I’ve been delivering writing workshops for a long time now, most regularly at the Scottish Poetry Library to people who, though at various points in their writing careers, have poetry on the brain. Since starting as Projects and Engagement Coordinator for the Institute for Academic Development (IAD), it has been interesting to think about how my skills as a writer and writing teacher could be of use in my new work which has the wider focus of encouraging and exploring creative learning, innovation and collaboration across the University of Edinburgh.
One of my early meetings after starting here was with Johanna Holtan who used to run the Festival of Creative Learning which I now look after. She is a powerhouse and the job she has moved on to is running the University’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars Programme, which ‘supports the brightest and best African scholars with great potential but few educational opportunities’. When Jo found out that I am a poet, she asked if I would deliver a workshop for some of her scholars, and I was delighted to accept.
Jo mentioned that the scholars were having a visit from the poet Upile Chisala, and while I wasn’t able to attend her reading (which I was very sad about as I knew it would be amazing and from the reports of the scholars it certainly was), I wanted to respond to Upile’s poetry in my workshop. Jo works on the project with Stephen Kaye who sent me over some of Upile’s poems, and these were the starting point.
It was such an inspiring session, and all of the scholars produced work which was original, authentic and thrilling. We started by reading out a selection of Upile’s poems together and discussing them, then we did free writing with prompts like:
I am beautiful because…
I celebrate myself because…
I am a fire because…
We then wrote poems, shared them with one another and celebrated one another’s creativity and original vision. I think only one of the scholars was a poet who had written, performed and won awards before, along with her many other activities, so for the others I suspect the exercises were somewhat more unusual but they were all brilliant at diving in and having a go, and what each one wrote was really special.
It is encouraging to realise that poetry workshops can be used to work with people from various backgrounds (academic or otherwise) in this way, as I have always believed that reading and writing poetry is for everyone. Not everyone will do it all the time, and not everyone will be published, but everyone can enjoy and learn from poetry, and gain insights about themselves and how they communicate their inner life and work. We are already planning a poetry workshop as part of this year’s Beltane Annual Gathering, looking at how researchers can incorporate poetry workshops into the teaching and sharing of their work, and I’m hoping we can use poetry in other areas as well, as do other academics working at the IAD such as Daphne Loads. Daphne has a book coming out in which she explores engaging with poetry and other writings as a way into thinking about teaching practice and teacher identity. Due out in 2018, Rich Pickings: Creative Professional Development activities for University Lecturers, is to be published by BRILL (formerly SENSE).
Poetry can seem like a foreign language to people when they are not used to it, but one of the great things about it is that it is our own language used in new and exciting ways which are often even closer in form and structure to how we think, feel and dream, and ways we can all understand if we open our minds to the forms. Often when we try to communicate with one another we run up against the shocking realisation that not everyone thinks the same way we do, even though we’re all humans in bodies with minds, and yet if we embrace the diverse ways we think and express ourselves rather than closing ourselves off, we can learn so much. This is something poetry teaches.