On Poetry

ON POETRY: Emma Lee reviews a new book by Jackie Wills which gives insights into how to develop poetic skills and also how to guide others

On Poetry: Reading, Writing & Working with Poems 
Jackie Wills
Smith Doorstop 
ISBN 9781914914126 
192pp     £10.99

This new book by Jackie Wills takes her readers on a journey through more than 20 years’ experience of leading workshops for poets at all stages of their careers. She also talks about the process of discovering poetry for herself. The book comes in two parts, the first of which considers how the reading of poems has inspired Wills’ own writing process. It contains brief essays showing how ideas, techniques, form or metaphors can be a springboard to new work. The second part of the book is a comprehensive source of material for workshop planning as a facilitator in different settings for different age groups from schools and SEN settings to community hubs. Alongside workshop exercises there are case studies, preparation checklists and the all-important advice to include planning time in the workshop fee! Information is grouped by workshop plans, workshop model, i.e. a critical feedback workshop or writing workshop, planning, developing materials and some exercises and prompts.

The poems studied in part one are grouped by theme, e.g. ‘Led by Language’, ‘Environment, Setting Conditions’, ‘What Gives Me the Right?’, ‘Translation’. The earlier forays into poetry explore how few women’s voices were given space in schools which meant that the discovery of the power of women’s voices happened largely outside of the curriculum. There’s a comparison between Elma Mitchell’s Thoughts after Ruskin, a ‘woman against a hostile regime of domestic demands’ and Alison Brackenbury’s Lapwings with its quieter rhymes and half-rhymes but brave in its subtlety. Likewise there’s a deliberate seeking out of poets such as Audre Lord, Meiling Jin, Debjani Chatterjee, Olive Senior and Grace Nichols to compensate for gaps in reading. After looking at Patience Agbabi’s The Devil’s House Wills also touches on the idea that some need to be given permission to write.

A writer may not need permission from someone else, but I saw it as part of my 
role, running workshops, to build writers’ confidence to go anywhere and confront 
any idea, just as Agbabi has questioned an English institution in her time travelling. 
What matters is the emotional connection a writer makes with a subject. Sometimes 
I don’t know why I’m drawn to an idea. Sometimes I only understand I’m deep within 
a theme after I’ve written a group of poems.

This chimes with a later discussion on “poetry as witness” with reference to work by Choman Hardi and Warsan Shire with the proviso,

But the poems also address the ethical issues that arise when a poet writes about 
another person’s experience. Monologues are drawn from her [Choman Hardi’s] 
work as an academic, but she adds to this experience the impact of immersing 
herself in accounts of violence and continuing trauma. This integration of lived 
experience and the experience of witness is one of the elements that makes Hardi’s
collection so authentic. When a poet has no choice it will show itself in the poems.

After this comes a discussion on the importance of translation, not only in enriching a poet’s reading, but also in enhancing a poet’s vocabulary and provoking a writer to look again at the words they are using and how they use them.

Part two is more practical. It looks at the differences between setting up a workshop on your own to creating one by invite; and it considers the questions that need answering before you start. It also reviews the pitfalls in workshops that offer critical feedback – everyone’s experienced a bad workshop. But it also notes that

A writing workshop can be catalyst for social change by giving a group of people 
the opportunity to express themselves and feel empowered. It nurtures insight and 
ability: the insight needs to read carefully and critically as well as developing writer’s craft.

There are also workshop plans – what can be covered in an hour, half a day, a day or a longer course or series. These include suggested timings so the workshop is paced and there is a review of the differences between running a workshop in person or via video-conferencing software such as Zoom. To round off the book there’s a comprehensive bibliography and list of resources.

Without giving too much away, the second part is very practical and user-friendly with easy to follow, hands-on guides born of long practice and experience. This section is worth the price of admission alone. The first part, with its wide reading beyond the standard canon, is a worthy journey through the experience that informs the second part. This is a journey where Wills shares her knowledge, enthusiasm and love for language and poetry and what they can do.