Poetry writing workshops
We hope you enjoy this series of three workshops created by award-winning poet Helen Mort.
Helen says: ‘When designing these workshops for Mslexia, I decided to pass on some of the strategies I have found useful when redrafting my own work. I hope you find them helpful too!’
HELEN MORT’s first collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus), was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the T S Eliot Prize and won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. She is a five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007. In 2014 she was named as a Next Generation poet by the Poetry Book Society. Her forthcoming collection No Map Could Show Them (also Chatto) is a PBS Recommendation. You can read an interview with Helen here.
Finding a form
Sometimes, it can be hard to make sure the form and content of your poem are working together. Once you have divided your poem into stanzas and lines in a particular way, it might be difficult to imagine it any other way. But the breaks you have chosen could be working against the sense of the poem rather than with it.
Last year, I wrote a poem about fear that I put into short lines like this:
I worried about running.
My fear grew legs
and raced me
to the finish line….
I couldn’t get the piece to work, but wasn’t sure why until I realised that the subject matter suited longer lines, a prose poem where the subject of the piece could run free:
I worried about running. My fear grew legs and raced me to the finish line.
I worried about finishing and my fear was lacquered, shone: that fruit-sized
model of the globe I wanted as a kid. I turned it in my sleep – distant
countries, oceans I couldn’t name. I worried about my name and fear
introduced itself before me at the party….
(extract from ‘The Fear’, Helen Mort)
Here’s an exercise you can do with a friend that might help you think about line breaks and stanza breaks in a fresh way.
- You’ll need to work with another writer on this. So first, find a partner.
- Now find a poem that you are having trouble with, a poem of yours that your partner has not seen before, and take all the line breaks out of it so it is one continuous piece of text. Ask your partner to do the same with their poem.
- Swap your texts.
- Ask your partner to put line breaks and stanza breaks in your text. Meanwhile, you can do the same with theirs.
- Swap the poems back again. Have a look at your poem with the new line breaks and stanza breaks, chosen by your partner. Is it similar to what you had before or is it totally different? How does it alter the way you read the poem? Talk to your partner about the decisions they made and why. Which line breaks work for you and which ones don’t?
Sometimes, you might find you can’t seem to get your poem to work no matter what you do. Perhaps you’ve shown it to a few other writers and they’ve all made different suggestions. Maybe you took it to a workshop and everybody disagreed about what you should alter. Perhaps you’ve tried making small, structural changes like the ones I suggested in the last workshop exercise and it still doesn’t seem to hang together. You’ve altered words and images, you’ve even changed the order of the poem around, but nothing seems to help.
If you’re having problems like this with your poem, it could be time to try something a bit more radical. Perhaps you just haven’t found the right angle for the poem, the best way of getting your message across. Here are some possibilities for you to try out:
- Try writing your poem from a completely different viewpoint. You might want it make this something surprising: an inanimate object, a place – something that wouldn’t normally have a voice. Sylvia Plath’s famous poem ‘Mirror’ is narrated from the point of view of a Looking Glass:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful….(from ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath: http://allpoetry.com/poem/8498499-Mirror-by-Sylvia-Plath)How would this poem have been different if she has chosen to write from the perspective of the woman who is looking into the mirror instead? Would it have been as effective? Use ‘Mirror’ for inspiration and try switching your poem around, writing it from another viewpoint.
- Look at your poem again: is it written in the first person, the second person or the third person? Could a shift in perspective help to improve it? If your poem is about your own experience and you’ve written it in the ‘I’ form, what would happen if you decided to address the poem to a ‘you’ instead, or even to a ‘he’ or ‘she’? If your poem is a narrative piece in the second or third person, could it be interesting to write it as an ‘I’ poem instead?
- Could changing the tense of your poem help? If it is written in the past tense, would putting it in the present give it more immediacy? Or what about narrating it as if it is in the future?
Now that you’ve tried re-writing your poem in quite a radically different way, you may find that you prefer the new poem. But even if you don’t, doing this experiment might make you less afraid to make drastic changes to your original draft.
The poem as a film
In his ‘Advice to Young Poets Visiting Museums’, Don Paterson comments: ‘Many poems, for all their brilliant imagery and metaphor, are boring because of their repetitive syntax. One easy way to cure this is to think about the way a poem moves through time and space; in other words, shoot your poem like a Hitchcock or Spielberg. (A poem of Seamus Heaney’s will often go something like: tracking-shot/zoom/flashback/dissolve/pan/fast- forward/jump-cut/tracking shot/still.) To accommodate those movements, you naturally have to write interesting, varied sentences.’
In my poetry I’ve become very interested in film techniques. My first collection, Division Street, contains a poem called ‘Outtakes’ which draws directly on metaphors from film (extract below). I found this helped me contain and structure the subject I was trying to address: the experience of unrequited love.
….By now, I understand the concept
of the close-up perfectly; its use
in film noir, the camera
panning slow across a tidy desk
until it settles on some ordinary prop –
a letter-opener, a length of garden twine –
and draws so near we see each possibility,
the sharpened blade, the tightening cord.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Look close enough, you told me once,
and anything’s significant. This morning,
when you showed me to the door,
your fingers touched my elbow for a second.
In this case, I decided to structure my poem as a series of ‘takes’, or a series of scenes. If you’re writing a narrative poem and you’re not sure how to shape it, thinking of the poem as a film can be particularly helpful. But techniques from film can help you to redraft any poem.
Sometimes you might find that an early draft of your poem contains ‘scaffolding’ – things that helped you to write the poem which are not essential to the piece itself and could be removed. Sometimes removing the first few lines or the first stanza can help to make your poem more arresting, starting in the heart of the piece. Try making a cut at or near the beginning of your poem. What effect does it have?
Are there any ideas in your poem that you’ve referenced in passing and haven’t developed? If so, try taking these out. Quite often, an early draft contains more than one possible poem. You could take these out and try to write new pieces based around them.
Look at your poem again, as you read it, imagine it really is a film. See if you can go through and work out what the crucial images or shots would be. Are they clear? Are they working hard enough? Does the reader know what they are supposed to be paying attention to?
Films can be about what is out of shot as well as what is on screen. Are there any places in your poem where you might make a cut and leave something to the reader’s imagination? My poem ‘Outtakes’ was originally in seven parts, but I cut it down to three!