Giving a voice to Auckland's migrant women
Our second workshop, 24/3 and 25/3, was on Poetry. Tutors Renee Liang, Siobhan Harvey and Johanna Emeney shared their enthusiasm. So what is poetry? Some people think it’s scary and a little hard where it’s anything but. A hangover from it being taught badly at school perhaps…
A brainstorm, then: Poetry is a distillation of emotions, an essence if you like. It appeals to the heart and mind, often on many levels, some of them unconscious. It’s a dialogue with the reader which plays on experience and belief to form a connection. There is a form and structure to poetry, but you can make your own rules or choose which ones to obey – rhythm, rhyme, assonance, metaphor, verse structure, meter….. all are tools to help your poetry reach out and resonate with the reader. Poems are often concise, tight and short (but not always) – a result of the distillation and concentration of words to the bare minimum needed to convey a thought, a snatched moment in time. Poems can be lyrical (conveying an emotion) or narrative (telling stories). Sometimes they are both at the same time. A wonderful thing about poems is that they are often short and can be completed in a short time – ideal for people with busy lives!
Things that work in poetry:
Imagery – make the words make an image, a mental link
Spaces – make the reader ‘read between the lines’ – it works well if they have to do some work, too. More is less. Show not tell.
Playfulness – both in subject matter and word choice. Unlike other types of writing, ambiguity and wordplay are encouraged and add layers of meaning or draw interesting connections.
Some sort of internal melody – imagine that the poem is being sung – what rhythm or flow would it have? Grammar rules don’t need to be followed (but can be).
Visual layout of poetry on the page, plus punctuation, line length, line breaks, verses – they affect the way the poem is read and thus its meaning and impact.
From the discussion, we moved onto exercises.
Senses: Find a nice spot to sit. Using the ‘morning pages’ exercise from week one, write for 5 minutes with your senses alive: pay attention to what you are hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling in turn. Then stop, and highlight the phrases that appeal to you. Use these as the basis for a poem, remembering that distillation is the key. Feel free to add, delete or follow where the poem takes your thoughts.
List poetry: make a list of things, for example, things you have to go to the kitchen for. Things you pack in your handbag. Things you have to remember to do today. Construct and then edit into a series of brief phrases, forming a poem.
Concrete poetry: write a poem about fruit entitled ‘how to’… (prepare an avocado, peel a banana, etc). Remember, it doesn’t have to be ‘only’ about the fruit – as you write you will find hidden layers of meaning appearing, even without intending to. Anchoring a poem in the concrete, such as everyday domestic acts, can often lead to emotional resonance with deeper things you want to talk about – ‘taking the concrete particular and moving them to the emotional timbre of the piece’.
Objects: this is another concrete poetry exercise. Take an object – anything, the more everyday the better – and write about how it looks, feels, your history with it…go where the poem takes you. Again, you will find unexpected emotional resonances.
Our discussion today was on what to write, how to find an audience, and publishing.
What to write:
Write anything, whatever you see! The world is what you write about. Writing allows you to explore and develop ideas and themes. Over time, that exploration will become deeper and more complex. Let passion be your guide. If a story or idea sticks in your head and won’t go away – then that is a story that needs to be written. Passion is something that will sustain you over a longer writing project, like a novel or collection of poetry. Let the idea and characters lead you. You may find some things that are surprising, even to you.
Never think that you can’t write about yourself. To the contrary – people’s lives are fascinating to audiences. You are unique with a wealth of lived experience – that’s what makes you unique. Even if your character is fictional – and different in terms of age, gender, life experience – by inserting a sliver of yourself into them you can make them authentic, and different to any other character that’s been written. Audiences can spot a fake. They are looking for the ‘truth’ – emotional more than literal – in the things they read.
Be careful however – you need to dissociate real life from ‘fiction’ for your readers. This is often difficult – people like to believe that the things they read are real or represent themselves in some way. There are tricks to dissuade them from thinking this, such as changing point of view (from first person (I) to third person (he/she), changing the gender or age of the reader…
An idea can have many different lives, or be recycled into many different genres. You could think of different genres – poetry, prose, drama, non fiction – as a toolbox, much as a painter has different brushes to paint different ways. One genre may be more suited for a story than another. Try them all out.
Finding an audience
Most people don’t want to hide their writing, at least not forever. They need to find readers who will absorb, respond, buy books and look eagerly for your next work. Developing an audience is something that all writers need to engage in.
First, find out who your audience could be. Does your work appeal to young or old? male or female? what kinds of backgrounds? As a migrant, you already have an advantage in that your voice – with its mix of languages, ideas, lived experience – is likely to be unique, and this is what audiences and publishers are hungry for. Think about what sets your work apart, but also what is universal about it.
What is your ‘hook’ – the thing that will draw audiences in? Is it your personal story (and how much do you want to reveal?). Your world view? The characters that you, and only you, could write? Read widely – that way you know what sells, what you yourself like, and what has already been said. There is always more room for more stories, if they are unique and well told. That is both the content and craft of writing. Remember, if you like what you write, if it’s true to you, then that’s a good start. Be your own first reader.
When it comes to editing (which we will cover in more detail in workshop 4), remember that time brings distance. There is much to be said about the usefulness of the ‘bottom drawer editor’. Write that raw first draft – quickly, without fearing or worrying too much. Then put it away for a week, a month, a year. Let time marinate it, let yourself journey through life a bit more. When you pull the draft out again you will be able to approach it with the mind of an editor, seeing it afresh and accepting its good and bad points. Then you can make changes. You may need to think about whether what you write will offend your audience. Offending people isn’t necessarily bad – there is always someone who is offended – but making people think or engaging their hearts and minds should be your main goal as a writer.
The world of publishing is changing – there are ebooks, online media, transmedia (eg traditional publishing reaching out to the worlds of film, music and art). Doing it yourself is no longer so difficult, costly nor frowned upon. Yet there is much to recommend in the traditional editing and publishing route in terms of guaranteeing quality and managing the marketing/selling side of things.
However fast things are changing, you need to step in at some stage and start getting noticed. Demonstrating you have an audience and also that your peers – editors and other writers – consider your work to be of a good enough standard to publish – will get you everywhere with a potential publisher. Look for competitions to enter, literary journals to submit to. (Start reading journals to have an idea of what to send.) Self publishing a small book – online or physically or both – may attract audience, get you noticed and show a potential publisher your books can sell.
Have a thick skin (easier said than done, even for veteran writers) and remember that editors too have their quirks so just because a work is rejected by one, doesn’t mean it might not be snapped up by another. Think about online journals – these are proliferating and it’s likely that there’s one out there which is looking for work just like yours. Think about radio. Keep a record of what you have submitted where, and when you might expect to hear back. Follow up – politely, and in good time. Don’t hassle someone who has already said no, but do approach them with another piece.
Great! that’s it for this week… great to hear some people are already culturing a writing habit, and getting a collection of pieces they like. Remember that we will be asking you to bring a few pieces of your own along to the editing session, and also that we are hoping to publish some of your work in a book at the end of this course. Please continue generating and working on your writing!