Liz Niven – Poetry Writing Workshop – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

I used to write poems as a teenager; a couple of them were published in Young Writer magazine. Reading through them again when I was a bit older, I was embarrassed by what I’d written. I thought the tone of the poems was pompous and sounded like a child trying to imitate a grownup, which I suppose is exactly what I was doing. I decided to give poetry another bash to see how much better I could do as an adult. One night as I was falling asleep, I had a kind of waking dream about objects in a mirror coming to life and spilling out into the room. I was alert enough to grab a notepad and pen and in the darkness I scribbled down as much as I could remember. My notes were practically illegible but the image stuck with me and over the next few weeks I wrote a poem about a mirror acting as a gateway for a fantastical world to seep into our own. I entered the poem into a local poetry competition and was delighted when I received a letter to say it had been shortlisted. About a week after that, one of the competition organisers phoned my home and left the message that there had been a mistake and that the poem had not made the shortlist after all. I think that set me back more than if I had never heard any news of my poem in the first place.

That was six years ago and I haven’t written a poem since. I even catch myself sometimes telling people “I can’t write poems,” which goes against my whole philosophy of writing. This year I’ve taken it upon myself to explore different kinds of creative writing through workshops and courses and the one thing that is crystal clear to me now is that writing is for everyone. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, or whether you feel you are good at it. If you enjoy expressing yourself creatively through writing, then you should do it. So with the aim of reaquainting myself with a pasttime I used to take great pleasure in, I signed up for Liz Niven’s Writing Poetry workshop at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

The workshop took place in the Writers’ Retreat, one of the smaller marquees at the Book Festival and set slightly apart from the other venues. The rain was pouring down outside, blurring all the windows and isolating us from the rest of the world. I felt as though we were in a little boat that had been set adrift for a couple of hours.

We were a small group, there were perhaps fifteen of us, and we all got the chance to read out our responses to the exercises. Liz Niven was a very encouraging teacher, finding something positive to say about everyone’s efforts.

The first exercise we did was to draw round our hands and write “I am (name)” in the palm. In each of the fingers we wrote a short statement about our relationship with poetry. We read out our hand poems, with the palm statement as the first and last line, to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. This exercise reminded us that shape and structure play an important role when writing poems and that editing is vital (we had to write in concise sentences to stay within the finger outlines).

After this, we wrote if/then couplets. My couplet was inspired by the heavy rain outside:

If I hadn’t forgotten my umbrella,
Then I wouldn’t have gotten wet.

We went round the room reading out our ifs and thens alternately so that the two lines of the couplets got mixed and matched. The results were often surprising and sometimes quite funny. Niven recommended trying this exercise at home with our own poems, muddling up the lines to look for new connections that might take our writing in different directions.

We explored the use of senses in poetry by writing about a memory involving the colour red. We found that focusing on only one sense helped to trigger our memories of the past. We must have been quite a morbid bunch because blood seemed to be a recurring theme in our poems. My poem made use of the sense of smell:

Red is the smell of warm steak fillets
Mum left defrosting by the sink.
As sun streamed in the window,
blood dripped on the metal draining board.
The smell of dead meat, metallic blood,
when I went to wash my hands.

The final exercise was to write a list poem about a place or a journey that was important to us. The inspiration was Galway Kinnell’s The Road Between Here and There. Niven prompted us to list the things we heard, felt, saw, thought and did in that place and afterwards we tried to structure our lists as poems. I wrote about the writers’ retreat I stayed in last year in Andalusia, which gave me the space and time to begin my journey into a writing life. Here is the poem, but bear in mind that it is still very much a rough draft!

Here I heard cicadas chirping in the brush
And felt the sun smack down on the tiled balcony.
Here I saw the arid land sweep up into mountains
And wondered where I was going next.
Here there were dried herbs strung across the terrace
Where I filled notebooks with my scribbles.
Here I felt both lost and found
as time stood still.

Although these list poems were quite personal to us, Niven pointed out that “You don’t have to bare your soul in poetry. You can hide it quite well.” As an example she read out two poems from her collections Stravaigin and Burning Whins, both published by Luath Press.

The first was a humorous poem which is based on someone else’s experiences rather than Niven’s own. She wrote it while she was writer in residence at Inverness Airport after learning from an airport duty manager about the unusual objects that people leave behind on planes.

In the second poem Niven uses two Scottish mountains as a vehicle to talk about foot and mouth disease. The  poem takes the form of a conversation between the mountains, one speaking in English, the other in Scots. Niven chose mountains as her story telling vehicle because they are “ancient and wise and have seen so much.” The two mountains span the whole of south Scotland, giving an idea of the large area affected in by the disease.

I left the workshop with lots of ideas and with the feeling that writing poetry is something that I can do. I have two rough drafts of poems that I am looking forward to working on and I’m sure that I will get a lot of pleasure from writing more poems in the future.

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5 thoughts on “Liz Niven – Poetry Writing Workshop – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

  1. I really like this post. First, because I feel like poetry is not, by any means, my forte. Reading this has made me also want to give it another go. Secondly, I like this post because you didn’t give up, and that is a great example to someone like me. Also, I think you write wonderfully.

  2. Thank you Mckenzie 🙂 Yes, please do give writing poetry another go, even if it is for no one else’s eyes but your own. It was silly of me to wait six years before trying to write poetry again because it is such an enjoyable thing to do.

  3. Pingback: A Disappointing Day for Contemporary Poets « My Writing Life

  4. Pingback: How To Write A Song « My Writing Life

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