Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom; I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.
I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools. Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”). And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.
And yet, why do we read poetry? Well, for enjoyment, of course. And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group. Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.
Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective, a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem. With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with“Working late, the scientist Fills his lab with sparks, eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton. Kind of tangy.”
For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that. However, some of the students’ responses were lovely: Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote“The girl swims slowly Big arcing movements of her arms Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”
Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops Below an animal limps across the road A dog? A cat? A fox? The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”
Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity. I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard. To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s lovely poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”. Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text. I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology. All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes: you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.
So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs. We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank. For example, with Vikings, we came up with:
Long ships Sails Shields Mead Sagas
Hats with horns Horned helmets Swords battle-axes Pigtails
Ginger beards Storm Fjords Fiery funerals
Gruel Seas France – Normandy
A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting: you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back. You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.
Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”. It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil. As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.
So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like
|Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland. They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes. They told stories they called sagas about these events.|
Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow ”essential”. The poetic way, though, is to get rid of all those little words in red to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea. With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:“Viking long ships Through stormy seas From fjord homes Invading Scotland Swords and axes For locals On beaches Sagas to be told.”
I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses. Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than half an hour.
So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic. In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language which means most to them from a topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response. Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully. Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.
And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective. We looked at simple items that might be found on a nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective / Subjective” column. After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least two informative details and two emotional details. With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:“ A fragile piece Of weather bleached calcium It’s tiny brain cavity Empty sockets And beak All that is left Of what it once was A feathered, flighted beauty, Built for tearing flesh.”
Again, many of the students outdid me. Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:“On the ground broken, discarded A small cracked egg lies on its own once a house to a new walk of life. Or is it now dead? A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”
What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing. This poem didn’t exist. Now look at what you’ve done. That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years. And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy. In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal
A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon? Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions. I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience. And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.
A really good reading event at The Scottish Writers’ Centre in the CCA last night. Lots of Gaelic was on the bill; as I’ve said before, I don’t understand the language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy listening to it. Perhaps it’s the musicality of the rhythms, but I think readers in Gaelic are generally much more proficient that readers in English, with beautiful changes of pace and tone and register. The Gaelic group run by Catriona Lexy Campbell – which seems to be thriving – has prepared work for this event on the theme of glass. Campbell herself reads a gorgeous poem which is just as effective in English. Other star performers are Maureen Macleod and, especially, Alison Lang, who reads a story about a grandfather with a love of Sherlock Holmes with real verve. Lovely too to see some Gaelic drama in progress.
But the readers in English are great too. Douglas Thompson, a novelist and prose writer, reads some poems themed on Glasgow weather just to prove he can write across genres; wish I could, I can’t write poetry to save myself. He’s witty and perceptive and gets tons of laughs.
It’s always a pleasure to hear J. David Simons, a writer I respect and a thoroughly nice bloke. His coming of age tale of typing lessons in 1919 Poland is really lovely, with pin sharp characterisation and beautiful detail, and it’s read with a gentle authority. Of course, the novel I’ve been wrestling with for six years is set in the same time and place, and it’s always disheartening to hear other people do it better than me. Such is life.
As for myself, I read an extract from “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, a story which is due to be published in New York gay literary magazine “Chelsea Station” later this month. I decided to try it without the crutch of a script tonight; I find I rarely refer to a script anyway, and it gets in the way, so, given I only had time for a five minute extract which was heavily edited from the original anyway, I thought I’d just stand there and tell the story. Other than one moment when the neurons almost failed to connect, it all went pretty well, and I was surprised at how easy it was. My shocking American accent didn’t seem to be too off-putting either, and it’s always nice to be able to say things like “She has nipples like coins of strawberry mousse” in public and not be slapped.
So it seemed to go well. David Manderson – another great writer and good guy – reckons I should tour New York with it and become a gay icon. Mmm… we’ll see…
I’ll be reading at the Scottish Writers Centre SpeakEasy, a members only event, on Thursday 19th July. I’ve been really busy lately, so it’s my first visit to this great new initiative to support Scottish writing. I’m looking forward to it, especially as it’s held at the CCA, one of my favourite Glasgow venues. The line up looks interesting, with a healthy dose of Gaelic writers – and even some Gaelic drama! – on the bill.
Gaelic Drama: ‘Daolag’ (‘Bug’)
Reading: DOUGLAS THOMPSON – 3 Poems
Reading: J. DAVID SIMONS ‘PALESTINE 1919 – DECISIONS, DECISIONS’ [extract from novel, The Land Agent, forthcoming (Five Leaves, 2014)]
Reading from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; DAVID EYRE, ALISON LANG
Reading: RAYMOND SOLTYSEK, ‘The Beauty that Brendan Sees’
Reading: ANGELA BLACKLOCK-BROWN – 3 Poems
Readings from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; MAUREEN MACLEOD, CATRIONA LEXY CAMPBELL
Reading: JACQUELINE SMITH, ‘Dumbie & the Devil’
I’ll read an extract from the story about to be published in “Chelsea Station”. It requires three accents - New York, French and Russian – so we’ll see how badly that goes!
A terrific evening, and Graham Fulton reminds me why he’s one of my favourite Scottish poets. He’s been writing like a demon since leaving his job at the beginning of the year, and his work has become funnier, cleverer and more mature than ever. Stunning stuff.
Most of the readings are new and will probably appear in future collections. What I’ve always admired about his work is his instamatic quality: like Edwin Morgan, he has a terrific eye for the minutiae of existence. That has now been tempered with a contemplative quality that makes his work much deeper than when I worked with him in Paisley Writers’ Group. Thus, a hilarious poem about an untied shoelace is actually a reverie about growing older; a punk lads’ night out at the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley (God, I remember the Silver Thread!) is a paean to nostalgia, to friendship. Many of the readings have that look over the shoulder at encroaching time that makes guys of our age (Graham is a few months younger than me) shift uncomfortably in our seats.
Of course, I recognise so much of what he writes about, given that , as a Barrhead boy, I know Paisley almost as well as he does; the pangs of recognition are like welcome taps on the shoulder. I also, though, recognise the characters he writes about: the wee old woman who embarrasses lads out watching a Scotland match in the pub by talking about her pet dog she had put to sleep that morning; the neds who beat up Graham as he weaved his way homeward on his 40th birthday; the stony faced policeman who commandeers a bus and makes everyone feel guilty just by being there.
It’s not surprising that Graham’s aesthetic is visual: like one of my other favourite Scottish poets, Gerry Cambridge, Graham is a talented photographer, of the urban rather than the natural world. I’m delighted when I win second place in the raffle and carry off, amongst other goodies, a copy of “The Ruin of Poltalloch”, a booklet of poetry and glorious black and white photographs of Poltalloch House near Kilmartin. That quality extends into the way he captures images of people. One lovely poem about a guided ghost tour of Paisley, “Jim the Witch”, has absolutely recognisable gallus wee lassies putting their oar in and punters staggering alarmed out of pubs to see what all the ghostly commotion is about.
Another pamphlet on offer tonight is an epic, “The Zombie Poem”, a thesis on life and undeath prompted by being turned down as an extra for Brad Pitt’s recent “World War Z” Glasgow shoot. He reads a couple of related poems, but I read the poem itself quickly before the reading starts, and it’s brilliant, lines jumping out of the page that speak directly to me at my age and in the place and time I am:“It’s a way of being content with the art of being alive, regret, bad choices, directions you can’t undo, commas in the wrong place, i before e except after c, words you can’t go back to…”
Graham reads practically non-stop for more than an hour, and there isn’t a dull moment. Stabs of recognition, lots of laughs, driving rhythms, pin-sharp images and characters – Graham is at his absolute best, and his best is quite brilliant.
Many congratulations to John Burnside, who has just won the Forward Prize for his poetry collection “Black Cat Bone“.
John is a truly gorgeous writer. All his poetry collections, his memoir “A Lie About My Father” and his fiction are must-have additions to any bookshelf.
He gave me advice a few years ago on starting out on my novel, and I’ve always been proud to know him. He’s great company: he was very gracious when we bumped into each other at the very swanky Mayor’s reception at the Gothenburg Book Far in 2004, and has always been very supportive of my work whenever we’ve met, which isn’t often enough for my liking.
I’m delighted by his success; he deserves much, much more. If he values such baubles as Poet Laureate or Scottish Makar, then he should be a shoe-in for those titles. I love his work.