A half-day workshop at MUSA with JL Williams


JL Williams with satyr mask

The recent StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews provided a wonderful excuse to get the Bridges collection out and inspire some creative writing. We were lucky to have the opportunity to work with the poet JL Williams, who has a particular interest in the crossover between poetry and other art forms such as music, visual art, dance, opera and theatre. Her workshop at MUSA explored ‘masks of the imagination’ and included artefacts used in rituals to transport people from one world to another. Here she shares her thoughts about the day and her own poem, ‘Big Mother Silence’.


Writing is transformation. It is a way of bringing what is inside out, and of sharing the essence of what we are with others, through potentially vast tracts of time and space.

‘I’ll go slowly here: if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise — that things connect and exchange energy.’ – Mary Ruefle 

I was thrilled when Annie Rutherford, StAnza Poetry Festival’s Programme Co-ordinator, got in touch to ask if I would run a workshop at the 2018 StAnza Festival in collaboration with MUSA. The workshop would revolve around writing in response to objects in the collection. The objects would include portraits, self-portraits and a collection of masks and figurines from MUSA’s archaeology and ethnography collection, as selected by curators Alison Hadfield and Lisa Scrimgeour.

Before the workshop Alison sent me through the list of objects and links to virtual and in some cases 3D representations, and it gave me the idea that it would be interesting to share these with the participants before the workshop so they could encounter them virtually and then see how that compared to meeting them in real life.

We had a full house on the day, with many writers from different backgrounds and countries in the room. First we did some free writing and introductions to warm up and talked about the self in writing. It was fascinating to hear how the notion of the self, and what was safe or acceptable to share and reveal, varied from person to person and culture to culture. A woman from Belgium said that there it was accepted that people had many selves and that one should be honest and open about each. A Scottish man said he had been born with an original self but felt he had formed multiple selves over time to fit into different social situations, and that it would not be normal to share a multiplicity of these at once.

We discussed the spectrum of exposing the self through our writing, and how some confessional writers bore all whereas some – especially moving into realms of non-fiction and academic writing, showed very little of the self though arguably the self is always visible in some way in a text, even if through that which we do not say.

We then had a guided tour of the objects by the curators. It was remarkable to be able to see these objects up close, hear in detail about each of their histories and even be able to hold and touch them, some many thousands of years old.

I was particularly struck by a small figurine, made in Cyprus during the Archaic period (745-475 BC). A male figure in terracotta clay, whose red and black painted decoration was still visible, and even the fingerprint marks of the person who formed him. Two holes in the front of the figurine, as well as the beautiful way it fits even now into the palm of a closed hand, has led experts to surmise that it might have been a bell, and used as part of burial ritual to signal the transition from one stage of existence to another. 3D model of bell figurine

After exploring all the objects and portraits, we returned to our notepads and I asked the poets to write a poem which engaged both with their self or personal experience and with the object in some way – ideally representing some sort of transition or transformation. We had a little time at the end to share these baby poems and I was delighted by the range and depth of what was produced in such a short period of time. Some people focused on a more ekphrastic style of writing* in which they described their chosen object in close detail – revealing their self in what they noticed – and some found ways through the objects to talk about powerful moments of change in their own lives.

Workshop participants

I wanted the entire experience of the workshop to feel like a ritual in which we opened ourselves up to the creativity of others… their objects produced across vast distances in time and space, and found within ourselves ways to communicate with this creative energy and make it come alive again in our own work. I hope the writers at the workshop, and you, might take the idea of ritual and responding to art in the world around you to heart and make your own experiments with writing between worlds.

My workshop poem inspired by Big Mother, Pat Douthwaite, 1994, Lithograph:


Big Mother SilenceHC1995.34-Douthwaite-803x1024

lying in this silent house
your blanketed arms rise
to buffet my ringing ears with silence

the silence my empty rooms
ring with this year
and will ring with each year

the silence of this room
the silence of this open mouth
of wound

a generative quality
you impregnate this silence with
your massive embodiment

of a silent mask beneath which
I discover the productivity
of silence

a dynamic and two-fold realisation
though not a mother I am
the mother of silence


JL Williams (StAnza – MUSA – 2018)

*The term ‘ekphrastic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ekphrasis’, meaning ‘description’. A really good explanation and example can be found here: Poetry Foundation

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