Writing the city: A proposal for an alternative writing retreat

I came across the slogan, “La beaute est dans la rue” (used on an iconic poster, produced by the Atelier Populaire during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris) in Richard Vinen’s book, “The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies“.  This chimed with an ongoing  preoccupation of mine which is that poetry ‘belongs’ as much, if not more to the city and the urban (and suburban) environment as it does to the countryside.

In my mind, I changed the quote to, “La poésie est dans la rue” – or, “Poetry is in the street” – which seems, to me, to be a excellent slogan for the kind of poetry I want to write (and read, and listen to). I was then only slightly mortified to find that a longer version of the same slogan, “La poésie est dans la rue en couleur pleine de vie” has been adopted by the band The 1975. (For example, it’s referenced at the end of the video for their song, “Chocolate”.) I don’t care. It’s a good line and it captures what I want to say very well.

Then, on Thursday of this week, I was in The Pleasance Cabaret Bar in Edinburgh, at an annual one day conference on creative writing and publishing (#TheCWBusiness), organised by Edinburgh University Writer-in-Residence, Claire Askew. It was a great day, you should definitely go next year if you have an interest in poetry in Scotland. One of the questions, to the fiction panel, was about writing courses (There was a specific reference to Arvon though, obviously, other providers and other courses are available). I confess, my hackles rose, a tad. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Before that, I should just say, that the majority of the panelists (who comprised an agent, a publisher, an event organiser, a bookseller and an author) made the point that – so far as they were concerned, they didn’t care one whit if the author had attended x writing course or had y qualification – all that mattered was the quality of their writing. And I believe they were being entirely  honest, in every case. The one exception was the author, who re-counted a story about a missed opportunity to follow up on an important contact after attending an Arvon course. The story had a happy ending – in that, ten years later, the contact didn’t follow up on is now her agent.

Full disclosure first – I have taken part in a variety of paid-for writing courses/tutorials/work-shops etc. But these have, mostly, been run by people I know, have been locally based and have been aimed at the local writing community. What I haven’t done (yet) is pay to take part in a residential course run by a national provider like Arvon. And there are reasons for that – which lead me to the point of this post, which is that I think there is a need for an urban-based writer’s retreat as a counter-offer to the inducement to spend a week in the (undoubtedly beautiful – assuming it’s not pouring with rain) countryside.

My beef with rural writing retreats is that – by their very nature – they emplace the idea of the ‘poetic’ as being inextricably linked with nature and ‘the natural’, which I think is a problem in the pursuit of a twenty-first century poetics. My view, for what it’s worth, is that poetry needs to site itself in the city as often (if not more often) as the countryside in order that it might better reflect the entirety of the lived experience of its audience. Scotland’s ‘non-rural’ population outnumbers its rural population by roughly 4 to 1. Surely, it follows, therefore, that siting a poetry retreat in an urban centre would be appropriate and would add value. Amongst other things, it would enable poets from marginalised communities to meet, learn and develop their practice in an environment that reflects (rather than erases) their lived experience.

On ‘poetics’ – my observation (based, I confess, mostly on anecdotal rather than hard evidence) is that rurally-sited retreats and courses encourage the mind-set that the ‘poetic’ (by which I mean the linguistic and imagistic currency of the poem) is found most readily in natural places. I disagree. I think this risks placing a barrier between poetry and a wider audience. In my view, the ‘poetic’ can be found as often and as easily on the street, in a bar or in a supermarket as it can by the side of a tranquil river or in Yeats’ “bee-loud glade“. You just need what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the right kind of eyes” (and ears).

This isn’t something I’m going to have time to go into, in detail, here – other than to make a couple of further observations. The first is that the recent stooshie over Rebecca Watt’s article in the PN Review might also be seen (particularly when looked at in the context of Watts’ own published work) as a battle between a (well-established and deeply-felt) school of thought which centres a rural ideal of the poetic and the work of three very different young, female poets (Hollie McNish, Rupi Kaur and Kate Tempest) – who all, I would argue, in their different ways, come at poetry from an urban perspective. The London Magazine’s review of Watts’ collection, “The Met Office Advises Caution” describes it as, “reinvent[ing] nature poetry for the 21st Century” – which is a laudable ambition but still one that locates poetry in a landscape which most people don’t inhabit.

My second observation (again, mostly anecdotal) – which follows, to an extent, from the first one – is about the kind of poetry most often taught on a rural retreat. I’d suggest that rural writing retreats pre-suppose (if not entirely, then certainly to an extent) that the poetry written on such retreats will be (for want of a better term) ‘page’ poetry – that is poetry which is intended to be read rather than performed. This creates a disconnect between such retreats and the ever-growing community of performance-poetry and spoken word artists in Scotland (and their audience) which thrives best in urban settings, where the poets and their audience can find each other and interact more easily.

So, what to do instead? Well, the title of this post is “A proposal for an alternative writing retreat” and that’s what I set out to produce, when I sat down at my lap-top this morning. So, without further ado, I think that – as well as (not – I should emphasise –  ‘instead of’) the more ‘traditional’ rural writing retreats – organisations (by which I mean any group or body with an interest in supporting poetry in Scotland) should fund and poets (who are, after all, the punters who (mostly, if not entirely) pay for these courses) should demand the provision of writing retreats which:-

  • are accessibly located in urban centres;
  • are based on the tenet that poetry is of the urban environment and should respond to the urban environment;
  • make use of the urban environment to support poets in their learning and development;
  • accept all forms of poetic practice (written, performative, visual etc.) as part of their core ‘syllabus’; and
  • foster links with the community of poets within the urban area in which they are located, in order to help both the wider community and the individuals taking part in each retreat to develop and grow.

In practice, I would see such a retreat being held over a period of around 5 days. Teaching would be carried out in an accessible venue in an urban centre. Students would be accommodated either in the venue or, if this isn’t manageable, as close near-by as possible, in order to foster a sense of community and to encourage brain-storming and collaboration both during and outside of ‘teaching hours’. The retreat would have access to a venue or performance space so that work produced on the retreat can be performed at the end – as a, kind-of, ‘end-of-term’ show. Teachers on the retreat would be drawn from a range of poetic and related-disciplines and would be able to offer an equality of teaching, criticism and support regardless of students’ background, community, experience, language and their chosen form or medium of poetic expression.

All of which begs the question – “Why a retreat and why not just a course or series of workshops like those offered by any number of providers in most cities?” My answer to that is that there are things that a retreat offers which you can’t get from something like a one-off, or even a series, of work-shops or classes or a weekly-writing group. The first is the deep immersion which only comes from spending a period of days talking, learning and thinking about poetry at the expense (literally) of all else.

The second is the opportunity that an urban-located retreat can offer, to connect students to the city in new and (hopefully) exciting and interesting ways. This could take the form of identifying and helping them to access resources in their local environment of which they may  not have been previously aware – library collections, local journals and magazines, and spoken-word open-mic nights, for example. It could also take the form of exercises to encourage students to connect the poetic with their lived-experience and their environment in new and different ways – for example, walking tours, treasure hunts and exercises carried out in public-spaces.

Finally, I think it would be helpful to the furtherance of a twenty-first century Scottish poetics which fully (rather than partially) reflects the lived-experience of the majority of the people of Scotland, if we were do something more to normalise the idea of poetry as being part of the urban fabric and take back the idea that to be ‘poetic’, you have to go off into the country-side and ‘find’ something that is not immediately and excitingly present on the streets and in the public and private spaces of our cities.

The end-goal is a much more-deeply embedded collective understanding that poetry born of cities and poetry located in rural-settings both seek, in Ms  Watts’ words “to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable” – and that the fact that they may do so in different ways, using different tools and different means, for different audiences – does not mean that either is any the greater or any the lesser for the way in which it seeks to achieve this goal.

[Author’s note: this article is my opinion based on two-years (so far) of immersion in the poetry and spoken-word community in central-Scotland (mostly, but by no means exclusively, in Glasgow.) It should not be taken as a disparagement of any of the excellent rural-writing retreats and opportunities offered around the country – it simply proposes an alternative as a complement, not a replacement. Nor should it be taken as a negation of any urban-located retreats that are currently being offered. If there are such, this article welcomes them. It doesn’t refer to them because I haven’t encountered them (yet) – but this may just be ignorance on my part and shouldn’t be taken as criticism.]


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