Leap of Faith: Workshops Review of Elisabeth Horan and Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on The Wall Press).
By Benjamin Francis Cassidy
The Friday night before I went on the course, I still hadn’t bought tickets (one for each workshop). I wasn’t fully decided I was going. Sometimes, I find that poetry events can feel a little like they should only be a middle-class affair. Admittedly, that’s probably more down to my own fears and doubts that I don’t belong to the world of poetry, than the reality of the situation. I’m someone who doesn’t feel wholly confident in their ability to write poetry. I have found some examples of elite attitudes, though, in previous experiences of such affairs, which hasn’t helped. Regardless, I decided that as the day (Saturday 29th February 2020) was one that only comes around every 4 years, I should use that as inspiration and just dive in. Fortunately, there were some tickets left. Not many, as it was popular, but I was booked on.
I arrived at café Nexus early, which is a lovely venue itself. Lots of good, heart food on offer and a great range of coffees and teas, too. I was preparing for the workshop by googling some of the key terms of the two workshops I’d signed up to. I had heard of Ekphrastic Poetry and read some “Eco-Poetry”, too. Not a great deal, but tried to find a few examples. I went over what the briefs were of the two classes being put on. To anyone attending future workshops, I thoroughly recommend this, if possible, to get some background and so you can try and get the most of the time there.
On the way back from the loo, I was getting another cup of tea. There was still half an hour to forty minutes left before things started. I noticed who I thought was Elisabeth Horan. We are Facebook friends. I politely asked if she was Elisabeth and that I was down for the workshop. She confirmed she was and immediately asked if I’d like to come over and sit with her and Isabelle, who is the Editor and One-Woman Show of Fly on The Wall Press. I felt an immediate warmth and very welcomed. Isabelle introduced herself and the three of us chatted about poetry, etc. Both women showed an interest in me and asked about my work. I explained that I have had nothing published and feel a little lost with where to start to remedy that. Both were extremely supportive and told me that the workshops will address this concern, too. The time passed really quickly and it was soon time for the first workshop . . .
Elisabeth Horan has had much success with her poetry, in the last few years. It’s easy to see why, when you meet her. She has a rare ability to fuse a gentle demeanour, with fierce tenacity. Straight up, she got to the business of intruding the theme of her workshop. Ekphrastic Poetry. There are many definitions available of what that terms means, but put as simply as possible, it is writing in response to a piece of visual stimulus, that can loosely be called artwork. I say loosely because some disagree on what constitutes art. Specifically, the poem appears alongside the artwork (or chosen image). The response by the author informs the work, and is a way to distil the experience of the poet. Elisabeth advised us all that there is no right or wrong, per say. She discussed her admiration of the late, great, Frida Kahlo. By stating how strongly she felt about her work, then reading aloud a poem she’d written based on some of Kahlo’s self-portraits, it was clear to see why this idea would work so well.
After we all read through some examples of work she has had published with various journals, magazines and webzines, we were given the opportunity to choose a piece of paper with an image on, and then respond to it. A period of about fifteen minutes was designated, initially. Elisabeth instructed us to try not to focus too strongly on even getting the bare shape of a poem. She stated it would be better to let ourselves go and just write what sprung to mind. The rest (trying to “build” a poem from it) would come later. So, everyone got to work and began to write down their thoughts and feelings. I had a photograph of an image of what appeared to be Darth Vader, standing on a white background. Beneath him were flames, that were orange coloured. It was a digital image, of fire. I was quite surprised at how personally I responded to it. It brought to my mind thoughts of struggle and a battle for redemption; my own fight against addictions, alcohol and other substances sprang up. I wrote about how difficult it seemed, to get to a point in life that I could live without something to make the harsh realities of coping a necessity. The contrast of the white background and the fire below made me think of my own life as a sort of period of “hell” then heaven. Perhaps not quite as simple as that, but at least that captures to some extent how an image can really draw out of one some poetic ideas, from the depths of oneself.
Once everyone had done some writing, we were encouraged to swap with others. Elisabeth assured us that if we weren’t entirely comfortable with sharing, it wasn’t a necessity. She suggested it so we could get feedback, so often an all-important way to hone one’s own work. I was a little apprehensive, due to the deeply private experiences I had written of. I braved it, and shared with David Hanlon. I didn’t realise that David is also a working poet, is currently touring with Elisabeth. I read over David’s work, that was a poetic take on the image he used for inspiration, a brightly coloured collage, a sort of abstract splash of colour. He used vivid descriptions and concrete details to capture what he felt. It was a greatly useful exercise and one which I shall investigate further, going forward. A great workshop, delivered by a sensitive, skilled poet, also a gifted teacher. I was glad I came, and most definitely in the creative mindset now, so eager for the second of the day’s workshops.
With just enough time for people to nip to the toilet, or top up their drinks, get a quick bite to eat, it was the turn of Isabelle Kenyon to deliver her workshop ‘Planet in Peril’. An apt title, and unsurprising. Isabelle is the one-person operation of independent publisher Fly on the Wall Press. Part of her remit is to instil a sense of conscience into the world, and try to show how creativity can bring people together, ask big questions about the crucial topics going on, and maybe even provide some answers some of them. The workshop name is taken from an anthology organised by Isabelle, one of Fly on The Wall’s ambitious projects. It is a collection of poetry and artwork (perhaps some has elements of Ekphrastic Poetry?), that has seen members of the wider community contribute. There are poets who are successful in their own right, and some many younger writers too, as well as first time published poets. It was apt that Isabelle should use this book (she provided copies to work from for the group) for the basis of the workshop, so those present could read the work, consider it, and then respond.
Half an hour or so into the workshop, a definite buzz could be felt in the room. We had read one of the poems from the anthology out, talked of how it worked and thought of why. Then, we wrote down a central word, Glacier. We then all gave a word that we felt might well describe certain attributes of it. We talked of why. This helped to ground us in the physical reality of the world, really thinking about the wonders of the planet. With that in mind, we got to writing. The ideas were coming thick and fast, as everyone could be heard scribbling or typing. There was a voluble buzz to the room, a definite sense of something that had been stirred in people. I struggled a little, to try and comment on such a massive topic. I went with a Haiku, to try and put what can’t possible be (one of the great glaciers) into some sense of proportion. Again, everyone was given the opportunity to share their work. Everyone chose to. This time, owing to time constraints, verbal feedback was offered, based on what was heard.
At this point, it was easy to pick up on the trust that had been built in the room. Many people were present for the first workshop too. Even those who hadn’t were confident enough to read aloud their efforts, safe in the knowledge that others were in the same boat, and so nobody was going to be overly negative or insensitive. Isabelle is a natural at bringing people together and creating valuable work.
It was all over; well, not quite . . . there was still more to be gained from this wonderful day. There was the opportunity to purchase books from Elisabeth Horan, David Hanlon and also the anthology Planet in Peril. I bought all three, and felt that as well as the workshops, I got an absolute bargain. On top of that, we were given the chance to give our emails, so that we could receive a list of potential publishers for our work. Overall, I spent just over £50. When you consider what you can buy for that, a night out or some clothes, it was an absolute bargain. Comparatively, I have spent more on other courses/workshops with established names, and not gotten nearly as much from it. My worries about not fitting in or feeling my work is wholly sub-standard, that I have nothing to offer of value, totally dissipated. The workshops were run efficiently, professionally and with that all-important human warmth. The best cash I’ve spent this year and in a long time. Certainly, not money lost, but funds invested. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, those present were advised of the next Fly on The Wall Press anthology, about the city of Manchester, and encouraged to send in work for consideration.
A couple of days later I got a long list of places to send poetry about the environment to. A very long list! What really struck me was that Isabelle genuinely wanted people to send off work. She cares deeply for the place of poetry in the world and wants there to be more people who see that it can be a way of making sense of life, or finding a place in the world. That’s certainly true for me. As an aspiring poet, with few poems published, if I were to further invest in working with a publisher to look over my work and perhaps get a chapbook/pamphlet together, then I know where I’d go. I feel valued, encouraged and crucially (for me) that any money and effort I spent would go in to an organisation that is aligned with my own principles and sense of social responsibility. I made sure I’m on the mailing list for upcoming workshops and other opportunities. In the meantime, I feel a renewed sense of potential, and shall be busy writing more poetry with the aim of having them published.