The Prose (sic) and Cons of Zoom Workshops

BUTTERCUPS

Before Covid changed everything, I had run a good many poetry workshops live, and tutored for Arvon residential courses several times. I wasn't as experienced as some, but I'd done my stint. Enough to develop methods and preferences.

Nonetheless, learning to do these things on Zoom has been a new learning opportunity. It's mostly been a joy.

For example, I love the widened access. I like the way people can take part in a tutor-led writing session for a relatively low (or sometimes no) cost, from their own homes. So if they're unwell, or disabled, they can still come. And they can do it from different countries, different time zones — whatever.

I don't like that people without good broadband access and/or computer confidence are excluded. Shy folk and HSPs are also wary. So even though some are as comfortable in this new element as grasshoppers in grass, others are not.

This is something I 'get', not least because I participated as a student/learner/writer in several online workshops last year, enough to sample the highly varied way these things can be managed.

For me, being a poet is as much about reading poems as writing them. So my workshops are structured around a group of poems, and I like participants to see them on screen, not just hear me (or someone else) reading them aloud.

Of course, there are suggested writing tasks, too. I explain these out loud but I like to have the instructions typed up too, on pages that are screen-shared. Why? Because when I'm a participant (as opposed to the organiser), I easily get confused. Things distract me. I forget a) what the task is and b) how long we're supposed to have to do it — unless it's written down.

I like to read the discussion poems aloud to the group. I don't ask participants to take a turn at reading. That's because there are specific aspects I want to bring out.

My writing exercises (all of which are optional) are closely connected by a central theme or idea of some kind. The aim is to sow seeds, not harvest whole plants.

I do like a bit of readback/feedback, but not usually until the end of the workshop. And of course that's optional.

However, I like people to feel they have to work. Work hard and think hard, and have a bit of fun. That's what (to my mind) they've come for.

I like a bit of follow-up after the workshop, too, a chance for people to communicate something individually and privately. I usually send participants copies of the poems used in the workshop, and perhaps some links to follow up ideas.

Generally the Tricks of the Trade workshops have attracted people who look from their Zoom faces as though they're over 40; and many are well over 60 (like me): the magnet effect. I've run some on Saturdays, because that way people who work through the week can come. I haven't, so far as I know, attracted anybody under 24, though not because I didn't want to. Nor have I, so far as I know, attracted anybody who's hearing-impaired, though I do try to share text on screen for all tasks.

For one of my workshops, Giles Turnbull agreed to come along not just as a poet, but as a poet who is blind, so that I could 'see' how it worked for him. I gave him the shared pages in advance, so he could preview with his screen-reader. We thought it worked pretty well. It was certainly great having him there as a participant.

I ask for some evaluation from my groupies each time. That evaluation has changed the way I do things. It's taught me stuff.

Like what?

I've learned that detailed advance communication is important. Clarity about content and timing is appreciated, with reminders near to the event.

Also people like to know at the workshop what's likely to happen, how and when. In business they call this 'managing expectations'. But I feel it is important. I've learned this the hard way when people told me they were disappointed by certain aspects.

Technical things can also go wrong. They sometimes go wrong with broadband connections. They go wrong with local gadgets (my Imac has more than once stopped processing audio-feed, for reasons unknown); luckily I have a laptop too so can always switch from one machine to another. Worse things happen at sea.

For me as organiser, online workshops are intense. I find they demand absolute concentration. In a virtual element, you can't pick up the usual cues.

But that doesn't mean cues aren't there: in the faces, in the gestures, in the chat box. Then suddenly it's the end and it all stops. Everyone has left the meeting. They all left it in precisely the same second. Weird.

I sit at my desk, surrounded by silent bits of paper. I put my head in my hands. The planet spins.


New Tricks of the Trade workshops:

Tuesday 6 July, 10.30–13.00

or

Saturday 17 July, 14.00–16.30

Theme: Serving a sentence (the role of sentence shapes and structures in poems)

Tutor: Helena Nelson

Numbers: Max. 10 participants.

 Cost: £30.00 (there's one free place in each session, so if strapped for cash, say).

Email me to reserve a place. If you don't have the email address already, please use the contact box.

These sessions will involve looking closely at other people's poems, as well as various writing exercises. Any readback is optional. There will be follow-up in the form of optional interaction on one of your own poems.

More detailed information to be shared nearer the time.

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MY LEAST FAVOURITE WORD IN A POEM

image4 Photocredit: Gerry Cambridge

It's very small. Unassuming, you might say. And can be found inside the word 'unassuming' and also inside 'assuming'.         

What a complicated way to reach the word itself! Namely: 'as'.

What has 'as' done to deserve my hostility?

Nothing much. It's not rational. Each of us develops different bees in different bonnets — as it were.

And I don't say I never use it (I just did). But I can't choose it without caution.

For me, the first issue is that although 'as' is so small, it has at least three or four meanings. (Merriam Webster has nine entries!) 

Each possible meaning has a different effect on the line. It can be hard sometimes to see which of them is intended.

The worst of the possible meanings of 'as' (in my book) is 'because'. When it means 'because', it sounds like a phrase book for someone learning to speak English.

For example, 'I ate every scrap of my dinner as I was ravenous'. 

Or 'As the bus was full, I caught the train.' 

'As' used in this way deadens a sentence. Nobody would ever say, 'I ate my dinner as I was hungry.' It's better to split the sentence into two, or use a dash: 'I wolfed my sandwich — I was ravenous.'

(I don't like the sound of 'as' either. The 's' sounds as 'z'. It reminds me of the word 'gristle', and gristle reminds me of cheap sausages.)

When 'as' means 'because', it functions as a connective, or conjunction. But even when 'as' connects two clauses, it can have more than one meaning, the other most likely possibility being 'while'.

'As I combed my hair, I thought of my mother', for example. Or: 'The surf glistened as the moon rose high above the waves.'

The third meaning is the one I least dislike. As fast as lightning. As white as milk. When used in a simile,'as' often pops up twice (once on each side of the adverb) and I don't mind this in the least. However, it means the number of usages quickly multiplies:

As the moon rose into the sky,
the boat slipped over the horizon
as fast as night. It was a slow boat,
a cold boat. As it had no sails,
so no sailors and no oars.
As it vanished, it left no sign.
As if it had never ever been.

'As' is so small — so unassuming — its repetitions slip past the most eagle-ish of eyes.

But it can damage sharpness of phrase. It can smudge clarity and precision.

I hate 'as'.

As I said earlier, it's not rational.

Recent Comments
Guest — Hazel Macmillan
'Stunning' it just grates. It is a lazy word, used too much for so many other descriptive words that fit.
Sunday, 06 June 2021 18:19
Guest — Giles
As Isaac Asimov said to his assistant, you better get off your ass and make me a cup of Assam as fast as an asteroid asking for di... Read More
Sunday, 06 June 2021 18:32
Jim Laing
To which his assistant replied, "you can make it yourself as i'm 'ov!
Monday, 07 June 2021 19:14
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THE GOOD SIDE OF THE COVID YEAR

IMG_5531 Blue sky and clouds

I regularly talk to an old friend on the landline, a really old friend. He's 91 and lives alone. He doesn't have access to the internet. He says things now are worse than they were during the War. And he says it with feeling. Gloom pours down the phone line. I replace the receiver with a heavy heart.

It's so unfair. I haven't suffered badly this year. My house is warm and light. There are plenty of lovely walks round here. I'm in good health. I live on a pension (no need to worry about my job). I'm half of a couple, so there's always someone else in the house to talk to, or moan about Boris.

Still, there are huge absences. Children. Grandchildren. Friends. And listening to BBC News is like adding weights to the lid of a cosy coffin. Best not to put the radio on. Best not to watch TV. Best to stay safe. Stay well. Hide until it all goes away.

But the public anxiety's like fog trying to get in the windows. What can we do to counteract the gloom?

I've got into the habit of counting my lockdown blessings, some of which are a bit weird (spoiler alert). 

Often I've found myself guiltily happy, since I've done better than many of my friends, some of whom are not just isolated, but also ill or depressed. One has died. I miss her.

Anyway here's my list. If you have positives of your own, please add them in the comments box. Help to offset the dark.

Good things from the year of C

I've learned to make butter by shaking double cream in a large jam jar. Now I do this regularly. And I went back to making cakes. GREAT cakes.

I found some mung beans at the back of the cupboard. They must have been (no pun intended) there for years and years. The good news is that if you soak them in water and leave them in the dark overnight, and then bring them into the light and wash them gently three times a day, they still SPROUT. So we've had quite a few Chinese stir-fries with home-grown bean-sprouts. Strangely satisfying.

After a bout of sciatica, I began to do breathing and stretching exercises every morning. Lovely. So good for me. And walking every single day, sometimes as many as three walks. I limited desk work to three hours. So now I'm fitter than I was. More energy too (though alas not for desk work). (Yes, the sciatica gradually went away. It was a message.)

I started listening to science podcasts while doing the stretching exercises. Marvellously educational.

Sat and read. Sat and read. Sat and read. Sometimes sat in the sun and read.

Decided to stop drinking my two glasses of wine a night, not least because it was starting to become three. Discovered Marks & Spencer's alcohol-free G&T, an oxymoron in a can. After this, all sorts of mocktails and juices. Discovered I'm much calmer without my alcohol fix, and apparently fewer migraines. Definitely better sleep.

With the help of the sewing scissors, I removed the wires from my bras. What have I been putting up with all these decades?

I have learned to jog, though only for short stretches. I have finally experienced that endorphin kick other people talk about. Yay! 

Masks are a pain, but they help prevent chapped lips. Most useful. Also going through the freezing cold vegetable aisle in Aldi is much warmer when wearing a mask.

Cleaned the whole house for the first time in years. Poor spiders. I have even cleaned the windows! We can see the trees properly. And I've finally cleared all the weeds off the concrete block paving in the back garden. It almost looks respectable.

I've begun to talk regularly to my cousin Wendy on the phone. We've never really known each other, though we were born only a year apart. But now we do.

I have walked through the trees every single day. I started in spring, then summer. Then the amazing autumn golds, swishing through the leaves. Now the bare winter woods. Already fresh green spikes of grass finding their way through. I didn't know I liked walking in the rain.

New breakfast: oatmeal porridge every morning (so much better than the kind made with oats).Learned to love maple syrup. Good on the oatmeal porridge with a little cream (though my other half will only eat salt).

Good grief — I haven't had a head cold in a whole year!

I have practised the ukulele in the conservatory with rain beating on the roof. My time keeping isn't very good. I bought a metronome. I practised the ukulele with two metronomes: the rain and the actual metronome.

In all our twenty-three years (or nearly) together, my other half and I have never spent so much continuous time together. By some miracle, we still get on well. We were sorely tested in November when some pipes burst, and the repairs dragged on for weeks and weeks (still not finished). Adversity can drive people apart; it can also bring them closer.

I used to see my two grandchildren every week. I took it for granted. Since March, I've seen them only four times in all. But each time has been the quintessence of joy.

Have only filled the car up with petrol three times since March. More money to spend on coffee, poetry, and presents to post to the grandchildren.

The sky has been more beautiful this year than I ever remember: crisp, and clean, and clear. No vapour trails. Just amazing cloud formations. A free show every single morning. Never the same twice.

We have lovely neighbours. 


Recent Comments
Guest — Fokkina McDonnell
Lovely to read. I always do a gratitude list at the year end I've started to learn Swedish on Duolingo - the little green owl is ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 18:57
Guest — Stephanie Green
Dear Nell, What a cheering post. I'd been feeling a little down post-Xmas (Zoom chat not quite the same as actually meeting with ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:04
Karen Wells
Every best wish for the New Year
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:54
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NOT SEEING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES

FRANKWOOD Frank Wood's 2012 pamphlet collection

Frank Wood died recently at the age of 95. HappenStance published a pamphlet of his work in 2012.    

So that's the 'Wood' in my title.   

We won't be seeing Frank again, though his voice — unapologetically plain-spoken — can still be heard in his poems. And always will be, for as long as such poems are heard.

But the 'trees' are also the poetries. Today, with dozens of poem-texts whirling round the globe every second, there are great forests of poetries, in which one could get lost for all time. Yes, I know that's a horribly mixed metaphor. Forests don't whirl round the globe, unless you think of Wordsworth's Lucy 'Whirled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees' (I always felt for Lucy).

My point is that the writing trajectory of a poet like Frank might be seen as 'unimportant'. Poetry was a lifelong interest for him, but he didn't start writing it until he was well into his forties. He didn't win the National Poetry Competition. He didn't publish to popular acclaim. He had a modest circle of appreciative readers (and fellow writers).

Frank did succeed in placing poems here and there in the small press over several decades. He co-edited a small magazine for a while, played an active role in Suffolk Poetry Society, had modest wins in competitions, and there was a pamphlet: Racing the Stable Clock. He was a practising poet who kept practising.

His poetry 'career' might look like not much, as these things go. It was more than it seems.

He always sent me poems during the HappenStance reading windows, and latterly I encouraged him to send them whenever he wanted to — which was still about twice a year. It was rare to get a batch in which there wasn't at least one I thought outstanding in some way. He was a wit, with strong opinions. Often, he made me smile. But sometimes his poems opened out into sadness, and I would stare out of the window and think, and think some more.

I believe the writing of poems brought him joy. It wasn't about getting famous, or building a reputation as a 'player'. He found poems joyous things to make, worthwhile creations, like well-made chairs. They made him happy.

I won't forget him. Right to the end of his long life, he was writing self-critically and with acuity.

I'm appending one of the poems from Stable Clock below. It's short. And yet (to me) there's a whole world below the surface. The father who wrote the sermons was the same father who was gassed in the First World War, the same father who once 'killed a German face to face' and who, when it came to questions about that war, 'would never talk about it'. But his son wrote about him, a lifetime later.


Writing the Sermon


My father was known for his sermons.
He used to grade them according
to the number of pipes he smoked.

Three pipes spelt hell
for next day's congregation —
and that was only the notes.

As his neighbor, who kept hens, said,
When you go out to feed them,you don't
have to give them the whole bucketful.




Recent Comments
Josephine Corcoran Horsfall
Thank you so much for this post and the poem. I love the humour - the aside of "and that was only the notes." Yes, texture and co... Read More
Tuesday, 27 October 2020 16:25
Guest — Teika Marija Smits
What a moving piece of writing, Nell. I feel as though you've given us an insightful glance into the personality of a man who love... Read More
Monday, 16 November 2020 09:43
Jim Laing
I've been meaning to say that I bought Frank's pamphlet after reading this and I've really enjoyed reading it. I didn't know of Fr... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 21:55
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FIFTEEN BOLD ASSERTIONS ABOUT POETRY

PHPN7673 Lino print by Gillian Rose

1.   There is no universally accepted definition of what a poem is.   

2.   There is no agreement on what a poem is not.   

3.   Prosody is the study of versification.   

4.   'Versody' is not a word.

5.   Versification is the art of making verses.

6.   A stanza is a verse paragraph. Sometimes it is called a 'verse'. 

7.   A verse is made of verse, and most verse comprises verses.

8.   The canon is not a weapon, and does not have balls, although it sometimes feels as though it is, and does.

9.   Alfred Austin succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. He wrote a verse autobiography, The Door of Humility,
      which nobody alive has read.

10.  The ink used in 99.99% of poetry publications is black.

11.  A list poem is usually formatted vertically and left-justified i.e. it does not list.

12.  If a list poem is entered into the National Poetry Competition, it could be said to have entered the lists.

13.  Writer's block is even in Wikipedia. But this is not a problem. A computer can write poems for you. Here is my latest.

14.  More poets are alive than dead. They thrive.

15.  More poems are dead than alive.

Lino print by Gillian Rose
Recent Comments
Guest — John Peacock
Wrong about no.9
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:02
Helena Nelson
How, John. I am so impressed! Have you REALLY read it, and all the way through? Maybe I should change the bold assertion to 'that ... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:30
Eleanor Livingstone
More poets are alive than dead .... Eh, interesting idea. Might the last 100 years have produced more poets than all of history pr... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 13:05
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THE LOST LAST POEM

NEWA0117 Painting by Gillian Rose

I put off finishing the poem a good while ago. There was a bit of a muddle in the middle. It needed plenty of time, and I didn't have plenty. I never have plenty.     

Today it occurred to me that it's been over a year — it might even be nearly two — since I last looked at it. But the last line keeps coming back to me. Gotta be telling me something.

It's the last poem in a long set. A long set that I want to make into a book. It's ten years since my last book of serious poems came out. You can put things off too long. 

I can put things off too long.

So I go to the electronic folder to take a look. Oh. It's not where I thought it was. 

Where is that folder?  I know what it's called. 'Find' comes up with four copies of a 2003 folder. Not the one I'm looking for.

But I'm cool with this. I'll find it.

Systematically, I search the usual places. My hard drive; the USB sticks I take on holiday; the desktop of the laptop; the Cloud. It'll show up.

Except it doesn't. Bummer.

The end of the poem is taunting me. It goes like this (the line breaks may not be right):

So now tell me, she says,
what you've done with my pearls.

This might not sound riveting. But I tell you there was a tricky back-story before those lines. A tale that was the last tale to be told in the bigger story of Mr and Mrs Philpott, who began in a Rialto publication in 2003 and might be finally at the end. Except I've lost the end.

I might once have panicked. But not these days. I know how things get lost. I know how to find them. (I know there are too many poems in the world already.) 

I go to my ring-bound paper files, where I print and file every poem. Well, nearly. It seems I didn't print this one. Or if I did, I didn't file it.

But I remember putting the poem into the large file I'd made of all the poems. The WHOLE SET, which amounted to a great many pages. And I printed that file. It's in a perspex wallet underneath the mountain of books and magazines on the table beside the stove.

And this turns out to be true.

Except when I printed that WHOLE SET, the last poem hadn't been added. I might have guessed, since the plastic wallet is dusty. But at least its physical existence proves I did create a file of more than 80 pages. Because here they are.

But I worked on several versions of the last (and longest) poem. I remember this absolutely clearly. It has to be somewhere.

Two hours later, I can confirm the Pearls poem is not somewhere. It is not even in the back-up drive of time-machine-saved files, most of which could be jettisoned with impunity. I must have been keeping it in the Cloud, in the same folder as the book file to which it was to be added. I must somehow have deleted the whole folder, no doubt thinking I had a copy on the backed-up hard drive. It happens. 

Nobody else has seen that poem but me. It might as well never have existed. They call it The Cloud for a reason.

Idly, I riffle through the stack of metal trays on my desk, where I keep all sorts of odds and sods. Letters, poems, bills, cartoons, pictures. I also go through them regularly and throw old poems away. But not this one. This poem is there.

Nearly three A4 pages. It's THERE.

It's not the last saved version, because a whole lot of stuff is horribly wrong with it. I fixed some of the muddle, I know I did. I'm not even sure it's a good poem, now that I read it again. Maybe I should end with the one before. Maybe it was meant to get lost.

On the other hand, one of the reasons for getting poems published (if you're lucky enough to be able to) is to save them from oblivion, at least temporarily. Or to ensure that they get lost in the right way, i.e. by being forgettable for most readers.

So now I had better help that to happen, if I can. It's time.


Recent Comments
grahaeme barrasford young
At least you found it. I've got a poem I know I wrote (or, I shouild say, have just recalled I wrote): I have no idea anymore what... Read More
Sunday, 19 July 2020 16:46
Guest — Sheila Aldous
Dear Helena, I know the frustrations. I hope you find it soon or your previous edits come back to you. How do you normally file y... Read More
Sunday, 19 July 2020 17:21
Helena Nelson
You might be able to find it from a key word or phrase, Graeme. 350 is not so many.... Good luck! :-)
Sunday, 19 July 2020 17:50
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