Katherine Lockton runs poetry workshops at South Bank Poetry in London, where she has also been editor of poetry since 2011. Drawing on her extensive experience both teaching and writing poetry (with a publication history that includes work in PN Review, Magma, Brittle Star, The Spectator and many other places), her workshops are innovative and accessible, incorporating an exciting mix of mindfulness, drama, music, sound, cinema, fairy-tale and culture. These workshops attract a diverse group of people, from aspiring poets seeking to become the next Carol Ann Duffy to those who come to poetry as a source of meaning and comfort as they go through a difficult time, such as a divorce or bereavement.
One of her flagship workshops is based around Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, examining how this classic text might be used as the basis of new work. The workshop combines critical study of the text with creative responses from students. What follows is a rough outline of how Kat would teach this workshop, intended both as a resource for others who would like to teach something similar, and as a template for others to design similar workshops based on other texts. The workshop is designed to be taught in an extramural setting, to non-specialists. It is based around five exercises, which can be done or combined in any order to suit different groups. The approach to the text is both critical — with students examining syntax, the role of rhyme, the effects of different word choices — and creative — with students imagining their way into Alice’s head, meditating on her character, and putting themselves inside the story.
Following the workshop, you will also find some more general reflections on the pleasures and challenges of extramural teaching, based on Kat’s extensive experience.
Preparation and Warm Up
First, get everyone to know each other. This might be done by:
- Simply asking everyone to introduce themselves. What is their previous experience of writing? What are they hoping to achieve by doing the workshop? How did they hear about it?
- Playing the name game — get each person to say their name, as well as the names of all the people who’ve come before them in the circle. This encourages everyone to learn each other’s names.
- Drawing a map on the board of where everyone has come from as they introduce themselves — particularly good if students are drawn from a wide area.
Then make sure you have given the students an outline of the day, handed out any poetry packs you have prepared (with the material for the exercises on), and been through any practical necessities, such as fire exits and toilet locations.
Finally, do some warm-up exercises. These two free-writing exercises work well.
THE TWO MINUTE VERSION: Ask students to write non-stop for two minutes on a piece of scrap paper, about anything at all — perhaps their thoughts, fears and expectations about the class, perhaps what they saw on their journey in that morning, perhaps whatever pops into their heads. At the end of the two minutes, students screw up the paper and throw it into the centre of the room/table. This is a good way to both clear the cobwebs from everyone’s heads and to get their writing brains working.
THE FIVE MINUTE VERSION: Ask students to write non-stop for five minutes on the theme of ‘change’, starting with the words “My Alice is…”. When the five minutes are up, ask a few of the braver students to read what they’ve written out. This is a good way to again get everyone’s writing brains working, but also to get students engaged with some of questions the workshop will engage with.
The following exercises form the core of the workshop. They work well in this order, but can also be re-ordered, adapted, or deviated from, depending on the specific needs of the group and the time allowed for the workshop.
The Rhyme Game
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –
Pray, what is the reason of that?”
“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –
Allow me to sell you a couple?”
“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”
“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”
“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –
What made you so awfully clever?”
“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!”
Then do the first exercise. Say a word and go round the room in a chain, with each student thinking of a word which rhymes with that word: CHAIN - RAIN - CAME - PLANE. See how long you can keep this going. Stick to close rhymes at first, and then allow half rhymes or near rhymes as the chain continues.
Out of this exercise, broaden into a discussion of different ways of incorporating rhymes into a poem. Could you, for example, come up with the rhymes (or the line endings) first, and then build a poem around them?
Then, finally, set a poem-writing task. Ask students to write a poem about Alice that uses at least two different rhymes. After giving students sufficient time to do this (which will vary depending on ability), discuss as a group the difficulties students found working the rhymes into their poems, and ask students to read out what they came up with.
Pictures of Alice
Begin by discussing ekphrasis — that is, poetry or other writing that responds directly to a piece of visual art. What are the challenges in responding to someone else’s art? What is easy? What is hard?
Then hand out images depicting examples of the many pieces of visual art which have been done over the years in response to Alice in Wonderland. Since the book’s copyright expired, there has been an explosion of recent versions with various different styles of illustration and pictorial accompaniment. There is also imagery from the various film adaptations — most notably the Disney version from 1951 and the Tim Burton adaptation from 2010 — which can be drawn on. Let students choose an image each which they find appealing, or are drawn to in some way.
Then ask them to imagine they are inside the image. What do they see? What do they hear? What can they feel? What can they taste? Have them do nothing but look at the image for at least five minutes, imagining their way inside it.
Finally, ask them to write a poem in response to their experience imagining their way inside the image. Again, after sufficient time, ask for feedback to the group about how they found the task, and for students to read out their poems while holding up their images.
Discuss what we can learn from Lewis Carroll’s writing in these extracts. What do students admire about it? What grabs them? What techniques do they think they could adapt to their own writing?
Secondly, ask students to read some examples of poems which have responded to the stories in the book. Here are some possible examples:
by Kathy Burkett
Everywhere she went,
she had to change
into somebody else.
She had to be smaller,
shrink to fit.
Once she ate too much
of the wrong thing,
found herself outgrowing
a house, arms popping
out of the windows.
threw rocks at her
until she was able
to make herself fit.
When she grew smaller
she scurried away.
She never knew
who she was going
to have to be
from one moment
to the next.
Once her head
telescoped into the sky,
soaring over tree tops
so far away from her feet
she could no longer see them,
dreamt of sending them
shoes for Christmas.
She was called a monster,
promptly shrank down
to something smaller,
someone you could fit
in your pocket.
She was lost,
asking directions without
any destination in mind
Wherever she went,
out of place,
eating and drinking
to fit in.
It was much madness,
but she tried to make sense
of the muchness.
She grew curious
and the world around her
grew curiouser and curiouser.
The Ballad of Mabel
by Sasha Dugdale
'...her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, "I must be Mabel after all"'
Mabel. Brown-eyed, unruly curls
She knows such a little!
An empty vessel, a swine amongst pearls
A stain from the inkbottle.
Her boots are old and the leather is worn
(The scuffs are just spat on)
Her dress is thin and her pinny torn,
And a sign round her neck reads: slattern.
She rubs her eyes with her fist till they’re sore
And dozes with her cheek in a palm:
A sister that died, a father at war
Nights jigging babies to calm.
So many lessons to learn every night
She nurses, reads in the lull –
She must be a dunce, she can’t get it right:
Dates just dance in her skull.
Mabel knows nothing, her house is poky
Her bed’s as narrow as a coffin
And once she woke and her sister was choking
And the doctor – he couldn’t do nothing.
Mabel’s brother says he saw the Crimea
But came home for his chest
Once he told Mabel she had nothing to fear
And felt under her dress.
Mabel knows nothing, nothing at all.
And her face is aflame
When she’s cuffed by the teacher and turned to the wall
Her ears go pink with shame.
Mabel’s hoop is at home, she says
She left her doll in bed
Mabel is standing alone – she says
She’s playmates enough in her head.
Alice has a hoop and a man takes her boating
And her tea is ready on the table
Alice once had a dream she was floating
In tears, and feared she was floating
In tears, and feared she was Mabel.
The river is quiet, it’s late and dusk
Mabel is wetting her toes
And watching the fish swallow her crust
In gold little O’s.
She’ll catch it, she thinks, if the splashes are heard
Or if she’s seen –
But here she can lie in her spreading skirt
And dream her own dream.
Again, discuss what students can learn from these examples. What do they find effective (and, conversely, what do they not find so effective) in the poems above? How has each poet combined elements from the original Alice in Wonderland text with their own ideas to create a new poem?
Finally, set the students their task: to each pick one of the above passages and write a poem in response to it. They might like to attempt to write a poem from the perspective of Alice herself — that is, to inhabit her character within the scene and write a poem exploring her feelings, thoughts and responses. Or they might like to write something more personal, imagining how they would respond in a similar situation. That is, they can either inhabit Alice’s mind and write from her perspective, ‘being Alice’ that way, or they can inhabit her circumstances, exploring how their own mind would behave if it were in Alice’s body in the scene.
The Syntax Question
Begin by discussing the importance of syntax. What is ‘exciting’ syntax? What is ‘boring’ syntax? How can changing the syntax make an exciting subject boring, or a boring subject exciting? Bring in different examples of different kinds of syntax, such as extracts from newspaper articles or Lady Bird books, to explore the ways different kinds of writing use syntax differently.
Then, building from these examples, you can ask students to think about what makes poetic syntax, and poetic language, different. Do this by examining some actual poems: Kat uses examples by Sharon Olds and Selima Hill. Ask students: what is exciting about the syntax of these poems? What makes their language Are these ‘more true to poetry’ than the extracts from newspapers or Lady Bird books? If so, why?
Finally, choose a passage from Alice and Wonderland and examine its syntax. How does it compare to the extracts from the newspaper and the Lady Bird books? How does it compare to the Olds and Hill poems? Which is it closer to? Which is it least like? What makes Lewis Carroll’s syntax exciting? You might like to use the following passage, from the very end of the novel:
Then she thought, (in a dream within the dream, as it were,) how this same little Alice would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman: and how she would keep, through her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather around her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a wonderful tale, perhaps even with these very adventures of the little Alice of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
To finish, ask the students to write a poem that uses syntax in an ‘exciting’ way. This can be on any subject, and can use or combine the different examples above as models, or branch out from them with the students’ own ideas. The focus should be on writing while paying close attention to syntax, so that the students can find new ways to express themselves that might otherwise remain inaccessible to them.
Meditation: “You Are Alice”
Having gone into more a technical and analytical mode with exercise 4, this is a way to again come out of that and re-engage students’ imaginations to finish off the workshop. It is again about asking the students to ‘inhabit’ or ‘become’ Alice, this time through the process of meditation.
Begin by asking the students, if they feel comfortable to do so, to close their eyes. Then guide them through the following...
“Breathe in 1-2-3 and out 1-2-3.”
“Breathe in 1-2-3 and out 1-2-3.”
“Breathe in 1-2-3 and out 1-2-3.”
“Continue breathing in and out counting your breaths on your own.”
“I want you to imagine you are Alice and that you were wearing your favourite outfit. You are Alice. I want you to look down at what you are wearing paying particular attention to what you are wearing, how it feels against your skin as the material touches you. What colour is it? How does the light reflect off it? Feel the material between your fingers. In a minute i want you to imagine you are walking down the stairs and with each step you are becoming more and more relaxed. You take your first step then your second step then you are going down remembering to feel more relaxed after each step. Once you are at the bottom of the staircase you can see a figure at the bottom of the stairs immediately you know who it is. It is someone important and he has come to give you a message. Let him give you the message, say thank you then breathe in 1-2-3 out 1-2-3 and then open your eyes when you are ready.”
Following this exercise, ask students to write a poem about their meeting. As always, discuss this process afterwards: what was difficult about it, what was fun about it. Finish by having students read out their poems to each other.
Here are two examples of poems written by previous students of the workshop, showing the kind of work that might emerge from these exercises.
by Allan Murrell
Alice had been to a party
and she liked to party hearty,
but she made quite a mistake
after eating too much cake.
She had jammed in all the tarts
then broke cupcakes down to
their constituent parts;
taking the icing from the tops
she hid the bottoms in the pots.
It’s the sugar that gives her the rush
and she just cannot get enough.
She was on a huge sugar high when she
fell head over heels for this guy.
He was everything a sugar junky needs
he loves sweet things and don’t eat seeds.
He takes her wherever he goes
and always has sugar in his trouse,
she can’t believe she met a guy like this
he had the sweetest ever kiss.
He is a man who loves to bake
but now has moved to pies from cake.
She said, ‘he’s no longer the man for me,
he knows I prefer sweet to savoury!’
Alice now reminisces on their sugar days
and doesn’t understand his savoury ways.
They’ve now moved on, their lives so far apart
but she still can’t kick her addiction to tarts!
Alice Finds her Dress
by Kathryn Southworth
I had forgotten about this dress.
It hung in my wardrobe waiting to be found
But in the cupboard of rediscovery
its blues grew bluer, its white patterns
took on the shapes of childhood —
sea shells and starfish, fairground
carousels and helter-skelter towers —
Will you, won’t you?
It flares around me now as I move,
like the sky does as you dance.
I look down for white socks
and my feet are further than they were.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you
It is allowed now
to go about in bare feet,
to feel the graze of shingle,
to sift the sand of the dunes
between my toes.
Won’t you join the dance?
There is no red flag to remind me.
that the sea must come in.
Reflections on Extramural Teaching
What are the pleasures of extramural teaching?
- You meet a wide range of people who wouldn’t normally interact with each other, each of them bringing in their own ideas — people from different backgrounds have different connotations with certain words and ideas, for example.
- It’s “fun, relaxed, but also energetic” — relaxed because there are no exams or formal infrastructure, but energetic because everyone has chosen to be there, to come along and engage.
What are the things to consider when teaching extramurally?
- Classes will be mixed ability — there is no entry requirement, and so no way of knowing who might walk in the door. Some might have special needs, while others might have university education. As such, it’s even more important to make sure you are connecting with everyone in the room.
- Students will have different expectations. Some might use the class as a kind of therapy (for example, someone might have come to the class after a divorce) while others aspire to be published poets, to be “the next Carol Ann Duffy”.
- Not everyone will have read the text prior to the workshop, so as a teacher you have to assume zero prior knowledge, even for a text like Alice in Wonderland. (One way of combatting this is to use commonly known stories, such as fairy tales — the sorts of stories people will have heard or had read to them as a child, even if they’ve not read a textual version before. You can then link these stories to the text being studied.)
What are your goals as a teacher?
- You are trying to create the right environment to learn, as well as the right teacher-student relationship. As a teacher, it’s your job to build up the students’ confidence so that they’re not scared to fail.
- You are trying to retrain students’ expectations of the source texts — some will have fixed ideas, and some will have no ideas, about what they are encountering.
- You are trying to move students away from ideas like ‘inspiration’, the ‘creative genius’, and the ‘poetic muse’, towards the idea of ‘planned creativity’ — an understanding of poetry as work, as craft, as something which involves both critical and creative thinking. Critical thought is encouraged as a means of inspiring creativity — the two are not antithetical.
- You are trying to move students away beginner mistakes, such as using too many adverbs, or using clichés.
How might you begin a workshop on a text other than Alice in Wonderland?
The approach is essentially the same as in the Alice workshop above. Begin by reading the source text together, conducting a critical interrogation of it as a class. You might try:
- Breaking down the text into small pieces (e.g. a single word, or a single comma) and then examining them
- Discussing the different ways into a narrative (e.g. through a window, or a door, or, in this case, a rabbit hole) by comparing the choices the text makes with the beginnings of other stories
- Doing a ‘group of words’ exercise: depending on level, this might be asking students to ‘list the colours’ or ‘list the animals’, or for higher levels, ‘list the abstract nouns’ or ‘list the active verbs’. You then ask the students what these words reveal when they are brought out of the text and grouped together. (This exercise works particularly well if the poem initially appears simple; students come to appreciate the complexity behind even apparently simple texts.)
Then set a main task, which is usually, at its core, to pick a passage and write a poem in response to it.