As poets and poetry educators my partner Nicola Bowery and I have a passion for bringing people to poetry. We’ve been running our PoetryAlive weekends here in Braidwood (with occasional forays into Berry and Sydney) for almost ten years now and so it seemed to like a good time to take stock of what we’ve been doing, have a look at how the model works and examine what makes it different if not a bit unique.
– by Harry Laing
I was lucky enough to meet John Moat the co-founder of the Arvon Foundation, (the biggest UK based operator of short creative writing courses) in the late 80’s. As an apprentice poet I benefited hugely from John’s expert mentoring. He was and is a consummate teacher of creative writing and the book he co-authored with John Fairfax, The Way To Write, is a classic of the genre. John began the Arvon Foundation in 1968 so that he could put his teaching ideas into practice. He quickly won over a sceptical Ted Hughes to his cause and, from small beginnings, Arvon now runs five full-time centres offering four-day courses all year round. John Moat’s experience partly inspired us to start PoetryAlive – to offer a space where people could live as writers, if only for a few days in a peaceful country place and discover what they really needed to write.
We decided early on, however, that the 4 day/ 5 night model of an Arvon course was too difficult for most people to commit to and we settled on a weekend format: Friday to Sunday afternoon. This has proved successful with an average group size of 6-8 and many participants coming back multiple times. So what brings them back?
From the beginning we wanted to ‘immerse’ people in poetry, both reading and writing it – rather a different approach to the Arvon Foundation which is almost totally focused on the writing. We feel we have something to offer to anyone interested in poetry whether they’re published poets or beginners and that people benefit from being exposed to a wide range of poetry, that it helps not only with their writing but perhaps nudges them into being more ‘serious’ readers. People often complain it’s so hard to find good quality poetry – bookshops stock so little and where to start online? This is something we can remedy with a fairly large collection of individual works and anthologies. We do keep searching for new quality work (or new to us at least) going to poetry festivals, trawling through magazines and generally being on the lookout on the internet for reviews etc.
It’s probably worth declaring here that we both feel a bit distanced from what you could call the more ‘arid’ trend in contemporary poetry where there doesn’t seem to be much of substance below the surface glitter. It might not be fashionable to say it but we respond most strongly to poetry that comes from a more passionate place (and passion can be quietly expressed!), that feels like it needs to have been written and expresses the writer’s distinctive sensibility. What makes this poem stand out? What’s arresting and surprising about it? Which is not to say we don’t love playful, whimsical or humorous poems! We make sure we offer a really broad range of work to participants. Then perhaps they can begin to discover what makes their own voices individual.
So, how does the format of the weekend go? On the Friday night after dinner we hand round what we call a ‘snackpack’ of ten or so strong poems selected to stimulate, challenge and excite. (Just for interest, the most recent snack pack featured Jane Williams, Alice Oswald, Lynette Roberts, Ko-un, Joan Margarit, Joshua Mehigan, Philip Levine and Jane Baker). We suggest that over the weekend participants ‘travel with a poem’ that especially resonates, perhaps hunt out more of that poet’s work and share their response with the group.
Saturday is the day for getting down to work – we read a quote or two about the poetry process and a couple of poems from the snackpack to create an atmosphere. Of possibility, hopefully! We then introduce a writing exercise and over the weekend there’ll be several of these plus a couple of writing games. Participants are invited to share what they’ve written, if they want to, if not that’s fine. There might be some discussion around that. If it’s a decent day people love going outside to write and we encourage it as a great way of tuning into themselves and shifting some of the mind-clutter. Before lunch I run a voice session aimed at helping develop confidence in performing work in public by learning some basic breathing and relaxing techniques. This session includes group chants and one-on-one voice coaching.
The weekend continues with participants having time to develop pieces and also to discuss their reactions to the poetry we’re offering. We make it clear at the outset we’re not interested so much in what a poem might mean as to the effect it has on the reader. Often people have been turned off poetry at school by having to analyse it critically that they need gentle coaxing back to a more emotional, instinctive response. We do encourage strong opinions and want to know how a poem has affected someone the way it has. Does it excite? Does it turn them off?
Saturday night is a time for a bit of a relax and fun. We cook the dinner and trust there’ll be help with washing up. It’s usually a festive time and there have been some great recitations over the years.
Sunday is a day for consolidation and further exploration. We hope that on the Sunday afternoon (i.e. the end of the weekend) participants will read out a piece they’ve worked on and make sure they have enough time to polish this. We also run an editing session on Sunday morning where a brave soul has offered up a poem in progress and we then analyse where it’s working and where it needs some attention. This is an illuminating exercise for most people who are not used to drafting a poem in any concerted way. Sunday finishes with a sharing of work and afternoon tea.
So what are the special ingredients of a PoetryAlive weekend? One of the most important is the setting. We run the majority of them out here at Geebung, our 115 acre property 17 kms from Braidwood. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place bordering Monga National Park and offers a spaciousness people rarely encounter in their daily (mostly urban lives.) Another critical ingredient is our enthusiasm to share poetry with others. Time and again we see how surprised and delighted people are to encounter poets and sensibilities they resonate with. Often they will follow this up by buying that poet’s collection or an anthology we’ve recommended.
We feel strongly about trying to rebuild a serious readership for poetry as well as encouraging people to write it. And we’d like to think our immersions in poetry here at Geebung contribute to that in a small way.
Forthcoming PoetryAlive weekends include: September 6-8th at Berrara and November 15-17th at Geebung, Braidwood