BUSILY WORKSHOPPING AWAY

NOT IN SO MANY WORDS
edited by Peter Sansom and Janet Fisher, 62pp, £7.00, Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND.

OUR THOUGHTS ARE BEES - WRITERS WORKING WITH SCHOOLS by Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland, 128pp, £10.00, Wordplay Press, 61 Burnley Road, Ainsdale, Southport PR8 3LP.


Engaging in writing, particularly the writing of poetry, looks to have become more and more of a co-operative venture. No longer the lonely garret, the ivory tower: now it is writers in classrooms, 'mentors' in workshops or on courses all over the country; thousands of poems each day sent backward and forward to friends/fellow-practitioners for comment by snail mail or email. The world is full of writers. Opening your mouth anywhere that you are one has people fumbling in their inside pockets for a latest poem to show you.

Everyone knows how, after a first bout of the self-delusion of having achieved something marvellous, first drafts quickly become painful to contemplate or have to be revealed to us as being far from perfect. Most writers are driven by the curse of perfectionism and this makes for anxiety and vulnerability. Because of the up-closeness of attention needed - the interplay of warm blur and sharpness of vision the process takes place in - they are liable to be proved not just anxiety-ridden but myopic. We loyally hang on to gratuitous first lines because they 'gave us the poem', to unnecessary adjectives because we are thrilled to have thought of them; we protect things in our writing (which stick out like sore thumbs to others) for non-artistic reasons (because they were 'true', were 'like that'). We seek help, desperately needing to be told that what we are doing has some sort of merit; we also need to be told things we really already know deep down but for a variety of reasons don't quite want, at least in the first instance, to acknowledge. The best criticism will always tell you what you already 'know'. We have to learn to take criticism for what it's worth. We are never absolved of responsibility: whatever the cost, we take it or leave it. The Waste Land remains Eliot's poem not Pound's.

Not in So Many Words is meant to be helpful by letting us look in on the creative process. Twelve poets - members of the first Poetry Business Writing School - each offering a poem they have written and then a short commentary on the processes involved. A worthy enough aim but inevitably this is a mixed bag, sometimes interesting, sometimes, I have to say, embarrassing. Not all the poems are necessarily good and some are, whether they know it or not, still in draft. The Introduction doesn't help - it smacks of special pleading. It begins 'We hope you will agree that these poems, together with their commentaries, make fascinating reading. What is good from our point of view is that the commentaries are both entertaining and extremely practical.' Not the best way to start a book of this sort. (Why does everything have to be 'entertaining' nowadays?) 'Fascinating' is too congratulatory a word here; 'entertaining' only if you make allowances in some of the commentaries for lack of proper seriousness or enjoy bits of portentousness or self-congratulation; 'practical' only if you're perhaps a beginner.

There's a touch of chip-on-shoulder about the
Introduction's dubious assertion that 'It's a luxury to study (rather than simply read) other poets, and to be obliged to read secondary texts. And it's unusual to study as fellow-practitioners, with the aim of furthering our own creative endeavour rather than to pass an exam.' Where have the editors been hiding themselves? This seemingly anti-academic posture uses some oddly academic-sounding words. It is not at all a luxury to study other poets but a necessary part of the writing process. Who's not making it available? And is reading poetry ever simple? And what are 'secondary texts'? Is it really 'unusual to study as fellow-practitioners'? It is surely what most writers do if 'study' means to take the job seriously. Why the distinction between this kind of 'study' and other kinds of 'study'? Generally speaking, when it comes to poetry, not enough poets read: it has long been a commonplace that more people write poetry than read it. This is another aspect of writers' myopia. It is also a commonplace that more poems come from reading other poems than from 'real life' or disembodied 'inspiration'.

My feeling is that
Not in So Many Words doesn't quite know what it's meant to be or be doing. It ends up as a sort of chat-room of people who have shared certain commonplace experiences and think the rest of us don't know about them and should. And find them entertaining, fascinating and of practical use.


If the aim of Not in So Many Words is a worthy one that doesn't quite come off, Our Thoughts Are Bees too is sadly blighted with 'worthiness'. It is a book that needed producing - a handbook for all those involved in the promotion of good writing in schools and getting writers in to help do this - and I am sure that for the most part it will serve its purpose if only for the simple reason it is so detailed, all there, nothing left out. But why does it have to be so earnestly, so unremittingly instructional, so systematised, so comprehensively full of information and advice, delivered in such a way as to suggest there are things about writers and teachers that can't be trusted? Why does it keep on needing to repeat things - as if they haven't been appreciated first time - in summaries and bullet points? I find it hard to go along with the second half of Andrew Motion's view that 'This book is exactly what it should be: useful, practical and detailed but also inspiring, enlightening and far-reaching'. Inspiring perhaps in the recognition that so much good work by writers has been going on in schools for a good many years in the face of the general devaluing and undernourishing of children's imaginations, which is the result of politicians' gross systematising and managerialising of education. Now writers into schools is a part of this system, albeit (hopefully) subversively…needing very careful organising and to be properly paid for. This book shows how this is to be done.

I am glad it is available. It should make teachers and writers feel more secure, more confident about each other and the endeavour they engage in together. I just wish it wasn't so
earnest.


         © Matt Simpson 2005