literature & poetry

How to be a Person: A Poetry Course by Will Harris

In ‘A Placebo’, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge writes, ‘what I say forms’. But what is it that the forms we write in say about us? How does a poem change if it’s written in the first or second person? And what might that say about the person writing?

The use of perspective in poetry allows us to address the people and things we care about, and narrate our thoughts most feelingly.

In a six-session course, uncover what poetry can tell us about others and about ourselves with poet Will Harris.

Harris was shortlisted for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and won a Poetry Fellowship from the Arts Foundation in 2019. His debut poetry collection, RENDANG, is forthcoming from Granta in 2020.

His debut pamphlet, All this is implied, was joint winner of the London Review Bookshop Pamphlet of the Year and shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award by the National Library of Scotland.

‘Mixed-Race Superman’, an essay, is published by Peninsula Press in the UK and Melville House in the US. His poems have been featured in The Guardian, the Poetry Review, and in the anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation.

Course overview
Session 1: How to be other
Poetry begins with an encounter, with otherness. As Arthur Rimbaud wrote in a letter of 1871, ‘Je est un autre’ (I am another). He also wrote about how poetry can, by a derangement of the senses, arrive at ‘l’inconnu’ (the unknown). Looking at texts by theologians Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber, alongside poems from ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ to Ariana Reines’ ‘Partial History’, we consider the meaning of the unknown other within ourselves.

Session 2: How to be you
The power of direct address. From love lyrics and odes to letter poems and political verse, we’ll explore how the second person ‘you’ can foster intimacy, command attention or assert difference. Featuring poems by WS Graham, Amiri Baraka, Martin Carter, and Vahni Capildeo among others.

Session 3: How to be it
What does it mean to write beyond grammatical perspective? To avoid using ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘we’. To speak from the perspective of a can of tuna or billboard. In this session we look at Inger Christensen’s masterful ‘it’, and how it attempts to ‘step out of language’. We also look at the varied linguistic experiments of writers including Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer and Myung Mi Kim.

Session 4: How to be together
Poetry began as a communal art form, a means of preserving a group’s shared memory and identity. Recently, Alain Badiou has argued for its ‘tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common’. We look at what it means to invoke a group identity, to use the first-person plural: ‘we’ or ‘us’. Featuring work by Ross Gay, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Nathaniel Mackey and Zaffar Kunial.
Includes an optional, pre-class visit to Hayward Gallery’s Bridget Riley exhibition.

Session 5: ‘How to be,’ she said
What happens when we introduce other voices into our poems? When a poem features dialogue and reported speech and multiple perspectives? This session explores ways in which we can open up our texts, looking at work by writers like Aurelian Townshend, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Frank O’Hara, Claudia Rankine, Edmond Jabès and Monica Youn.

Session 6: How to be I
How to write in the first person. You might think this would be the natural place to start, but hopefully by the end of the course we’ll have come to an understanding of the strangeness and complexity of writing from an ‘I’. This session looks at a range of work from ancient China to the heyday of Mayan civilization, alongside work by contemporary poets such as John Ashbery, Susan Stewart and Evie Shockley. We’ll discuss what the ‘I’ in your work means, now and going forward as writers.

Dates & times

25 Sep 2019 - 4 Dec 2019
Approximate run time: 120 mins
Run times may vary, find out more


Royal Festival Hall
Foyle Pavilion, Level 3, Blue Side


£90 for six-week course
Booking fee: £3.00 (Members £0.00)


25% off (limited availability)
Find out more about our Concessions policy

need to know

Age recommendation
For ages 18+

Event information
This course takes place from 7pm – 9pm on the following dates:
Wed 25 Sep: Foyle Pavilion, Level 3, Blue Side, Royal Festival Hall
Wed 9 Oct: Sunley Pavilion, Level 3, Green Side, Royal Festival Hall
Wed 23 Oct: Sunley Pavilion, Level 3, Green Side, Royal Festival Hall
Wed 6 Nov: Sunley Pavilion, Level 3, Green Side, Royal Festival Hall
Wed 20 Nov: Blue Room, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall
Wed 4 Dec: Sunley Pavilion, Level 3, Green Side, Royal Festival Hall

All six sessions are included in this ticket. We strongly recommend that participants make sure they are available for all six sessions of the course, but at a minimum attend four.

By purchasing a ticket you agree to be contacted by Southbank Centre on email in relation to this course.

Please bring a notebook and something to write with.

A limited number of free bursary places are available for people who would otherwise not be able to access this course due to financial circumstances. For more information and to apply please with the name of the course in the subject. The deadline for applications is Wednesday 4 September 2019.