Charlotte Newman’s Poetry Workshop
“The moving pen writes on”—Madge Gill
People often complain that poetry is ‘difficult’, that it has to be worked on or deciphered in a way that prose does not. The needle might be moving on that a bit now, but it still puts a lot of people off poetry. There doesn’t have to be anything rarefied about it; it can be purely musical or muscular, rhythmic. As a poet I am a big fan of clashes, so I often like to combine something that pulls at the brains and the body in equal measure. You do not have to be from a certain type of background to write poetry, or have gone to a certain school, or to have a certain accent or have a particular type of life experience. You can be self-taught. Shakespeare didn’t go to university.
And Madge Gill is a self-taught artist. I am not an art historian, but I take a lot of inspiration from the visual or plastic arts. Literary writing about art is called ekphrasis. I have engaged in it time and again, writing poems inspired by paintings, sculpture and collage. I am not talented with the visual arts and have had people laugh at my stick figures, but I love taking the reaction to the visual and translating it into words.
For this workshop I am interpreting the line ‘the moving pen writes on’—taken from one of Madge Gill’s letter—to be all about pressing through and getting things written down, even if they clash with what you might think is logical. Drawing on Madge Gill’s sense of being driven to create art by her spirit guide Myrninerest, and her free experimentation with different media including embroidery and textile, I would invite you to allow your imagination to run a bit wild, bringing together different—even opposing ideas or things—into a single poem.
This is something I have done frequently in the past. Recently, the pandemic has made me think more about this, and how taking a more positive outlook in the future might manifest as poetry writing that celebrates things that are joyful to the writer. I refer to this as ‘the Sound of Music’ approach to writing poetry: “these are a few of my favourite things.” I have been thinking in particular about a poem I wrote called ‘The Black Lodge and the White’, which brings together two unrelated subjects: Kate Bush and David Lynch. The thing that sparked the idea was Kate Bush’s music videos for ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Lily’, which both feature a colour palette and a cast of characters reminiscent of David Lynch’s idiosyncratic universe in Twin Peaks. But mainly, I wrote about the two because they are two things that I like, and they create a world that I like to step into.
- Think of two things. They might be two things that for some reason you often think about together, even though that connection might not make sense to someone else. If you can’t think of anything, think about two things that you like…or two things that you don’t. Or one thing that you like and one thing that you hate.
- There are all sorts of things that you might bring together, and you do not need permission or precedence to do it. You might use word associations, colour associations or people associations. They do not have to be logical; they can be lateral. For example, if you read that Madge Gill is described as an artistic ‘outsider’—in other words, she is self-taught—you might think of Stephen King’s novel The Outsider. His novel features a faceless figure who can take on the appearance of other people to become their doppelgangers. There is no connection between Madge Gill and Stephen King—of which I am aware—other than this word leap. But once you think of the two together, you might notice that Gill’s work includes many slightly spooky figures, some in stark monochrome, some with insect-like figures covering the mouth or at the throat like the movie poster for Silence of the Lambs.
- I would challenge you to write a ‘clashing collage’ poem that takes on two things that you want to ‘clash’ on the page together. Of course, ‘clash’ does not have to be jarring; it might be two things that seem unlikely but that work together in a strange harmony when you find a way to weave them together.
- If you can’t think of anything, try clashing Madge Gill and Stephen King. Or Madge Gill and Jodie Foster. Anything. Think of today’s political situation and clash it with your favourite cartoon character. And when you write it, try to keep criticism to yourself. There is no prescribed length. Do it in one go, as long as ‘the moving pen writes on’, then stop. It’s done.
Example of poem by Charlotte Newman…
There is a gap between the flat sky, cumulus
and the domed expanse arching
over the rivulet of philosophy—
classifiably different to feeling cold from the waft
of skinflint ice sacking a flatland
versus the known fact of absent sun
switching its lust to the lunar system.
So it is with the underside of sewn heft
stretched on a loom,
its machine guts and hemp and gravity
owing as much to pedal and mulch
as mattress springs to mind
body and brute spirit; quilt comfort
beats the climate’s overture
not unlike a drummer boy, starched
in taffeta, turfed in time spent not paid.
Potters, weavers, welders owe also to men
as to ducks; elder and eider
either way down, mermaid
learning on the curve of the bell
and the self, moth on the lip
curlicue, ink on paper,
pearl on skin, perilously
oyster pressed to death.