My Week at The Hurst – Arvon Poetry Writing Course
My Arvon experience started with a breath-taking drive through Shropshire countryside among towering rhododendrons – a fitting start to a trip that just kept getting better.
On arrival, I was shown to a comfortable room with a great writing desk. Only the promise of cake down in the kitchen could pull me from that view! These things (cake and the gardens) were the only real distraction as I was set to embrace Arvon’s off-grid approach for the week. This had an enormous impact on my focus. It is important to take yourself away from that constant stimulation and sense of obligation. This week allowed me to place writing as my priority. Meeting my fellow writing companions, and hearing the number of returnees, I learned that Arvon courses are clearly additive (and should come with a warning…)
After dinner on Monday, we gathered in the lounge to discuss significant moments in our relationships with poetry and writing. It was moving to hear different stories and pathways which had brought people here, and this made me even more excited for the workshops. I found it hard to pinpoint my ‘significant moment’ but I suggested something between learning to recite poems at university, and last December when I started driving a car without a radio, which prompted me to memorise poetry again and to practice whilst driving (safely!)
I made a note of this memory because later, one of my peers approached me with a poem. He had been motivated to write a piece himself, combining an American road-trip with my broken radio. This excited me, partly because I felt I had been transported, and partly as it resounded with something of the magic that happens when you gather creative people in one place (again, should there be a kind of service warning? Note: highly flammable creativity in large numbers can spark writing frenzy)
Through the week I woke early to try and make the most of every kind of Arvon morning: yoga with a view in the dewy grass, a delicious cooked breakfast, a run around the huge garden, or the enormous cafetiere of coffee back in bed with books – bliss! Of course, I raided the poetry library and had a pile I was determined to eat up (Louise G Cole, Michael Schmidt, Kei Miller, Rebecca Goss…)
The workshops were wonderful. We alternated between George Szirtes and Clare Shaw and each was so generous with their tips and time. George covered a range of formal techniques, from haiku and cinquain to prose-poem and sonnet. George may even have cured a group member of a phobia of sonnets! Clare challenged us to turn the pen on ourselves and question identity and how we hide ourselves in our own work. I wrote three poems I particularly liked in Clare’s first workshop by keying into the “concentrated excitement” that comes when we think as a poet (I never knew I wanted to write about my best friend’s fish, but apparently it was really just waiting under the surface…)
Lunch followed workshops and then time to write and reflect, as well as tutor 1-2-1s. Their careful and considered feedback is something that will stay with me, and has changed my practice for the better. Both were extremely encouraging and gave me the push to keep going, trust my voice, and hone my formal choices. Before the week, I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing from my poems but now feel I have more of a handle on how to make them shine.
The evenings were all different but always full of conversation. Tuesday night was Sophie Collins’s guest reading. I had read Who Is Mary Sue when it was a PBS choice and was extremely giddy to hear her read. The conversation opened up after and I got a wonderful feeling of being part of the world of writing and poetry. We stayed up late taking in every moment we could.
George and Clare read the following evening. I went to the room armed with Bad Machine and Flood ready to gush (excuse the pun) over favourite poems. They were amazing, both reading from a couple of different collections. Everyone in the group was eager to comment on their delivery and our engagement as an audience. They really were inspirational, and again, so generous with their time, holding us all in conversation after, discussing their relationships with writing, form, performance, and other poetry.
On Thursday and Friday night the focus shifted to us, giving us a sense of completion and realisation as writers. We shared some favourite poems and our own from the week, respectively. It was a beautiful, supportive environment, and a pleasure to share and see what the retreat had done for each of us. Some of us read work developed from the workshops, others shared poems brought and edited in the week. I also had the pleasure of reading a voice in a radio play written by another poet in the group – it felt very special to share the piece on that highly involved level as well, and again made me feel part of a community of poets.
Saturday morning was emotional. We exchanged emails and suggested favourite poets on a hastily photocopied reading list. Although I am looking back sad it’s over, I have definitely gained a renewed sense of focus, motivation, and confidence in my writing which I know will stay with me. And not least, a lot more techniques and skills to add to my own creative toolbox and as an emerging teacher of poetry building my skills. For this, the peace and space, and the renewed sense of enjoyment and excitement as a young writer, I will always be grateful.
Thanks to bursary support from Arvon & Hive South Yorkshire
 Ted Hughes, from Poetry in the Making (1967) Faber and Faber