Toitoi Talks: Kerrin P. Sharpe

Toitoi sat down with with award-winning NZ poet and beloved creative writing teacher Kerrin P. Sharpe to ask how she inspires her students and why it is important to celebrate the voice of our young writers and artists.

Who inspires you as a poet and/or teacher?

Bill Manhire of Victoria University was my first teacher of creative writing. He inspired me many years ago when I began to see myself as a writer and he still inspires me all these years later. One of the most important things he taught me was how to transform the whole creative process into words that are alive on the page; words that have meaning, sound and harmony – what we all call poetry. I think poems are like wonderful conversations that never end.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received as a poet and/or creative writing teacher?

As a poet you can’t rely on inspiration alone. It’s how you work with that early inspiration that really matters; how you shape, carve and mould it into a poem of your own. That’s what makes writing poetry so satisfying. You have created something new, something alive, something that is uniquely you.

I also learnt early on that you must keep your ‘creativity machine’ – your writing mind and your creativity – well-oiled and in top working order. If you let it get rusty through infrequent use, you will never produce good poetry. I try to keep the creativity machines of my students well-oiled by encouraging them with new ideas, books, stories, shared experiences and writing exercises. I try to challenge them to become better writers and not accept anything but the best from their writing.

What is your favourite creative writing exercise?

I have a writing exercise in which I challenge my students to invent a new childhood. For example, I ask them what it would be like to grow up in the circus or be a fox cub or some other exciting alternative! I ask them to develop a three-part narrative:

  1. A setting and an introduction to this new childhood;
  2. A problem or challenge they face in this new childhood;
  3. A resolution to this problem or challenge.

Sometimes students can get stuck when we are doing this exercise. They can’t think of a way to move the narrative forward. When this happens I ask them to develop some starter lines such as “I remember…” or “I wish…” or “I dream…” or “I believe…” to help get things moving. Soon we are on our way again! The logjam has been broken and we are back on track.

Do you have any specific tips for motivating reluctant writers?

What you call ‘reluctant writers’ are often students who need something to get them going; perhaps they don’t know how to start or they find it difficult to get in touch with their creative self. A starter breaks down that blockage and gets them back on the road. Then it can be difficult to stop them! They are a bit like Toad whizzing and speeding around in his car in The Wind in the Willows. One starter I like using is “I come from…” I have seen some extraordinary writing flow from this simple beginning.

You need to be creative with starters. They don’t have to be true or even possible; they might be pure fantasy. One starter I have used with great success is “I come from the stomach of a horse”. It’s amazing what comes out of that! The good thing about using starters is that they fire young imaginations and open up new possibilities and from there creative streams flow.

Why is it important for young writers to be published?

The joy and pleasure on students’ faces when they hear they are to be published says it all! It gives them enormous confidence in their work and that confidence extends to other areas of their development. The way they think about writing also begins to change and shift and they feel like real writers.

In my mind, getting published in a journal is crucial to later success. It allows young people to begin the lifelong journey of being a writer. When I enter the classroom and open the brown paper package and undo the striped string, a hush of expectation settles in the room. Everyone gathers around the authors and there is clapping, wild applause and pure glee from us all. The latest Toitoi has been born and introduced to the world, or so it seems to everyone in the class!

I love teaching creative writing. I think it is the best job in the world. Students always surprise and delight me with their ideas and natural talents. They are full of trust and willing to take risks. When I leave the classroom I feel I have learnt so much from the students myself. So thank you, Toitoi, for providing a place where we can all share our creativity.

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