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Notes from a workshop with Andrew McMillan

As promised in my last post, here are my notes from the workshop I did on Saturday at the South Downs Poetry Festival, with Andrew McMillan. I’m including links at the end to other workshop notes, in case you find these posts useful.

I was really impressed with Andrew’s workshop. It’s tricky to teach a one-off session like this when you’ve no way of knowing who is coming to the session nor what they hope to get from it. As well as asking us to each say (briefly) what we hoped to take away, he also offered participants the chance to feed back after every exercise, and the chance to read aloud the example poems. Andrew had planned the session well and we motored through a lot of great material, but his calm and relaxed style meant it never felt hurried or forced. That’s exactly what I want as a participant – to feel challenged by the material, confident in the teacher and unaware of time passing.

So here’s a summary, in which I hope I’ve captured the essential points.

‘All poems fail – which is why you have to write the next one.’

‘Be prepared to throw your life off a cliff.’

Go to the place that makes you feel uncomfortable. Write the thing you wouldn’t want your mother to read.

How do you get at the plain truth of something and still make it sound fresh? Think about the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’. Getting to the ‘poetic’ truth might not mean presenting the actual truth of what happened.

The thing you want to tackle may be too big or overwhelming to get to grips with. So drill down to a small detail and let that be a metaphor for the big thing.

Example poem: ‘Your Blue Shirt’ by Selima Hill (from Gloria: Selected Poems. Bloodaxe. 2008)

‘How plain can it be and still be poetry?’

‘All poetic metaphor exists because you can’t find the one word or phrase which encompasses what you really want to say.’

AM loves it when plain language is used to express a simple truth, eg W H Auden: “Thousands have lived without love but none without water.”

Readers need time to pause and think.

It’s important to achieve balance – moments of ‘high poetry’ can contrast with those of mundane or ‘plain’ language – the contrast and balance can make each moment effective. Compare for example to music with its highs and lows.

Example poem: ‘Filling Station’ by Elizabeth Bishop (from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979)

If something’s not working, try stripping out everything that’s not essential – adjectives, fancy verbs, ‘wow’ words etc. Find the ‘survival mechanism’ of the poem. In this way you’re left with something sparse but dense. THEN you can think about building it up.

Example: ‘His Stillness’ by Sharon Olds (fantastically moving!) – from Selected Poems, 2005 (Cape)

Uncertainty can come across as more honest

The idea of not being sure about something can somehow be more honest and can allow a way in for the reader.

In a way, all memory is false because another person present will recall the same thing differently.

Example poem: ‘A Spruce New Colour’ by Tom Paulin (Love’s Bonfire, Faber 2012)

Consider balance and contrast in language choice and tone

Try to avoid writing about a serious subject matter in too high a register – it can seem a bit ‘poetic’, not really honest. Explore ways around this by varying the language.

Example poem: ‘I will love the twenty first century’ by Mark Strand (from the Ambit Magazine Retrospective) – where he gives the more ‘serious’ ideas voice via a third person, which the voice of the poet then undercuts.

One way of framing a serious topic and to foreground it without losing credibility and staying grounded/true is by bookending it with more down to earth details.

Example poem: ‘Dave and the Curried Soup’ by John Sewell (Bursting the Clouds, Cape 1998) – a mid section of energy and sexual excitement bookended by the banal details of a soup (‘The trouble with Jerusalem artichokes…’)

Last thoughts: ‘What people will think when reading your work … is not important’ (ie don’t let that fear inhibit you … you have the freedom to write whatever it is you need to write) – AM says when he wrote the poems in Physical he wasn’t thinking about them being published let alone read!

‘Poems need to vibrate on the page with energy.’

‘Something has to be on the line when you write a poem.’

If you’ve enjoyed this you may be interested in previous blog posts where I’ve passed on words of wisdom from poets:

Notes from a Don Share masterclass

Mimi Khalvati on editing and what to bin

More words of advice from Mimi Khalvati

Tips from Don Paterson

Mimi Khalvati on form, and a few ‘banned’ words




Published inBlogEventsMags & BlogsPoet's TipsWorkshoppingWriting


  1. Rebecca Gethin Rebecca Gethin

    Thanks so much for sharing and writing it up so succinctly. Wish i had been there.

  2. Thanks for an informative post, Robin. Ways into new writing and of appraising existing poems for redrafting: really useful. I’ll be checking out your links to other workshop notes 🙂

  3. elly elly

    Very helpful. Reminds us that we need to dare a bit (or a lot) when writing a poem. Good technique suggestions. I have just printed this post as a reminder 🙂

  4. Such great ideas here. I will mark this page and come back to it. (And, by the way, loved Andrew McMillan’s Physical!)

  5. Anna Kisby Anna Kisby

    Thank you Robin, that’s a brilliant summing up of Andrew’s workshop! Wasn’t it great? So full of energy and useful ideas for ‘ways in’ – and your notes help me remember tips to take away.

  6. Stephen Bone Stephen Bone

    ‘ sparse but dense’ sounds wonderful advice to me
    poems stripped to the bone , almost x-rays are the ones I respond to best

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Robin Houghton 2021