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Having recently completed a week-long residency at Melbourne Girls’ College, I’m reminded once again that poetry is still a vibrant and incredibly relevant art form (if anyone ever doubted it). Students were air-punching over metaphors. Candles were blown out in place of punctuation marks. Not a literary leaf was left unturned as we began our autumnal foray into the very heart of language.
During my time at MGC – where I was made to feel very welcome – I took each of the Year 8 classes through two workshops. The intended outcome – apart from giving ourselves up to the thrills and spills of poetry – was to produce, in small groups, a list poem that would be performed in front of the class at the end of the second session. But as I told them, ‘writing is a blood-sport’, so this would be no shy affair, the best group to be selected to go forward to perform in front of staff and students in a final competition (the winner of that event to go on to compete in Melbourne Writers’ Festival Poetry Slam.)
First, we began with some warm-ups to make sure no one pulled any poetic muscles and that everyone was clear on one thing – I allow plenty of space for creativity but none whatsoever for clichés! By the end of the warm-ups, we already had an idea who were the ones to watch in the room and just how high the standard was going to be. I then introduced them to the idea of the list poem via one of the finest examples of its type – Wallace Steven’s extraordinary ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. With a literary giant leading the way, we began our own poems, and over the rest of the first session and most of the second, students wrote alone then in groups, perfecting and practicing till they had their final piece. Topics ranged from adoption to moonshadow to a bullet – all chosen by the students and explored in ways that ranged from the concrete to the abstract, the philosophical to the enticingly strange. And every effort was made during the workshops to ensure that the wonderful teachers at MGC were also learning new ways of working with poetry, just as I was learning from the ways they coaxed the best out of their students, whether it was on the level of performance or content. A win-win you could say!
The following week I went back in to judge the final – a perilous task indeed. I’d fallen in love with so many lines and images I’d heard during the workshops that I knew it would be almost impossible to pick a winner. There were guitars played, flowers tossed, dramatic hand gestures and creative use of voice repetition to rival the most stirring moves in synchronised swimming. Alas, in the end, I had to make a choice. ‘Clouds have the power – they decide the fate of the day’ stood above what was a very impressive selection of poems, so impressive that it was hard to believe they had been produced in the space of a week (even a title like that would take most poets months to perfect!)
But in the end, poetry was the true winner. It claimed its space. Broke hearts. Convinced even the doubtful that it is a force to be reckoned with. My thanks to Melbourne Girls’ College for giving me (and poetry) the freedom we needed to allow for something worthwhile and artistically-satisfying to take place. It was an absolute pleasure. I can’t wait to go back!
– Lia Hills, April 2015