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Tuesday, 13 August 2019


A sentiment I have expressed before on my blog is this: it can sometimes be hard, when writing a post, to navigate between two different impulses. The first is to post material that reflects me in a good light, and thus increases my prospects for future employment. (As a self-employed person this is always at the back of my mind.) The second is to post reflective pieces in which I examine my own practice and speak frankly about my perceived weaknesses. I'm hoping that this is not a true dichotomy. At any rate, in this post I'd like to highlight, if not a weakness, then an area of difficulty I encounter frequently in my work.

There are, broadly speaking, two different facets to my job: writing and educating. Within the 'education' bracket there are two further elements: teaching and performing. It is my view that a good deal of teaching is in fact a kind of performance. When I'm standing in front of a whole class, talking to them about poetry or just generally having a laugh, I feel very much like I am in 'performance' mode, not too dissimilar from when I am standing up in assembly or on stage reciting my poems and telling silly jokes and stories. However, it is also true that parts of teaching require not a performance, but perhaps something with a greater level of authenticity or personal connection.

I am talking here about the times, during a workshop, when a student will ask me for one-to-one help. I feel that, at this stage of my career, I have pretty much got the performance side of my work nailed. I feel confident standing up in front of almost any group, of any size, and talking for up to an hour. This could constitute pure entertainment (I didn't distinguish above between educating and entertaining, and I am not sure there is a clear distinction in the first place), or it could involve what is known in educational circles as 'direct instruction', which is when a teacher directly expounds and demonstrates the material to the class. What I currently find much more challenging, however, is assisting and dealing with students on a personal basis. We might say that I am (currently) more comfortable as a lecturer than as a tutor.

My relative hesitancy when dealing with students on a one-to-one basis arises from a couple of factors. The first is that, despite professional appearances to the contrary, I am something of an introvert in my social life. In this sense, my performances may be functioning as a kind of screen from my true self, rather than a representation of it. However I think this is only partly true; I like to think of my performances as depictions of my ideal self, the self that I wish I could be 'in real life', when I step away from the stage and into the maw of everyday human interaction.

The second factor that sometimes renders one-to-one work difficult for me is something that I'd love to know if other poet-educators can relate to, and can be summed up by the titular question: 'whose poem is it?' Often what will happen is that a student will put their hand up and say either "I'm stuck" or "I'm finished", when the poem they are writing is manifestly incomplete. At this point it is quite easy to provide a checklist of poetic techniques - metaphor, simile, alliteration, personification - and to ask the student simply to make sure the poem contains a certain number of these. If the aim of the workshop is to explore and introduce students to these very techniques then this approach might suffice. However, it is a somewhat formulaic approach and often goes against the grain of the poetic endeavour, which is to write from the heart and not from a set of tick-boxes, as though we were assembling furniture.

The crux of the problem is that, when a student tells me that they are unsure how or whether to continue a poem, I can often see how their poem might be improved, how a better metaphor or simile might be found or how a better ending could be constructed. However, isn't the purpose of a poetry workshop to enable them to see how a poem could be improved? This, surely, should be the aim of the 'direct instruction' I mentioned above, and it is why during my workshops I try to include some elements where I 'model' poetry writing for the class. But we are not talking about the class here; we are talking about an individual student who needs help or advice. At this stage I am often simply unsure what to do, beyond the aforementioned tick-box exercise.

If I had a sustained amount of time working with an individual student, there are several things I might do. I would ask the student what they want to achieve with their poem, who the intended readership or audience might be and what emotions or feelings they want to convey. I would also bring in a range of poetry written by other poets, that we might explore and discuss together. But during a workshop with a class there is simply not the time or space for this. And furthermore, the kinds of students who put their hands up and ask for help are often not the students who particularly want to be in the room writing poetry in the first place. They might simply be looking for easy answers so that they can get the whole damn thing over with.

I do not have the answers here. I hope that I continue to do my job for many more years to come, and that during this time I continue to reflect on my practice and to come up with ideas for how to assist students on an individual basis.