Finuala Dowling on teaching creative writing

I interviewed Finuala Dowling for the Mslexia blog, in the interview I asked her about being a creative writing teacher: (truthfully as one of her students I wanted to get some inside information about what makes a good poem)

(Finuala Dowling currently runs a monthly on-line poetry workshop, as well as monthly poetry face-to-face workshop in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.)

How did you get into teaching creative writing? Do you see yourself mainly as a writer and secondly as a creative writing teacher? and how does your other job as an educational consultant fit in?

I actually taught my first creative writing class sometime in the 1990s, but it’s only in the last six years or so that it’s become such a big part of what I do. I first got into it reluctantly, because I needed the money. At that time I felt like an imposter because I didn’t really believe that creative writing could be taught and yet I agreed to teach it.

Now I feel differently. I think that the ‘teaching’ is really a combination of things: being intuitive about the individual student’s true ‘voice’, being encouraging to the shy and restraining to the rampantly confident; pointing out the patterns that are emerging in the person’s work; suggesting other poets they might read; shaping; editing; and soliciting more and more work.

I’m quite demanding once I get a sense of what someone’s capable of. I love the feeling I get when one of my students writes a good poem, or when I meet someone for the first time and realise they have talent. It makes all the rainbows and dewdrops worthwhile.

Despite this, I see myself as a writer first. I worry about my energy levels when I teach a lot. When you teach, you’re completely directed outwards; you feed someone else’s confidence; when you write, you need to focus inwards, feed the hunger within. Usually the day before and the day after a class I find I can’t work on my own stuff – I’m too depleted.

When I do the educational materials development, I don’t switch off my creative side: I just use it differently. I’ll work like the blazes on a text book or course material, all the time promising myself that the money I earn from this slog will buy me x or y amount of writing time. I bargain with myself all the time, and the prize is always writing time. If you do this or that now, I tell myself, then you can write later.

One of the things that you tell your students to do is walk. What is the connection between walking and writing?

Walking takes you away from your screen, where all your writing problems congregate. Walking has a natural rhythm that is particularly well-suited to poetic composition, but also to general problem-solving. You’re walking along, wondering what these two characters of yours will say to one another, and suddenly the whole dialogue will come to you – precisely because you haven’t been trying to drive the process the way you do when you’re sitting with a keyboard in front of you. Or you’ll be battling with a poem, and suddenly you make a mental connection. The poem is huge when I’m walking, the size of a billboard, and the font seems big. I can see it so much more clearly.

You have banned certain words that you students can’t use – like gone and magic – why are these words in poetry anathema to you? Would you share some more of your banned words?

You mustn’t take me too seriously: what I’m really saying is that certain words need to be used under caution; they mustn’t be used unthinkingly. There are words that people think are poetic because they refer to pretty things: words like rainbow, butterfly, golden, heart, diamond. Poetry is not some sort of scrapbooking hobby where you paste in flowers and hearts and create decorative borders.

Then there are all the abstract nouns that people itch to put in their poems: peace, love, beauty, eternity, passion, sadness, despair … these are mere concepts. I see the word spelt on the page, but I don’t actually SEE beauty or misery. Take me there, is what I beg my students. Give me scraps of waste paper blowing in the South-easter or a row of teenagers tanning their legs in the sun. Give me something I can see and feel. Then trust me to make the connection between these images and the dry stick of your concept. Look how hard Keats worked, how many images he gave us before he allowed himself to say ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

‘Gone’ is a different case. It’s not a cliché, but it is an overused word, and I particularly object when someone doesn’t know how to end their poem and so simply states that the thing we were looking at – a father, a sunset, a fish — is now simply ‘gone’.

I long to read poetry that contains words I seldom see in poems. What about drachma, toy cupboard, lupine, frou-frou, iroko, swatch, fillip, plinth, shush? Every now and then I want the pleasure of seeing a word in a poem for the first time. It gives me a fillip.

You make an effort to nurture your students – helping them to get published in literary magazines and helping them to have first collections published. Has there been someone, or a few someones, in your life who has nurtured and encouraged you in your creative endeavours?

Yes, there’s a person who prefers to remain anonymous who encourages me all the time, who keeps pointing out where and how I’m writing well. The first person who read and published my poems was Leon de Kock, and he remains an incredibly generous mentor and friend. Leon showed my work to Gus Ferguson, who took me from nowhere to my first collection.

Is there a particular quote or passage that you could share that encapsulates what poetry means to you?

It changes all the time. But Wislawa Szymborska, who died this year, summed up a very important aspect of poetry, and why arrogant people can’t really be poets, when she said in her acceptance speech ‘Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift.’

I also love her description, in the same speech, of why films about poets don’t work: ‘Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?’

‘I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems.’ (Possibilities, Wislawa Szymborska).

The Mslexia interview can be found at