Gaskell House Blogs

The right words in the right order…

20th May 2019
in blog, Events, Literature

The background: the House has been successful in securing funding from the Arts Council for a collaborative programme of arts activities which includes a series of creative writing workshops. Here, Ben Cassidy, who is attending the programme, describes his experience of the second session. For some of the poems which emerged from this session, click here.

For some, poetry is the unmentionable term of literature, and can conjure up painful recollections of school days, and the awkward experiences of being put on the spot to respond to things you really don’t understand. Even best-selling novelists have spoken of their feelings of inadequacies surrounding poetry. This was the opening topic, and after a short discussion amongst the class, the one word singled out, by tutor Rachel Sills, that poetry should try and be, is ‘fun’.That doesn’t mean that serious topics aren’t of course tackled, or darker ideas explored (they very much were, later…). A playfulness of language was identified as crucial, and poetry’s ability to do more with it than other genres.

A string of fake pearls was handed around, and everyone asked to think about their physical attributes. A writing exercise was then set, that focused on responding by word association, writing thoughts about where the pearls may have come from and how they differed from any others anyone may have seen. Encouraging us to think about the object in different ways, such as how the light may hit the surface of the pearls to observe the colours that come from it. This meant that fresh perspectives were possible, that’s so important when thinking of writing a poem. This wasn’t the only object to be explored.

Following on from the pearls exercise, which helped get rid of ‘blank page syndrome’, a number of other objects were placed on the tables. They included a paraffin lamp, a top-hat, a coal scuttle, a bed pan and various other domestic items. Whilst we were asked to try and think of the stories they may have been a part of, the focus was on the fine-details of the objects, the sense-evoking aspects of them: weight, sheen, scent and sounds they may make when touched. This was a great way to ensure our work would be centred on the concrete and not abstract elements. The purpose of the task became fully apparent. The job of a poem, we learnt, is to allow the thing being discussed to tell a story of its own. Using such a practical method to demonstrate this was a wonderful plan. It helped everyone to write from a greater distance than one might with fiction, and proved that the language of poetry is the idea itself – which the tutor very helpfully explained.

As with the previous class, anyone who chose to could share their work and receive feedback from others. As the work of those who chose to read out was generally shorter, it meant even more insight could be . Alternative word choices were suggested by some, which might have been just what some of the poems needed to feel more complete. The chance to speak the words out too, in a group, meant you could hear how they sound – another crucial way of possibly editing a poem, ensuring every syllable earns its place and helps to add to the desired overall effect.

Perhaps most of all, this class helped to de-mystify and break down barriers some may have had before they went in, in an environment steeped with history and fascinating treasures to work with. It was a well delivered session and resulted in poems that ranged from the highly humorous, to the truly terrifying. It really did show the scope which language has to contain large ideas within the compact unit of sound and sense, that a poem is, amongst many other things. Fun, friendly and time spent that meant knowing things you didn’t before attending, it was another roaring success and will undoubtedly continue to be in the future. Thoroughly recommended.

Rachel Sills will be running  more Poetry workshops on 6 October and 6 November. 

This project has been funded using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, The Granada Foundation and The Duchy of Lancaster.

a whispering of leaves and perfume of flowers always pervaded the rooms

Charlotte Brontë, on visiting 84 Plymouth Grove