This is the first in an occasional series where I'll be looking at the work of writers, performers and artists I admire. This week it's esteemed poet Karen McCarthy Woolf whose upcoming workshop, 'Inside Art, Writing with Letters' will give experienced and less experienced writers a chance to explore how letter writing can contribute to the creative process. You can hear some of her work on a recent edition of my radio show 'The Conversational'.
Karen has been working with fellow poet Miriam Nash in a creative correspondence. I asked Karen a little about letter writing and what promises to be a very rewarding workshop. What is it about letter writing that is so freeing and expressive for the creative process ?
Writing a letter is inherently intimate and also direct. A letter is about something and addressed to a person. Letters also meander, often quite beautifully. The form seems to prompt people to talk in detail about their surroundings, their emotions, opinions, hopes and desires. I think this happens because letters are like conversations, but they happen over long periods of time. One of the joys of a letter is you get to have your say without interruption! Unlike email, or even text these days, you can't see a trail, and most importantly you have to wait. When you work with letter writing creatively, that waiting, and the letting go of the content as you send something off with no copies, can feel quite liberating.
How did the idea for this workshop come about ?
Miriam sent me an email about some 'snail mail' letter writing workshops she was running and I was immediately drawn to the idea. At the time I was recovering from a traumatic bereavement, and could barely go online. I received many cards and letters from people and I was deeply touched and also inspired by their content. I was also fascinated by the idea that people tend to send a physical object - a letter, card or flowers at these times. So I emailed Miriam with a note and invited her to collaborate with me in a creative correspondence on my blog (which was a commission from Spread the Word), which explores what happens when we share our creative process online. Our correspondence soon became one of the most important elements in my writing practice and Miriam and I have become dear friends. We send each other notes, poems, freewrites, drawings (mainly Miriam's, it's not my strongest suit) and lots of little presents and objects. The other day I sent Miriam a little packet of saffron from Spain. She has sent me sachets of sugar she collected from cafes in Geneva. We both wrote poems about our grandfathers. We also talk about our preoccupations as writers and it has been a very useful process in terms of identifying ongoing themes and concerns in my work. One of my letter poems, 'Wing', was recently published in Poetry Review and the poem only really 'found itself' once it was in the letter form. What can participants expect to get from the workshop ?
I can't promise people will write poems that get published in Poetry Review (!) but I do think that the workshops will be a rich creative springboard that will help writers of all genres develop their voice and to write pieces that are more intimate and authentic in tone. I hope that over the course of the workshops we will kickstart lots of new drafts or ideas for new poems, stories or creative collaborations. We will be corresponding with a group of writers from Singapore who are attending Miriam's mirror workshop. So we will send and receive letters to and from strangers overseas and there will be an opportunity to showcase some of our work on Open Notebooks. I am very excited about the opportunity to introduce letter writing as a creative practice and explore it a little as a form.