I have never known a poet to react well to the idea of poetry as homework. While the occasional Pitshanger Poet will haul on the hair shirt, cast off their worldly entrapments and climb the holy mountain to spend a day or two in the humbling, spartan surroundings of a British Country House Hotel with or without spa facilities and noted restaurant, in order simply to kneel at the feet of a poetry guru and enjoy one or more mildly insulting poetry exercises such as writing on a theme or being inspired by a famous painting, few return smiling and whistling show tunes as a result of the experience.
However, one must remember that poets are very like cats, in that they are contrary by nature. If you ask one not to sleep on your cashmere cardigan, that is precisely the place they will choose (the cat, that is) while if you ask them not to jump up on to the dining table and bat the food from your plate, that is exactly what they will insist on doing at every opportunity. I have it on good authority that this the reason Walter De La Mare had such trouble reserving a table in the West End for so many years.
It is therefore fascinating to be in the chair at a Workshop when one or more themes fortuitously break out, as if we had requested for poems on a theme, we would have got anything but. Marilyn Keenan gave us a compelling piece on the subject of loss, against the backdrop of the sea. Olwyn Grimshaw went her own way and described the person she sees in the mirror, insisting it is not her. Daphne Gloag took up the theme of Time, specifically speaking in the persona of Now. Gillian Spragg remembers being the only person in a crowd waiting at a bus stop to see dawn appear one winter morning. Martin Choules picked up on a topical theme – that of singing or not singing the National Anthem, by creating his own brutally honest one for the United Kingdom. Nick Barth then coincidentally barged in on two themes, with mention both of time and bus stops in his poem. Christine Shirley picked up on Marylin Keenan’s theme of the sea and loss in her piece. Owen Gallagher went his own way, insisting that he saw the Loch Ness Monster when he was a child and his father was midway through a craze for cryptozoology. Finally James Priestman brought back a poem imagining a biblical couple struggling through a snowy winter.
I am given to understand that in the fast-paced, zeitgeisty world of the World Wide WonderWeb there is a concept termed the ‘Fascist Point’. This is the place in any ‘below the line’ Internet discussion where one commenter comments on another commenter with the accusation that the first commenter (are you following me?) is a fascist. It is said that the more controversial or incendiary the subject matter of the article above the line (gay marriage, patriotism, Jamie Oliver), the sooner the Fascist Point is reached below it. At Pitshanger Poets we have an alternative to this we like to call the ‘Marcel Duchamp Point’ and it is the reason that basing a poetry workshop on a theme or painting is such a dangerous idea, for nothing leaves its stamp on a man so much as being in an enclosed space with a group of poets ‘kicking off’ on the subject of whether something can be considered art just because it is labelled such. You might think it ironic that doyens of such a loose and potentially abstract art form as poetry would get so excitable about urinals in art galleries, but fortunately I am an expert in the International Hand Signal for ‘take it to the bar, you two’ and the room typically returns to an emphatic calm within a few moments. If you have been, thank you for reading.