Poetry with strangers


In the cramped back room of the bar, a group of about thirty people appear to be quietly sitting on one another’s laps. Though I’ve never seen their faces at other poetry events, I will be seeing most of them again, every week for the next five weeks.

Melbourne poet Claire Gaskin is at the front of the group, reading her poem, “Freedom from André Breton”, the audience following from their handouts. As she finishes, there is a beat, a ripple of excitement and then anticipatory silence from the group, punctuated by clinking pints from the front bar. Glancing about carefully, somebody raises their hand and asks Claire about the tension between the beauty of her poem’s imagery and the determined steeliness of its feminist reply to Surrealist objectification. And so the conversation carries on; we listen and read some more; and finally shuffle out into the Clifton Hill evening with a handful of poems.

This was the basic pattern of a course I coordinated with Dr Stephanie Downes (Centre for Human Emotions, University of Melbourne) through September and October. Interested in alternative modes of teaching and learning literary studies, Steph and I decided to pilot our poetry course through the Melbourne Free University. Established a few years ago by a pair of enterprising postgraduates, the MFU offers short courses and seminars to the public, free of charge, on all sorts of topics. The courses are proposed, coordinated and run by experts in the field, and take place in free hire spaces around inner Melbourne.

Each session at the MFU is a ninety minute seminar: forty five minutes from the guest speaker, followed by the same of audience discussion. Focused on the relationships between poetry and sex, our course featured not only Claire Gaskin but other guests including Ali Alizadeh and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Whilst it required no prior knowledge of poetry or literature, in other ways it looked significantly different from an undergraduate literature course: students of a broad spectrum of ages, educational and life experience, from first year creative writing students, to middle-aged teachers and retired philosophers; no expectation of attendance, assessment or accreditation; and a much better selection of brew on tap.

As Steph and I shaped the course, our challenges were pretty clear to us: to invite a general public audience to read and discuss poetry with one another; and to create this context for poetry without diluting the educative and critical rigour of the discussion. In trying to rise to these challenges, the project was largely experimental; making the best use of our academic skills and, at the same time, being prepared to chuck them all out the window when it came down to redefining the purposes and outcomes of education when it is released from the constraints of the modern university.

For instance, when your students pay nothing, what do you owe them and what do they expect from themselves? What questions does the guy next door have about poetry? And how does the exchange of knowledge work when learning is not assessment-driven?

For us, the fundamental necessity was to identify guest writers, critics, scholars or educators of poetry who not only possessed interesting knowledge, but also had the rare gift of warm, succinct and captivating communication. Anyone who has ever been a student knows how rare is this double skill. This was not an audience with prepared, theoretical foundations or known questions: the course happened within the confines of each week’s session, and depended upon a perfect storm of presentation mode and group dynamic.

Were we surprised that folks did arrive—and stay, more every week, from well beyond the inner city poetry community? Despite ourselves, yes. The pilot suggested that our audience wanted to hear about process and voice, among other things. People loved to receive a hard copy of their own, to annotate and take home and maybe even follow up at the bookshop. And they were drawn in and provoked as much by the complications of morality, sensation, affect and convention that were offered by the texts, as they were by the prospect of poetic expression itself. I think—and this is an inkling rather than a quantified observation—that, ultimately, they kept coming back for that valuable pleasure:  time and space in which to watch language slowly unfolding through the bottom of a beer glass.