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From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition 2012 Writing Workshops
Devised by PASCALE PETIT
WORKSHOP 3 - CLOTHES POEMS
Describing clothes in a poem can be a powerful way to write about a relationship. It’s as if clothes can magically conjure someone but you don’t have to write directly about them and this can be liberating.
1) The garment could be something they once bought you, as in ‘The Blue Dress’ by Sharon Olds, where she describes her relationship with her father through a dress he once gave her:
I opened the box – I had
never had a present from him –
and there was a blue shirtwaist dress
blue as the side of a blue teal
disguised to go in safety on the steel-blue water.
Try her approach but remember that later in the poem she admits that her father didn’t actually buy it for her, so you can make the gift up. What would you like to have been bought by someone?
2) Or write a defiant poem about yourself and your identity, about something you’ve always wanted to wear, like the red dress in Kim Addonizio’s poem ‘What Do Women Want?’:
When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too…
Addonizio’s garment is no ordinary dress, though the poem starts realistically enough to convince the reader it’s true. What would you want your garment to do for you?
3) You could superimpose another image onto an article of clothing, as Jackie Kay does in her poem ‘A White African Dress’, where she visualises her estranged father’s white African dress superimposed with a heron, its wings doubling as his sleeves, to convey her father’s religion but also his rejection of her as he flies away:
And my father flew off, his white dress trailing
Like smoke in the sky, all the lovely stitches, dropping
Dropping like silver threads on the dark red land.
What image would you superimpose on a person’s clothing? And what would that say about them and their attitude to you? Bring in that image naturalistically, as Kay did, reminiscing how “That Sunday in Abuja when we first met, / A huge heron lit up my path through the woods”.
4) You could make a list of clothes made from unlikely materials, as Peter Redgrove does in ‘Wardrobe-Lady’, describing his lover through her wardrobe:
She wears the long series of wonder-awakening dresses.
She wears the fishskin cloak,
She wears the gown of pearl with the constellations slashed into its dark
She undresses out of the night sky, each night of the year a different sky,
She wears altitude dresses and vertigo dresses.
Let the list-form free your imagination and see what surprises emerge. Although you are dressing someone in unusual materials, the point is to celebrate them and also say something authentic about them or their relationship to you. For example, if they have been ill, you could dress them in a hospital, then flowers. The material might be commonplace but unusual for clothing. It could be grass, ice, silver, earth, anything!
5) The possibilities for clothes poems are endless and many inspiring poems have been written on the subject. Carol Ann Duffy collected some in her anthology Out of Fashion: An Anthology of Poems (Faber & Faber, 2004). If you don’t have this book, buy it. Find the poem you admire most and type it up in triple spacing (so that each line of verse has two blank lines between it and the next line). Write your version, following the syntax of the poem as your starting point, until your poem finds its own feet.
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.
These workshops have been devised especially for the Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition, judged by Gillian Clarke and with a closing date of 18 June. For the latest on the writing world, publishing and creativity subscribe to Mslexia now.
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