from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 4 January 2014

the collage-poem

I've just closed the first poetry workshop of 2014, so let the new year begin! I've been working with many of these people for 20 years or more; each month they bring their warmth, their openness, their imagination, their poems (not to mention their tasty lunch contributions) to my garden-barn workshop space. 

In the circle of fire, lamplight and kindness something magical happens. We know each other well enough and trust each other deeply enough for very little to remain hidden or secret. And poetry, of course, allows us to share thoughts, feelings, experiences and the twists and turns of the life of the soul in a way that little else does.

In the afternoon, we do a crit session. The morning, though, is entirely devoted to my prompting the creation of new writing. I suppose I've dreamed up now maybe close on 250 different creative workshop sessions for this group, the Two Rivers poets, though sometimes naturally I repeat, with variations, an earlier session.

I like to offer workshops that are specifically aimed at disrupting the all-too-linear processes of the rational mind. While poetry needs an objective eye and the shaping ability of the more analytical aspects of the mind, I consider that to be very much the secondary part of the process. 

Most of us can write to make sense to the logical part of the mind. Much harder, for many people, is getting out of one's own light enough as to allow the subconscious to throw up images and ideas in a lateral and surprising fashion, so many of my exercises are geared to that. Someone, Ben Okri perhaps, described this as dropping a fishing line into the subconscious.

To do this I offer sessions that require letting go of the 'thinking' process, that circumvent the inner critic before s/he gets a foot in the door, and especially ones that encourage juxtaposing phrases, images and ideas that don't necessarily make 'sense' in a logical way but that do ignite in conjunction in the psyche. My timing for all of these is fairly tight, so that in order to create something the writers simply don't have the time to think too hard (they can always go home and do that with the raw material).

Today's session was one of these: doing long speedy freewrites and then tearing them up and swapping pieces; choosing non-adjacent phrases that began with the letters of our name from books of poetry then finding ways to rewrite, redraft and recombine the phrases to make something new; tearing up old poems of ours to collage with last year's calendars. Although I call this play, the poets look at me sceptically. They know enough about me by now to know that I'm going to try and slip one past them; one that will be quite taxing. Although without fail deeper possibilities will emerge, it's tiring keeping the personal syntactical pedant, the 'sense-maker', at bay for any length of time. However, the results today, as always, were so rich.

Of course, that inner editor is finally allowed in to shape the poem into something coherent, though I like to stress at least some of the time to stop short of tidying the edges up too tightly or tying the ends too neatly. 'Whatever you have to say, leave / The roots on, let them / Dangle // And the dirt // Just to make clear / Where they come from', said Charles Olson, and that's good advice on several levels for the poet. Let it breathe, give it space. Take a risk that some people won't get it and many won't like it.

Here's a collaged one of mine from this morning using some heavily-reworked and re-ordered phrases from several different poems by Sharon Olds (according to my second exercise, above), with many additions and subtractions. (TM was mightily unimpressed. You might need to sort-of 'look away' in order to 'get' it. I'm not saying it's a 'good' poem, by the way; just illustrating the process.)

(after Sharon Olds)

He was, he wrote (the morning bruise-coloured)
tending his own life now: redressing the balance
of what could be required or might be asked

I scarcely recognised his hand or the language –
my gaze so easily escaped me, climbing the ladder
to light, or hex, or spell; or to the precipice edge –

what might have been become instead that crazed
eggshell, pigeon or jackdaw, fallen untended 
and unhatched onto the cold slate hearth at dawn.

© Roselle Angwin


  1. Miriam (anon again in case it ends up as spam!)

    First, I love your poem and read it first, thinking: gosh, I do like Sharon Olds and isn't the style a bit Roselle?! I didn't take in the homage till later – I assumed it was Sharon Olds! I've meant to buy her latest for too long now.
    Secondly – how I'd love a monthly poetry workshop up here (ideally run by you, though impossible, I know). I think I recognise some of those games from Iona and exciting it certainly is. Also, relating to your collage idea: it reminds me of the bricolage idea that's feeding (i.e. the actual text) my White Room (novel) at the moment, (still at the 101 Beginnings stage but flowing better, I think). I do see writing very much as a 'picasso'-like process, involving chopped up bits of a former whole, reassembled to present something completely fresh and daring.
    Finally – just to say, I'll soon be able to apply formally via your online form for Mentoring. E'burgh on the 18th for 5 days but maybe after that, so by the end of of Jan I hope. Let me know if you'd prefer me to send it some other way.
    With love from a slightly fizzed-up Miriam.
    PS Have finished Stoner. Should I email some thoughts maybe? It is an incredibly good book, I think.

  2. Thank you, Miriam - as you probably know by now I've sent you an email.

    I like what you say about the Picasso-like process - yes! And thanks, too for the S. O. compliment! 'Stag's Leap' is an extraordinary achievement, but not a book I shall go back to over and over, despite some strong poems - too specific about a too-specific event, and both admirable as a result, and limited, ditto. Cathartic for her, I imagine.

    Always great to read your varied comments.



  3. I am in agreement with TM. Nowadays poems that are clear and pleasing are devalued, there is too much fishing around in the so called subconscious. Most people have very little of significance lurking under the surface, in the same way that dreams, mine included, are tedious piffle. No doubt you would not agree, and I am afraid I would not be a good student for you!
    Rufus Arne Pettersen

  4. Hello Rufus - and thank you for your honest comments! - Well, no, I wouldn't agree with you either that dreams are 'tedious piffle' (though some are, of course), nor that 'most people have very little of significance lurking under the surface' - that seems a very jaded view, to me.

    In 23 years of working with 1000s of people's memories and imaginations, as a counsellor and as a writing tutor, I would hotly dispute the latter! We live in a culture that doesn't value the imagination (without which empathy and compassion are not possible, by the way), and just as badly doesn't know how to access it, and we - though mostly the rest of the world – is paying the price for our lack, in my view. What's more, a materialistic culture encourages a kind of living on the surface, I'd say; but there is so much more to being human than this. However, I can't convince someone else of the existence of a subconscious, or the fruits of that, I guess; and for myself, it's disagreement that opens my world out – so thank you.

    I believe a good poem can resonate on more than one level - we will respond to the sensory details and the images and metaphors in a different way from the way in which we respond to the syntax and verbal content per se (one via the feeling nature, the other via the intellect), and for instance I believe that the poetry of T S Eliot, particularly in the Four Quartets, exemplifies the kind of poetry that needs a little work from us - it is not at all, in some ways, clear and simple, not immediately accessible, even as our intellect can make sense of much of the language. I don't know if you'd agree?

    And I agree that the poem on this blogpost is not a good one. Perhaps I can redeem myself by suggesting that you look at these examples of my work, instead?

    All good wishes to you



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