As I say in my previous blog post, I owe my knowledge of ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ to the great Cliff Yates, specifically his marvellous book of teaching poetry and poetry writing Jumpstart (Poetry Society, 1999). Which means I took it seriously. He quotes the poem in full on page 6, in a section titled ‘What is Poetry?’
Cliff follows it up in the book with Ian McMillan’s ‘Sonny Boy Williamson is Trying to Cook a Rabbit in a Kettle’ and Wendy Cope’s ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ both of which, like Raworth’s, are playful with language, syntax and meaning. Not least among their pleasures is their explicit questioning of what a poem should do and be. (Jumpstart contains a great short piece by Raworth on his poem and the sequence it comes from which is well worth reading.)
Fool that I was and stung by Foal Failure I took in these poems to the class of nine and ten-year olds I was working with at the time. I had considered ‘Birth of the Foal’ to be a banker of a poem in the classroom. There was no way it could fail. It failed dismally. I had nothing left to lose.
The riot I expected never happened. I am not saying the lessons we did on ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′, Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ were comfortable or easy, but I will go to my grave knowing those children engaged with them in a way that surprised and delighted me, taking us all into a place of deep discussion and debate I would not have thought possible.
The poems they wrote arising from these discussions were some of the most challenging I have read anywhere, by anybody. Overnight they transformed themselves into the most avant-garde group of writers I have worked with.
I spend a lot of my time reflecting on what we mean by ‘signs of progress’ in the creative work of young writers. I spend just as much time reflecting on what this looks like in the work of beginner teachers. One of my very tentative conclusions goes something like this: it is about risk. Now we can debate for the next ten years what we mean by this, so I am going to use a very narrow definition here to explain what I mean by risk in this instance. I take it to mean the capacity to proceed along a line of action (teaching, writing) knowing at any moment the whole thing could collapse around you but proceeding anyway in good faith with resilience and joy and tenacity. The poets I am drawn to (Jean Sprackland, Peter Carpenter, Andy Brown, Siân Hughes, Ann Gray, Deryn Rees-Jones, Christopher Southgate, Michael Laskey) do this time and again in their poems. Like the geese in Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’, I have the feeling they will die for it, to get to the place where they do not wholly know what they are doing.
In simple terms ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ saved my life one spring afternoon in a classroom in Exeter because it gave to me much more than I had dared hope possible. But it was more than that of course. Everything was suddenly on the line. I had nothing left to lose.
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970
Tom Raworth (from Jumpstart, ed. Cliff Yates, Poetry Society, 1999)
I have just come back from the Greenbelt Festival where I was delighted to give a talk about writing poetry on the Small Talks Big Ideas programme. The idea behind these talks is that each presenter is asked to speak for strictly ten minutes on a subject about which they are passionate.
Subjects ranged from: Is God a Woman/Muslim/Jewish/Gay/an Evangelical? to How to: kill a chicken/curate an art exhibition/be a DJ/develop children’s spirituality/find rhythms of grace.
There were no interruptions and no questions, just speaking from the heart. Every talk was filmed and so will gain another life after the festival once it is uploaded onto the Greenbelt website, TED-talks style.
You can listen to a recording I have made of my talk, and download the script of the talk below. My main point was that to write poetry you have to read it. Lots of it. Here is how I concluded my talk, with some hard-won top tips:
- Keep a notebook for writing down what you notice and what you hear, especially what you notice. This is much more important than writing down what you feel.
- Write at predetermined times. For example, decide to write while you are running a bath (and only then). Or set your alarm clock half an early for a week and write in the pre-verbal silence of the morning.
- Write in uncomfortable places, such as a moving bus, or a supermarket queue, or traffic lights, or in a place where your native tongue is not spoken.
- Write in the dark.
- Write in the voices of others, such as a stone, a painting or one of Picasso’s wives.
- Translate poems from other languages (you do not need to know the said language to do this).
- Write with your eyes closed.
- Join a writers’ group. Show other people your work. Listen to any advice you are given. Give others feedback on their work.
- Send your work to magazines and to friends.
- Order poetry books from your local library. It is your responsibility to train them to buy it in.
- Delete the first three lines and the last three lines of the first drafts of your poems. And finally and above all:
- Listen to any advice you are given.
Finally here is some advice for evaluating the poems you write:
When you have written a poem and have worked on it with seriousness and delight and energy, giving to the poem everything you feel is possible, including taking everything out of it which does not belong there –ask yourself these questions:
- Is what you have written surprising to you?
- Is there something about your writing you do not fully understand?
- Have you actually made something?
- Is the poem built with the body, the mind and the dream?
- Does your writing take the reader to a place which is different from where she began?
- Does your poem in some way give credence to the possibility of the miraculous?
Your answer should be ‘Yes’ to each one.
You can download the full script of my talk here: How to Write a Poem_Greenbelt 2012_Anthony Wilson
You can listen to the talk here:
I met Jean Sprackland in 2000, somewhere in the bowels of the Poetry Society in London. We were meeting to discuss a project we later called Poetryclass, a training programme for teachers wanting to make more of poetry in their practice. We shared some ideas, had a coffee and a good giggle, and have carried on like that, on and off, ever since.
I quickly learned that Jean is generous with her time and ideas and that she is kind. She is the best of teachers. And if you are reading this you will already know that she is an amazing poet.
Later that day I went up the London Eye for the first time. I connect the two events, corny as it may sound, because reading Jean’s poems provokes in me that same feeling of giddiness, excitement and wonder at being shown the known world from completely unexpected angles.
As with most of my friends who are poets, I see Jean once a century. We gossip and natter, as you do. We will talk about who we are reading, which poets we are looking out for, that kind of thing. But we rarely speak about our own writing. (I have a very unscientific hunch that we are not alone in this).
However, Jean did say two things to me about writing, a good while ago now, and I think they may permanently have changed me. Her first statement came as I was congratulating her for winning the Costa Award for Tilt, saying how great it was, how layered and strange and evocative and how happy she must be to have her work recognised in this way. But she cut me off. ’It doesn’t mean anything, not in the end, Anthony. All we ever have is the process.’
The other comment of Jean’s I go back to and savour is this (made as an aside during a discussion about teaching poetry writing, I seem to remember): ‘When I am writing I am only happy when I have no idea what I am doing’.
These have become touchstones for me. I use them to help me make judgements about how far I am committed to the process of writing the thing that is at hand, and how consciously controlling I am about the same.
I thought about these things driving home late on the motorway two weeks ago, as Jean’s voice came out of the car radio, reading from her marvellous new book Strands. The passage we listened to concerned Jean’s attempts to make a recording, under cover of darkness, of the extremely loud and distinctive mating call of the Natterjack toad on the beach near Southport. Like talking to Jean it was life-affirming, full of deft touches of observation, and funny, in the best way possible.
The Birkdale Nightingale
(Bufo calamito – the Natterjack toad)
On Spring nights you can hear them
two miles away, calling their mates
to the breeding place, a wet slack in the dunes.
Lovers hiding nearby are surprised
by desperate music. One man searched all night
for a crashed spaceship.
For amphibians, they are terrible swimmers:
where it’s tricky to get ashore, they drown.
By day, they sleep in crevices under the boardwalk,
run like lizards from cover to cover
without the sense to leap when a gull snaps.
Yes, he can make himself fearsome,
inflating his lungs to double his size.
But cars on the coast road are not deterred.
She will lay a necklace of pearls in the reeds.
Next morning, a dog will run into the water and scatter them.
Or she’ll spawn in a footprint filled with salt rain
that will dry to a crust in two days.
Still, when he calls her and climbs her
they are well designed. The nuptial pads on his thighs
velcro him to her back. She steadies beneath him.
The puddle brims with moonlight.
Everything leads to this.
Jean Sprackland, from Tilt (Jonathan Cape, 2007)
In particular we drew attention to the difference the project made to pupils’ confidence and to changes in practice in participating schools.
You can read the outline of our talk below.
Click here to view a video about the work of Bath Festivals’ education projects, including the Write Team.
Click here to download the full research report on the Write Team project.