Workshops Turn Poetry into Visual Language

How many people still read poetry every day? What does poetry have to say about the world beyond books, and beyond the University?

‘Poetry needn’t be inaccessible, or have nothing relevant to say,’ is the firm belief of Dr. Tara Stubbs, Associate Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Continuing Education. ‘If you can turn a poem into a piece of artwork, or into a 3D shape, then you can begin to see how it might interact with the everyday world.’

In a new series of workshops for 2018, funded by Oxford’s Public Engagement with Research Seed Fund, people can collaborate with Dr. Stubbs and visual artist Jane Haigh to explore the interrelation between poetry, structure and visual art – and think about poetry ‘in new and exciting ways.’

Poetry made tangible

The idea was inspired by an activity Stubbs and Haigh led at Oxford’s latest Curiosity Carnival, where the poem ‘Design’ by Robert Frost was turned into ‘poetry Jenga’, where each line of the poem was written onto a block of wood, and participants were encouraged to create new versions of the poem, and new structures with it, by playing with the 3D shapes. (Watch the video here)

There was also an ‘origami station’ where people ‘turned’ lines from the poem into poetry roses, and two small 3D models of lines from the poem were transformed into flowers and leaves. It’s a mind-opening way of exploring ways of thinking about poetry, Dr. Stubbs thinks.

‘When we carried out our workshop for the Curiosity Carnival, we expected that some people wouldn’t “get” what we were doing. Rather, they found the challenge of thinking about one poem in lots of different ways exciting and stimulating.’

She adds: ‘I, in fact, learnt more from this experience than from reading criticism and talking to other academics, namely because the participants were open to thinking about poetry as something that might come off the page and turn into something else: a gate perhaps, or an origami flower.’

The connection between literature and visual arts is a thriving area of research. Oxford’s e-Research Centre’s Poem Viewer project, for example, uses computer visualisation programmes to turn poetry into 'visual text'.

‘It is quite “out there” but also fun, as people can do their own visualisations using templates on the site,’ says Dr. Stubbs.

Then there’s the trend for poets of ‘concrete poetry’, which combines the 2-D nature of written text with 3-D structures, turning them into poetry that is 'concrete' in terms of being a physical object. Poetry can bring out the meaning in visual art, and vice versa, as a recent exhibition at MOMA in New York brought to life by poets reading aloud next to paintings. It’s interesting, too, says Dr Stubbs, to think about 'ekphrastic' poems – poems inspired by paintings.


The six 90-minute workshops Dr. Stubbs is running will offer interested people a chance to ‘translate’ poetic ideas into a ‘visual language’.

Each workshop will start with a short demonstration and discussion of the 3D version of Frost’s ‘Design’, followed by an hour’s workshop of a chosen poem or poems, in which participants will create their own 3D structures, design art-works, or write poetry.

Each workshop, for 10-15 people, will be tailored to the group’s interests and expectations. ‘For example’ says Dr. Stubbs, ‘a school group might wish us to respond to a set poem from a syllabus, or to discuss a particular poetic form; or a writing group might want to think about how to write a particular form (such as a ballad or a sonnet.’

Dr. Stubbs hopes that in the long term, the collaborations produced might lead to an exhibition at a local library or museum.

She is keen to inform her own understanding of how art and poetry are perceived in the wider world, and will feed back discoveries into her current research on the Modern Irish Sonnet.

Workshops will take place in Oxfordshire or neighbouring counties. If you're interested, email to discuss your ideas and arrange a workshop with your group.


Published 4 April 2018