There is a recipe, and it works.
I’m just back from an Arvon week at the Hurst, in Shropshire—a week of practising poets, with Cliff Yates and me as tutors.
In my younger days of writing, Arvon existed and it was remote to me and something other people did, and those Other People were all (so far as I was concerned) rich, effete and almost certainly spoilt (I had no idea there were bursaries). My deeply left-wing side, the side that reacted with embarrassment to my parents running a private primary school (in which I was a pupil), was hopelessly biased against Arvon.
Poetry skill you could buy? No chance. I was in favour of garrets for poets.
And then, in the unfair way life sometimes returns rejected gifts to the refuser, I was invited to tutor on an Arvon Course.
Really, like Ben Zephaniah refusing an OBE, I should have declined. No hesitation. But I was too curious about what I’d been missing and, besides, my co-tutor was to be Michael Laskey. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to do a course with Laskey. If Michael was there, I knew I would learn. I love to learn. Almost more than anything, I love to learn.
So I accepted gratefully – and learn I did. And afterwards, and ever since, find it hard to believe I have had the privilege and honour and pleasure and delight of tutoring on one of these courses.
Last week’s Arvon was my fourth as tutor, and I have also done one as a paying tutor-student (it was an Arvon course for tutors to learn more about tutoring). Each time, part of me thinks it won’t (can’t) work again. But it does. It really does.
If you’ve done one yourself, you’ll know all this. But you might not have done. You might be me twenty, thirty, forty years ago. So here’s an Arvon day for you, just so you get a bit of an insight. You can even do the exercises if you like. If they don’t work, it doesn’t matter. They’re all bridges and footpaths designed to take you somewhere, but it’s the journey that counts. Destinations are over-rated.
First there’s the space. You’re in a building of light and shade and space and echoes. It will be an old building with history on the walls and photos of writers you’ve heard of, and books spilling off bookcases. You’ll hear voices in the corridors and they’ll be either whispering, or shouting and laughing.
Outside there will be a glorious landscape. You may find it breath-taking and have to go inside again and lie down.
There will be a place to lie down. At any time of day or night you can return to your own sleeping and writing space – a room – maybe small or maybe large – with a bed, and a desk, and a chair, and a place to put your clothes. You won’t be able to plug into the net and read this blog because you won’t have access to the net. You will have full access to books, paper and thinking space.
You can be a private person at Arvon or a public person. It suits introverts and extroverts. You can have breakfast with everybody or you can, like me, carry it away to your room.
But let’s get back to the day. You get up and the weather will either be gorgeous or terrible. It won’t matter. You’ll look through the window and the weather will feel right.
You’ll go to the kitchen and find your breakfast in the cupboard or fridge – you can cook bacon if you want, or eggs. Or have toast or cereal or the any of the other things people have in the morning. There will be masses of fruit. In Arvon kitchens, as food is consumed, more magically appears.
At a certain time – probably about half past nine – you’ll take yourself and your notebook, or whatever you like to write on, to the writing room. This will be a big room with a big table around which the writing people will sit, and there will be a place for you – anywhere you like, unless you arrive last and get the last space.
You might feel a little bit close to the other writing people. You might think, ‘I can’t write, not like this, with all these people around me’.
And there will be a tutor who is leading this workshop, or spaceship, or think-stop, or shipshape, and that’s a relief because it means there’s a structure and someone in charge whom you can trust, and they’ll tell you what to do (and that you don’t have to do it).
The tutor might start with some free writing to get you going.
And as the tutor starts to explain what’s happening the writers feel a tiny thrill of expectation and nerves like the start of a race. The tutor may say how great it is that you’re all there and then something about a warm-up so ‘here’s a line to run with’. And there’ll be a given line. O the given line!
Which might be ‘I knew I had to do it before it was too late so ...’
You take the line, you write it down and you keep going until the tutor tells you to stop. You don’t take your pen off the paper you just keep going whatever nonsense is spilling out and if you find yourself drying up and running out of words you just keep writing the same thing the same thing the same nonsense the same thing until you get going again you can rant if you want to about how effing ridiculous it is to keep writing the same thing over and over and eventually just when you think your arm is about to drop up because writing continuously without lifting the pen from the paper is INCREDIBLY tiring the voice of the tutor will break in and say, ‘You can stop now’.
All the writers will look up in relief and smile and relax, and there will be creakings of chairs and also an expectancy because what is going to happen NEXT? There’s no knowing what will happen next. So MUCH could happen next. Almost anything could happen next.
But it might be that the tutor – because this could be day one – would ask you to look back at what you’d been writing (provided you could read your own handwriting) and find a word of phrase you liked – and take that word or phrase out and write it again separately from the rest. And he might ask some people whether they would share that word or phrase and some people – maybe even all the people – would want to throw their word or phrase into the room, and the tutor might say ‘If you like any of these, you can have them for later.’
Then the tutor might talk about ‘sticky’ words or phrases – how sometimes the mention of just one thing could call a whole world of associations into one’s head, things that are stuck to that phrase. And he might start passing round a poem called ’21 Things My Father Never Told Me’ by somebody famous or not, and once your copy had arrived he would read it out. Or it might be a dialogue poem: things someone used to say and what you used to say back, like Michael Rosen's They said, I say. And then he might say to think of someone, close to you – could be your dad or mum, if you had one, could be your friend, your uncle, your teacher – and try something similar – X things Patsy Cline Never Told Me. Or Mum says, I say. And there might be rules this time. Like that you had to break the line before you reach the right hand edge of the paper (so it looks like most poems), and that you had to number the things. And you had 5 minutes starting NOW.
And before you know it everybody is writing so you’d better get writing so you start writing the things you would have liked your ex to have told you but she never did. Or you start writing the awful things your mum DID tell you. Or you start thinking about your nan and the things you never told her that you wish you had ... and you start to write them down. And everybody around you is writing like at school, which could put you off, but actually weirdly it doesn’t put you off because this is easy, isn’t it? You get to thing number three and then you remember the accident, and you think you should have written the things Steph said to you before that accident so you ditch the first poem and start another, and you’re up to about 11 of Steph (but there’s more) and the tutor bangs on a huge cymbal (I made that up, it’s not true) and says ‘Stop Now.’ Or maybe ‘Get to the end of the point you’re on, and then stop’.
And people sit back and look round, with slight astonishment that the room’s still there, a bit of sheepish grinning, and already that tutor is on her feet and asking for some suggestions – she wants some abstract nouns please like ‘love’ and despair’, and she’s writing them down on a flipchart down the left hand side of the sheet. People are calling out. Anxiety! Hope! Panic! Patience! Consternation! Terror! Doubt! Grief! Anticipation! Logic! Blindness! Mathematics! Art!
Stop! There’s no more room. Now concrete nouns – she wants concrete nouns like table and chair – and an indefinite article, an ‘a’. Someone calls out A carrot! A pair of specs! An octopus! A necklace! A fifty pence piece! A condom! A shopping list! A recipe! A book! A pace-maker! A handbag! A teapot! A tealeaf! A panda!
Stop! There’s no more room. So here’s the task. Choose one of the abstract nouns from the left hand column – any of them, and one of the concrete ones from the right hand column. Fit your words into the following title:
- Three Ways in which Grief is like a Shopping List.
- Three ways in which X is like a Y.
- Three Ways in which Logic is like a Teapot.
Choose your words. Write the poem. Three stanzas (obviously) for the three ways. You’ve got three minutes.
Quick, quick, what will you have which will you choose some people are already writing and two of them are chuckling quietly and the tutor’s saying it doesn’t matter what you choose because everything is like everything else just try it and you see.
So you do, and it’s sort of true and sort of not. But interesting. It’s interesting. She said three minutes but really she says STOP after at least five because the writers are writing. The writers are writing and that is the point.
Now the tutor’s asking you to write down something you read recently – it must be in the last week – or you could write down two or three things if you read a lot. You need the name of the author, that’s very important, the title of the book/poem/newspaper is less important. So everybody has a think and does that.
‘Now I want you to write down where you were when you were reading that book,’ he says. ‘If you read the book in several places, write down one place that you can see yourself reading that book in. And write down what that place was like, what you were sitting on, and what was going on round you.’
People start to scribble, and some of them look up and think, and try to remember, and tap their pens, and then start to scribble again. After a minute or so the tutor passes round a poem by Charles Wright called ‘After Reading Tu Fu I go outside to the Dwarf Orchard’. The writers settle comfortably into their seats as the rustling sheets go round, one for each person, and then the tutor reads the poem out loud. The poem is beautiful and sad and it calls quietness into the room. The space at the end of the poem opens right up and out and stretches up to the ceiling. You can hear people exhale. ‘Could somebody else read it, now?’ says the tutor. ‘It would be good to hear it in another voice.’ Immediately one of the female writers offers (not you) and you hear the poem a second time and this time it’s different. How interesting.
A little discussion emerges – people saying which are their favourite lines, and you hear yourself saying how your favourite line is ‘How deeper than elsewhere is the dusk in your own yard’. Mysteriously, round this table, people are able to say things without interrupting each other. One person says something and other people listen. And then another says something and people listen. And there’s a bit of discussion about the title too – the significance of reading inside and then going outside. But before you know it, the tutor interrupts.
‘I want you,’ he says, ‘to think back to where you were when you were reading the author you wrote down earlier’. You look back to your notes and what have you got? Oh yes, it was that new book by Charlotte Gann, Noir, and the weird poem about Mrs Coulter’s Scissors – what was THAT about? And you were reading it on the train on the way to your interview in Chester, so you were a bit nervous, which didn’t help the poem. Or maybe it did.
‘Here’s your next task,’ the tutor’s saying. Your title is ‘After Reading [substitute the name of the author that you wrote down earlier] I go outside to [substitute real place you know well]. And here are some rules:
- You must write in the present tense.
- You must go outside in the poem.
- You must have a season in the first line and no verb (like Wright’s poem)
- The poem must include one line that is a question with a question mark at the end.
- Your lines must not be longer than 11 words max.
- Poem should have three stanzas.
- You can break any of these rules.
Right: you’ve got ten minutes.
Somebody looks a little confused and says ‘Do all the lines have to be 11 words long?’ and the tutor says no, they can be any length you like so long as they aren’t LONGER than eleven words long, and already people have started writing and one of them is you.
Some time later the tutor’s voice permeates your consciousness saying you’ve got another minute, so you start to tidy up the poem, although you haven’t finished, not really. Other people are bound to be better at this than you but by this stage that doesn’t matter much because it really was interesting how you remembered about that tree in the corner of the station and the shape in the bark that caught your attention because it was really like a pair of scissors.
And the tutor’s talking about ‘read back’. Read back? Help! Are you going to have to read something out loud? She’s saying to look over all the things you’ve written that morning to see whether there’s anything you’d like to share. It could be a whole poem. It could be just the title. It could be a few lines out of something but not the whole thing. Take a few minutes, have a look, see whether you want to tidy anything up or not. So you do, and you’re not sure about this, not sure at all, though you know what you think is the best bit of what you wrote this morning, the other things were bollocks.
And the tutor’s looking around the room expectantly – and somebody chirps up – ‘I’d like to read my Three Ways in which Death is like a Teapot’ – and the tutor looks round at the flip chair and says, ‘But death wasn’t on the list’ and the writer says ‘I know’, and then she starts to read, and her poem is really funny, and one person in the room has the most infectious laugh in the world, so you’re all falling about with laughter. Then somebody else reads some things their mum never told them, and it’s really sad. And so on, until everybody has read back something, and for some the ‘something’ is long and for others the ‘something’ is just three opening lines.
And it’s time for the teabreak. It’s eleven o-clock and you can’t believe it, it’s eleven o’clock and you spill out of the writing room and into the kitchen and there’s tea and coffee and juice and so on, and a plate of freshly-baked cake (you are RAVENOUS), and some thin slices of sweet potato spiced with smoked paprika, and the sun has come out and some people are in the garden talking, and one person has wandered off on his own to the apple tree, and others have stayed in the kitchen chatting. The plate with the cake on has turned into a plate of crumbs.
I was going to give you a whole day, but I can’t. This is already too long and I’ve only got you as far as half past eleven. But just briefly, there will be another session, not unlike the one I’ve just covered, before lunch. The lunch will be self-service and it will be delicious – the smell of soup will be filling the house during the whole of the last writing exercise. And after lunch, some people will have ‘tutorials’ with the tutors and bring some of the things they wrote in the morning and talk about them, and others will go for a walk, or disappear into their rooms to write or sleep. Four people will have signed up to cook that evening (the writers take it in turn, one evening each) and they will find all the ingredients and magic instructions and have a helper to guide them through. Everybody else will arrive at seven and devour the dinner in the lovely dining room (all the dining rooms are lovely). Some wine/beer will be around as well as lots of water. And after the dinner and the washing up, there’ll be another session from 8.30-9.30 when something will happen – maybe a reading from a guest poet – maybe something from the writers themselves.
And then some people will go to sleep, or go to their rooms and write, or a little group will go out for a walk in the dark and look at the stars.
And the next day it will all happen again.
At the end of the week, you have a notebook book full of scribbling. So MUCH. So many starts and middles. You will have laughed till you cried. You may have cried till you laughed.
You will keep in touch with at least two people for a long time after the course, maybe even forever.
There is a recipe, and it works. The writers are the ingredients and they are different every time. They bring their pens and their lives.
This is the longest blog entry I have ever written because blogs should be short. It is far too long.
I want you to notice in particular that I haven’t used the word ‘amazing’, except now I have.
And here is a film about Arvon, which is also true.