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Brendan Cleary workshop – drafting poems

The pub with no name, brighton

Yesterday I was in Brighton at the Pub with No Name (which is incidentally in an area with a pub on each street corner as well as halfway down each street, so not having a name is pretty cocky) for an all-day workshop with legendary Irish poet Brendan Cleary. (Brendan is editor of the recently relaunched magazine The Echo Room by the way – worth checking out.)

We were in the upstairs room with the bay window in the photo, with sun streaming through and views almost to the sea. It was an enjoyable, intense, not to mention beer-fuelled, day which ended in me falling asleep in my dinner, but more of that later perhaps!

The day’s focus was on the process of drafting poems. We all shared how we went about bringing a poem into being, how we beat it into shape, what triggered a new poem, that kind of thing. We each workshopped a poem before lunch, and (very briefly, although we ran out of time) another at the end of the day. In between we started a new poem and Brendan guided us through a couple of drafts of it. With just five of us in the group it was pretty full on.

In time-honoured tradition (I love being able to use all kinds of terrible cliches on this blog – sorry!) here are a few of the tips, ideas and other gems given to us by Brendan during the day.

  • On tense: it’s OK to put something that happened in the past into the present tense – the immediacy can make it fresh. But be careful not to mix tenses by accident.
  • It’s also OK to change details of something that actually happened, if the poem calls for it. It doesn’t mean you’re being unfaithful to the spirit of the poem.
  • If you use brackets, or dashes, or lower-case ‘I’ or whatever, have a rationale. Every decision like that, every punctuation mark counts and you should be able to defend your decisions if asked. They shouldn’t be arbitrary. Every tiny detail of the poem contributes to the whole.
  • Whether you start a poem with a page of notes, a random outpouring or a particular shape or form, the first step of redrafting is to go through and mark the bits you consider to be ‘grade A’ then cut everything else. With what’s left, a shape may start to emerge. Be prepared to experiment with different line lengths, different stanza lengths, different forms. What you have cut out may not necessarily be bad, and the bits you are really reluctant to cut may be the material that’s stopping the true poem from emerging – be aware of that.
  • Keep a notebook on you at all times and don’t be afraid of ruining it!
  • If you draft in longhand, the quicker you get it onto the computer the better as it helps the process of de-personalisation. Look at the poem on the page (when typewritten) and consider the logic behind the shape of it, and the white space. “The white space behind the words is the rest of the universe.”
  • Don’t get bogged down with making sure people will understand your poem. Removing some of your authorial intention is crucial – allow people to make their own interpretations and decisions as to what it’s about.
  • Engagement – you have to engage with your poem, and think about how it will engage readers.
  • A poem can go in its own direction. That’s when you might get that ‘did I really write that?’ moment.
  • When drafting/re-drafting ask yourself questions like “What do I not need to say?” “Is this really 2 poems?” “Have I given the trick away too quickly?” “Do I need to re-order lines, or even start at the end?”
  • You don’t often add to a poem after the first draft, but you often cut.
  • Poems can be made from other poems, and they feed off each other. Go back to a successful poem, one you are pleased with, or perhaps where the form suggested itself naturally. Maybe you could write another poem in that form, or the poem may prompt another. (Useful idea when putting together a collection. Poem that work in isolation don’t necessary form a coherent whole, and conversely some poems only work in conjunction with those around them.)

Brendan also quoted John Berger when he said “Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.” Reassembling what has been scattered – what a nice idea.

After a few more drinks in the pub after the workshop ended, I made my way home to find my husband had cooked a sausage casserole, and he and stepson regaled me with everything they’d been up to. But I confess I was completely burned out and halfway through dinner suddenly I couldn’t listen to (or utter) another word. Call myself a poet? I have no stamina!

Published inPoet's TipsWorkshoppingWriting

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  1. Thanks for sharing those tips. I’m an old friend of Brendan’s. Haven’t seen him for years but just enjoyed my second read through of “Sacrilege.” searching for him brought me to this blog…and some much needed tips… Thanks again, Floyd.

  2. Glad it was useful, Floyd, and thanks a lot for commenting.

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Robin Houghton 2021
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