The Sydney Writers’ Festival – Take That! And That!

Yesterday, the boss gave me the morning off to go to a poetry workshop at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s good like that ;-)).

It’s the first time I’ve attended a poetry class and, well, it was quite an experience. Run by a well-known Australian poet who’s received several poetry awards, both national and international, it had its good and bad moments.

The prep notes for the workshop suggested that we bring along a poem to share. I chose something brief because I hate reading my poems out loud – some poems are meant to be performed: others are not. And no poems are meant to be performed by me.

So the bad moment came when, against my better judgement, I read Ghosts of Christmas Past aloud, and it continued downhill from there: WKAP remarked, “You have a good poetic sensibility, but…” and then proceeded to kill not only all my darlings but the entire point of the poem with his feedback:

  • antiquated word – don’t use it” (but I chose it specifically for its Biblical flavour)
  • too many syllables in ‘ing’ verbs – needs something shorter”Β  (but the ‘ing’ verb is meant to evoke the perpetuity ofΒ  suffering)
  • “I think you should get rid of ‘fickle’. The sentence is too long – it needs some backburning, haha.” (you’re a riot)
  • clichΓ©d” (ouch)
  • overused” (ooof)
  • If Katy Perry’s done it, don’t do it.” (Ooooh, now that’s a low blow – who are you? Joan Rivers from ‘Poetry Police’?!)
  • Why did you use ‘ashen’? Isn’t that every tree’s fate” (Oh, don’t be stupid!)

And so on…


I guess he didn’t care for it much. πŸ˜€

Of course, the bottom line is that if you don’t want honest feedback from experts, you shouldn’t subject yourself to their scrutiny. But taste in poetry is like taste in food, music, wine and lovers – subjective. And after he was done with his on-the-fly edits to mould my poem into something he thought might work better, it no longer worked for me.

I did, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoy most of the workshop and gained some very valuable insights into poetic structure and form and, particularly, the effective use of line breaks. WKAP is unquestionably a masterful poet and rather good at articulating what a poem is and isn’t, but by the end I felt a little like this:

However, the TKO effect didn’t last for long (us bees are made of stronger stuff ;-)), and the prospect of dinner and a movie (Wish You Were Here) with a good friend, as well as attendingΒ  some neuroscience talks at the festival in the coming days lightened my mood somewhat.

Oh, and I’m attending another poetry workshop on Saturday – perhaps I should add a double-shot of Bundy to my early morning coffee. πŸ˜‰

41 thoughts on “The Sydney Writers’ Festival – Take That! And That!

  1. Lucky you – it has been a long time since I’ve been to a writer’s festival – fantastic notes. Thanks for sharing the information bluebee! Jx

    • The SWF has developed into a huge event, Jules, and most of the program is held in the fabulous Walsh Bay precinct. Attended Anton Enus’s interview with Barbara Arrowsmith Young today, which was so interesting. Maybe you’ll be there next year signing copies of your wonderful love story πŸ˜€

  2. hhmmmmm, sure it must be wonderful, inspiring and exciting but so far i would pass …… however i love walsh bay … and writing has always been an interest … but feeling squashed is in another category πŸ˜€

  3. I didn’t hit ‘Like’ because I don’t like the way he treated you. It is important to encourage new poets and I hate the kind of established poet who wants to impose their view of the world onto others. *Mixed metaphors & cliches alert* Go with your gut and stick to your guns; you knew exactly what effect you were trying to create and you did it.

    Hope the next poetry workshhop is better; and well done for not letting him put you off.

  4. Wow, this is a great post. I could be busy commenting on it for a while. Love your “And no poems are meant to be performed by me.”! I believe I know exactly how you feel. The expert comments leave a bundle to be desired. I can’t agree with any of them. But if you’re an expert, you’d better have something to say. Now for the poem you chose. An interesting choice and a beautiful poem, but not one of yours that hits hard where you live. I suspect you had no intention of reading one of those in public. The picture is a riot.

    I’d love to hear what you did learn – about line breaks, poetic structure, etc.

    • Thanks, Monica – I must find out the story behind that crushed car πŸ˜€
      “not one of yours that hits hard where you live” – an astute observation πŸ™‚ Re performance – I do love performance poetry but feel that not all poetry lends itself to performance and many poems are best left to be read silently on the page.

      I am thoroughly enjoying ‘Wild Wolf Encounters’ – the wolf photograph on page 4 is magnificent and intensifies the sense of the mysterious evoked by ‘Like a Whisper’ – this poem, ‘Wolf Dream’, ‘One Moment More’, ‘The Coming’ and ‘Forest Chatter’ are my favourites in the collection and it’s also wonderful to hear your voice-in-prose of your experiences in the wild. You have put the book together beautifully and each page is like a calming meditation at the end of the day.
      PS – will mail you later in the weekend with the notes I took at the workshop.

      • Dear Bluebee, Thank you so much for these wonderful and generous comments on the book. I have been wondering how long it would take to make its way to Australia. I’m also very interested to hear which poems are your favorites. CreateSpace made 2 alternate covers for me – one used the picture on page 4. Very hard to choose. Bluebee, would you consider leaving a review for me on Amazon? People who go there need a reason to purchase. What you’ve said here is perfect, but anything you say will be appreciated. In any case, I very much appreciate your support. It’s probably a good thing your WKAP isn’t writing a review. I’d love to have the notes.
        We are off to Yellowstone next week.

        • Hello, Monica – I think you chose the perfect cover photo for the book (I’m not sure if you saw my earlier comment about the book’s cover, format and colours). I will be very happy to write a review for Amazon – will do so later this week, probably Thursday. Have a wonderful time in Yellowstone πŸ™‚

          • Dear Bluebee, You are awesome – no two ways about it. Yellowstone was wet – really wet; I didn’t care and was happy to be there no matter what. I’m nursing a cold and can’t seem to spell or think. So what’s new? Did I miss a comment somewhere?

            • Hello, Monica – colds are so annoying but a good excuse to drink lots of port πŸ™‚ Hope you are on the mend soon. I’ll see if I can find the comment – can’t remember where I made it. I have some notes to send you, so will email you.

  5. Remember that it is Your poem. Stay true to yourself and not the opinion of an expert πŸ™‚

  6. I went to the SWF a couple of years ago, I found it to be chock full of pretentious la-de-da types, not my scene at all, give me a smoke-filled coffee house any day.

    As far as the feedback goes, sounds like he wasn’t analysing technique so much as your style (or voice) which is a highly individual thing, so he was only offering an opinion. I know of the poet of whom you speak, his debut collection left me speechless (so very good) but once again, that’s just my opinion. He might be experienced, with a swag of awards, but take his suggestions as ONLY suggestions, it would take an insane amount of hubris to disclaim to know all about poetry and deem yourself fit to pass judgement on others works. I enjoy your poetry, everyone above in this comments sphere enjoys your poetry. You only fail if you give in, only history can judge.

    • Thanks for your considered and supportive comments, Mark. I’ve attended SWF in the past mostly for the neuroscience topic sessions, which are always fascinating, and I also attended a prose creative writing workshop last year which was very enjoyable (this, largely due to the fact that I managed to drag my husband along and discovered that he has a marvellous talent for creating wonderful stories on the page!) I’ve found the crowd to be a mixed one – there’s always one or two subversives who provide the light relief :-D. I agree with what you say about opinion – while it is not useful to be intractable about what we write, because we cannot learn that way, we must also remain true to our instincts. Getting constructive feedback is very useful, but it needs to be done in a less savage way and in an environment where a proper conversation can take place. So, see you at the coffeehouse πŸ™‚

  7. Glad you enjoyed the workshop…brought to mind the line from Shakespeare…”Easier to teach twenty what to do..than to be one of the twenty of mine own teaching.” πŸ˜‰

  8. It’s an unfortunate trend in writer’s festivals/workshops and so on for so-called ‘literary writers’ to slam emerging writers instead of encouraging them. I am not such a fan of the Sydney Writer’s Festival for that reason. There is also an element of pretension about it that irks me. I worked in publishing for nearly ten years and there is no reason to rip a writer to shreds. Ever. I get very irritated with writers who come from that standpoint. I think you are a very skilled, insightful writer and I wouldn’t listen to that plonker. He is probably angry at the world because he lives with his aging, incontinent mother and can’t get a date, even on EHarmony. I’m blowing him a raspberry right now πŸ˜›

    • Hahaha – the image of blowing a raspberry in that setting is hilariously Monty Pythonesque πŸ˜€ When I was doing my editing qualification, something that was drummed into us was the need for tact when dealing with writers/authors, and, frankly, I think it’s just common courtesy. It’s great to have a good old argument about a piece, but in a relaxed conversational setting. But, as they say in that old cliche (hehe), if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen πŸ˜‰
      I can’t comment on the poet’s mother, lovelife or state of contentment, but can tell you that his poetry is rather beautiful, haha.
      Thanks for the support and, as always, for making me laugh, Selma.

  9. I’d rather go to the neuroscience stuff πŸ˜‰ I think that type of workshop format is not a good idea for emerging writers – better to have classes that teach and then get the students to pick apart their own work so they own the changes; rather than listening to a so called ‘expert’ being pedantic. You’ll have to email me his real name (I tried to work it out but no luck).

    I loved that poem of yours and fickle works for me – might be two extra syllables but the fickle clouds emphasise the random nature of events such as a bushfire and therefore add to the tone of the poem. Also the ‘k’ sound in fickle adds to the sharp cutting sounds of the first section. The use of ‘ing’ in the 2nd part of the poem gives a lovely swinging rhythm to the ending as opposed to the abrupt sounds in the first section – and the rhythm is spot on in moving with the wind towards hope (though on rereading – I might have been reading more hope into it than you were?). Depends what your intent was (if it was hopeful than ‘wishes more than ashen fate’ works – or if yours was the more doomed ending then the removal of the ‘ing’ might not be a bad idea – makes the words more cutting. I think ashen is fine – sometimes words are used often because they are the best – and what better descriptor of what remains after a bushfire.

    We all love your stuff and that’s what matters anyway (I’ll blow a raspberry to him too – bwhoooo πŸ˜‰ )

    • Haha – love the sound effects there, Gabe :-D. I will email you said poet’s name later this weekend πŸ˜‰ You would love the neuroscience stuff – I was thinking about you yesterday when listening to Mark Lewis talk about his book, “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain” – was wondering, considering the work that you’ve done in the past, what you would make of his takes on addiction and drug use. Thanks for your feedback on the poem – you taught me something very valuable with the comments that you made when I first published it here about the use of similar consonants to create an effect – I didn’t do it by design in the poem, but having someone else point it out made me realize its power as a technique. I’m also heartened that you understand the choice of ‘ashen’, as well as the choice of ‘fickle’ – the poem is about the indifference of nature (I chose ‘sashay’ for the same reason – to imply a kind of vacuous insouciance), the randomness of disaster, the irrationality of hope and the finality of death. Those skeletal dead trees remain mixed amongst the living years on from the fire. Not exactly a pick-me-up, is it? Haha. Thanks for your feedback and vote of confidence, Gabe.

  10. Well, I think you’re very brave, BB. I’s probably argue back, and show myself up something awful. As you say: poetry is a matter of taste. Good luck at the next workshop!

    • I would have argued with him if I had felt it worth it, Kate, but he trashed it almost completely, so I didn’t feel it worth it. A bit like if someone put sheep’s brains in front of me – no amount of talk is going to make me eat them πŸ˜€ The poetry workshop I’m attending today is given by a different poet (we had to submit our poetry for it via email last week) so it will be interesting to see if it’s run any differently. Watch this space πŸ˜‰

  11. I once attended a poetry workshop at a lovely private school located in lovely Pacific Palisades California put on by the SCBWI.

    It was advertised a chance to have our poetry critiqued by a real live published children’s poet. We were instructed to bring samples of our work.

    But the real live children’s poet who ran this seminar had no intention of soiling her fine artistic temperament by actually reading our work. Instead, we were put into groups and instructed to pass our poems around and leave comments on each other’s work. I got this gem of a comment on my poem “My Funny Farm”: “Why don’t you try rewriting it without using rhyme?”

    In order to kill the last hour without having to engage in a direct conversation with any of us, the poetess in charge instructed everyone to place one of their belongings on a table and then write a poem about something someone else had supplied.

    When the woman leading the seminar asked if anyone wanted to read, the women at my table insisted that I share mine. It got a raucous round of laughter, which did not please our instructor one bit. Here’s the poem I wrote that day:

    Ode to a Homeopathic PMS Remedy

    Cranky, puffy, angry days
    Aren’t relieved too many ways
    But a homeopathic remedy
    Might be what it takes to see
    That PMS won’t ruin my day
    Now it’s time to go and play

    (Richard W. Bray. All rights reserved)

    • Clearly, from your poem, you enjoy living dangerously, Richard, hehe – to read such a poem to a room full of women is up there with bungee-jumping and base-jumping πŸ˜‰
      The comment that you got about “Funny Farm” seems to be one that was made just for the sake of making a comment – a really odd thing to say, particularly about a children’s poem.
      I learnt a lot from both poetry workshops I attended this week. The one I attended on Saturday, in particular, delivered on its promises and it was clear that the poet who ran it not only loves poetry of all shapes, but also loves teaching. And that’s perhaps the difference – if they actually enjoy teaching emerging writers, or resent being there because they have to make a living but would rather be writing and performing their own poetry. So although I did not get around to having any of my poems critiqued in the second workshops, I learnt such a lot from someone who is passionate but not precious about the whole subject, if that makes sense? And he is also a brilliant poet. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment, Richard, and don’t get discouraged. As Jamie Dedes from ‘Into the Bardo’ always says: Poem on πŸ˜€

    • Thanks, Eva – I have since discovered that the crushed car and boulder is a piece of installation art πŸ˜€ called ‘Still Life with Stone and Car’ by American artist Jimmie Durham…(which goes to show that the appreciation of art in any form is, surely, subjective, hehe)

  12. It takes a whole lot of courage to get up and share poetry, for just the reasons you mentioned…poetry is such a subjective medium. I applaud you for putting yourself out there, good job! Poem on, sister!

  13. I never go to them – and probably never will. How dare some twit, who seems to think he (or she) has the wit, renown – and arrogance – to dare take another writer to task. It’s not a bloody class. Poetry is a personal thing. Of course there is good and bad, but the line between the good can be so tenuous, that cririticsm becomes a bias. That’s why the results of contests are so often crticised – writers on a shortlist who are grammatically literate with only technique, or syntax differing.

    • I agree, Ken – it’s such a highly subjective process. How can it not be? The second SWF workshop that I attended was far more enjoyable because the poet was very much focused on the many different aspects of poetry that contribute to the beauty of crafting words into a poem – he quoted from a number of poems (none of them his own) to illustrate his points, and subsequently provided constructive feedback on my submitted poems, via email, which I found very helpful.

  14. Pingback: Secrets from the Crime Scene – Unsavoury Delights | beeblu blog

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