The Monthly asks Kathleen McCracken about her Poetry In Motion Masterclass

How did you become involved with Community Arts Partnership’s Poetry Masterclasses?

After I won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2019, I was invited by Shelley Tracey and Conor Shields of the Community Arts Partnership to be on the judging panel for the Poetry in Motion Anthology and the Seamus Heaney Award. I was honoured when this year they asked if I would like to facilitate a Masterclass, and of course I said yes.

What are your aims when facilitating a Masterclass?

I suppose that in the first instance my aim is a very practical one – I want to give participants tools with which they can redraft and refine their poems-in-progress to submission-ready standard. I also try to give each writer one-to-one guidance on specific poems, for instance, suggestions for cutting or rephrasing a line, finding a fresher, more exact word, or how to structure a poem more effectively – technical strategies that will help them to hone and polish their work. More generally, I encourage new ways of looking at what they have written, with the aim of helping them discover what makes a poem indelible for a reader, and what might be holding it back from delivering the desired impact. And I like to push writers towards trying new forms and linguistic manoeuvres, challenge them to be adventurous and experiment.

What do you think is useful about having a working poet facilitate workshops with new writers?

Practising poets are able to bring a range of drafting, redrafting and editing experience to new writers. They will have gone through the writing process time and time again, they will be able to advise on how to ‘let go’ and immerse in the rush of getting a first draft on to paper, how to wait it out through the dry spells, and how to deal with the inevitable rejection letters. They will also have an informed sense of what journal editors, competition judges and poetry publishers are looking for in submissions. An honest facilitator will admit from the start that they don’t have all the answers, that there is no philosopher’s stone, that every reader’s response is subjective – but the fact that this poet has made writing their life’s work, that they have published and are open to mentoring, can help new writers find the courage and the dedication to persevere with their own writing.

What methods do you utilise to encourage participants to think about their work and their process?

It’s important for any writer to have a trusted circle of readers who will give sensitive and impartial feedback on work in progress. The masterclass should provide that, so when I facilitate in this way I ask the participants to give constructive comments on each of the pieces of writing submitted for workshopping. This sort of ‘cold’ reading can give a writer a great deal of insight into how well the poem is achieving what they would like it to, as well as discovering that the poem has a life of its own, that it generates responses they didn’t anticipate. I am just one reader/writer, albeit a slightly more experienced one, in the group, and the more diverse the responses, the more ideas for development the writer is going to receive. I often bring in a curation of ‘tips’ from professional writers which participants can discuss or put to use in their own practice, and I encourage them to write reflexively about their writing process, asking them to answer questions such as ‘why do I write?’, ‘what stops me from writing?’, ‘who am I writing for?’

What do you think about CAP’s PIM project and the Seamus Heaney Awards?

The Community Arts Partnership’s Poetry in Motion project and the Seamus Heaney Awards are, in my view, gold star initiatives which have encouraged new and established poets to share their work with a community of writers as well as broader communities within Northern Ireland and further afield. Both have enabled participating writers to gain confidence and sharpen their skills, and to gain exposure for their work through workshops, publications and public readings. They are vital contributors to the increasingly vibrant arts scene in Northern Ireland – bravo to all who help make them happen!

Kathleen McCracken
November 1, 2021

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