Three Alice Springs poets just returned from Strictly Poetry, a six day residency for poets that is part of the ‘focus weeks’ program at the Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. The program involves structured and unstructured writing sessions with author, editor and lecturer Deb Westbury. We spoke with Meg Mooney and Sue Fielding about their experiences. Kimberley Zeneth was also selected for the program.
What are your impressions of the Blue Mountains and the writers’ house itself? Did those environments affect your writing?
Meg Mooney: Varuna is a beautiful big 1930s house in a wonderful garden. I think it did help my writing looking down on a garden full of azaleas and rhododendrons in full flower! And having the leaves of a huge old pin oak knocking on the window next to me. It brought out the England in me while I wrote about central Australia.Varuna is set up so everyone has a very comfortable bedroom – I had the huge main bedroom this time – and writing space. There’s quiet time for writing during the day and the companionship of fellow writers in the evenings, over a meal cooked by the wonderful Sheila. Perfect!
Sue Fielding: One of the benefits of going somewhere like Varuna to write is that it offers a break from everyday life, and the push and pull of demands that keeps things busy. Varuna is a peaceful place in the glorious Blue Mountains. No matter what time of year, a visitor from the desert can be sure of green growth and rain. Perhaps this is why so many of us from Alice Springs go there! Being outside the ordinary schedule of my life gives me the opportunity to drop down into another level of awareness and this, I have found, is essential to poetry writing. At Varuna everything is provided. There is nowhere one needs to go, nothing one has to do. The group is small- there are only 5 rooms in the house. The observation of silence or quietude allows everyone to enjoy solitude, and rest. These two factors are important in poetry writing because of the degree of reflection at its heart.
How would you describe Deb Westbury’s approach to poetry and which aspect of the program had the greatest impact on your writing?
Meg Mooney: Deb Westbury delights in poetry. She is very practiced at examining poems closely to see why they work. And she is very supportive of the poets she mentors and teachers while giving very astute feedback. We did writing exercises and discussion with Deb for the first half of the morning. The exercises that I found most useful were about free writing, verbs and metaphors. In the first, we wrote without stopping for 10 minutes or more – which was great for getting the editor out of my head for a while, and really good for trawling through my thoughts about a topic. You can do this every day.
For the verb exercise, Deb got us to choose from a pile of magazines – mine was on space physics – and pick ten verbs. We wrote down 10 reasonably common nouns and wrote sentences with the nouns and verbs. So a hill exploded out of a jungle, light tunneled through a forest etc.
It was a great exercise for expanding the range of verbs I used, and realising how much I relied on the same old ones.
For the metaphor exercise, we had to write a poem using an animal, I think it was, as a metaphor for the feelings in the poem. I used flocks of little scrub wrens, which I’d seen on my early morning walks below the escarpment, as a metaphor for the grief about my mother’s death that chitters along beside me like the scrub wrens. It worked!
For the second half of each morning, the six of us each had 20 minutes to read a poem and receive feedback on it. This was my favourite part of the workshop. I loved hearing everyone’s poems and listening to and giving feedback. We all had our particular styles and voices.
I hadn’t had much time for writing in the months before the workshop. So I would write a poem as I looked down on the azaleas in the afternoon and bring it for feedback the next morning. The workshop felt like a safe place to bring poems with what felt to me to have fairly risky content – bringing out cross-cultural relations in Alice through small events in my life.
With support and feedback from Deb and my fellow participants, these poems were able to take shape relatively easily and, to my surprise, develop into the beginnings of a collection.
Sue Fielding: Deb has been teaching poetry for many years and is very experienced. She is a successful writer and has published four books of poetry. Her approach to learning how to write poetry is based on craft. Deb’s passionate call to remember that poetry is not ‘cut-up prose’ steers away from an ‘anything goes’ approach to one that is finely attuned to literary craft. We practiced close reading and giving constructive feedback. In these sessions we learnt to notice how the writer has applied craft as they laid down the fabric of a poem. We asked ourselves which bits rang true, or sang, or jarred and thought about why.
She taught us to be discerning and ‘make every word count,’ to balance the flesh and bones so that there is enough to carry the poem to its conclusion.
We learnt about the importance of writing practice. Deb emphasised that the only way to learn the fine craft of poetry writing is to do writing practice. She recommended Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Wild Mind- living the writer’s life’ as a guide, and we did a number of exercises which I found really helped me to loosen up and drop down into what Natalie calls ‘the compost of the mind’- where the rich material is.
There were two main aspects to the workshop: teachings sessions on craft, and feedback sessions. I found both of them extremely useful and complimentary. The sessions on craft covered a range of aspects of poetry writing such as the use of metaphor, and the importance of detail and accurate description. Learning was experiential. Deb led exercises that illuminated what was being taught. We read lots of poetry by other people, which she said is important part of the learning process.
We met every night before dinner to read our work to each other. These informal sessions were also very helpful and supportive. We shared our ideas and experiences with each other. I found the whole experience incredibly supportive. People were very generous in their attention and sharing their own work.
What was the most useful thing that you took away from the week?
Meg Mooney: I think all poets should know that it is a wonderful, fun and very affirming experience to spend a week with other poets being supported, in every way, to write and have the time and space to do whatever we need to do.
Sentimentality rots the poem. Poetry is not just cut-up prose. The use of metaphor is poetry’s most defining feature. Make every word count. If it doesn’t have a purpose, take it out.
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Birds of Australia's Top EndBuy Now