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Use poetry as a way of giving a shit: A workshop with Dominic Stevenson

Use poetry as a way of giving a shit: A workshop with Dominic Stevenson

By Edward Bell. 

By the Theatre of Odeon is Berkeley Books, a fine second-hand bookshop that cradles every Saturday the Paris Lit Up weekly workshop, featuring our special guest from Thursday night. This greying Saturday, PLU had the pleasure of receiving Dominic Stevenson, a storyteller and charity worker who had come over from London to teach us with his words and enchant us with his teaching.

He had planned for our sesquipedalian delectation a series of exercises that were intended to make us “think about words and how we react to the world”. I had come along to the workshop to write, and the following exercises were very useful; it was an exploration into how to break down a scenario when on fieldwork and then how to dissect later back at the desk. We are looking to create something as a testament to ourselves and to our time, by becoming the craftsmen and craftswomen of our instruments. And in order to do this, we need to see life through notes and then after make “your words regrow” in the hope of acquiring what Ovid did:

I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze
and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids,
which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo
is able to destroy, nor the countless
series of years and flight of ages.
I will not wholly die and a great part of me
will avoid Libitina; I will continuously arise
fresh with later praise. While a priest will climb
the Capitoline with a silent maiden,
I shall be spoken of where the violent Aufidus roars
and where Daunus, poor in water, ruled
a rural people, powerful from humble origin,
the first to have brought Aeolic song to
Italian meters. Accept the proud honor
obtained by your merits and with the Delphic
laural, Melpomene, gladly encircle my hair.
(Ovid Odes 3.30)

The workshop was commanded by a deck of cards pimped out by Dominic with character names, ages and professions along with an unrelated scenario (i.e. George, 21, recent graduate + Someone accidentally presses the stop button on a moving bus, even though she’s got another 20 minutes left of her ride, feels embarrassed).

For the first exercise, we were instructed to construct a story based on our given card using 100 words and 100 words only. Then, we had to reduce it to 50 words (or 47.5 words if necessary) and then to 25 words before arriving with a pure six words. Here is my example:

Alan, 34, banker – Teenager yells for getting McDonald’s order wrong.

  1. Alan pulled up to the McDonald’s he always visited on his way to the bank. Middle-age was creeping in, and though grey hairs only bristled on his temples, he had taken to his new 6am habit.

“You’ve got my fucking order wrong, you prick!” yelled a squeaky, tired and upset teenager. Alan was already drinking his cappuccino by the time it happened and a strange delight took over him.

“We’ll sort your order out right away” replied a fat manager through the burgers. (83 words)

  1. The rubbish littered the hedgerow killing wildlife and strangling growth down under. Alan drove from the parking space and joined the motorway from what might have been his favourite bypass. Police cars scream in his rear-view mirror and raced past to arrive on scene at what looked to be a vicious car accident. (53 words)

  2. The day was growing old. Alan, the flabbing banker, order his McMuffin sandwich. A teenager was kicking off; more customers came and went. Sirens were yelling somewhere. Morning was growing old. (31 words)

  3. Grey. Aging soul. Teenager screams. Sirens. (6 words)

This led us on to discuss product placement in fiction and the writing of everyday 2016 concepts (iPad, Yamaha, Blue WKDs, etc.). Naturally, American Psycho was mentioned. Our Italian friend present exclaimed that she had tried avoiding clichés and was embarrassed about in turning them into fiction. To this, Dominic responded that there is absolute nothing wrong with an occasional cliché; he pointed to the meeting of a lover at the train station, or an old friend down some bar, is a beautiful moment and should be written down with our golden words.

16h or there or thereabouts. The second exercise began with being given another card with different character and scenario on it. Dominic then read a poem by Geoff Hattersley called Hyphen about Mr and Mrs Seymour-Smith who have come back from a party and want to bonk, with the classic ‘wet footprints leading from the shower-room’[1] image.

The aim of this exercise was to imagine the scenario before the scenario on the card. So, in the case of “Jane, 48, university lecturer – Shop worker told store is closing”, I imagined the meeting of husband and wife (Seymour-Smith) the night before the secretary of the husband’s firm is going to be made redundant. To add a further twist, either the writing was done from the perspective of a viewer of the situation or the participant in the scenario. Consequently, I decided to inject the first person narrative voice.

Other situations included a viewer of a bully and its bullied, a young man joining the army and a shopkeeper considering his wares.

After the workshop was over, we sought refreshment in a reasonably-priced bar off the rue Mouffetard. There we discussed the responsibility of culture in society; the workshop organised by Paris Lit Up is designed to question this responsibility for us to give some use to the art that we create.

Dominic began with a story about a friend of his from university. This friend was always travelling the world due to a military family and would tell Dominic stories of distant lands. For his part, as Christmas was nearing, he expressed his admiration for this travelling character. He replied that he had admiration for Dominic, who asked why. “Because you are going to be at home for Christmas with your family. I have never spent Christmas with my family”.

It was at that point that he realised he had a story to tell and that people also wanted to hear it. The consequence of this is to realise that “the responsibility of culture is to make people believe they are worth something”. In storytelling workshops (especially with younger children), he encourages students to believe in the story they are telling and the words they are saying.

However, it comes with a certain message: nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line). To get back to the original message of this piece, we are here to be craftsmen and craftswomen. As a result, we need to work our craft (all genres welcome) and then we can reap the fruit. Like the labouring parent who takes on menial work so that their children don’t have to, or those soldiers that fight so we can party, art must encourage others to feel deserving in this world.

In other words, in this world of indifference, we need to “use poetry as a way of giving a shit”.

[1] Sic.

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