A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.

16 thoughts on “A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie”

    1. I have you to thank for suggesting I become acquainted with her work – and several others then backed you up. The organiser of the event had seen Kathleen at a conference a decade ago and had been meaning to invite her ever since.

  1. I’m very happy for you that you had such a lovely time, Marina Sofia. And it sounds as though it was a very rich learning experience, too, and that makes it all the better. Add the chance to go back to Geneva for the weekend, and what’s not to love?

    1. Sadly, I did not get to see much of the mountains, as the weather was grey and damp, nor did I get to eat fondue. But otherwise it was pretty much a perfect weekend, and very welcome after two months of really hard work.

  2. That technique of folding the paper to highlight the key phrases and verses is unusual. I’ve never heard of that before but it could be a good technique to share with my writers group

    1. Usually the first stanza is a ‘clearing of the throat’ before the poem proper starts, so that’s an easy one to fold away. And we often discovered that there might be two poems lurking in what we believed was just one.

  3. Lovely. Sounds like a very valuable weekend on several levels. I’ve been meaning to try Jamie’s work for quite a while – she always comes highly recommended.

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