On Cliff Yates’ Poetry Workshop

‘Whenever I work with people – no matter what their age – I try to run a checklist through my mind: are these people investigating, discovering, inventing and cooperating? They don’t have to be doing all four all the time, but is this event, this process, this ‘workshop’ involving at least one of these? In an ideal moment, it’ll be all four. What can I do to increase the amount of whichever one of the four is not happening here? In my experience, things start to happen when all four take place in a group of people.’  Michael Rosen, from the Foreword of Born Creative (Demos).

Reading Michael Rosen’s Foreword to Born Creative this week reminded me of what it felt like to be a participant in Cliff Yates’ workshop at the first Poetry Matters seminar. All four of the elements that Michael describes were happening in the workshop, sometimes all at once, as he says, at others in a more discreet way. To be in the workshop felt joyful, energising, entertaining and demanding. And yet, as I described it later that evening to Myra Barrs in the restaurant, it also felt, in the best possible way, mysterious.

By this I don’t mean that Cliff was in any way playing to the ‘Romantic poet’ archetype, as though to merely hang on his every word would inspire us to be creative. I mean that the combination of very clear writing exercises, the range of poems Cliff read to us and Cliff’s patience and use of silence worked to create a space that felt intensely good to be in, to borrow a phrase of Philip Gross.

I was particularly struck by the way Cliff waited for participants to read their work at the end of each exercise. This was not reading round or taking turns, but more organic and, I think, risky. By leaving the space open for participants to share, rather than setting rules and expectations about who would follow who, Cliff showed us that if you wait long enough someone will usually fill the silence with writing that really matters to them.

Looking back at the work I produced that afternoon I do think there were two instances when my writing dropped down to a different level of engagement. I noticed that the second of these pieces was right at the end of the workshop, when I felt most tired and thought I had used up my last ounce of energy. I wonder if the creative unconscious does indeed have resources of its own that the conscious mind is not fully aware of. To use a phrase you often hear at readings, it was as though the poem ‘wrote itself’ or ‘wrote itself in spite of me’. In truth, I have always baulked at phrases such as these.

Cliff’s workshop has prompted me to re-evaluate my own creative processes, and to think about what can be learned from instances such as this in the context of public education.

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