How the ‘Poetry Engine’ gives museum visits a whole new meaning

GUEST POST : Elaine is a Doctoral student in Education and also nearing the end of her BA in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham. She runs Strange Alliances, a blog exploring different ways of creating narratives through different forms of media and can be found on Twitter @EMAldred.

Next time you go to a museum, don’t go on your own. Bring a few people interested in writing, then spread out to find objects that interest each of you. But whatever you do, don’t look at the labels.
Then start up what poet Mark Goodwin refers to as a ‘Poetry Engine’ exercise. Take no more than three minutes to write the first things that come into your head, while you’re looking at your chosen item. Write a poem based on these words. Get back together for an intense brainstorming session to combine at least two poems. Then perform them as a shared enterprise, spread out amongst an audience seated about the museum collection.

The result is engrossing and startling, when themes such as war and rural idyll are juxtaposed. As the words emerge and work with each other there is a palpable sense of disquiet, particularly as the objects of inspiration (a gas mask and a seed spreader) reside on a table by your shoulder.
That’s what happened last night at the bijoux Kegworth Museum, as the audience seated themselves down the length of the upstairs room amongst a variety of themed areas ranging from agriculture, to a Victorian lady’s boudoir, an old schoolroom and war memorabilia.

The ‘poetry experience’ (Mark’s definition of the event) was the culmination of three, weekly sessions of the ‘Box of Props’ intensive creative experience run by Mark and his partner Nikki Clayton, who has a Doctorate in Museum studies and has been an open museum projects officer.
In the first week, the group used the museum as inspiration to create poetry. Week two was spent organising and combining the poetry, ready for the performance in week three.

The performers experience had been one of intense activity, but no one was complaining and were, in fact, demanding more of the same. The audience, tucked in amongst the objects that had inspired the poetry, felt the same way.

However, what emerged from the exercise was more than the creation of poetry. One of the curators voiced her desire to re-label the collection, because of the insights she had gained through her participation in the project. It was clear she now saw many of the objects in a completely different way. What had once been an inanimate object of interest, had now acquired a personality and unique narrative.

This outcome is particularly interesting, given Nikki and Mark’s combined passion for using museum collections to inspire the development of language through creativity and poetry. It’s something they know a great deal about having contributed a chapter on the subject in The Thing about Museums. Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation an edited book published by, Routledge.

The ‘Poetry Engine’ technique also appears to present creative opportunities to those who may have a desire to express themselves through writing, but are held back by fear of appearing linguistically inadequate. This opens up numerous creative opportunities in many fields of education.

The process is certainly infectious. My next museum visit will be spent ignoring the labels and discovering what complex narratives I can draw out of something that catches my eye.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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