I heard about Claire Collison’s course, Writing the City, when she contributed to my pamphlet Blueshift. I decided to ask Claire a few questions about the course – her answers are below followed by her poem, The Trial, from Blueshift.
What inspired the ideas behind this course?
I reckon we get our best ideas when we are away from our desks, and out of the classroom. The Mary Ward Centre is slap bang in the heart of Bloomsbury, so it felt criminal not to take advantage of that. I tell writers where we are meeting each week, and then, only on the day, they are given prompts and a map back to Mary Ward, with places to look for en route. Back at base, we share the day’s writing. There’s something really special about a group of writers meeting and experiencing the same things, then each writing about them in their own unique way.
Can you give me an example of a place you’ve visited and a writing prompt?
Just one?! Along with museums and art galleries, we’ve visited venues as diverse as silver vaults and bowling alleys. We might meet in John Lewis and make notes in the perfume department before writing about monuments, or visit the Crossbones burial site on our way to Tate Modern. We’ve followed the routes of the characters in Mrs Dalloway…. I could go on.
I design prompts that will work for all kinds of writer – poets and prose, beginners and old hands – and try to ensure I provide enough background information for those who like their history, and enough diving off places for those who like to – well, dive off.
In Spring, we met at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest parish church in the City, took in the Display Gallery in Holborn Viaduct, and returned to Mary Ward via Conway Hall’s library. Here’s the prompt:
Dissenters, Law Breakers, Manifestos and Song
You are invited to think about protest in all its forms. Because the church is closely associated with musicians, perhaps your writing may take the form of a protest song.
In the gallery think about what is outside the establishment nowadays, and what you stand for, and what are you against?
Writing could take the form of text for a billboard or a manifesto (check out examples of both included in the gallery).
Maybe write your own manifesto in the form of a list – imperative tense is a must!
Heading back to Mary Ward, check out Red Lion Square and its history of ethical humanism. I have arranged for the use of the library here, on the first floor (no food and drink) to write up your manifesto or protest song or hymn….
What kinds of writing do people produce on this course?
All sorts! Novelists have used the days out to develop their characters; poets take the prompts and run with them. We’ve had songs and film outlines, think pieces and monologues and everything in between. People surprise themselves with what they can produce in such a unique space – and the group is always so encouraging and supportive, I think we are all more comfortable with taking risks.
If they choose to share it, I add their writing to the blog, where I also post a description of the day, along with prompts and photos – so do take a look! writingbloomsbury.wordpress.com
When they tell you it is called Persephone
you think of pomegranates –
red teeth thrown into a salad
in the chiller cabinet at the Lebanese café;
smoked and leaded stained glass
skewing daylight in the Princess Louise.
The drug flags up the bad cells for your immune system
to deal with, like bouncers in your own internal disco.
Every three weeks, behind blue curtains, in your left thigh
and then your right, alternately, for six months or twelve.
Signing your consent, you ask what they know
about Persephone. Nothing really, they reply.
You dream you’re making pomegranate jam.
Your aunt tells you to sieve it, but you say no,
it’s not to eat, it’s to look at.
You drop pink gobbets into sterilised jars,
seal down lids:
seeds inside cells behind glass.