Seeing the Light with Mona Arshi (and the length with Simon Armitage).

I recently ran some workshops for students and was lucky enough to have Mona Arshi lead two of the sessions. Mona is a great advocate of the role of ‘form’ in poetry – consciously working on such things as line length, metre and phrasing in ways which may seem clear to seasoned practitioners, but to those just beginning to write poems can be new and demanding.

One interesting trick that Mona showed us was to hold the paper with your poem on it up to the light, turn your page over so that you are looking at the reverse, and then notice line length – anything too uneven is wanting attention – or at least justification. Furthermore you will stop looking at the choice of specific lexis, and instead start to think about the shape and fluency of the poem. To me this seemed akin to Frost’s idea about the “sound of sense”. Frost talked about listening to voices through a closed door, suggesting it is possible to understand the general tone of a conversation even when the specific words are muffled, because the tones and sentences with which we speak are coded with sonic meaning: a “sound of sense”.

      This poem has a very long last line – does it need more thought?

The technique of looking at lines on the back of the paper is something like this, because the words themselves are not the focus of attention, instead the focus falls on the shape of the poem. Of course there has been lots written about Frost’s notion, and there is plenty to think about concerning Mona’s ideas on line length, among other things, but one neat little coincidence during the course of these workshops, was that I read an interview with Simon Armitage in which he talks about the fact that he writes poems onto graph paper, he says “The graph paper helps me plot the length of lines against each other and gauge the size of the poem as it might appear in printed form.”

I should also point out that line length is tied to syllables, clearly, so the ‘look’ of the poem is just one factor – the metre and all those fiddly things also need to go into the mix.

So, if you are looking for another check on whether a poem is working or not, consider flipping the page over and holding it up to the light, too long/disjointed/just right? Or perhaps you’ll decide it’s time to hit the stationery shop and get hold of some graph paper?

 Not entirely uniform.                                                                                 What is happening with the very short last lines?

The full Armitage interview can be found here –

Mona Arshi’s collection ‘Small Hands’ won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015 and her website is here

 The last stanza has longer lines than the other two, but is reasonably uniform.


Hedgehogs and Bookshops

Pitshanger front2

Recently I’ve done a few readings as a way of officially launching ‘Codes of Conduct’.
The first was at The Pitshanger Bookshop in Ealing. The shop is close to where I work and Fiona, who owns and runs the shop, is very supportive of local writers. As such, Fiona was happy to stock my pamphlet, but even better she invited me to do a reading along with Mona Arshi, another local poet. (Mona won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015).

The Pitshanger Bookshop is a lovely place, and the sort of shop where one could easily spend time browsing. However, what elevates it beyond the likes of W.H Smith’s and my nearest Waterstones, is the sense of community and interest that comes from the staff. If you want to know about a book, an author, or want ideas for a nephew’s birthday then Fiona and her team are great at giving you helpful answers. Beyond that, Pitshanger Lane is a lovely place and the inside of the bookshop reflects that. One gets a warm glow just walking into the shop – like that old Readybrek advert. Sadly, like hedgehogs, independent bookshops are in decline, just under 900 are left in the U.K, : places like this need to be cherished.

It was a lovely evening, and for me it had an added twist – I didn’t just read, which I’m always happy to do, but I also had questions put to me in a Q & A style. This part of the evening was interesting, because I was challenged on such things as “Why is there no punctuation in the last poem?” and “How do you come up with ideas?” Some of these questions never get a satisfactory answer, at least from me, and unless Simon Armitage is now so well-rehearsed at dealing with them, I doubt even he is able to really pin-down some of the alchemy that goes on.

Next stop was  The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. I’ll write something about that lovely place soon. Oh, and please look out for hedgehogs –  cut a gap in your fence for easy roaming at night, for a start.

Book Pits

The Pitshanger Bookshop is at 141 Pitshanger Ln, London W5 1RH   Tel: 020 8991 8131