What not to do in (online) poetry class; making the link


I can’t decide if online poetry courses are harder than real-life poetry courses.

The one I’ve just finished was definitely illuminating and great fun.

In real-life poetry courses you have to read in front of your classmates, usually, and that’s hard. People tend to be kind in their criticisms – you have to have balls of steel  to say something negative to someone’s face. Or be severely provoked. But that means the nuances of what people say become important. People’s silences become important.

Online, people are freer to say what they really think, a bit freer anyway. But it’s easier to offend.

I’ve just completed a brilliant six-week course with the London Poetry School. We were looking at techniques for free verse with the excellent Tamar Yoseloff. I am very much hoping she will run part two soon because I learnt a great deal.

The course started well. My first poem was liked and I basked in the general approval.

The second poem not so much. The second poem was clouds split level, the one I wrote for Paul Kessling and blogged about here.

The assignment asked for a poem that used line length to control pace. I thought this poem would qualify as it’s very hard to say fast because of the sounds of the words.

To be completely honest, I didn’t really get it, the assignment. Some poems with very short lines have to be said fast and some slow. The same is true for poems with long lines. So I suppose I didn’t really understand what was being asked. My bad.

I didn’t tell the rest of the class that it was a poem written for a film as I wanted to know if it worked on its merits as a poem. The consensus was possibly not. Tammy doubted it was even free verse because of all the rhyme. Ouch. She was right. Maybe that’s why I told them the back-story when the class was over. Or perhaps I just wanted to show off a little bit or ‘share my pride’ as it might be prettier to say.

It was a class full of excellent poets, and me.

Later, on the forum, one member of the class expressed his frustration at my ‘lack of transparency’, a definite reprimand. No one else said anything, leaving me to imagine that they shared his view. I wrote an apologetic explanation.

The final assignment was for a poem with a syntactical process, based on the William Carlos Williams quote that a poem is a ‘machine with words’. We were given a Jorie Graham poem to look at. Again, I wasn’t quite sure what was required but sadly was too slow to realise that I was all at sea and therefore failed to ask for help.

So I wrote a poem about a machine, which wasn’t really the point. It was a cute idea, possibly too cute, as one of my classmates observed. Here’s the poem:

http://www.icam.com/uk/consumer/HOSA-79-features

  • organic design
  • twin action high-speed automatic sensors
  • retro looks
  • evolutionary functionality
  • brings your stills to life in living pictures
  • zoom without shake

soft-tech shutters are squint-enabled
for flickering moments, fast-moving objects
and stationary subjects which may be poorly lit

like the sweeping beauty of a natural
landscape: hills rising to a new
blue sky or the gridlocking grandeur
of glassy tower blocks or
the turn of a smile

full specification
in the blink of an i

In the interests of complete transparency this is almost the latest version of the poem which has benefited greatly from some of the criticisms I got in class.

The most widely voiced criticism surprised me. It was that people couldn’t make the link work. People also wondered whether I’d thought of a title.

I’d imagined that it would be clear to everyone that the link was a spoof and was indeed the title. My ‘thinking’ was that I’d never seen an http link used as the title for a poem and that it would be fun. I know. Deep stuff.

People were pretty irritated when I had to admit it was a made-up page address.

(They had other criticisms which I found very useful.)

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was an online course. People had every right to expect the links to work. My idea of what a poem is, a piece of paper with words on it, hadn’t even kept pace with my own experimental practice.

So now I’ve put two links in. Here’s the final poem:

http://www.icam.com/uk/consumer/HOSA-79-features

  • organic design
  • twin action high-speed automatic sensors
  • retro looks
  • evolutionary functionality
  • brings your stills to life in living pictures
  • zoom without shake

soft-tech shutters are squint-enabled
for flickering moments, fast-moving objects
and stationary subjects which may be poorly lit

like the sweeping beauty of a natural
landscape: hills rising to a new
blue sky or the gridlocking grandeur
of glassy tower blocks or
the turn of a smile

full specification
in the blink of an i

I don’t think it’s my best work. But I very much enjoyed the process of failing this assignment.

I like collage. I like mixed-media. I partly like it because I hope there’s room for me to hide my inexperience and inadequacy behind these colourful decorations. But I also like it because I find it very stimulating and exciting.

I very much enjoyed writing for Paul, for example, and I think the film and the poem are at the very least interesting together. My poem definitely gains from the association with his images.

For this poem, the Google page of human eyes was my first thought. But my second was that if I attached that to the title, I would give the idea of the poem away too quickly. So I had to come up with something else for the title link. But then I still wanted to use the page of human eyes which is such a striking image. So I added the last two lines.

I like the way the links pushed the poem about a bit.

I’m not sure about epoetry though. Poetry is hard enough to hear when it’s just someone saying words. A sound and light show risks dilution.

And I’m still not sure whether courses online are harder than courses in real life or vice versa. Both seem fraught with opportunities for me to get things wrong and perhaps that’s appropriate for the learning situation.

So I’m really sorry to everyone on Tammy’s course. I am sorry I was irritating. I didn’t mean to be. And, at the risk of making it worse, I learned a huge amount from my mistakes, and a lot about poetry too.

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Posted in literature, Poetry, reading, Writing
7 comments on “What not to do in (online) poetry class; making the link
  1. justinbog says:

    I always have the best time reading your blog posts, Cathy. And love the way you write about your own process in figuring out different aspects of the writing craft. This one is a keeper.

  2. Pseu says:

    It is easy to ‘read’ irritation into a typed response: it may be that the irritated tone you thought you had aroused was not, in fact what the commentator intended? Don’t be too hard on yourself.

    I like the idea of a link being a title, but I agree: maybe the fact it was posted on line made the reader expect to be able to follow it! Also, having a real ‘live’ link at the end of the poem will re-enforce the expectation that the one at the front should be live too!

    Interesting poem. Clever.

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Argh. That word. Clever. It haunts me. I know … I know … I just got an email from someone else on the course who found my comments expressed irritation about her work. So, I may have to do another blog post. I think you’re right about the links. I can’t believe that I’ve been going around with such a dated, puritanical idea of what a poem is – words on paper with no links. Anyway, more of this tomorrow. Thanks Sarah. Cathy x

  3. Really grateful that you let us into the process of writing and rewriting. You need to know that it is thought provoking and inspirational – thank you.

    I’m not a poet, although most of my friends seem to be, but I like the idea of the web address as a title – although it would probably take an exceedingly long time for the penny to drop. The problem I have is that even when in on it I haven’t been able to decode it to my satisfaction – willing to look like a complete idiot. Have I missed something?

  4. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Hi Bridget
    Thanks so much for your kind words. I am really gratified.
    As to you ‘missing something’. I would say that you haven’t as this is probably a very early and somewhat ineffectual draft of a poem. I think there’s an interesting idea here but it isn’t well enough developed even to be on this blog!
    I also, in general, question the value of poetry which leaves readers feeling they have ‘missed something’. It’s a very difficult area as I have no doubt that I get much more pleasure from poetry now that I am a more experienced reader. But I aspire for my poetry to reach everyone and anyone, even, or perhaps especially, people who don’t normally read poetry. That’s a political stance for me.
    This is a difficult circle to square for me as TS Eliot and Joyce I find very hard. Yet they are acknowledged as geniuses and I wouldn’t dare rubbish them.
    FWIW what I am trying to do here is play with lineation. But once you have to explain it, as I proved again on my online course, you’ve really admitted that it’s not working.
    I am going to keep at it.
    Cathy x

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