"This workshop has made poetry-writing not only possible and accessible for me, but enjoyable and fulfilling." Simon Lock

When I was fourteen I wrote poetry, like many angsty fourteen-year-olds before me. I scribbled fervently in a notebook bought specially for the purpose, determined to create compelling, raw emotional work. That was the point of poetry, right? Didn’t it have to be deeply personal and emotional, showing the world one's agonies and ecstasies? I read and re-read Stephen Fry’s guide to writing poetry, the wonderfully ‘punny’ The Ode Less Travelled, and valiantly experimented with form and structure. Predictably, the majority of these poems weren’t very good. Rereading them a year or so later, I was so embarrassed that I banished the notebook to the back of a drawer and swore I would stop humiliating myself by trying to write weird poetry, vowing to focus instead on things I was better (or at least less bad) at. As I got older, however, I regretted giving poetry up the more I read and enjoyed, despite how awkward my previous work had made me feel. Surely if I’d practised a bit more I would have improved? How did people get good at poetry-writing anyway? When I came to university, things changed.

'Discussing the poems with a friend from the workshop, I felt an unexpected itch to start writing poetry again."

In Michaelmas term, I was a founding member of the Peterhouse Poetry Workshop, a poetry group at my college which sent out a poetry prompt every week. Poets – from all academic disciplines, some frequent poetry writers, some who had never written before – then anonymously submitted their poems and we discussed them together in the workshop, offering insights and constructive criticism, as well as appreciating the varied anthology the prompt had produced.

The first prompt for the workshop was “parting”, and I attended the initial session without having written a poem, just to get an idea of how it worked and what people wrote. I was impressed by the variety of ideas and interpretations of the theme, and, discussing the poems with a friend from the workshop, I felt an unexpected itch to start writing poetry again. Suddenly, after years of keeping my old poems far from sight and wincing at the thought of my younger self’s scribbling, I was reaching for my battered copy of The Ode Less Travelled and testing out new lines, new ways of interpreting the prompts. Now I knew I had a friendly, non-judgemental space to present my ideas, I was much more willing to write than when I had simply been writing for myself. Although writing for oneself is hugely important, I enjoyed the discursive dimension of the society, and found that my ideas – which I was sure would shrivel up when exposed to public examination – less embarrassing and strange than I had thought.

"The weekly practice proved to me the old truth I’ve always hated: if you do something a lot, you get better at it, and you enjoy it more."

The friendly criticism of the society and the flurry of other poets adapting and improving week by week encouraged me to attempt the same, and soon I found I was writing poetry again outside of the weekly prompts. The structure of the society pushed me to try writing poems regularly, and the weekly practice proved to me the old truth I’ve always hated: if you do something a lot, you get better at it, and you enjoy it more. Like many writers, I’ve been afraid of criticism and unwilling to share my work in the past, especially with something so personal as poetry, which is expected to reveal something about your internal life or emotions. However, the regular poetry-writing of the workshop has shown me how friendly and conducive to improvement criticism can be. This is something that should be obvious, but can feel very difficult to accept when you’re afraid of your writing being disliked.


Mountain View

Unexpected Nostalgia: On Revisiting my Childhood in Kettle’s Yard

Something else it has taught me – and something that I think is particularly valuable for people picking up poetry writing for fun – is that poems don’t always have to be deeply personal; it’s perfectly fine to write a poem as an intellectual exercise, or an exploration of imaginary characters and feelings. It can be fun to make things up and play with different forms, and I’ve found that weekly prompts have really encouraged this.

This workshop has made poetry-writing not only accessible, but enjoyable, fulfilling, and unexpectedly emotional. Working with so many people – each with different viewpoints and ideas surrounding poetry – has encouraged me to find the fun in writing again, showing me the huge possibilities poetry can offer. Poetry isn’t just for professionals or angsty fourteen-year-olds, and everyone really can improve at it. Even without the structure of a college society, poetry-writing can be fun: maybe setting aside time each week to read some poetry for inspiration, or writing short poems and building up to longer ones as part of a poetry challenge can provide the space and freedom to experiment with creative writing as a way to relax.