Mslexia, the magazine for women who write | www.mslexia.co.uk
From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition 2012 Writing Workshops
Devised by Pascale petit
Workshop One – POetry from Art
If you always seem to be using the same ideas in your poems, you can refresh your imagination by looking at contemporary art, not just painting but the whole gamut of photography, sculpture, installation and video art. What are today’s visual artists up to? It’s best to go to a gallery with a notebook, but if there isn’t one nearby try trawling the web until you find an artwork that resonates. Here are some inspiring artists you could look up on a Google image search: Cornelia Parker, Francis Alÿs, Tabitha Vevers, Annette Messager, Kathy Prendergast, Gabriel Orozco, Alice Maher, Bill Viola, Do Ho Suh, Jerry Uelsmann, Juul Kraijer, Yayoi Kusama, and there are many more.
1. When you’ve found an image that excites you I suggest that you start by writing very fast. Write whatever comes into your head – free associate. You can throw it away afterwards. Keep on scribbling and have fun, even if it’s nonsense, at this stage you’re only writing notes, not a poem. Write when you’re at your freshest, or tiredest – both states can bring up unexpected material. Don’t just describe the appearance of the image – it’s important that you connect with it on a deep level. What does it mean to you? Don’t feel dutiful towards it; you won’t even have to acknowledge it as your source afterwards unless you want to. The image is there instead of a blank page.
You could write in the voice of the artist, the artwork or one object in it. For example, you could be Francis Alÿs obsessively running into tornadoes over a period of ten years! You could use a figure in a picture to write about a difficult subject you haven’t dared approach before, as Moniza Alvi did describing Tabitha Vevers’ mermaid in her gold-leaf painting When We Talk About Rape. Or you could just focus on one detail and use it as a springboard for a journey. Put your whole self inside the artwork. What do you really want to say and how does it relate to your life?
2. Go through your material and see if there are any rough lines you can use. Try typing them up in triple spacing, then cut each line out so you can shuffle them around until a couple gel. Perhaps they tell you things you weren’t aware of, just by joining mundane phrases in surreal juxtapositions. Play with the sounds of them as well as the sense. You can also plunder your notebooks (assuming you keep notebooks or journals) for collected words and you can even retrieve phrases from failed poems if you have some lying around, to add to your collage, until you have a few first lines that surprise you.
3. At this point, and to keep the excitement up, I suggest you consult a mental imaging list to help you make your poem full-bodied and sensory. Here are the usual five senses, plus some extra ones:
visual (sight, brightness, clarity, colour and motion. Also pattern, form, depth of field, perspective, scale)
tactile (touch, temperature, texture)
organic sense (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion)
kinaesthetic sense (awareness of muscle tension and movement, also gravity, mass and density)
synaesthesia (a sense impression produced by another sense such as “her prickly laugh”, “that loud green”)
Write your first stanza concentrating on two senses. For example: what does Do Ho Suh’s red staircase smell like and what memories does this evoke? How heavy does it make you feel as you ascend the silk stairs?
4. Now write another stanza focusing on two senses you haven’t yet used. You might consider playing with scale and perspective. Or with texture: perhaps you are one of the owl-faces on the skin of Juul Kraijer’s young girl – all down feathers and sharp beak.
5. It’s common to get stuck two-thirds down the poem, to panic about the ending. To avoid this and to keep the momentum up you could write the last stanza using one more sense you’ve left out so far, as this might offer new developments. Let the artwork lead you into its labyrinth.
Click here to download a free pdf of this workshop.
PASCALE PETIT was born in Paris and now lives in London. She has published five poetry collections. Her latest, What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010) was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and the Wales Book of the Year, and was a book of the year in the Observer. Two previous collections, The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001) and The Huntress (Seren, 2005), were also shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and were books of the year in the Times Literary Supplement and Independent. In 2004 the Poetry Book Society selected her as one of the Next Generation Poets and Mslexia also named her as one of the 10 best new women poets of the decade. Pascale was Poetry Editor of Poetry London from 1989 to 2005 and is a co-founding tutor of the Poetry School. She currently teaches poetry courses in the galleries at Tate Modern, tutors for the Arvon Foundation, Taliesin Trust and the Poetry School and is the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
This workshop is the first of three that have been devised especially for the Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition, judged by Gillian Clarke and with a closing date of 18 June 2012. For the latest on the writing world, publishing and creativity subscribe to Mslexia now.
Plunder our selection of writing workshops for inspiration:
The Mslexia MA in Novel Writing – Character, led by Jenny Newman
...with life coach Bekki Hill
Explore the unconscious and turn your life into literature
Hayfields or horse-dung