Below is a review of a recent postal poetry workshop with Alice Oswald by Maggie Wang. Maggie is a second year studying history and economics at Pembroke College. She is Vice President of the Oxford University Poetry Society.
On Friday, 4 June, nearly 100 members of the university gathered for a workshop led by Oxford Professor of Poetry Alice Oswald. Professor Oswald and designer Kevin Mount are the minds behind The Letter Press, which designs and publishes poetry in the form of letters, postcards, small packets, aerogrammes and other ephemera. At Oxford, Prof Oswald has continued to engage with letter-poetry through postal performances, including last year’s Moon Viewing and an event for the Oxford Botanic Garden’s 400th anniversary.
In Direct Address: A Practical Workshop on Turning Poems into Letters, Prof Oswald invited participants to anonymously write and send a poem to another workshop participant. To ground this exchange of letter-poems, Prof Oswald encouraged participants to conceive of letters as a means of challenging the conventional bounds of time and space within which poetry is written and read. In postal form, “you write a poem in your present moment and it belongs to someone else in their present moment,” she said, so that some of the immediacy of discovering a poem that is normally lost when reading a book can be recovered through the medium of the letter.
Workshop participants shared an array of thought-provoking insights on postal poetry and postal performance. For example, letter-writers tend not to revise their letters, but revision lies at the heart of poetry. The twenty-first century preference for texts and emails might have changed the way we write letters as well as poems. A good poem lasts forever, but a letter captures the thoughts and needs of a specific moment in time. Letters are personalised, while poems may not be. Yet, each of these distinctions can break down. “When you read a love poem, are you meant to be eavesdropping, or is the poem meant to be overheard?” Prof Oswald asked.
Through questions like these, Prof Oswald invited participants to contemplate the act of direct address before composing a letter to a fellow poet. Participants sent their letters through the University’s internal post system in preparation for a communal letter-opening at noon on Friday 18 June, the last day of the 2020-21 academic year. A few of the poems can be viewed below.