Choosing a poem

Most of my Expressive Writing workshops begin with a poem.  On one hand, it’s a tool – it helps to get the group settled, announce the beginning of the session, and – if a group member volunteers to read it – a chance to get the group engaged and listening to each other from the start. This is particularly important at Headway, where the group gathers in a large hall, immediately after (and sometimes during) a sociable lunchtime.

A well-chosen poem is also the ideal platform around which to build a session plan – it provides structure, a theme and inspiration.  However, choosing a poem is without doubt the most time consuming part of my planning process – I have been known to spend hours leafing through my poetry books, losing myself in wonderful but not-right-for-this poetry. This week, however, I got lucky.

A while ago, I happened to pick up a copy of Brian McCabe’s Body Parts.  As a writer and Pilates teacher, the slim volume immediately raised a wry smile, when the pages fell open at ‘Scapula’ (“Give up literature, my friend – your shoulder blade will thank you for it”).  However, it was the better-known ‘Seagull’ that I chose to present to the Edinburgh Headway Group.  ‘Seagull’ is a rowdy, rousing poem which describes an “invasion” of gulls, picking over “a murdered fish supper” and “bungee-jumping on the wind“.  It is energetic, its subject matter is familiar, and above all it is fun.

After reading the poem to the group for a first time, I am met with silence. Then, a question; “what is a ‘marauder‘?”.  Another group member answers, “a tea leaf! A thief!!” – yes- a pirate, a bandit – who hasn’t seen a gull swoop down and steal from an innocent beach-goer?  I read the poem again – this time, the stories began to flow. A carer, sitting on the peripheries, begins to tell stories of her grandchildren at the seaside.  Another member – new to the group – likens the gulls’ “hooligan yells” to a football crowd.  He may not know much about poetry, but he knows about football, thus the poem is unlocked.  Later in the session that same, member – transformed into a poet – writes about swallows, “tattooed on a sailor’s hands / proof of faithfulness stronger than a wedding band”.

So – what made ‘Seagull’ as successful choice for this group, and – the real question – how can this be repeated?  These are the factors that I’ll be looking for in my next poem-hunt:

1. It is rooted in activity

A poem may have many dimensions, may evoke emotional responses or use its ostensible subject matter to generate imagery.  However, this doesn’t mean that the narrative of the poem is without value – quite the opposite.  For some members of this group, abstract concepts can be inaccessible, so the real-world activity of the gulls at the seaside provide essential tangibility to the poem.

2. It is familiar

I had deliberately chosen Brian McCabe as a local poet, who uses language and subject matter familiar to the group.  The inclusion of every-day objects such as a “fish-supper” ensures that this poem does not alienate its audience. Perhaps more importantly, it gives permission for group members to include the everyday in their own writing. 

3. It is inclusive

McCabe’s poem used the word “we”, throughout the poem.  This lends itself particularly well to group poetry, and provided an excellent platform for the group to collaborate and connect.

Of course, looking out for these elements does not necessarily make them easier to find, and different elements will take precedence depending upon the needs and aims of the group.  However, there is joy in the looking too! Enjoy!




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