Monday, 1 September 2014

Reflections on The Hurst

Although I have often kept journals at residential courses, generally for the Arvon Foundation, I have never mentioned names or commented on individual students or moments for what will be obvious reasons, though, in many respects, it is the individual students and moments in class or tutorials that define the experience.

The way such things work from the tutor's point of view is that two writers are pitched together and, once they have been introduced to each other by email, they engage in some preliminary discussion, firstly to find a theme and title for the course, then to plan it in greater detail. Having settled that the two tutors usually arrange to take two morning group sessions each and decide between themselves what they might be and how they should be related. The rest is pretty well fixed. Afternoons are individual tutorials, the evenings run as according to the formula with Monday arrival and evening meeting with some small light task to think about, Tuesday night the tutors reading, on Wednesday a guest reader comes to read, on Thursday the students choose poems from the library or from their memories and read round once, maybe twice, and on Friday they compile an anthology of their own work and read their poems in the evening.

I have sometimes marvelled with friends and fellow tutors at the success of the formula. Everyone can get on for four days while a fifth or sixth might be stretching the sense of mutual tolerance and benevolence to close to breaking point. One can achieve a lot in four days under the kind of continuous immersion represented by the well-tried structure of the course.

There are two chief ways of looking at the course. The first is as a kind of surgery for poems-in-progress where the tutor's function is to offer a competent professional view of this or that poem. The second is as a chance to review the ways of writing and, possibly, to move on in some way. It is, of course, the second of these that is most exciting for everyone, even the tutors who discover new ways of approaching and producing work. I myself have published a good many poems in books that were begun (and often finished) as part of an exercise set by the other writer.


I think I taught my first Arvon Course in 1979 because I remember waiting for copies of my first book, The Slant Door, to arrive at Totleigh Barton while I was there. I was exhausted by the end of it and ill for a week after as I had worked myself to the bone, staying up all hours to talk and, naturally, feeling a certain anxiety about the value and appropriateness of what I was doing. It took - and still does take - a lot of nervous energy to sustain responsibility throughout the week. I don't think we had the morning group sessions back then, not in the same way, but concentrated on indidivual students. The tutor who had been asked first could nominate the fellow tutor and together they could suggest and in effect decide, who the guest reader might be. The accommodation was far more basic, students shared rooms, and there were no en suite bathrooms, not even for the tutors. In any case I have taught plenty since - possibly over twenty - but I haven't counted. Each was a leaping in and full immersion with very little contact with the outside world (The Hurst actually had wifi for the tutors only this time, the whole centre having been rebuilt.)

Nevertheless, each course seems quite dreamlike as soon as it is over. The journey home - a long journey in my case - is like the part where one emerges from the dream, still a little disorientated, the mind moving on but not yet in the normal manner.

This course has been as productive as the ones before.

Working with Kathryn Maris (I can name her at least) was a pleasure. She has a generous spirit and a genuinely original mind which is all part of her being a splendid poet. Our morning sessions fitted well and one led to the next naturally, opening out areas of discussion.

There was certainly talent of considerable variety among the students which kept us on our toes.

This is beginning to sound awfully like a school end-of-term report. Heaven forbid! End here before you start discussing the legitimacy of creative writing course, whether poetry can be taught and all the usual, on the whole, simplistic questions. Well, another time perhaps.

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

Yes, those journeys home from workshops are wierd - until the effects wear off the world-out-there is dazzling. On the Arvon blog for August someone describes their journey back - "By Penrith I’m convinced that after such an intense week I’ll never settle to everyday life again. By Carlisle I start to worry how to break this awful news to my husband. I want to leave everything, turn my back on our previous life and write on an island retreat somewhere ..."