Last weekend – what with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death just gone by and seeing an advertisement on Facebook I think it was – I signed up to be a participant in a Shakespeare and writing poetry workshop. Being an English teacher, love of Shakespeare rather comes with the territory but I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who enjoys being a participant in classes. So much of my time is spent initiating, organising, timing carefully and concluding that it’s a wonderful holiday-feeling to be initiated, organised, timed carefully and concluded by somebody else. (In what follows I am able to quote the work of nobody else but myself – for which apologies).
The workshop was part of a series organised through the South Bank Poetry magazine, co-edited by Peter Ebsworth (its founder) and Katherine Lockton. They were both present for the workshop – upstairs, above the Poetry Society’s Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden – but it was Katherine who ran the session. We gathered about 10.45 for 11am, most of us arriving clutching the mandatory take-out coffee from the cafe or elsewhere on our walks from the Tube. A big table, a plate of biscuits, greetings, sign in (whose name do I know here?). Upstairs at the PS is a strange mix of store room, kitchen, second hand bookshop, classroom. I thought it could do with a tidy-up myself – then tried to curb my flicker of nerves, that need for control. Actually, I’ve not taken part in a public workshop like this for ages. We were probably all feeling the same: what if I write total crap and Katherine asks me to read it out. Maybe a biscuit . . .
We started with free writing for 5 minutes or so – “to loosen up”. Katherine wanted us to set off from “My Shakespeare is . . .” What sprang vividly to mind was an occasion teaching not Shakespeare, in fact, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A student read the “face that launched a thousand ships” speech so very badly that it achieved a weird sort of beauty in her inarticulacy. A bit like those ruins of classical statues (not far from where we were, in the British Museum) that seem to have acquired an added poignancy in not remaining whole. I rather like free writing (it’s how most of my own poems begin, a sudden splurge of material that then gets worked on) and as I wrote I ended up (from that halting reading of Marlowe) to love in a life or its opportunity missed:
Those encounters where you don’t have the words
Just stops pauses some musical sense
Of the word order but no –not the words themselves
And she turns away dips her head
Laughs at something somebody across the room has just said
Katherine then dished out the text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On the Tube in I had been wondering how I’d tackle Shakespeare in such a setting and I thought I’d not go for the more familiar moments. Katherine did and I have to say she was probably right. I’d have ended up explaining too much perhaps (too teacherly) when the point was to respond creatively to the poems. So most of us were familiar enough with this poem in which the narrator does compare his love to a summer’s day and the summer’s day turns out to be liable to be windy, over too soon, too hot, over too soon . . . The lover apparently suffers from none of these things not even death itself – because the poet has preserved her in “this” poem: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. We wondered, among others things, at the manly arrogance of this.
We picked a phrase or even just a word to respond to from the poem and set off for 30 minutes or so. On this first occasion, many of us seemed to get sucked into the vortex of the sonnet form and rhyme especially. But the quality of the group that day was extraordinary. Several produced sonnets which worked well (in 30 minutes!) and all the pieces eventually read out were interesting responses. I chose the phrase “By chance, or nature” and was exploring (again) the chance or fate of meetings with the one’s you love. I was imagining the alternative worlds we jettison or turn our back on with every choice we make:
So that in one of those plural worlds
We might have met before, or later, even not
At all – through pram and playground, into school
To college, old flames, chance turn, random plot.
You can see what I mean about getting locked into a formal mode. It may be that most of us realised this as when Katherine then tried us with Sonnet 130, more of the group struck out – away from formality, probably into something more like our natural mode. This was also probably encouraged by the fact that Katherine was showing us contemporary responses to these poems as we went. Several of these were quite encouraging in that they were pretty poor as poems – there are a number of anthologies where contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare (especially this year) but so many of the poets try too hard to up-date originals into some hip idiom; embarrassing like Dad-dancing). I guess that at least gave us permission to try something more adventurous of our own.
I found myself interested in the way the Sonnet 130 tries to define the lover through a kind of via negativa, what she is not. It’s a kind of anti-poetic in that the poet dismisses the ability of comparison (one of the poet’s main tools) to capture her in truth. This was reminding me of repeated occasions in the Daodejing poems I have been working on for 3/4 years (just published now – so fully on my mind last weekend) in which the text also argues the elusiveness of the One. The latter is often given female characteristics so it was an easy step to my scribble:
She lives in the live darkness between
The opening and shutting of my eye-lids
Between ascender and descender
Of this pen this white expanse
This Microsoft space not knowing what to do
With itself not being busy
In the moment when instructions cease
And what opens is that snow-field
Beneath the first or second chair-lift not yet
Inscribed [. . . ]
The third piece Katherine gave us were extracts from Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, the “what’s in a name” speech” and Juliet’s “O serpent heart”). We discussed these and annotated them to pick out certain patterns and concerns. We then compiled a small list of words of our own and set off with the aim of writing in the voice of a character from Shakespeare. I’ve always had a soft spot for Horatio and especially Hamlet’s gentle, though firm, put-down: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. I had Horatio realising the truth of this, a bit Prufrock-like realising that he was not meant to play the Prince, but be an observer, something of a by-stander at the big events:
O but it’s enviousness I breed
Here listening to you roar
And glitter you go on to the very point
Or way off kilter
And patronise me yet even this you do
With such grace with warmth making me love you.
The rhythm of this particular workshop was a lot of time for individual writing. We shared all we wrote (no one objected – and absolutely none of it was “crap”), and Katherine introduced the extracts quite briskly while still allowing plenty of time for people’s reactions to them. The time was now about 4pm. The final piece was stimulated with small bits of cloth from Katherine’s Mum’s sewing box but also with a story she told (no details – it’s her story) which we could incorporate if we wanted to. My final piece was the strangest I’d produced so far. My cloth was a rich red – a bit sexy – and the encounter was on a staircase, I was coming down to meet someone. Perhaps by this time I was more Juliet than myself, or I’d carved myself into two:
Of that clarity
And the weight
So the long dress
I wear is gules
Slit to the thigh
Its plunging neck
A sunlight wedge
At the foot
Of the shallow stair
I lift my chin
As if called for [. . . ]
I don’t know if the 4 pieces I produced will come to anything further but I can honestly say they would not have been written otherwise. In running my own workshops, I always say the simple thing they achieve is to take your writing to places you’d not have got to alone. That certainly happened the other day and I’m grateful to South Bank Poetry for the chance to participate: now back to the front of the class.