08 September 2008

Band-Aids Optional: Do Poetry Groups Help or Hurt?

I like my coffee with sugar-free vanilla stuff in it. I like sandwiches without cheese. I like to read in a quiet, well-lit room. But when it comes to feedback on my poems, it's hard to pin down what I prefer, and what works best for me. Except when I experience it firsthand.

Of course, we all want to hear that our poems are brilliant and need no fixing, but that's rarely the case. It's useful to know minor things that might be fixed. In my experience as a poetry group member (in several different states, and over ten-ish years, and in many different groups), it seems that there's often little dialogue about trends in a poet's work, and overall global things that are more difficult to talk about, versus the minor fixes. And how does that really help?

It's like a quickie triage clinic. Here's a band-aid for that. Oh yeah, and a little ice to help with the sting.

It's a rare talent, being able to read one poem and discuss things like narrative inconsistencies, the battle between lyric moments, and so on. I know that I've given some skimpy advice in the past, as well as receiving it. What I can't stand, though, is when I hear:

a) I just don't get it.

b) It just doesn't work for me.

The spontaneous nature of in-person poetry groups seems to make this kind of commentary more acceptable than it would be in writing. The best poetry groups are the ones that make you want to write. The worst...I guess that would be the opposite. I know that I'm in a bad poetry group situation when I consider writing poems of a certain sort just so that I won't rock the boat.

How do you feel about poetry groups, or informal workshops? Have they helped you? Hindered your work? What makes some groups better than others? Do you have advice for making them succeed? For making them fail? For rebooting them?


John Gallaher said...

"...it seems that there's often little dialogue about trends in a poet's work, and overall global things that are more difficult to talk about, versus the minor fixes"

I have found this to be the case as well, and it's been the one thing I've tried more than anything else, to work against. But it's almost impossible to work against it.

The "minor fixes" conversation is fine, and helpful, and instructive for all of us, but having the conversation about a person's poetics, rather than the poems, is, when it works well, revelatory, and, when it doesn't work, a massive failure.

I think it's more important to have that conversation than the little fixes conversation for that very reason. It's difficult, both for those trying to talk toward it, as well as for the poet, trying to hear it.

If anyone finds the secret to having this conversation, I hope they share. The closest I've been able to get to having it, is when, after many smaller conversations, we all have a number of poems before us from each poet, and I try to get them to do some sort of rhetorical analysis of a poet's tendencies, but even that often reduces down to "this poet writes 'you' a lot," which is helpful, but it's still not just it.

I'm not even sure what "it" is, but I know it when I see it. I guess.

Laura Without Labels said...

This is such a relevant post for me because I've been going to workshop almost monthly since April now and it's definitely helped me personally to find a group of writers who's opinions are thoughtful and criticism is helpful without being censored. It helps that they have all become my friends too. We have a mutual respect for one another and it just works.

This has made me really value the workshop I am a part of right now, because not only do I get the feedback on the "minor fixes" but we also discuss a poets overall style, what could potentially be the pitfalls of that particular style, what works about this piece and how it reflects that style, etc.

At our workshop yesterday, one poet made of game of guessing which poem was who's between two other attendees. The workshop organizer said that might be a fun exercise to do at the next workshop. And I think it could potentially be used as a tool to look at what made you think a poem was authored by a particular author. Could be used as a starting point to discuss themes or styles a poet has, and how they can either build on that, or perhaps stray from it to try something new. Of course, this would only work if the writers have been attending the workshop regularly and have read a good cross-section of their fellow workshoppers writing.

Oh and we always have delicious food. That makes any workshop awesome.

Margaret Bashaar said...

Like Laura (perhaps because we are in the same poetry group) I have been blessed with a group of lovely, amazing poets whose work I feel I have had the pleasure of becoming truly intimate with during the time I have known them.

I believe that my poet-friends and I are very lucky in that we not only love each other as friends, but we also deeply care about poetry (not just our own) and are willing to have long conversations about our poetry, debates about each other's styles, and a willingness to shout at each other about a poem (Crystal actually called someone a "poetry coward" at one point during a workshop) and then have polite conversation over tea two minutes later.

I've found that it is difficult to find a group with this harmony. There is a list of maybe 6 people who I can have this kind of dialogue with, and I just happen to be lucky enough to live within two hours of all of them.

The relationship we have with each other goes beyond reading our poetry. I know what these women are passionate about. I know what their quirks are, and I care about all of them. I think that often this helps when having these over-arching conversations about a writer's poetics. Writing is, as I believe someone who is not me pointed out at our last workshop, interdisciplinary, and in that spirit, our relationships with one another are, too, and that is a large part, I believe, of what makes our workshop succeed.

Also, we're all rockin' poets.

Jay Robinson said...

Poetry group works for everybody, at least those not writing unrelated lyrics.

Collin said...

I've been in groups, workshops, etc. and I've found the best feedback comes from other poets who know me and are unafraid to be critical. That's why I have about three trusted friends/poets who I send my work to on a regular basis. That's what works best for me.

Radish King said...

I once had a poet in a workshop say this poem is so abstract, I can't even enter it, about something I had written. The thing is, I had chosen an "easy" poem for that group. I dumbed it down. And I never went back.

I teach two poetry workshops, one in its 10th year, one in its 2nd, and while it hurts a bit, I think poets need to outgrow them and be coaxed or pushed out of the nest.


P. J. said...

I was in a workshop with some guy who used to work for Penthouse whose sole comment on my first-ever workshop poem was "fish or cut bait?" which I think was venomous and directed at my being a lit student who had infiltrated his close-knit mysterious backroom poker game, so to speak, without an invitation from Vinny the Clam or Big Tony or Uncle Chaz or Whispers McGillicuddy. I'm not sure what I was supposed to do with his comment, and still don't, but I like that my poem was about a painting of a mermaid which unto itself probably warranted a hard rain of brimstone and hellfire upon me, but in the end I didn't get much from that particular session. In others I did, when people were friendlier and gave me advice while refraining from outright stating, "You kinda suck but keep it at." In other words, attitude is everything. Or it's 92.625% of a thing. The other 7.275% is coffee.

P. J. said...

"Keep it at!" by the way is how I confuse people into not keeping at it while seeming like I want them to. Usually their eyes dilate and they walk away, little worse than before.

M. C. Allan said...

I've found some poetry groups really helpful; others, not so. A few crucial differences: I think a group of poets needs to be working with around the same ability level; some groups I've been in were dragged down when one member was far beyond or far behind what most members were doing. Sometimes that can be an issue.

What I think the bigger issue tends to be, though, is turnover -- namely, it's necessary. In a group I was in for close to a year, by the end of it I knew exactly what each member's criticism of a poem would be: X wouldn't like the narrative voice, Y would have issues with a particular kind of image, etc. That does teach you one thing I think is really helpful to growing poets: So much of critique is personal taste. When you get to a point where you can recognize which is taste and which is true, helpful criticism, that's a bonus -- and if you're finding you're not getting much beyond taste-critiques, it's time to move along and find a fresh group of readers.

Anne said...

There is such a fine line between group members knowing each other well enough to assess overall trends and to build up a deep level of trust, and knowing each other so well that the critique becomes predictable. I've been in groups that worked well and groups that didn't, and these were sometimes the same groups -- just at different times or with different poems. I've had the frustrating experience of bringing in a poem for which I needed high-level critique and just getting fifteen minutes of discussion about commas and articles.

One thing that helps me, when I'm feeling mired in a predictable or nit-picky group, is going away and doing a summer workshop with people I've never met. Sometimes that gives me a sense of a larger perspective that I can then bring back to the other group. Doing writing exercises together, if that's something you don't usually do, can help; reading work by poets you don't know and talking about it, using it to facilitate discussion about larger issues, can help a lot too. (Note to self: it's time to suggest doing this in one of my current groups!)

Even when the critique itself isn't that great, though, I find that groups help me because at least it's someplace I can go and be taken seriously as a writer, a way not to feel quite as alone in it. Until this whole blogging thing came along, that kind of community was a rare thing to find for those of us not in an academic program as students or teachers.

Brian Campbell said...

I've attended two workshops in my life. One was quite bad -- it was vitiated by some arrogant personalities -- and one was life-changing, and I mean that in a positive sense. In the latter all the individuals were pleasant and none overbearing; among them were four very talented writers with whom I kept meeting on a monthly basis for nearly two years after the workshop finished. I think though that I struck it very lucky, esp. for a workshop that was open to the general public. Right now I do as Colin does, share my work with two or three individuals who share theirs with me. One of these I meet with almost on a weekly basis, as we hit it off very well, value each other's criticisms because we're on the same wavelength aesthetically. These meetings are more efficient than group situations; what is lost in terms of multiple perspectives is more than made up for by the amount of attention we can give to each other's work. Often at workshops only one or two of one's poems may be critiqued during an entire session... the people around the table had better be damned good, or it's just not worth the time or money!

Brian Campbell said...

Actually, more about that good workshop -- and some insightful comments by Charles Jenson, can be read here:


Justin Evans said...

Workshop? What the hell is a w o r k s h o p? Are you implying that you actually get the chance to discuss your poems with other people in an attempt to make them better?

Hahahahahahaha! Oh, you funny academians and your strange ideas about how to do things.

Workshops. I'll have to remember that one for when a poet moves within 100 miles of me.

Michael said...

I meet twice a month with a poetry group which is not specifically intended for critique. We've tried it with only limited success from my vantage point. We otherwise do read-a-rounds of our own work as well as others. Our objective is really more to promote poetry, both the reading and writing of it.

I agree that it helps if the members are writing on a similar level, but more importantly I think they need to share objectives. Some people write for the sake of writing and have little interest in publication. That creates a large disparity from someone who is seeking to publish a manuscript.

I have resorted to working with two other writers from the group and sharing work with them at the meetings and via e-mail as well. The three of us have similar needs in that we are all serious about our writing though we may have different styles. I think we all have a mutual trust that allows for honesty. I'd really like it if there were a couple more of us. Who knows, out of this group may come others as time passes.

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