Saturday, October 21, 2006

Writing Workshops

Vienna Lit is a new organization in Vienna that, in their own words, aims to provide a platform for live literature and the spoken word in English. They had organized a series of events a week ago, from Thursday through Saturday. These included four writing workshops (plus one for children) at the British Council. I attended all of them, and though I was disappointed that these workshops focussed much more on poetry than prose, I did have a great time, and gained some insight into poetry.
The first workshop was on Friday at 5 pm and so I rushed out early from the lab. I reached the British Council a bit late, but since only one other person was there, the workshop hadn't started yet.
The Sound of Poetic Sound was conducted by Anthony Joseph, and was probably the best one in the series. It is a pity that there were only two participants (well, Julia, the festival organizer participated for the first 20 min or so). As the title of his workshop suggests, Anthony emphasizes the importance of the sound words or phrases. He started off by asking us what were the stories behind our names. Both my first and last names do have interesting stories... and I tried getting away with that of my first name only, but he insisted that I relate the other story as well. He then asked us to pick up slips of paper with a word each and write down what taste, feel, sound, sight, memory do we associate the word with. Then we had to select a few of these associations and write four-five lines, and read them out. Unfortunately I don't have my write-up for this one (but I had written about the drone of a teacher teaching calculus and the wait for the bell to ring, and other stuff that I don't remember). The others immediately guessed that the word was "boredom".
The next task was to write an eight-sentence passage on anything without repeating a single word (not even articles). That was terribly difficult. I wrote:
A boy enters the room. His sister follows close behind. They stare around them, fascinated. He selects an interesting spot. She quickly does so too. What is in store for these two? Ah, wouldn't you like to know that? But I'm mean, won't say how this ends!
Then we were asked to randomize these words, so that mine became:
fascinated like ah the around is selects behind does I'm say sister spot too these she but follows for won't this his what an room close they mean he enters how so quickly wouldn't interesting a stare you store boy in them two know ends that to
We were asked to read it out, and the other participant (and he himself) was to write down groups of words that sounds interesting and/or beautiful. When Victoria, the other participant read out hers, I collected:
threadbare guardian
autumn leaf
only communicated
with they each beating
followed skeleton together
his became
only living hearts
We were to use these, add words wherever required, change tenses, cases-- whatever-- to write a poem. Mine was:
A Relationship
==========
Threadbare guardian
His became.
Like an autumn leaf
Like life-followed skeletons;
Together, his became.
Only living hearts--
Each beating...
The others liked it-- the main purpose had been to create something that sounds nice and isn't entirely nonsensical, and I guess with a big or small stretch of imagination it could even make sense. In any case, the method was cool, and this was my first "poem" in something like 20 years. I do remember writing two or three childish ones when I was a kid.
The next workshop was on Saturday morning, at 10 am. I had gone dancing with Adam and Fabien at Why Not, and despite my resolutions had gotten back quite late, 2:30 am. Understandably, I was late for the workshop, nevertheless still before things had started properly.
The Voice Within was being conducted by John Siddique. Again, as the title suggests, the aim was to access one's "natural author's voice". The first exercise was to speak from the character's perspective. We were paired up and had to ask questions to our partners about themselves, take notes, and then introduce them as if we were them. That was interesting.
Among things he emphasized were
Never say what the author feels, don't make the reader emote. Rather show it.
Stay out of it, even if it has an "I" character.
As an example he gave us a poem:
Handbag
======
My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.
-Ruth Fainlight
We were asked to write a few sentences about an object we associate with a person we love, and write a poem. I wrote about my brother's camera, but it didn't turn out to be satisfactory.
Dardis McNamee, professor of journalism and writing at Webster University, Vienna, conducted the next workshop on Literary Travel Writing. This was probably the most structured of all the workshops. She recommeded reading her favourite travel books, the ones that sound most interesting to me were William Dalrymple's In Xanadu and Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. I don't remember reading much travel writing, but since I like to travel, and often try to maintain a travelogue I thought I'd do this workshop anyway.
Her tips were very interesting:
1. Learn about the place before and find out more while there. Have a knowledge of history. Keep in mind that history is the source of richness of the contemporary world. See things in light of their history. But do pay attention to the present.
Let loose the imaginative ability to see the manifestations of history in the present day.
2. Have a sense of wonder.
3. Quality of attention-- attention to details.
To go about the actual writing, she suggested,
1. Practise taking notes of a scene as if one is a set designer for a film. Key visual elements, colours, quality of light (recommended reading: books on painting and/or stage lighting), what is noticed first.
There are layers of perception. Pick out what is noticed first, what feels charming, what irritating.
2. Characters-- who do we think he is, why do we think this about him. Describe the people as with the setting.
3. Enter the scene and become involved. First person ("I walked into the room...") or first person invisible ("Entering the room...").
4. Little anecdotes of encounters. Conversations/dialogues, incidents etc.
5. The memories, experience etc that the scene stimulates one to think. Reflections, connections that one is reminded of from (a) history, or (b) personal experiences.
The last workshop was conducted by Peter Waugh on Place Writing Space. Peter is the co-founder of the poetry group Labyrinth, and it turned out that Ella from my theatre group used to go to this group. This workshop was about place, space and enviroment. He gave us a poem to illustrate two different places/spaces/environments in two parts of the same poem:
My Life in Two Parts
===============
1
Outside my window is a row of poplars
growing from the turf of childhood.
Poplars grow in rows, never on their own.
It is Christmas. The sky is full of stars,
the branches are bare,
the wolves distant and menacing.
Now is the only time for oranges.
Their brisk fragrance fills the nails
as we lie in cold rooms high in the Balkans
dreaming of palm trees and the world.
2
Outside my window is a palm tree.
It is winter. The sky is enormous
and the ocean follows the moon.
Oranges are on the window-sill with other
tropical fruits no longer of interest.
Bright-plumed parakeets sway in the palm tree
and that's the only time I look up.
I lie in the low, stuffy rooms of adulthood
dreaming of poplars and the world.
Always, they come in rows.
-Kapka Kassabova (Someone Else's Life)
Next we were to write a similar poem describing two different times and space, yet somehow connected. My attempt was about the situation right there... a closed claustrophobic room where the workshops were being held versus the garden of the British Council where I went to write the poem:
1.
A large well-lit room--
Scattered tables, white boards ahead.
Doors closed. "Stuffy" someone said.
Introductions-- there are seven of us.
Scribbling notes.
A task to be completed.
2.
A lovely green lawn, a pleasant breeze--
Reddening autumn leaves on the wall ahead.
Flowers on the potted plants.
The sound of water from somewhere.
Judith at a distance writing her poem.
I guess my task is done.
Peter also told us about list poems and haikus. And our next task was to try them. I have a mental block against haikus, but nevertheless tried my hand at one. The concept of a list poem is interesting... taking a walk and making a list of things on a thing with short description, and then making a poem out of them. We were to go around in the British Council and do this.
I really did enjoy the workshops. Julia, the festival director had mentioned to me earlier that it had been extremely difficult to get the funding for this, and she isn't in a hurry to organize another such event, if at all. And that is a pity.

1 comment:

iere! said...

Hi A.S.
Found this through the wonders of Technorati. Thanks for the thumbs up, I have fond memories of Vienna and our workshop,looking forward to returning.

All the best,
Anthony