On Monday 29th February, fifteen pupils and two teachers (Mr Carr and Mrs Elvin) took the train from Chesterfield to Devon for our week-long writing workshop at the Arvon Foundation’s centre at Totleigh Barton. The trip down and across much of the country was surprisingly easy and, for the duration of the journey, it was delightful to see the pupils reading and writing with such enthusiasm.
We were met by our hosts Eliza and Mary and after being briefed about how Totleigh Barton works, we were introduced to our two tutors for the week: the novelist Tiffany Murray and the poet Nick Makoha.
We started Tuesday morning with a ninety minute workshop delivered by Tiffany, followed by our workshop with Nick. It was clear from the outset that were all expected to work hard this week to improve the quality of our writing. Two things we learned immediately were:
1. The definition of insanity is doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results.
2. Human Truth + Imagery = Poetry
On Tuesday afternoon, pupils had tutorials or went for a walk before cooking supper. In the evening, Nick and Tiffany read to us from their published work and we gained insight into their interests and output as writers.
Tiffany delivered a marathon workshop session on Wednesday morning, split into three sections with two breaks to rest or aching hands and brains. She gave us a whole range of things to do including a number of tasks we were to take away and complete in our free time. In the afternoon, pupils gathered in the barn to complete these tasks and then to write, to read, to play the piano or ukulele or just to relax and chat.
After supper, poet Matt Harvey entertained us in the barn with his hilarious poetry, prose and stand-up, all of which was eagerly received. Several pupils bought copies of his poetry books at the end of his session before returning to bed tired but happy.
On Thursday morning, after some competitive pancake making - resulting in chocolate and cinnamon pancakes for all - we sat down to our morning session with Nick. Each pupil brought along six poetry books of their choice and a poem that they wished to share with the group. We dipped into our chosen books, and those of our neighbours, extracting two lines from each. Then we used these lines to create a pastiche of our chosen poem. We also introduced images taken from postcards (a collection of images published by Magnum). This was a challenging session and we all had to face the realisation that writing poetry is a difficult business requiring tenacity and perseverance as well as inspiration. The level of work and response was outstanding.