Close Reading Workshop with Vicky MacKenzie

This was one of the first online tutorials that OCA have organised since the start of lockdown. It was run by creative writing tutor Vicky MacKenzie. I signed up for the course as I was interested in the topic generally, but as I have been looking at Japanese Surimono (printed sheet containing image and poem) I thought it would be really useful in that respect.

The workshop involved examining two texts: an extract from The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; and the poem Ironing by Vicki Feaver from her collection The Handless Maiden.

In the first piece we discussed what was happening and who was the narrator – what point of view did they have and could they be considered reliable. If in the third person, perhaps can often be considered reliable. We went on to discuss  about what period the scene was set in and where was it set.

We were given a long list of questions that could be asked when close reading a text. It was emphasised that while we wouldn’t necessarily use them on everything we read, but it would enable us to read more critically and analytically in the future.

We then looked at the poetry and I think this was really useful for my future work. The questions to be asked here were:

  • who is the speaker,
  • what format is used in the poem – (free verse, sonnet, etc),
  • look at stanza breaks – do these affect the rhythm and how
  • how does the line length affect the poem, are they short or long, regular or not, and how does this affect the poem
  • look at the last word on each line, are they significant – a poet often places important words at the end of a line
  • is there a rhyme scheme and what kind of rhythm does the poem have
  • are there sound effects from the words – alliteration, assonance or consonance
  • do you pause in places – if so what causes it and why would the poet have done that


It was an excellent workshop and one that will be of great use in my Body of Work as I continue to develop my Surimono type images.

There is a further question I could add to Vick’s list when it comes to a poem and an image, how does each relate to the other?

For example, the following image is one I have worked on with a published poet:

On first reading many people may recognise ‘Queen of the Night’ as a variety of tulip, they may also have heard of it as a character in an opera. When I sent this photo to Anne (the poet I am working with) I also mentioned the Babylonian history of the Queen of the Night (Ereshkigal) and that there was a carved sculpture of this character in the British Museum – I had even written about it on my History of Art 2 course Queen of the Night.

What I find really interesting, and would reward close reading, is how the poem works with the image. The ancient Babylonian story relates how Ereshkigal lured Ishtar into her underworld realm and reduced her powers by requiring her to pass through seven gateways, leaving an item of clothing with the  watchman at each gate. By the seventh gate Ishtar had discarded all her clothes and with them her power.