May 9 17

Online Masterclass


As a part of the Songs My Enemy Taught Me book research process I have been leading a series of poetry masterclass around the UK, with the aim of empowering women to write their own stories.

At one of the masterclasses which took lace at the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury, I was reminded of how difficult it is for women, especially with young children to get be able to attend workshops. When I first launched my career as a writer of theatre each venue and credible arts project had a creche attached to them to enable women to join in, and t help develop a sense of community between mothers. These have almost all disappeared now, an so I want to look at a different way of accessing the masterclasses.

Over the next few months I will be adding resources here along with exercise guidelines to help users develop their writing. The results can be emailed to me and I will post them up along with the other poetry from masterclasses.

It is hoped that this will develop still further into Skype workshops and eventually into us all meeting at one of the book launches.

Please keep your eye on this page – and feel free to add your own exercises  too.

Writing stimuli

Start with short writing exercises using a range of stimuli for inspiration. This period is largely concerned with finding the right stimuli for you, your springboard into ideas and images that will make up the heart of their poem. All initial writing exercises should be timed, so that the participant writes in a free yet concentrated way. The exercises are unlikely to create complete poems, but are designed to release the inspiration that does lead to original and powerful work.

Writing stimuli suggestion: images

Try using images such as photos, magazine clippings or postcards as a stimulus for writing. Much depends on the image(s) you choose to use with your class, so select carefully. Choose images that portray strong and suggestive images. Once you have the image, ask yourself a series of questions: what is happening in this picture? What is happening just outside the image? What is the subject looking at? What is about to happen? Is the poem actually about the phpotographer, rather than the photograph? Try to write in a stream of consciousness without a break. You can use your associated ideas to begin work on a poem. For images go to Image Bank post in this blog.

Writing stimuli suggestion: music

Play a piece of music without words and encourage the class to write down the story of it. Encourage them to close their eyes while they listen. What happens in the music, what is it about? They may choose to simply write down a series of words that articulate the music, or images that the music evokes. They may also use the music as a template for the impersonation of sounds if they are working in rap or polyvocal poetry (see below for definition) that uses rhythm or beat box.

If using a piece of music with words: select a piece that is accompanied by strong lyrics – it is probably better to choose a track that will be unknown to the participants so they are not led by their knowledge of the performer/ band. Play the track three times and ask them to write notes as it is playing. After the third run through, ask them to continue the lyrics. You may also suggest that they change the meaning of the song, wrestle control of the poem. Once they have worked on this, they can play with making the piece independent so that it stands alone without music. They may find that they veer away from the confines of the exercise, and write a completely unrelated piece. This does not matter: the purpose is to get them to think and write. As a general note, be aware that there is more music that is lyric-based than rap or hip-hop, and you may find using a couple of clashing styles productive.

Writing stimuli suggestion: word association exercises

From a poem: read out the first line of a poem, the less well known the better. Ask the young poets to continue the poem for a set period of time, no more than 10 minutes. In the initial stages they should simply write freely and not worry too much about the structure of the poem. They should be looking for the ideas, images and original lines of poetry that will catapult them into an entirely original piece. Once they have collected a few images and sentences they can begin working on them in a more structured way. They may choose one particularly strong image/line and use that as the basis for another poem. They may choose to leave the poem as it is, and simply replace the first line.

From a newspaper/ magazine: This exercise can be approached in two ways. Either read out the whole of an article (remembering to select one that is in some way connected to the theme of ‘respect’) asking them to write a response to or continuation of it, or ask them to summarise the article in a poem. Once they have done this, encourage them to inhabit the poem, to give it a name and body, a personality. See ‘Method Writing’, below.

Writing stimuli suggestion: method writing

This is an exercise aimed at encouraging you to inhabit an issue-based poem. For example, you may consider a case in the news, or any other issue that you think is relevant to your students. Once you have made notes on the case write a poetic interpretation of it. Once you have done that, try to imagine that you are the subject of the news story. What does it feel like? What can you see? What does it taste, feel, and smell like? Is there anybody else there? The questions are infinite. Good writing is in the detail: it helps the listener/ reader to recognise the humanity of the poem and can therefore make it a more dynamic piece. It gives a face to the issue, the argument.

Canto Life Story

A canto (a sung poem, a chant) poem is essentially the principal divisions in a long poem. For Songs My Enemy Taught Me I imagined the Canto form as a film, split into pivotal scenes. Some of these scenes are relatively long, whilst others are two lines in length. What unifies all the scenes in my piece is that they are visually based.

To write your own Canto based piece around your life story, try this:

Write down no more than 10 scenes from your life. Time the writing so that you allow no more than 5 minutes for each visually based scene – try to see these pivotal moments in your life as though you were looking through the lens of a camera. Within 50 minutes you will have drafted a couple of pages of those moments you feel were stepping stones to becoming who you are now. Now, select half of the scenes to develop further – and remember at all times that ‘developing’ does not necesessarily mean ‘writing more’. It means refining, making exact. Does the scene have enough colour in it? Can you smell the air? Can the meaning, the moment, be relayed with fewer words? I often use sketching as a way of drawing out the poetic images within a piece, and it’s a good tool to have at your disposal.

Once you have the scenes ( the canto parts) that you want to string together in your poem, see if there is a central theme emerging. In Songs My Enemy Taught Me the central metaphor is that of war, which reflects not only the continuing violence exacted against women worldwide  but my personal experience of sexual abuse at the hands of men in uniform. Once you have a theme that is peculiar to your own experience you may find that it inspires a rewriting of the smaller scenes in the poem, so that they flow together and make a kind of rational sense.