Food for Thought - Writing with Letters

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.

Wherever the Sun

Yesterday Jasmin, my niece, popped over with this book. It's called Wreck this Journal and has been described as the anarchist's Artist's Way. It's a book that encourages freedom of artistic expression. I thought it was particularly apt that Jasmin, who is 13 years old, quoted the T Rex's song title Children of the Revolution.

Every day during November I am taking up the challenge to write a poem a day. April is National Poetry Month in the United States and a popular worldwide challenge arising from this has been to write a poem a day. A small group of us on Facebook have taken up this challenge for all the months of the year with 30 days in them ie April, June, September and November. I have to confess that after April's marathon writing activity I was pretty exhausted and did not take part in either June or September.

Like any daily practice it's very educational. Some times a poem arrives and sits in your lap, or writes itself in to being on your laptop and other days it's a hard to struggle to get out even a few words that don't sound cliched or forced. The trick is to write through it and, whilst engaging fully with the writing, observe the arc of one's own emotional narrative.

I will be posting some of my first drafts here along with the prompts (which we take turns in posting in our group) that inspired them. Today's poetry prompt is from writer Karen McCarthy Woolf. It's posted on her site Open Notebooks. Today's poem is a freewrite which means that it has not been edited and was written in one sitting without stopping. I am hoping to bring some of the energy and enthusiasm Jasmin has for her 'Wreck this Journal' project to my own poem a day writing adventure.

Wherever the Sun

Nothing much happens here anymore. Nothing that we notice anyway. It's not bad in the way it was. That's when the cries of a woman being dragged by her hair were common place or the boots, always the boots. Marching, kicking down doors. The anonymous boots kicking faces, kicking at our art and our statues. We still carry the kicking inside us. Perhaps that's why it is so silent now. The shops are fuller, fatter than they were. On Tuesdays we buy eggs and eat omelettes together. On Sundays we cook chicken and the vegetables we grow in the big square in the centre of town. In the bad days, the worst days of our lives there were public hangings. So now we grow vegetables. Potatoes and carrots, tomatoes when it's hot enough. Wherever we seek out the sun there's a seed to be planted. Those old bullets have knotted my heart and I know sleeping is not easy for those who cannot forget. We garden and weep and walk barefoot in honour of all those we have lost, our toes darkened with wet mud and memories written in blood.