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Winter by Bill Greenwell

Sheena2

Artwork: Sheena Clover

February 1963

Groundsmen like lead; the snail’s tinsel
frozen over; the tongue stuck to the cheek

by a rush of breath; fifty stiff lashes
around a startled eye. This must be

the aftermath of water, the asphyxiation:
that sacred moment when saints faint

because they have been starved. The dog
digs for hot coals, the cat for the memory

of a toddy. Grandmothers wave away fans,
call for the spirit of ’13, when the air

blazed for weeks, when the gas bills stopped.
Not as now, the coins solid in the socket,

the keenest schoolchild sprawled out,
pigtails at angles, cap-peak caught

by the last blizzard, nothing left to do
but watch the sleet on the television, the way

announcers say, without apology,
without flinching, their bow-ties rigid,

normal service will be resumed
as soon as possible
.

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Online courses – whose do you pick?

I’ve taken a number of online courses, some I’ve really enjoyed, others have been really frenetic and after a busy day at work I’ve found them a bit full on. The slower paced ones where each participant has time to chew over other poets’ work and feel comfortable with what they are able to contribute are more me. I have decided participating in an online chat (with a glass of wine to hand), or giving feedback in a forum on a lazy weekend are the most beneficial to me. The feedback received has always been incredibly useful from both the tutor and the other poets and I hope mine is of value too. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to be asking tutors of online courses what they think about them, why they do them and what they get from them.

billFirst up is Bill Greenwell who was my tutor on the very first online course I did around 7 or 8 years ago. I have subsequently participated in a number of his “clinic”.

What do you think is the appeal of online courses/clinics?

That can vary enormously. Some like the anonymity. Some like the online friendship. Some find them cheaper. I’ve run online courses since 2002 and the ‘clinic’ (I called my course this as a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of making it different), and the attraction does vary hugely from course to course and group to group. But what all writers (if they wish to contribute) want is feedback, or, in some cases, to see feedback, and they want it to be constructive.

But one thing I’m sure of: they are generally better than two hour workshops/ classes in real time. I used to teach (and watch others teach) evening classes, and quite often, everyone was really waiting for their bit of feedback. Suppose you have 15 people, and 120 minutes (not unusual). That means that everyone is waiting for their 8 minutes in the sun, and being nice about the other 112 minutes. Of course that’s a simplification, and there are teacherly strategies to improve that, but I’ve seen it turn out like that. I remember the enormous feeling of liberation I got after 28 years as a classroom teacher, when students could dispense with small talk, and I could focus on the work itself. It was really, really liberating. (The downside – thought it didn’t feel like it – was that, as a teacher, you often worked such weird and long hours that your effective pay became minimal. But that’s my look-out.)

What can a new student/poet expect from an online clinic?

I think I might copyright the word ‘clinic’. I can only really write about my own online course, I mean clinic. But all students can find that a) that they can be heard/ read, and b) that the teacher (me) can respond to them considerately and c) that the work becomes the focus. I always have a part of a forum (or whatever the word is) for chat. If you don’t, it’s just too informal. The main part has to be quite formal, by which I don’t mean stuffy.

Here’s how mine got going. I devised an online course for poets called Poetry Form and Experiment – it was an accredited course at the time – with seven sections (weeks) that had tasks and eight sections (weeks) where imagesCAFTQEZ8writers worked as individuals. The students were international as well as living in the next street. The second group, which had 14 students, was the one where I got the system right (I think). Every time I logged on, it was like a party going on. People were posting generously, and starting to critique each other a little. I found I was able to offer some general and some individual feedback. It was an astonishing group. I was new to higher education and I’d pitched it too low (‘level 1’). Consequently, the final submissions were scoring marks up in the 90s (I thought). My manager was appalled. ‘We don’t go much over 70,’ she said (70 being the normal distinction threshold – the Open University, for whom I’ve worked since 2007, uses 85). So I gave her a piece I’d given 92, and sent her away to read it. She was a bit astonished by the talent. The student (a well-known poet now) kept her mark and won a strange historical prize for being student of the year. I loved that group. They all stayed, they all enjoyed it, there was a lot of humour, and I learned to teach on the web. And 15 of us hit the forum more than 3000 times, a record since broken (4000).

Screen_Shot_2013-05-30_at_16_26_19Later the university in question discontinued accredited online courses, and so I had to re-invent what I did, what I could offer. I did something very simple. I took all the content out. The content became what the students put in. As it stands, what happens is this: a participant (‘student’ is somehow wrong) can post one poem a week for ten weeks. Unless I’m pressed for time, usually a second one is okay, but I make no promises. They upload a poem, and I download it. I don’t read any of their blurbs. In the meantime, anyone who chooses (and they can choose not to) can offer their point of view. I don’t read these till after I’ve commented. What do I comment on? Anything, really, that isn’t (as I think) working. It might be structural, it might be over-writing, it might be a lack of logic, it might be grammar. I am not good at saying how brilliant things are in detail (I do do it, but I’ve set it up so I point at what needs fixing or debating). Sometimes – and this is a bit controversial – I re-write the poems, although it’s not the words I’m changing, just cutting and re-structuring.

What has happened is that the writers – the regulars especially, and I think one person has done it ten times – often make different and often more pertinent points than me. Very occasionally I will say this. Usually not. It has to be democratic: I am not the expert here (inner voice: yes I am mostly). It gets too complex to comment on comments.

I was taught long ago that marking up in red was hostile, so I mark in a restful blue, sometimes pink. I keep red for spelling errors.

How often does yours run?

Twice a year, ten weeks, October and January starts.

How many students are on each course and what do they go on to do?

10-14. Usually 10-12. Some go on to write privately. Some get published in small magazines. More than a dozen have now published at least one collection. Several have won prizes. Some come back for more. Some go on to do MAs in Creative Writing. It’s become a kind of community now. I don’t want to take any credit as such, other than for being a good editor, a good asker of questions, and suggester of alternatives. People in the clinics boost each other, and all I’m trying to do is to reveal their ability. My role is to be honest, straight and polite. Sometimes it’s incomprehensible that they’re too shy to get published. There are some more who must be on the verge of having a collection now.

publishing

But it’s vital that I say that I work with what they write. If there are comic light verse poets, that’s fine; if there are confessional poets, that’s fine. There are no rules other than that I take the poems, and the poets, as they present themselves. I guess what I’m doing is a gentle sort of mentoring. And you do get to know the style of the writers, and sometimes, I’ve said, move on. Mostly I live with their personalities as poets.

How much time (on average) does it take you to crit a poem?

No idea. It can be five minutes, it can be an hour. That’s the beauty of online teaching: sometimes you need to let the poem linger longer in your head. And I don’t really crit a poem, I just comment on it, make suggestions. I can think of more than one poem where I’ve just written ‘so get it published’. The hardest are re-writes, as you have to get your head round the changes.

Do you find it helps or hinders your own writing?

I don’t know. It’s quite hard to write while offering opinions on writing, but if you are part of a community of writers, and that’s how I’d like to be seen, then their talent is going to spur you on later. My writing comes from my mood; I’m sporadic. I’ve written despite teaching/ hosting a clinic, but have also been unable to write. On balance it helps, though not at the time.

Thanks so much Bill. Bill is the author of Ringers and Impossible Objects both published by Cinnamon Press and Spoof from Here Press. He is co-author of A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice, A & C Black Publishers Ltd.

 

Bill Greenwell

December poems part 7: Bill Greenwell, Luigi Marchini, Geraldine Green

Heidi Mallott

Artwork: Heidi Malott

Afterwords
for Chris

After the hundred walks, some to the sea,
………..some across gorse, some to the pub,
and some to the fresh beds,
………..yours and mine, and after a summer
soaking in Greek island spray,
………..and in late autumn on the first
of three days away, hurriedly planned,
………..suddenly you frost, you say
now is a bad time, but all times are bad,
………..and leave the room, and say you’ve been
meaning to tell me, would have
………..got around to it, like lagging the pipes
before winter. And my mouth
………..cramps. And everything is stilled
and difficult, like drinking anaesthetic
………..straight from the fridge.

After the dying, after the coming back,
………..the note to ring you on the icy flap
of a weathered envelope, after the still blue
………..luminous lights of police cars, and the snow
suffusing my pupils, after the can’t-help-you-here
………..of conversation, what do I do
with the flurries of heartbeat? It’s a bastard,
………..a friend says, love: you can’t even
hate them because you would do anything for them
………..other than this. Sit in the tent, then,
and watch the thermometer fall? Or
………..start hunting down someone who will
bring you back? Or take the stones
………..out of your chest, and arrange them
on the mantelpiece, artily (you, of course,
………..have been taken down, and filed

in an album)? It’s a conundrum.
………..Unshaven, you wait for the weather,
close the curtains, watch the window
………..for the oily arrival of sunlight.

Bill Greenwell

Bill Greenwell was born in Sunderland in 1952, and worked in Devon for 36 years before returning to the North-East, where he is the Open University in the North’s Staff Tutor for the Arts. He was New Statesman’s weekly satirical poet from 1994 to 2002, and his web-site http://www.theweeklypoem.com continues this tradition. His first collection, Impossible Objects, was shortlisted for the Forward best first collection prize in 2006. His second, Ringers is also from Cinnamon Press: – Bill Greenwell does things with language you didn’t know were possible… Selima Hill.

Kimberly Conrad

Winter’s Kiss

As hungry as a polar bear’s roar he digs
into snow with bone from a whale
stripped bare long ago further north,
where the breeze slashes through: cold –
miserable, disdainful. This bone

has travelled a long way
its work not yet finished, has barely
started, as he stabs it deep,
hurriedly – night will soon slip

in. Beneath snow, bone strikes ice
not hard enough. Now wet
from the sharpness of the weather,
toil of his dig,
he is a celluloid piece of Artic

with no woods to shelter in: a snowman,
a snow football for the elements. Through
with the search
he lifts bone to mouth
while listening to the dirge.

Luigi Marchini

Luigi Marchini was brought up in London where he spent many a happy maths and physics lesson at the National Film Theatre. Since escaping to Kent some years ago he has had his début pamphlet, The Anatomist,  published by The Conversation Paperpress (2009), and been chairman of the Canterbury based Save As Writers’ Group.

horse

TONIGHT A PRAYER

For those
who cannot speak.

For those who can,
but speak in a different voice.

Voice of children in prison
Voice of prisoners tortured.

Voices of hunger and fear.
Voice of no stone unturned

until we rescue them.
Voice of those

denied a voice
Voice of fox and hare

Voice of grouse and badger.
Voice of greed

Voice of torture
Voices of fear and power

Voice of love
and compassion.

Voice of who we are and
who we choose to be

Tongue of oppressed, the dying and lonely
Tongues that sing the song of community.
Tongue of courage and defiance.

Tongues that sing in all tongues
the Babel of Language,

the language of love and humanity.
language of love of earth and empathy.

One love.
Our animal selves.

Geraldine Green

Geraldine Green is a writer, freelance creative tutor and mentor based in Ulverston on the Furness Peninsula, Cumbria where she was born. Her latest collection, Salt Road’ was published by Indigo Dreams in September 2013. Geraldine is currently working on a new pamphlet collection, A Wing and a Prayer, as part of her post as writer-in-residence at Swarthmoor Hall. She is a regular guest tutor at Brantwood and runs monthly creative writing workshops titled ‘Write to Roam’ on a working farm near Kirkby Lonsdale. She gained a PhD in creative writing poetry in September 2011. Her blog.

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Poetry competition tips

With The New Writer‘s November 30th deadline looming I thought I’d post an interview with Bill Greenwell who judged our previous competition – he’s a wise sage.

AM: What do you look for when judging a competition?

BG: Poems with a structure of some sort; coherence; arresting words, phrases and images; a surety of voice; and some indefinable waffle-dust. Poems I have to read at least three times, because I want to. They also have to be well-edited (it’s a sort of etiquette). And some sense of surprise: a feeling that someone has not only written with an element of glee, even wry or dark humour, but has at some point become totally absorbed by what they’re doing.

AM: Some people talk about “a competition poem” – a good all-rounder. Do you think this exists?

BG: It’s probably sensible to know where you hope it will be published, and what kinds of readers are attracted to the poetry of that magazine. But no, not an all-rounder. Quirky poems, as long as they aren’t only quirky, are good. Winning poems are probably not over-crafted, and not overcrowded. I think it’s easier to define a poem that hasn’t a hope of winning. Length isn’t an issue (as long as they’re within the limit!); but maybe a good competition poem is confident enough not to be exactly 40 lines (or whatever) long.

AM: What tips can you offer a poet new to submitting to competitions?

BG: Be yourself. Surprise yourself. Don’t write in crazy fonts (distracting). And make sure you’ve read a lot of poetry from the last decade or so. Some styles do date. The most obvious advice is to make sure you’ve had some poems published somewhere: at least you then know that you’re publishable. Obey the rules (surprising how often they’re broken). And don’t take rejection personally. Peter Sansom had a clever idea: if you submit three or four, put your best one last. It will look a little better in comparison to previous efforts, since your poems will be numbered in the order you submit them, and probably read in that order.

AM: Is it best to submit to smaller competitions at first where you might stand more chance of being noticed, or is it better to grasp the nettle and go for the top prizes?

BG: Start at the top, and work down. It depends how much you’re prepared to invest, of course. It can be an expensive business.

AM: How important do you think it is to have a winning track record in your CV?

BG: Poems are anonymous, so: no. But if you have no CV at all, think about getting one. Competitions aren’t the best place to start.

.
AM: Thanks Bill.

Bill Greenwell’s first collection Spoof (2005) was published by Entire Photo Here Press, more recently his collections, Impossible Objects (2006) and Ringers (2012) have been published by Cinnamon Press. He’s no stranger to competitions having been a winner or runner-up in the Troubadour, the Kent & Sussex Open (four times!), the Yeovil Open, The Plough, the Devon Open, the Wigtown Open, and the Virginia Warbey. He has also won over 2000 competitions (yes, really!) for parodies and light verse in magazines including The Spectator and New Statesman. In 2004 he won the £5000 Mail on Sunday poetry prize. Phew!

First published in The New Writer Summer 2012