Welcome to The/Poetry/Fold. It makes ‘Strange Bedfellows’.
In one of my June posts I wrote about the Great Writing 2012 conference and my chance meeting with Lisa Matthews, the owner of The/Poetry/Fold.
The conversation I had with her while we were trying to find our way to the conference entrance was particularly interesting, as she is a poet and I love poetry.
However, for me, writing it is entirely different matter. So her unique way of using poetry and helping people to write it intrigued me.
Before I left the conference I made her promise to let me interview her for the blog.
How did you become involved with poetry?
I always loved words and language but struggled to read novels and large blocks of text, so I made a decision to concentrate on reading (and writing) poetry at secondary school.
I responded well to the breadth and depth of poetry and always marveled at how much could be said in such a small space.
Nowadays I suspect I’d have a dyslexia (or similar) diagnosis, but in those days you just got on with it. This text I am writing now – for example – left unedited would be full of my back-to-front misspellings and typos. (I always spell the word ‘have’ as ‘have’.)
Being a poet I always have my spellchecker disabled and I’ll not even see my errors until I leave the writing alone for a while and return to it after doing something unrelated.
This has not held me back then or now: I excelled in poetry at school, especially in imagery/metaphor, and can clearly remember my first ever published poem, (in a school poetry display, describing the shadow of a deck chair on the sand).
So it was a very practical decision to go the poetry route.
I was also very involved in music (rhythm guitar and mandolin) as a teenager and wrote hundreds of song lyrics. After stints in a couple of bands and with some performance experience behind me, I nearly became a musician, but I didn’t like all the carrying of equipment or late nights.
So again, I chose the path of a writer; that is, I chose a career in writing at the age of 26, after having been in a full-time job for a decade.
What made you decide to become a full-time poet and how did you go about it?
A close friend of mine died very suddenly and I realized life was short and that I had to follow my heart and at least try and be a serious poet and writer. I went back to school as a mature student and did A-Levels, then a BA and MA in six years, all self-funded (the A-levels in one year and working fulltime almost killed me).
After working in a full-time job, being an undergraduate was a joy and all the time to read and debate inspired me to become a freelance practitioner. Ironically – given my prose struggles – I have longstanding ambitions to write sort fiction/novellas and literary novels but still struggle to read lots of words in long lines. I do read a lot of prose now and hopefully, I will one day move into it.
I’ve had a few false starts and currently have two manuscripts under my desk (the first of which attracted quite a bit of interest when it won an Arts Council award).
In the end I am a poet because I love words, imagery and the act of distillation. As a poet I deal in linguistic signposts and wayfaring instructions and I enjoy poetry with lots of space and light. Gillian Allnutt and Maggie Hannan are particular favourites but I read widely and there’s not much poetry I dislike. Poetry is the music of our lives and I can’t imagine my life without it.
How did you come to run your own business and how has this developed?
I’ve been a self-employed Creative Practitioner for 14 years; however, about four years ago I started to deliver more creative writing-based training/(Continuing professional Development) CPD services to clients outside of the literary/writing sectors.
I’ve sourced, created and delivered – for example – training sessions to healthcare professionals and education specialists.
During these sessions I began to get very interested in reflective practice, ethnography and autoethnography and their relevance to my own work.
I reached a bit of a crossroads about four years ago and realized I wanted to consolidate all my experience and become more proactive in shaping my career.
I suspect it is very common for writers and artists like me to have a career portfolio that is predominately client or external partner led. This is OK for the short and medium term but I can now see I had little sense of myself as a professional, nor did I address my career trajectory much at all.
Some contacts/colleagues still maintain I have no ‘career’ in the conventional sense (I disagree with this entirely), and this can be an issue although things are slowly changing.
There are many interesting dialogues here in the UK, the US and Australia about practice-led research and pedagogy in creative writing. Up until about four or five years ago I’d taken on interesting and amazing work but in a reactive way. I’d see an intriguing position and apply.
How did The/Poetry/Fold come about and how are you running it?
My expertise in art-science collaboration and medical humanities, for example, stems from a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship I secured way back in 2002.
I was already using my ‘Strange Bedfellows’ methodology in my own writing practice but needed a platform from which to launch it in a more professional way; so I came up with the idea of The/Poetry/Fold.
Since setting up, I now have a choice of how I introduce myself. Up until the creation of my business I was ‘Lisa Matthews, the poet’ but now I can present myself as a business or as ‘Lisa the poet/creative practitioner’.
I have a web site, business cards, a mission and business strategy, an accountant and all the attendant ephemera of running a small business.
All these things have come in handy in this unprecedented and punishing economic climate; however, re-calibrating myself professionally has had a positive effect on nearly all of my practice and operations.
The other reason I started the business is I had a dream to deliver ‘Strange Bedfellows’ as a serious creative writing course and I needed a context and platform for that. I needed to road test my methodologies and see how fee-paying customers/students would respond to them.
The results are staggering and I am thrilled that my creative approach seems to resonate with other writers.
You teach a wide range of students many of whom have no intention of being poets. What is the point of these people trying to learn to write poetry?
Poetry encourages literacy (both general and specific) on so many levels.
I passionately believe chief executive officers (CEOs), managing directors (MDs) and professionals from many sectors would benefit from some poetry and reflective practice in their CPD and human resource (HR) strategies (and the use of narrative is growing as a training/CPD resource in the US).
We all naturally use language at a very sophisticated level so poetry taps into a fundamental part of our psyche and its affects are amazing in commercial and business contexts. I’ve mentored and/or worked with PhD students, nurses, recruitment professionals, doctors, academics and educationalists and with all sorts of groups who have no intention of ever becoming professional writers.
Professionals (no matter what their field) committed to their CPD will try new approaches and creative writing can compliment and fit in well to a wider CPD/HR strategy.
Creative writing techniques can develop and improve communication and interpretation skills and as a discipline, it is a practice that can create new vistas from which to view both new and older terrain.
All of my courses and workshops are ‘professional development’ and that’s whether you’re a writer/artist or not. If you practice anything seriously and/or professionally it makes sense to take your CPD seriously.
In that respect I think the discipline of writing is no different to any other practiced field (medicine, engineering or law, for example).
You use a great many techniques to get people to use words in unusual ways. How have these come about?
It’s come about over many years of honing my own writing processes.
Everything I do with students, colleagues or clients is road tested, developed and refined within my own practice first (this also means I carve out time to write my own original work in prose and poetry).
To begin with I was using methodologies to facilitate my own writing and it wasn’t until quite recently – around the time I started The/Poetry/Fold – that I began to reflect on what it is I am actually doing when I use ephemera and unrelated techniques in my practice.
Would you give a brief overview of these techniques?
I am striving for writing courses created almost entirely from randomly selected ephemera that are underpinned by the most recent and effective techniques and theory.
The template for the teaching methodology is a work-in-progress so it’s hard, at the moment, to pin it down.
A client asked me a very hard-nosed business question while negotiating the delivery of some training. He asked, ‘Can you tell me the features and benefits of ‘Strange Bedfellows’?’
No one had ever asked me about my teaching in that way before or using that language and I struggled to answer. I ended up not getting that contract and it was because I could not respond adequately enough to a fair question.
How did you ultimately respond to this situation?
That experience got me thinking more generally about the wider context for my approaches and that’s when I started to hear the call of academia again. (I taught Creative writing in several north-east universities after my MA but moved into collaboration).
I begin a part-time funded PhD at the University of Northumbria this October to explore my ‘Strange Bedfellows’ methodologies and I will be writing about my research at my new blog, FoldedSpace.
Does each group have a tailored-program? If not, what percentage is tailor-made and how do you decide what to do?
In training, mentoring and/or CPD contexts outside of the writing/literary sectors, each course, event or workshop I deliver is a bespoke creation tailor-made for the group it will be delivered to. It is often done in negotiation/collaboration with them.
The ‘Strange Bedfellows’ courses I run for writers, artists and creatives are unique every time, but use the same template and methodology.
A writer/artist can, in effect, attend every incarnation of ‘Strange Bedfellows’ and never encounter the same workshop exercise twice. (Actually there is one exercise I always use in each course, but it’s a Surrealist random image generator, so that’s OK).
How effective are these methods both for you as a writer and your students achieving a worthwhile learning experience?
They are hugely effective for me personally as a writer: I couldn’t work without them, and my process is very intuitive, fluid and something I want to understand on a deeper level, but not unravel so much that it stops working.
In terms of student and participant experience, all I can draw on at present are my observations and the feedback I harvest from participants (this will change as my PhD progresses). I record observations as I deliver the courses (I keep a journal of each course to chart how things go and develop).
The vantage point of tutor and facilitator is a privileged one and while I observe willfully I realize my perspective is not always objective. How can it be?
This doesn’t feel like a problem to me, although in terms of delving deeper into what I do, I can see the attendant limitations. It felt important for me to gather honest, objective feedback from people who have made an active choice to attend a Poetry/Fold course and actually pay good money for one of my courses.
I have been fascinated to see how high participant commitment is to paid-for courses.
How does running these courses work as a business?
I don’t run courses to make money. My business model is a break even one, not a for-profit one and I can’t ever see me ramping up and running a creative writing school when there are some very good ones out there already.
However, when a person has invested in their own professional development and paid for a course out of their own pocket they are much more likely to tell the whole truth about their experience.
One of the major issues with subsidized creative/cultural engagement activities is maintaining participant commitment.
‘Strange Bedfellows’ always sells out and the attendance rate is almost 95%, not to mention people arrive on time and stay until the end.
That sounds almost too simplistic to point out, but I know my customers (they are participants/students first and foremost, but there is no denying that somewhere along the line someone has to pay for the provision of a quality writing course) would ask, point blank, for a refund if ‘Strange Bedfellows’ disappointed them.
I am always transparent about what my courses are and are not. I specialize in inspirational and generative workshops and teaching. I could deliver master classes and form, genre or technique sessions but my choice is to work at the creation/inspiration end of the writing process.
This is within my teaching, of course. As a writer and teacher I do contextualize my approach within the absolute need for a robust creative framework that involves editing, drafting and intense concentration on matters of form, technique, craft and context.
How do you see your business as a creative practice?
The random, the spontaneous, the creative momentum I produce in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ is only one part of my creative practice: but it is an important part and one that I still think is little understood in terms of creative writing.
There is so much fantastic work and research into the neurology and psychology of creativity, but less from within my own discipline.
A practicing writer, thinking about these issues and asking the questions is very different from the perspective of say, a neurologist, or psychologist. Once I begin my PhD I am sure I will discover more creative writer-led research.
The poet (and she’s a fine poet) Helen Mort’s doctoral work in neuroscience and contemporary poetry at Sheffield University – for example – is fascinating and I’d recommend her research blog, for an insight into how writers are engaging with academia.
What would you like to do in the future?
In October 2012 I begin my own doctoral research into my ‘Strange Bedfellows’ methodology.
I have been awarded a part-time Studentship at Northumbria University and I will be exploring a lot of what I have outlined in my previous response.
I am at the start of a long and unknown journey because while I have been using ‘Strange Bedfellows’ for years, I know only a relatively small amount about how it works.
I am keen to partner and talk with educationalists and other writing academics/departments. While I have the part-time studentship I need to secure more funding for the project/practice-led components of my research.
One of the assertions of my PhD will be that ‘Strange Bedfellows’ should be a fundamental part of undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing curricula in higher education.
Having been practice-led for many years I am now very excited to be looking at issues of pedagogy and while I don’t want to specialize in theory per se, I would love to work with creative writing theorists.
The other thing that’s happened is that I have been writing a lot more of my own work since starting The/Poetry/Fold (which is, in itself fascinating and something I will be researching).
I am a not the fastest of poets – something that may be linked to my reading/writing issues, I think – but I have new material that I am very excited about and I am currently looking for a publisher for my third and fourth collections of poetry. The third, entitled ‘The line’ is ready to go and I have started work in earnest on the fourth, with the (working) title, ‘The man with the moth on his lapel’ which I plan to have competed by the end of 2013.
No matter what work or collaboration I undertake, poetry and writing has to be at the heart of what I do so it’s important for me to make sure there’s always enough time to write. All serious writers will know what I mean by that.
How do you think you are going to manage simultaneously running your business and engaging with the PhD?
We all juggle so many work demands, running a business and doing a PhD are ways for me to consolidate, and raise the profile of my own research, while allowing me access to a whole new world of academic practice and research.
How do you feel about creative writing in general?
I can now see the global discourse around creative writing and I am really excited to get started and begin new conversations with like-minded and interested colleagues here and overseas.
With The/Poetry/Fold I am keen to expand into publishing a series of creative writing handbooks based around by ‘Strange Bedfellows’ methodology.
What about harnessing modern technology for teaching creative writing?
It’s early days for this but I have a vision of where I want to be with my handbooks in 5 years time (possibly with an academic partner?) and I am currently collaborating with a design agency with a specialty in the poetry/literary/creative writing sectors and a web developer.
We’re still in the research and development phase but I want to pursue this as I am always on the look out for new handbooks to inform my own practice. Having been in the dark ages for years I have finally embraced online/digital publishing.
It is a very exciting time to be publishing and I use a Kindle, iTouch, iPad and all kinds of online resources all the time in my own work. Although I will always continue to buy and read hardcopy books and journals; a poem on the virtual page is a fascinating concept…
This is ‘A shadow, a wall’,a poem Lisa wrote in response to Edward Hopper’s painting, Rooms by the Sea, which can be found at the Yale University Art Gallery. It is intentionally justified to the right.
A shadow, a wall
I am a door that opens inwards
to reveal the sea.
There are no paintings here
and the phone rings once
at four o’clock.
I want you to leave,
don’t you know that?
Then the day will be complete,
As the light sets sail away from me.