Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ?

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 3, 2011 at 7:54 AM

Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ? Well . . . there are Workshops and there are Workshops, and then there are online Workshops which I will tread on later. In my local Workshop in Aberystwyth University Arts Centre up to ten of us meet every month on a Saturday afternoon for three hours which pass like one, perhaps not even one. We, that is The Word Distillery Poets, hold our Workshop in the Recording Studio not for any reason related to the room’s purpose but because it’s not used at that time of the week, and because that’s where the Arts Centre has sited us. (At one time they would have us in the University Chapel – another little-used room.) All we require is a table, enough chairs and a little fortitude. Each of us is primus inter pares so we take it in turns to run each afternoon’s session. Simple enough. All that is required of the pro temp chairperson is to list all the poems to be worked that afternoon and shuffle them into some sort of order. This takes up the first five minutes.


Some will have brought two poems on which they are currently working, others will manage only one; and occasionally a poet will turn up with nothing at all which is fine because input is what is really needed. For those who have brought poems to the butcher’s bench it is necessary that they have brought enough copies so that each jointer has one. Much better to read and listen at the same time. Ideally the Workshop is at its most effective when there are between six and ten poets present. More than ten can mean that we barely have time to work one poem per poet and that sometimes too hastily to be of full use. Those, whose offerings are dealt with first, benefit to the detriment of those whose poems are rushed towards the end of the session. For this reason we have closed the Workshop to newcomers and there is a waiting list. Generally, however, most Workshop afternoons are successful, satisfying and extremely enjoyable.


So what are the mechanics of the Workshop ? Each poet is invited to read his or her poem aloud and then select another poet to read it again. Some read poetry better than others and will therefore do more justice to the work. However, because there is so much generosity within the group, this consideration is usually discounted in favour of everyone having a go. One often hears the spotlit poet ask, ‘Who hasn’t read so far?’ After the second reading it used to be an adamantine rule that from this point onwards the poet was not allowed to take part in the appraisal, discussion, dissection or savaging of his or her poem. The poet simply has to sit there and take it as though not in the room. This is a very good discipline on more than one level. One occasionally notices out of the corner of the eye a poet seething to steam because their darling is being sadly misunderstood, or even mistreated though rarely ravished.


Of late, we have relaxed this rule so that the poet can be invited during the critique to explain obscure references or simply direct the baying pack to the right tree. Inevitably, some are quicker to grasp a poem’s nuances than others and it is often the case that the first part of any group critique is monopolised by ‘getting’ the poem, trying to understand what the poem is striving to say to us. That hurdle over, we go on to discuss style, format and craft. A particular line or phrase may be praised here, a clunky rhyme disparaged there or whole stanzas excised. Effusive praise is discouraged. All adjectival exaltations or execrations have to be justified. ‘Nice’ and ‘lovely’ communicate nothing and for that reason are no longer considered to be words. When the poem’s bones have been picked clean, perhaps on a rare occasion slavered over, their owner is invited to reflesh them with explanatory comments, or not. It’s up to the poet.


Of course the effectiveness of any Workshop can only be commensurate to the quality of criticism and undertsanding within the group. When an offering has had a rough ride the poet is entitled to ask, has the poem failed the group or the group failed the poem. It’s therefore important to have some confidence in one’s own work and not to be totally reliant on the Workshop’s consensus. That apart, what is always useful is to understand the extent to which one’s poem has failed to communicate. (Reading to a group of people who are not writers can also be worthwhile on this basis.) So often what is as clear as mountain water within the poet’s mind fails to relocate to the page. Vital synapses of narrative or connections of allusion remain filed away within the brain without the poet realising it. And often a poem will communicate in ways the poet hasn’t foreseen or intended. This too is good to know.


Poets are typically sensitive people. It goes with the job. This needs to be taken into account within a Workshop. A generosity of spirit is therefore required of each poet. A group will find its own way of working together and when new poets arrive they will either fit into the group ethos or quickly fall away. There is always the danger of new blood straight from an English Lit course treading heavily on people’s sensibilities. Those without people skills or courteous consideration can be disruptive, and the poet, often being such a delicate flower, withers. Rudeness is a no-no. Torquemadas must not be tolerated. One can criticise both constructively and politely without the discreet spikes of the Iron Lady. It is possible. Criticism should not imply hostility. ”I don’t think on the whole this poem succeeds” is infinitely to be preferred to “This poem is crap.”

So, having retrieved one’s darling from the auto de fe, what is one to do next? Some will commit their piece to the deep of an escritoire drawer, some will immediately set about revising it and others will nurse it back to health for a while. If one doesn’t act on the Workshop experience there seems little point in subjecting one’s pooch to the Inquisition. However, there is another facet of the Workshop which I particularly enjoy and that is to spend an afternoon of elevated cultural activity in the company of like-minded people and to liberally partake of that generosity of spirit. A generosity over-indulged to the extent of wormy obesity in the online Workshop.


Online Workshops. Oh dear! I’m very fortunate in that I do belong to one, run by Kay Green of Earlyworks Press, which is largely successful within the inevitable limitations of time and distance. But, others in which one may unwisely dip one’s toe, will kill your muse stone dead with mutual self-congratulatory kindnesses. Afraid to be too critical in fear of the quid pro quo of others, onliners err on the side of over-effusive backslapping, even brown-nosing. To read their saccharine comments they are all clearly destined for posthumous greatness and in the centuries to come their names will unctiously slip of the tongue as Shelley and Keats do now. No Torquemadas here then, only Dandinis with glass slippers. Their toadying superlatives will advance the cause of poetry not one iota. Almost all of the exulted poems I’ve come across in these other ‘workshops’ are less than mediocre and they will never improve because they are already persuaded that they’re at the apogee of their poetic orbit (you may find a certain ambiguity in this word). So they keep churning out the same free verse plankton devoid of any originality, crafting or ideas, and without the safety net of a dictionary or thesaurus, as though from a malfunctioning sausage machine.


In practice online Workshops are just too convenient for their own good. A poem can be posted within seconds of its first and often, it would seem from comments, one and only draft. Indeed, in the majority of cases the term ‘Workshop’ is a misnomer; there are no ergs involved, either in the poem or in the comments: ‘brilliant, as usual!’, ‘I absolutely love this poem’, or ‘great poem, every word is perfect.’ Excuse me! Kublai Khan is a great poem. Paradise Lost is a great poem. Do not go Gentle into that Good Night is a great poem, but would we claim every word perfect in any of these?


The other drawback with online Workshops is that because there can be no eye contact, no spatial presence shared, it’s too easy for one’s tone to be misunderstood. Code like lol or emoticons are poor substitutes for breathing one another’s air and for the unavailability of rapid escape. The onliner always has the sanction of never going onto a site again, never going onto his computer again in the extreme. There is no accountability and therefore no redemption. And too often there is an assumption that the poem posted is the finished article. The shy become arrogant and the arrogant become brave. The IT ethos of one-remove makes it impossible to oil one’s critique with conciliatory tone of voice or relaxed facial muscles. Or indeed, to immediately temper one’s remarks on hearing them knock over the furniture in a room. There’s no way round this so again onliners are seduced into being over-polite about each other’s work for fear of offending.

In Kay Green’s Workshop a poem will be looked at word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line and suggestions usefully made. No one says – ‘great poem!’ because no one posts great poems. They are all works in progress. Praise and criticism are dealt out felicitously and newcomers who slip in though the ever-open door of the Workshop soon realise, without being told, that they either are or are not poets; are or are not empathic to the genre.


Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ? Yes, they do and I need them. Many of the poems published in my books first saw light of day in my local Workshop at the Arts Centre. And as a result of their close examination many were subsequently revised to better effect, or at least to my satisfaction. A Workshop is an indispensable tool. I would never be without one in my kit bag. How else can you judge how your darling will be received into society? How else can you be sure that your debutante idea has been well schooled? If a room full of fellow writers don’t ‘get’ it, that’s probably telling you something you would have no other means of knowing from collective opinion. Sadly, there are not many Workshops about. My good friend of long standing and fellow writer, Peter Kay, lives on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border within a large conurbation but has no easy access to a Writer’s Workshop. I’m fortunate that I live in a University town. However, there’s no reason why poets can’t set up their own Workshops and meet in each other’s houses. Poets Sally Richard and Steve Mann do exactly this in Shrewsbury. A small ad in the local paper and library should suffice to quicken fellow poets in one’s area. The start of a new year would be a good time to start one up.

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