Can discussing poetry make good radio programmes?
Two years ago, the controller of Radio 4 invited me to begin a new poetry programme, a workshop that would reflect Britain's vast grassroots poetry activity. Across the UK, thousands of people of all ages take part in regular poetry workshops. Workshops are the core of creative writing courses in universities, of course, but there are thousands outside academe. Some are based in arts centres, some are Poetry Society "Stanzas", affiliated to the society in Covent Garden, and some are simply groups of friends. What they all have in common is people reading their poems to each other. I would work with producers at BBC Bristol, and like Gardeners' Question Time or Any Questions, we would go round the country visiting different groups, workshopping.
It was an exciting idea. The BBC Bristol poetry team (responsible for Poetry Please) is an experienced, imaginative bunch of people who know and do an enormous amount about and for poetry. But how about the groups? Even in ordinary workshops, exposing a new poem to other people's criticism can be nerve-racking. How would unpublished poets, used to reading privately to each other, feel about their poems being poked and pruned on air?
I needn't have worried. Members of a good group want, and respect, constructive feedback. My part was simple, but from a radio point of view, interesting listeners in criticising poems they can't read, inviting them to spot the shaded inner workings of words they were unable to go back to, posed a complex challenge.
Radio is brilliant for poetry because poems are sound: the "ear" is crucial. But you need the eye, too. Readers take in a poem through a delicate triangulation of ear, brain and eye. The white space around words on a page is visual silence. It shapes the poem like barometric pressure, or like a musical pause. Criticising, properly responding to poems, involves rereading. How could we do that for listeners without a text? We could put the poems on the website, but the producer had to make programmes people could enjoy while lying in the bath or driving down the motorway.
We decided to try to record where each group normally met, and to suggest different themes. And because reading poems is the first step to writing them, we'd also read and discuss a poem by a published poet associated with the region.
We began last year in Exeter, with 12 members of the Excite poetry group. The Exeter poet Lawrence Sail helped me lead the workshop: I wanted it to feel as conversational as possible. The producer edited two hours down to 25 minutes, but there seemed to be too many voices. Next time we reduced the number of poets to eight, in Edinburgh, from a group called the School of Poets; then eight Newcastle writers who'd been given awards by New Writing North to develop their poetry. But eight was still too many. For Swansea we cut again: we met six members of the Junkbox Poetry Group. Once we'd found the right number we could experiment further. Junkbox Poets helped us try a feature which has become part of this year's series: doing an exercise tied to a particular technical issue as well as the theme, location, and poem by the published poet.
In Manchester, we worked with Stalybridge Station Poets who met in a station bar. The theme was "Journeys"; the technical issue was metaphor, that leap from one world to another. The poem we discussed, "Close", by Carol Ann Duffy (pictured) who lives in Manchester, is a metaphorical "journey" between two lovers. In Grasmere, the theme was "Fathers." We met in a centre opposite Dove Cottage, built in the meadow Wordsworth overlooked while writing The Prelude.
Another technical issue was the question of line-breaks: the exercise turned on a poem by William Carlos Williams, a father of American modernism. For radio, this is a really risky experiment. That poem is a single sentence in very short lines beginning:
Everyone who writes poetry knows it. But do they really know the line-breaks? I read it out without marking the breaks, we wrote it down then went round the group suggesting breaks. We got only one right and had to work out why the poet breaks where he does. Then I read it again, marking the breaks. Does it work on radio? Will listeners hear the breaks? We'll have to wait and see. We're still experimenting.