Let me tell you about gates…
Last year, I was lucky enough to attend a poetry writing workshop hosted by Derbyshire County Council. They do quite a lot of these types of workshops – always enjoyable and a great opportunity to meet fellow writers and have a good chin-wag about writerly kind of things. This particular one was hosted by three wonderful poets: Jeremy Duffield, Cathy Grindrod and Wayne Burrows.
The workshop left a lasting impression on me for two reasons. One, Wayne Burrows is the editor of a wonderful Nottingham based poetry magazine, ‘Staple’, and he gave me some really constructive feedback on my poems. Secondly, I learnt something about the importance of perception and interpretation in writing, something I thought I knew, but I didn’t truly understand it. It was one of those lightbulb moments, which is like the sun setting in your soul and coming to rest in a place it knows it belongs.
Anyway… let me explain. Jeremy asked us all to write a poem, in 5 minutes, which should begin: ‘Let me tell you about gates’ … yes, that’s what I thought too! I’m not used to writing from another person’s idea, and within a certain time, so I was thrown into momentary panic, before realising that momentary panic would eat into my writing time… it was like school exams all over again. But I dug deep (being given no other choice and not wanting to look like a fool) and wrote this:
Let me tell you about gates
because they won’t tell you about themselves.
They won’t tell you but they will show you
in oh, so many ways.
Open me up, this one says,
Come in, Come in.
Close me up, says another
as it nestles low beneath the long grass.
Chip, Chip, Chip, says another.
Caw, Caw, says another
or was that a crow flying overhead?
But the one near pebble beach
says none of these things.
She stands ajar, rope dangling
from her rusty shoulder, wrenched
into an inch of mud
and waits for someone to come and try
to slide her open a little more.
Then she will say, Hi, Hi and let you in,
across the dry sand, wind blown,
beyond the pebbles cranked together,
snuffled up against the wind,
past the tin can rattle
and out towards the waves,
towards the white frayed edge that says,
Come in, Come in, Come in.
So how did these words come about? Why these? They were inspired by the lasting impression of a deserted pebble beach, and the journey to it, that I made two or three times a day on a holiday in Wales the year before. They came from a personal experience, one that was so strong, that under pressure, it was this that sprang to mind. This brought home to me just how important it is to absorb what is around you, and how, as if by magic, these moments reappear when you most need them. Our writing is not only what we create from our imaginations, but what we have experienced and stored away in the treasure chests of our minds, and in our hearts. Because, most of all, I think it’s the feelings and sense of place or experience, that stick. Also, on reflection , I realised that this poem could be read on many levels. I have a real affinity with the sea, possibly as a water sign, and feel quite haunted by its rhythms, all of which I think are subconsciously reflected in this poem, even in its form – something I wasn’t conscious of at the time.
What I also found interesting, is that not one person in the room – I guess there were around 12 of us – dealt with this subject matter in the same way. Some took it literally, to be about gates. Some took a wider view of the historical nature of gates and architecture, others took gates to be ‘Gates’, a person. Our differences in perception and interpretation hit home to me in a way they never had before – how we all carried our own voice, how we all spoke from somewhere deep within us, both consciously and subconsciously, and how that somewhere was so different for each ot us. And yet, we were all able to step back and admire one another’s efforts. It truly was a lightbulb moment for me.
But there was another thing too – I also learnt something about myself. When I read my poem out to the group, Jeremy made a comment which stuck with me. He said it was interesting that I had written about gates as a way of letting people in, when most people thought of gates as shutting something off, or keeping people out. It made me realise that it said a lot more about me than I had thought, and that maybe I had let people in even more than I intended… in a silly old poem about gates!
Have you ever had a similar experience through a writing workshop? Or have you ever had a lightbulb moment about writing, or yourself, through your writing, that has stuck with you?
I’ll start by saying poetry isn’t really my thing. I’ve been to a few poetry workshops and I always found them to be strange affairs and my resulting poetry was always a bit crap. On the other hand, I rather like your poem, and I love the image of the beach and the sea – I’m imagining it wintery and wind swept. And that’s how I often get the seed of an idea for a novel; with an image. A feeling. So maybe there is something poetic, deep, deep down, that’s informing some of my writing. Shh, though, don’t tell anyone or they’ll think I’ve gone soft.
As the footie fanatics say…. OH YES! GET IN! Your perceptions are quite accurate here Dan, although it was Summer, it was a blustery, cool Summer, and the beach was incredibly windy and exposed. I love that these ideas, moments and impressions are often where our writing begins – I find that too… you see, there is a poet in you… promise I won’t tell 😉
Abi, I really like you’re poem – I find it very accessible. I’m not big into poetry myself (lyrics and rhyming them are more my thing). It occurs to me now that I’m not drawn to poetry because it often seems pretentious to me – people talking in a way and with words they think are poetry-type words that communicate their sophistication and mastery of language but that maybe masks the real heart of what they are thinking and who they really are. I wonder if becasue of the time pressure you produced something less processed, less sophisticated even, that was a clearer window to your soul (hark at me going all flowery and poetic!). I particularly like your joke in the middle – I bet you wondered about keeping that in? But that tells me just as much about your character as the rest of it. I like the unguarded humanity of it. It puts me in mind of Christmas day: I have a friend who invites loads of people over on Christmas morning for a drink and a chin-wag. Before we leave we sing an few carols together. She is a good keyboard player who prefers to play by ear than read the dots, but the formal introductions to carols seem to catch her out and there are some inevitable ‘Les Dawson’ moments, just as we are about to open our mouths to sing – which creases everyone up. It happens every year and I love it (she knows I love it) and she laughs as loud as anyone. I love it because I delight in the humanity of mistakes and what they reveal about people – you find out a lot about someone in how they respond to their own mistakes and for many people that is quite charming. I’m not saying that there are any mistakes in your poem but you were pushed closer to that space by being put under pressure and so, I feel, your humanity was reviled in a similar way.
But back to your questions: Yes, I have had similar experiences where I was put under pressure to produce something and what came out with something unexpected. But my experiences weren’t in writing workshops but in ‘workshops’ more connected with my faith [ which I know you don’t share ;o) ]. In fact my story of ‘The Dog’ was a very personal expression of me owning my own life experience that I wrote towards the end of an internship I served with a counselling charity in Atlanta. The power of a parable so inspired me that it gave me the impetus to go on to write six more.
I agree that hearing the take of others on a subject can help me value my own response more, as in isolation it’s easy to feel that “my idea is obvious and it’s what anyone would come up with”. Only when I see the spectrum of possibilities do I realise that my own idea has real merit.
Thanks Abi, Another great blog.
Martin, I love your comments! You are right, there’s something so fresh and raw about the first words, and I think this is especially so in poetry. It’s a funny thing too, because some just seem to appear in their complete state, while others, as you say, are fiddled with and perfected to a point where sometimes the initial energy is lost. My favourite poets are those whose writing has that raw edge – people like Leonard Cohen, Spike Milligan and Matt Black – who is the new Derbyshire Poet Laureate. Ultimately, I want a poem to move me in an unexpected way, I think. I love your story about the Christmas sing-song – I can just imagine it, and I know exactly what you mean about our flaws revealing who we really are. People can be too guarded, too proud and take themselves too seriously. I like people to peel back the layers and let you in… maybe THIS was the real meaning of the poem!
Hi Abi! I have definitely had a lightbulb moment in relation to poetry, and in that moment I felt I had actually learnt something in 5 minutes that had alluded me for the previous 5 or 10 years of adolescent ramblings. It was a response to a poem I posted online nearly 20 years ago. And it burnt itself into my memory. It went like this:
All is lost to darkness
now hidden is the path to find
dry is the river of knowledge
despair is sublime
hope is abandoning
and in it’s place leaves fear
for all was lost to darkness
when the light was near.
The response I received:
> All is lost to darkness
“need a night light then?”
> now hidden is the path to find
“watch out for the otterman”
> dry is the river of knowledge
“and the plains of wisdom are suffering a drought too”
> despair is sublime
> hope is abandoning
“well that’s not very nice of her”
> and in it’s place leaves fear
“and the shrubberies are quaking”
> for all was lost to darkness
“yes, you said that”
> when the light was near
“when was that, exactly?”
Hahaha – needless to say, after that my poetry improved, even if only a little, and even if only for a little while 😉
btw I have a real thing about the sea and bodies of water too and have written poems about them a few times. They are a subject that is just ‘there’ always.
Wow! That is brilliant! What a response for you to receive. This is one of the reasons I love comments – they really are instructive and just reveal how much we can learn from one another. You’re a water sign too aren’t you?… kindred water spiritis you see – we have a natural affinity with water. Glad you enjoyed the poem too Dean x
Interesting you should post this today. I was in a writing workshop yesterday and we were given a prompt about climbing trees – and off I went in a piece about an old oak tree in the forest near where I live. It is over a thousand years old, Henry VIII hunted wild boar beneath its branches and the Civil War raged close by, and now it stands alongside a cricket pitch, supervising a much more civilised (if mysterious) contest. It’s wonderful where these prompts take you – and thanks for sharing yours.
We are in sync again Jo! It is lovely where these prompts take us isn’t it? It just shows how much we squirrel away in our minds and possibly wouldn’t use if it wasn’t for someone bringing it out! Thanks too Jo.
I love your poem. Even though you are not after compliments for it, I thought it was really beautiful and it took me straight to the beach and my own memories. And of course you are 100% right about our writing being informed by our own personal experiences – but also how it works in reverse; that we are informed about ourselves by what we write. Writing is therapeutic – a gateway to our subconscious – but then you know that. Thanks for a great post.
You are so right Wendy – a gateway into our subconscious – you’ve hit the nail on the head beautifully! So glad you liked it!
What a great post. What you did that day is something that would terrify me. Writing to a prompt within a set time period And in a room full of people who were then going to hear what was written! You are so brave.
I thought exactly the same thing as I read it, that it was about letting people in. There were no closed images for me. What a lovely image to have reflected back at you by someone listening.
Ah, thank you Rebecca. That’s lovely to know that you picked up on those elements. Now I look at it, I wonder I didn’t see it at the time, but I really didn’t – that’s how the subconscious works for you I guess – full of surprises!
Wonderful post! I love the poem, very evocative of my time at beaches too. And of course the mention of the crow makes it all the more appealing. I’ve never been to a writer’s workshop, but I’ve considered it from time to time, and this post encourages me to give one a try!
I thought you’d be able to relate to this Julia as a beach and crow lover. I would definitely recommend trying a workshop – a bit scary at first, but I’ve found I’ve learnt something new at every one, and often learnt things about myself and my writing that have stayed with me and informed other things I’ve done. Great to get together with other writers too.
Your poem is wonderful, Abi. I love the imagery it conjures up and the journey it takes you on, down to the water’s edge. I was right there, taking every step with you. I like how the gate is female, too – it feels just right, somehow.
We’re very lucky to have access to writers such as Cathy, Jeremy and Wayne. They’re so supportive and talented! I didn’t go to the poetry workshop, but have been to others and I always enjoy them. And It’s really interesting that everyone’s poems turned out differently. With my writing group (which, incidentally, was set up by Cathy!), we always start sessions by picking a word out of a box and writing for 5 minutes on the theme of whatever word’s been chosen. It’s fascinating to see how different the end results are.
Thanks Emma, glad you liked the poem. The beach was wonderful, one of those places I can still close my eyes and be transported to. Yes, we are lucky to have access to all these workshops and such talented writers. I can honestly say I learn something at every one.
He’s right. You’re an open person, and I picked that up in our early Twitter convos. 🙂
Abi, your poem is so beautiful I could weep. For joy, though. You are truly a gifted writer. I find it remarkable that such a sophisticated poem surfaced in a situation like that. (I don’t really write my best under pressure). It says much about our subconscious. What I’ve learned from your experience is to be more observant and take nothing for granted.
I’m also going to take a leaf out of your book and start attending writing workshops when I can. Lots to learn. 🙂
Nadine, I’m really touched by this response. Thank you so much. I’m so pleased you like the poem. It’s taken me years to start airing these and I’m now so glad I have. I think you’ll love the workshop experience – they really are eye openers to ourselves, and to how other writers work and think too. Thanks so much for reading and commenting x
P.S. I’m a water sign too. 🙂
Yay! We water signs are all swimming in the same sea, Nadine 🙂