Diary: Glyn Maxwell, Dark Canadee, an imagined workshop in a real lockdown

“It is an ancient mariner / And he stoppeth one of three. / —‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, / Now wherefore stoppest thou me?’” Gustav Doré, ”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (detail), 1876

I see in everyone emerging from lockdown a touch of the Ancient Mariner arriving at the wedding-feast, stepping into the party with his glittering eye, seizing people’s arms and murmuring: “There was a ship…”

Trouble is, there was a ship, for all of us, this last year and a half, so the bars and cafés and streets are full of glittering-eyed people seizing people’s arms and murmuring, and the weddings have to wait. Or perhaps each of us was our own ship. Here was mine.

Like many of my guild I make my living by teaching. I keep thinking of new ways to do it. Even before the pandemic I had been toying with the idea of a version of teaching writing that would be all writing. That sounds cerebral and lonesome, but what if I wrote my students into the work? Not just their poems, but them sitting there in class, listening, talking back, drinking with me afterwards? I had some experience with this caprice from two books I’d written, called On Poetry and Drinks with Dead Poets, in which I used fictional classrooms to talk about real poems. (One early version of the idea went by “Imaginary Gardens,” after Marianne Moore’s famous description of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads”). Locked away in a rustic barn for the duration I took the idea to the next level.

I designed a poetry course for lockdown. No one’s there, I’m not there, but also no Zoom. Aspiring poets would each send me a poem they wanted looking at. (For a fee, of course, these were thin months.) To this actual poem I would give my actual suggestions, deep, wide, serious, friendly. But everything else would be fiction. I would wrap a make-believe world around the whole encounter.

There was indeed a ship: one night in the Winter—last Winter was my first ever to crown itself with a capital—when things were at their worst, nationally, personally, creatively, meteorologically, I reimagined The Poetry School in London, where I teach, at its most desolate. The actual Poetry School is at Canada Water, a blank new development in the old docklands of Rotherhithe near Canary Wharf. I saw it rainy, silent, shuttered, the English Winter version of tumbleweed rolling through the skateboard park. Nothing open, no one there. I turned it upside down and wound it backwards into fantasy as Dark Canadee, a pirate port from whenever, its ancient names—Deal Porter Square, Baltic Quay, Greenland Quay, AlbatrossWay—I lit with meaning again and all the jolly piratical clichés in full cry. Green lanterns burning by a bustling market, loners with secrets, hapless drunken redcoats, skeletal ships on the horizon.

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Barely seaworthy boats would bring groups of Poets to the shore from the Plague-Times, which is us, here in 2021. And I’d be waiting on the wharf to escort them to our illicit workshop. Everything I recalled about Canada Water was swollen into dreamscape for Dark Canadee: its tiny marina the moonlit ocean, its three humble food vans the teeming bazaar, the bus station an ominous point of departure into wilderness, the library an abandoned hulk with weeping faces in the windows. And it would be always Friday night.

In order to board the travellers were asked to tell me seven things about themselves, true or false. This is what I agreed could be used in the fiction, and nothing beyond. This element allowed folks to project themselves, costume themselves, be an avatar, incognito. Some used pseudonyms. Several friends and current students stowed away; the Seven Things helped me to hide them in the fiction. The poems-in-progress they handed me, and my responses to them, were looped into a set of unfolding stories, passed back, about the characters who brought them. I didn’t really know where the stories would go: the nature of the voyagers and my encounters with them affected the plot, re-channelled it, shaped it, which as a storytelling principle feels a little more like life than usual.

The exercise perhaps engaged as well the dolefully locked down playwright in me—so accustomed to the give and take of live others, now forbidden—on behalf of the poetry teacher, and his working methods in this imagined forum brought forward a central pedagogical ethos of mine: that a poem needs to have the psychological coherence of a dramatic monologue, and only those that do tend to survive the clock and the weather. My students had to invent themselves, verbally, even to board the ship. Another benefit of imagined conversation is that the dead can join it, too. In this formulation “criticism” becomes less a form of judgment than conversation. I and my students sit side-by-side, not face-to-face.

For I have no authority in Dark Canadee. In fact Pirate Max, the role I play in the fiction, is clueless and forgets details between chapters, needs his own sharper creations to bail him out and help solve the mysteries. Like my poems do when they come. When they come, and I hope they will, they shall find me waiting on the wharf and, like the Wedding-Guest in the ballad, a little sadder and wiser.

Glyn Maxwell’s most recent book of poems is How the Hell Are You. He is currently writing a new libretto for Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, to be staged by Opera UpClose in coastal English towns in 2022.

Poetry in Book Post: Read Glyn Maxwell on Edward Lear; Michael Robbins on Allen Ginsberg and Paul Muldoon; Ange Mlinko on John Berryman; April Bernard on Wallace Stevens; Anna De Forest on Victoria Chang; Patricia Storace on Pablo Neruda; Christopher Benfey on Walt Whitman; John Balaban on The Tale of Kieu; Matthew Bevis on Elizabeth Bishop; Ann Kjellberg on Adam Zagajewski; Hugh Eakin on Apollinaire; Spencer Reece on Gerard Manley Hopkins; Anthony Domestico on Louise Gluck; Irena Grudzinska Gross on Adam Mickiewicz; Mark Wunderlich, Luis Rodriguez, Wendell Berry, Cynthia Zarin.

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