lu Yu (AD 1125-1209) by Al Purdy; it suggests the kind of dedication required in order to claim the title of ‘Poet’.
            ‘On the day of Lu Yu’s last sickness
             a thin coffin was ready,
             and two quilts to cover him,
             and the gravediggers paid
                                    their work done.
             Then he started to write another poem
             a short time before death,
             about drinking wine again in the village –
             He was working on the poem when they buried him,
             so that half a line protruded from the earth
                         in wind and weather’s hearing
            with sunlight touching the first young syllables,
            the last ones flowering from a dark coffin: . . .
Poetry is a way of life, a way of seeing - as most workshoppers find out. People sometimes talk of the ‘workshop’ poem. There is also its cousin, the ‘competition’ poem, apropos of E. Fox’s derogatory comments cited earlier.  In his editorial comments for The Rialto 60, Summer 2006, Michael Mackmin (p.61) ‘cites Andrew Motion’s comments as final judge of the 2005 Bridport Prize, re the lack of poems of ‘good enough quality’: “Although there is no doubting the sincerity of  the entries, they do pose a number of questions. Are people writing rather than reading poems (or aren’t they reading enough)? Is too much credit given to ‘spontaneous overflow’ and not enough to the hard work of revising? Is too little thought given to audience? Is there a general retreat from the opportunities offered by traditional form?  I’d say the answer to all these things was: emphatically yes”.
            Motion also criticised the sameness of subject-matter – too many poems on love, death, sick relatives, ‘what I saw on my holidays’, children, the beauties of Nature. It’s the element of surprise that’s lacking as if “people weren’t stretching their imaginations, and transforming experience, rather than (often perfectly decently) reporting on it.” Has Motion summed up the problem of ‘sameness’in poetry? Back to E. Fox and the workshop-participants and competition entrants. It’s not easy learning the ‘poetry game.’ Back to the poets, and workshops, of course . . .

© Katherine Gallagher 2006