Come As You Are A Creative Writing Workshop With Inua Ellams

A three-day workshop about writing poetry, writing for the theatre and writing essays where reflections about the specific art forms developed into stimulating wider reflections about the cultural, political, social environment of contemporary Italy (and beyond).

by GRIOT - Published on 28/09/2022

Inua Ellams, born in Nigeria in 1984 and currently living in London, is an award-winning poet / playwright / performer whose works include the smash-hit play Barbershop Chronicles and the poetry collection The Actual, among many others. He started his collaboration with SPAZIO GRIOT thanks to a British Council International Collaboration Grant aimed at “supporting UK and overseas cultural partnerships to develop digital, face-to-face and hybrid artistic projects”. Together, Ellams (with Ohhfive Limited) and SPAZIO GRIOT developed Whose Wor(l)d is this?, a multidisciplinary project in three parts whose main goal is to promote and connect diverse creative voices between Italy and the UK.

The first appointment (11-12-13 July 2022) was a three-day creative writing workshop held by Ellams within the spaces of Il Mattatoio, in Rome. The workshop, Come As You Are, was addressed to BIPoC creatives under 35 and dealt with writing poetry, writing for the theatre and writing essays. As the title suggests, Ellams invited participants to just “come as they are” and simply think, play and create together in what turned out to be a relaxed yet extremely vibrant atmosphere. In each of the three days the author shared writing exercises and examples drawn from his twenty-year writing experience, and in each of the three days reflections about the specific art forms developed into stimulating wider reflections about the cultural, political, social environment of contemporary Italy (and beyond).

DAY 1 | POETRY

What is poetry?

After getting to know the participants and inviting them to offer some possible answers to the question, Ellams shared what he considers the best definition he knows. Borrowing the words of beloved poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, he described poetry as “the distillation of human experience through language”. “Distillation” thus became one of the key words in the workshop, with reflections and practical exercises dedicated to the art of compressing, making verses less verbose, creating razor-sharp images.

Everyone agreed that some of the most powerful driving forces behind poetry are emotions, but how can one communicate emotions effectively? The participants worked extensively on how to describe emotions through the senses, learning strategies that can help them convey images that are both precise and evocative and, most importantly, that can make their work come alive. What do emotions taste/look/sound/feel like?

The day continued with conversations and exercises that revolved around the anatomy of a poem, from its more rational, clearly identifiable parts (the skeleton (= structure), the heart (= topic), etc.), to the the more elusive ones (what Inua calls “the spirit”, i.e. the transformation, that magical element that somehow “makes a poem bigger than itself”.) Among the poems discussed was the author’s Fuck Dante, from his latest collection, The Actual. It was beautiful to see how the poem spoke differently to each of the participants, how everyone kept adding new layers of meaning and made the poem about so much more than was made explicit on the page. It was equally beautiful to see Ellams confirm that he had indeed tried to “distill” all of the aspects that the participants picked up on—even the less visible ones—in the poem.

Throughout the day, a number of interesting questions were raised: Is there a solid contemporary poetry scene in Italy? How diverse is it? Is the publishing world keeping up with the times? Do people read poetry? Or is considered obsolete as an art form? If so, why? What about the spoken word/poetry slam scene? What are the cultural differences between the British and Italian attitudes to poetry that make it more or less palatable/marketable/inclusive/enjoyable/available?

DAY 2 | THEATRE

Where should you start from when writing for the theatre? Are there any fixed rules you have to abide by?

While acknowledging the great variety of what goes under the definition of “play”, the author’s goal today was to work on some structural cornerstones to help direct the creativity of a room that, just like the first day, was filled with luminous artistic energy. From the concept of “plot” –i.e. the bare bones of a story – and the typical five plot points (exposition / rising action / climax / falling action / resolution), to the bigger concept of story and narrative arcs, to the key notion of conflict, the “essence of drama”. To familiarise with the concepts, the participants worked in two opposite but complementary directions, both dissecting existing stories to flesh out each individual component, and organising their original ideas so as to make them fit into the grids provided; this helped them lay the foundations for the development of their own creative ideas.

One of the most entertaining exercises of the day consisted in reading a long “absurd” conversation between two imaginary characters in which only the intention behind each utterance was given (on the model of the comedic play Title, by The Neo-Futurists’ founder Greg Allen). The following lines are an example:

  • Elaborate defensive excuse.
  • Half hearted agreement.
  • Insecure statement. Distracted statement. Absurd statement.
  • Clarification Question.
  • Panicked bullshit explanation. Quick, meaningless comic non-sequitur.

The participants were asked to replace each line with actual content, thus creating structurally identical yet widely different and often amusing renditions of the “same” dialogue, which demonstrated the different forms that even an extremely guided interaction between two characters can take.

Again, the workshop was a precious opportunity for everyone involved to share personal and professional experiences and to discuss pressing issues: Who “owns” the stories in our country? How can one write about racism without writing explicitly about racism? Why isn’t more space accorded to new, independent theatre productions in Italy? And why is there often a certain “stiffness” associated to the act of “going to the theatre”?

DAY 3 | ESSAY

Most of us have some degree of familiarity with the concept of essay writing because of school or university, especially with the expository or persuasive kind. However, after reviewing the different types, Ellams chose to concentrate on narrative essays and introduced his concept of essays as “expanded poems”. In May of this year, he was commissioned five essays by the BBC, each an “expansion” of a poem from his collection The Actual. As all the participants had read Fuck Dante on the first day of workshop and analysed it as a product of “distillation”, the natural thing to do was to read the essay Ellams developed from it. It was fascinating and extremely useful to see how the author had brought the same concept to life within the frameworks of two very different art forms, and for the participants to find most of the themes they had perceived in the poem fully examined in beautiful prose. The essay, just like the poem, is undoubtedly about basketball, but through the lens of basketball it explores so much more: relationships, history, segregation, racism, masculinity, love, friendship, the human body.

In essay writing, just like in poetry or writing for the theatre, Ellams stressed the importance of always knowing your “why”: why am I writing this? What do I hope to leave with the audience? And when I don’t have the answers, how do I ask questions better?

Apart from the acquisition of specific professional competences, the great value of these three days of workshop lay in the genuine enthusiasm of everyone involved, in the heartfelt conversations, in the stimulating polyphonic reflections. A recurring theme was the anger and frustration that stem from issues of mis- or under-representation in the world of literature and in the arts at large, or experiences of having one’s voice silenced, or witnessing the perpetration of trite stereotypes and one-sided narratives. Reflecting on the transformative power of literature and considering creativity a desiring force capable of bringing about real change, the central concept of the Zine was born: all contributions in the October issue will revolve around the themes of Rage and Desire.

The project continues with a Poetry Film Hack in London on 13/10, with the screening of Mamma Roma by Pier Paolo Pasolini – who would have turned 100 this year – and the live performance of five authors whose work has been inspired by the film. The event will be at Toklas. There will then be a R.A.P. (Rhythm And Poetry) Party on 28/10 at Caffé delle Esposizioni in Rome, when ten authors will perform the original texts they have written for the zine in an evening by the same title, Rage and Desire.

Ilaria Oddenino

Ilaria Oddenino is a lecturer and a literary translator. She has a PhD in English and Postcolonial Literature and has written articles and reviews for several different Italian and international publications. Oddenino has co-authored two English Literature coursebooks published by Rizzoli and Mondadori and has translated books for different publishers, including Codice Edizioni, Elliot, Nutrimenti and Atlantide. She is the creator of “Il Ballatoio – Storie a domicilio”, a project she carries out in collaboration with the Turin International Book Fair.

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