With Kate away this week, we invited guest writer Alan Buckley to lead our First Story class today. He is a very inspiring poet, and I have met him and experienced his workshops several times in the past, including the First Story Residential at Nettlecombe in Somerset last summer.
The activity Alan led this week was one I have done before with him, where he gives the class a list of first lines to well known poems and asks students to use this as a starting point for their own creations. Some of the first lines include Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’, ‘I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines’ by Edna St Vincent Millay and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot. All we get is the line, with no idea of who wrote the original or what the poem is about.
Last time I did this particular workshop, I used Plath’s first line as my start. I was drawn to it, vaguely aware that I knew where it had come from, unable to focus properly on any of the other options (N.B. I adore Sylvia Plath).
This time, I tried a different first line: “I was nearly killed here, one night in February.” (From ‘Solitude (I)’ by Tomas Tranströmer.) Having recently read War Horse, I found myself thinking about war. First, I imagined an elderly man returning to France, to the place where he fought during the First World War; but soon the poem took control and I was led to writing about a woman reminiscing about her experiences of World War Two, hiding underground whilst bombs fell over her home town. I was actually quite proud of myself.
But on then hearing the students’ work, I instantly became even more proud – of them. One student had used the same first line as me and wrote about a car crash, so we were shocked to learn the original subject of Tranströmer’s poem. We had poems about husbands blowing up their cheating wives, about dystopian worlds of chaos, and about love towards absent parents.
Alan and I split the group in two, so that all present could share their work. Some needed coaxing, but most were surprisingly willing to read aloud – I think once they see friends reading, none of them wanted to be the odd one out. Together, we had a laugh and a cry, and I feel like I know each one a little better.