No miracle cures

Katharine Towers runs the Poetry Society’s Surgeries in Sheffield. So, what do you get from a one-to-one with a published poet?

Yes, it is rather like a real surgery! Each poem is accorded the respect due to a living, breathing thing. The consultation may focus on minor discomforts which can be easily treated. Sometimes there are recurring symptoms which indicate an underlying condition. But the process is essentially a benign one in which doctor and patient work together towards a common goal: the health and longevity of the poem.

Experienced writers and new

All sorts of people come to the sessions. Some are relatively experienced and have published in magazines or on websites. Others have never shown their poems to anyone and arrive nervously, expecting a verdict. Some even say “I’ve come to find out if I should carry on writing”. This isn’t really what the Surgeries are for.

It comes down to the individual piece of work. Typically, you’ll be asked to send six poems to your surgeon in advance, together with a few biographical details such as how long you’ve been writing, what your ambitions are, why you write. Before the session, the surgeon will spend time alone with your poems, reading them in the way they should be read – without context, clarification or explanation. After all, when a poem gets published the poet isn’t there to hold its hand.

Most Surgeries last an hour – a unit of time that can be mysteriously Tardis-like when two people sit in a room together and look hard at a piece of paper with words on it.

Revealing the bumps and cracks

I always make sure we read each poem aloud before starting to discuss it. It’s amazing how often people say they don’t do this at home! Hearing a poem can reveal all sorts of bumps and cracks that don’t manifest themselves on the page. During the session you’ll reflect on all the usual technicalities: form, line breaks, tense. You’ll look at the work the title is doing and at where the poem really begins and ends. Your surgeon may point out particular mannerisms or a habit that you’ve not noticed. (We all want a distinctive voice but no-one wants to be Victor Meldrew!) Most important of all, your poem will be subjected to the reality test: does it exist because it had to be written?

Don’t expect to be provided with ‘solutions’ to your poem’s problems. The surgeon might suggest an alternative place for a stanza break but they’re unlikely to re-write lines or come up with a different adjective for you. The aim is to give you a set of tools you can take away and use at home. That way, the hour will have earned its keep.

Every Surgery I deliver is different. And it’s rare to emerge from a session and not feel that I’ve learnt something. Sometimes I’ve gone away and found I could finish a poem of my own.

Katharine Towers’s The Floating Man won the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize 2011. Her second collection will be published by Picador in 2016.

A suitable case for treatment: Danica Ognjenovic relates how her Poetry Surgery with Katharine Towers helped her NPC commended poem, 'Birdfall'

Danica Ognjenovic

“I saw Katharine last summer and it was the first time I'd shown my work to anyone outside a very small circle. She introduced the extra “we” at the end of the penultimate line in my poem, ‘Birdfall’, and it changed the beat. To my ear, it gives the end of the poem more space. Katharine’s musical sense is very strong, and she helped me understand that small is beautiful. Which is why I had the audacity to submit ‘Birdfall’ to the National Poetry Competition: she helped me hear my work more clearly.”


View Adele Myers’s film-poem of Danica Ognjenovic’s ‘Birdfall’. Read the poem here.

Katharine Towers

“Danica’s ‘Birdfall’ was always a strong and beautiful poem but coming to it without having met or spoken to the poet helped me to encounter it as I would a poem in a book – without context or sentiment. We’re most useful to our poems when we manage to make them strange to us. Danica said she was concerned that ‘Birdfall’ might be too small, too simple. Of course, neither of these is ever a problem in itself. Indeed, one of the beauties of the poem is its many monosyllables. So if I was helpful it was perhaps by a) giving Danica confidence to trust in the poem she had written and b) mooting some very tiny interventions which might help the poem crystallise into its ‘best self’.”

Katharine Towers’s The Floating Man won the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize 2011. Her second collection will be published by Picador in 2016.