In 1987 I attempted to enrol on an Arvon course, but it was full up. I decided to sulk about it until such a time as someone offered me an expenses-paid place on another course – and, a mere twenty-eight years later, my wish was granted. My employers, the literature development organisation Apples and Snakes, were taking a group of emerging poets to Lumb Bank for a week, and needed some staff support. Although it only took me two seconds to say yes, it was the names of the tutors that really clinched it: Ross Sutherland and Hannah Silva. The prospect of being tutored by certain other poets might have sent me howling down the street, but these two are both noted boundary-pushers, as well as being brilliant performers.
Twenty-eight years is a long time for one’s expectations to crystallise. And did the experience live up to them? Absolutely. The group brought together our London ensemble The Writing Room, plus two hand-picked poets from each of our national regions. By the time I arrived, muddy and confused and waving an OS map, everyone had already bonded – a process that only increased over the next five days.
If you’re a poet whose day-job involves administrating other poets, you sometimes have to make an effort to hang on to your own creativity. Arvon was the perfect place for this. At the daily workshops, I was just another participant. And what splendid workshops they were. So often, in the world of creative writing, the same old exercises are wheeled out again and again. But here, everything went off in surprising directions – eliciting ‘found’ poetry from cookery books, penning imaginary ‘translations’ of other poems – and we all discovered that our writing did the same. Then again, Lumb Bank seemed that kind of place – unpredictable: one sunny morning a five-minute flurry of snow prompted a mid-workshop cheer. By Thursday, we’d reached exercises like ‘OK, you’re a couple saying goodbye at the airport for the last time, but you can only communicate using vowel sounds’ and we knew that the boundaries had been more than just pushed. That same night the poets stayed up till the small hours workshopping their material. Voluntarily.
Of course, you’re not going to stay indoors all week if you’re somewhere like Lumb Bank, and I made sure I dusted off the map and went on a couple of jaunts. One of these took me to Crimsworth Dean, the setting for a marvellous Ted Hughes story called ‘The Deadfall’. It’s always dangerous to visit somewhere that’s enjoyed a perfectly happy existence in your head, but this place didn’t disappoint. I even saw a dead sheep, which felt appropriately Hughesean.
But what of the poets themselves? Did they too fall under the old chap’s influence? Well, we witnessed a broadening of both confidence and artistic scope – which perhaps amount to the same thing. This was good news, as our genre, performance poetry, is one in which some artists tend to find their comfort zone and remain there for decades. Something else we’re used to is hot air being spent on the ‘page v stage’ dichotomy; this course was a reminder that, however you choose to present your work, the key is simply Good Writing. There, I’ve capitalised it. My final point would be that the chance to network with poets from other regional scenes – each of which may have its own aesthetic tics – was invaluable.
When I got back to the office the following week, depressingly mud-free, my inbox contained an ‘Arvon best quotes’ survey from one of the participants: throwaway phrases from the workshops, in-jokes from the kitchen. Together, they read like a found poem in themselves. I knew then that the course had not been in vain.