I thought about calling this post ‘I survived a poetry course’. But that would’ve been a tad melodramatic. I’ve just completed a six week poetry course on Monday evenings, based in the Marlene Dumas exhibition at Tate Modern and tutored by the amazing Pascale Petit. And I’ve surprised myself by really rather enjoying it.
I have never been much of a one for workshops and courses. The roots of this near-aversion run fairly deep, I think, back to my unhappy secondary schooling, and then abandoning a Bachelor of Arts degree after the first year. Me and formal education just don’t get on, I decided, and I’ve rather stretched the meaning of ‘formal’. Then there’s my Fear of the Group, which also goes a long way back, coupled with my ambivalence about defining myself as a poet. So I’ve tended to stumble along my own path, which is loosely what my poem The Hard Way is about.
But then, one of the things I thought about while I was weighing up whether to quit my day job and look for something more fulfilling, was that I needed to stretch myself, to try out some of those things that I’ve locked away in the not-me box. I’d heard glowing reports of Pascale’s Tate Modern courses from several people, and devoured her latest collection Fauverie. So when I saw she was running a course tying in with the Marlene Dumas show, and tantalisingly titled The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, I signed up.
In some ways, it feels like this was a gentle introduction to the mysteries of the poetry course. It was a large group – 25 students, though I don’t think we ever had a full house – which could have felt overwhelming, but I’m sure I’d have felt more exposed and self-conscious in a smaller group. I recognised a couple of friendly faces, which helped, as did the venue. I know Tate Modern fairly well, love to visit, and here we were in the galleries after hours, without the crowds, and surrounded by some stunning and provocative art.
The sessions began with a couple of poems or texts that related in some way to Dumas’s themes of the body, love, sexuality and death, followed by a short discussion of people’s responses to the poem. We spent time looking at specific paintings, reflecting, and again sharing our thoughts when the group reconvened. There was no being put on the spot or pressured to contribute, and although I mostly listened and absorbed other people’s interesting and often insightful comments, I made a conscious effort to chip in when I felt confident in my observation.
Each session included time to write, Pascale sending us off to write a poem with a particular focus or approach and incorporating a prompt such as using a line from one of Marlene Dumas’s poem-texts. This was probably the hardest part for me, having to quell the inner censoring voice, forget about the fabulous poems I imagined everyone around me was crafting, and simply write. Without my usual mug of black coffee to hand. The point, of course, is to get started, and in that short intense period of writing new and surprising things may bubble up. We then had the intervening week to work on the poem, and perhaps share it at the next session.
As well as spending time in the Marlene Dumas exhibition, we had two sessions working with material by a younger South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and another looking at the incredibly detailed etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I found Hlobo’s work in particular very rich and subtle, and beautifully delicate.
The course overall was in fact much more than a gentle introduction. I’ve been exposed to poets I hadn’t come across before – C.K. Williams (where have I been?), also Nick Flynn, and Natalie Diaz, whose poem The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn really dazzled me. I’ve thought about different approaches to writing about the body and in response to visual art. Prompted by Pascale’s suggested reading list, I reread Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds and felt again its visceral impact. I also dug out Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry from the bottom of a pile of unread books. It’s now on the top of a pile of unread books and I will read it. In one session Pascale gave us a list of eight different kinds of mental imagery, which I’ve already found very useful in stretching my poetic range. I’ve written one strongish poem, and have several embryonic ones to work on, and something that I think may turn into an odd little story.
At the end of the final session there was a celebratory reading, when we each got the chance to read a poem written on the course to our fellow students, watched over by Marlene Dumas’s luminous, larger-than-life close-up portraits. It was uplifting to hear such strong and varied work, and to feel the support and appreciation in the room. And this, undeniably, was one of the other benefits of attending the course – meeting other writers, poets, people journeying along their own literary path and willing to share their bumps, false starts and unexpected gems.
I hadn’t realised when I signed up for the course that this was to be the last in this format, six weekly sessions, that Pascale runs at the Tate, so I’m especially glad to have had this experience. And the next challenge? I’ll let you know once I’ve survived it.