What the kenning? – Matt Harvey, writing workshop

21 May
Matt Harvey at the Festival Finale

Matt Harvey at the Festival Finale

Kenning, according to Matt Harvey, is a way of describing things and their function through creative language and metaphor.

Make sense? No, me neither at first. But, as he explained further it did, with his sharing of work and examples along the way: blood as battle dew, clouds as God’s pocket fluff, and slugs as soft-horned invisigoths.

It is a process that is taught to children. Books are even written about it: Valerie Blooms’  Things to do with Kids Kennings an example of one Matt explained. And, it was to be an important part of our first task. This was a workshop after all; a fact which I had appeared to have forgotten over a leisurely lunch and a spell in the sunshine in the serene surroundings of Lower Shaw Farm.

Matt’s previous attendance at the festival several years prior, and his reputation, had preceded him, with the former cattle shed fit to bursting with writers of all abilities and disciplines who had nominated themselves as students for the afternoon.

He had written a detailed plan for the afternoon’s proceedings, but had then left it at home. However, as an experienced tutor, this made little impact and added to the spontaneity of the tasks as they were undertaken.

As if feeding off the atmosphere Matt tailored his teachings to the room and its inhabitants. Tuned in to those less confident sitting at the back, he actively sought them out to listen to their exercises and share advice.

Sharing was to play an important part in the workshop itself. If not sharing with the room, within a select group of three to four people: a task which some, myself especially, found difficult. But Matt was determined and insistent that everyone was given a platform and feedback – to hear themselves read aloud.

There are no wrong answers when it comes to writing, only lessons to be learned – appeared to be the message. And though Matt could not help those who wanted to finish their novel, he could give at least give them the tools and encouragement to see it through to the end.

It certainly seemed that perfectionism can be the enemy of a writer. One attendee shared work of such a calibre that Matt encouraged him to send his still in process novel to a publisher.

“Sometimes you just need to get it out and gather opinions before going any further,” Matt told the nervous writer, who had edited no less than 15 times.

However, the same could not be said for me. The exercise had been to list things or a thing that was desirable and could be called upon to make someone complete. The idea being that the listing would distil our whirlpool of thoughts. My mass of words fought against the force. My fear held them back from being documented on the page.

I was living a paradox with my summing of words to the page, according to Matt, while others were like a gentle stream to which I wished to drink – their lists, as they gathered pace, were beginning to sing as opposed to document.

Lastly, we were asked to look at fictional characters: first by imagining, then by exploration and lastly by the exchange of fictional letters. Once again the room’s imagination ran wild with a retired SAS granny, an autistic child and a dog. It was to be a fun and light way to finish a challenging but no less rewarding workshop with such a talented force of a tutor as Matt Harvey.  One of which I did not truly come to appreciate until watching his performance of his work at the Festival’s Finale that evening.

For Matt is not only a considered, engaging tutor but a truly magical performance poet. I only hope that having spent a few hours in his company and intently listening to his teachings, some of his magic has rubbed off on me: at least enough to conquer the art of kennings which my 9-year-old daughter assures me is easy.

The Daughter 

A mini tutor in disguise. She glares at me with her Father’s eyes. 

Mother, it is quite simple can’t you see. I have been learning this since I was three. 

Kennings, prose, poems and tales. I was producing them before I could spell. 

Don’t call it ignorance at least not today. Take my hand and I will show you the way. 

There is no shame in learning whatever your age.

You just need to tease the words onto the page.

When this is finished you will know for a fact you’re rubbish at poetry but at least you gave it a crack. 

Words by Emma Smith. Image © Fernando Bagué. Matt Harvey led the Swindon Festival of Literature Writing Workshop at Lower Shaw Farm, 19 May 2018.

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