When I feel stuck, exhausted, fog-brained, knotted up, or like I’ll never write another poem again, I sit down and write a letter. Not as an exercise— a real letter to someone, that will be posted.
I write the letter by hand, and often look around to see if I can find anything to make the letter more exciting to open – a scrap of magazine, a flower, a piece of ribbon. Best case scenario I’ll have a stamp in my wallet and will walk out and actually post the letter there and then. I’ll feel a small sense of excitement, knowing I’ve sent something out into the world, and that it will soon be moving through the great body of the postal system, towards my correspondent. My mind has been moving and so has my pen—with purpose, but without pressure, and without thought of a poem. It’s almost always easier to think and write afterwards.
Letter writing became a staple part of my writing process through a chance-correspondence with the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. When we began in 2009, Karen and I didn’t know each other well, but we decided to try writing to each other as a creative experiment. We had a hunch good things would come from our correspondence, and we were right. For me, it brought an opening up of my writing process—I found I was more forgiving of my letters than my poems; they allowed me a freedom and playfulness that I desperately needed, with all my fear and trepidation in my decision to ‘be a poet’. As I’ve become more comfortable in that identity, and more consistent in my writing practice, letter writing has continued to sustain me, particularly in moments of difficulty. When I felt stuck in writing short, tight poems, writing messy, long-hand letters helped me, over time, to loosen my lines and dare to write larger and longer.
Poetry Postbox is a course for anyone—beginner or experienced—who wants to enliven their creative process through the medium of hand-written letters (and it doesn’t matter how scrawling your handwriting is—doctors are welcome ). You might also be a creator in a medium other than poetry, who wants to try something new.
The course is a generative one—you will be drafting new poems and working towards a small portfolio. Although we will look at the epistolary poem (the poem in the form of a letter), the course is more about using letters as a way in, and you will be encouraged to write broadly, on the subjects that are meaty (or veggie) for you right now. You might be wanting to surprise yourself, or you might come with a specific body of work in mind that you want new poems for.
As part of the course, you will be paired with another participant to correspond through the Poetry Postbox. This is to enable a real mini-correspondence to develop, to feed into your work over the weeks of the course.
Here are some questions I’d ask if I were considering the course, and my answers…
How will this correspondence work?
The correspondence is a creative tool, similar to doing a workshop exercise with a partner. You will be paired with another participant through a creative exercise, and we’ll talk about how to make the process safe, un-pressured and on your terms. You will deposit a letter for your correspondent each week in the Poetry Postbox and receive one in return. You won’t give your address or any personal details. The exchange will require trust, and openness to an element of chance. This is just one part of the course, but an opportunity to experiment with writing letters to another writer as part of your work. You won’t be asked to share your letters with the wider group, though you can share any particularly lovely discoveries or excitements, with your correspondent’s permission.
What will we do in the sessions?
Each session will aim to move you towards a new poem. We’ll do a warm up and read and talk about poems or letter extracts. Sometimes there might be visual and/or audio stimuli. There will always be an exercise to get you writing and thinking and a chance to share for those who wish to. After the first few sessions we’ll also talk about editing, and you’ll have the time in between sessions to start editing your poems. You will receive in-depth feedback on at least one poem (how we do this exactly will depend on the number of people on the course) and you’ll work towards a small portfolio of poems. We’ll also talk about process and you will be encouraged to experiment and expand in your practice over the weeks of the course.
Which poets and letter-writers will we be reading?
Some poets and correspondents we might read from are Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, Kevin Koch’s New Addresses, Catherine Pierce’s love poems (to objects, emotions and phrases) and Tracy K. Smith’s postcard poems (in Life on Mars). There’s no need to read anything in advance, though do feel free to bring along letters and poems that you feel are relevant to the course.
Please feel free to ask another question by posting it here, or by emailing me at miriam dot nash at gmail dot com.
W.H. Auden’s ‘Night Mail’