Poetry workshops: asking for advice about your poems

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Just to be clear; in this context, it’s not one where you write new work from prompts or whatever. I mean workshops where you take a poem that’s unfinished or unsatisfying in some way, in the hope that someone will spot what’s going wrong and suggest a possible solution, or to discover that it’s unsatisfying because it’s actually not very good and probably not worth persisting with. The two I go to on a regular basis are the (theoretically) weekly meetings of the Albert Poets at The Sportsman pub in Huddersfield, and the ones in the afternoon sessions of the monthly Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. They’re the ones where I feel simultaneously safe and challenged. I’ll try to explain why I think both of these conditions are essential as I go along.

Safety/security first. Groups like these work because they have very clear ground rules. On residentials where there’s a critiquing workshop, and where there are people who haven’t met before, it's good to be told what they are. (They include making enough copies of your poem for everyone to have one) David Tait reminded me of the importance of this in St Ives, because he told us all very clearly, and I’m going to borrow what he said.

First: don’t bring a poem that you’re unwilling to change; a workshop isn’t a place to go to be told how much you’re loved. If you want applause, go to open mics and take your chance with the rest. Now, you might think this is obvious, but nothing is more uncomfortable than dealing with the ones who don’t get this basic premise.

Second. Everyone’s got a copy. You read your poem aloud. And then you keep quiet. You don’t explain why you wrote it, or its backstory… none of that. The poem has to stick up for itself. You don’t argue or interrupt. You listen as people say what they think. You may think what they say is stupid. (A few weeks ago, a newcomer to one group gave my poem nul points, saying that it was full of similes that have no place in poems any more, something of the sort). Grit your teeth. There should be a time span for this bit, depends on the size of the group. Five-10 minutes. At the end you should have the chance to respond. Not indignantly.

Third. What about the critiquers? Rules vary, but I like the format of the Poetry Business. When you respond to a poem you start with some thing(s) you like - two or three - and then things that puzzle you, or don’t seem to work. What you say needs to be helpful, potentially. And it needs to be about THIS POEM. And even if you love it, you need to say why. And if you want to suggest changes, PLEASE make them provisional. You have to believe that you don’t necessarily have the answers or solutions. Preface your comments with something on the lines of: what happens if … what happens if you cut this line/if you shift these stanzas to the beginning/ if you make the title the first line? That kind of thing.

Fourth. I nearly forgot this. It’s a rule I personally want to add. When you listen to someone read her poem, listen to what it’s saying. Think: what’s this about? Too often people jump in with a comment about details and techniques without giving any indication that they’ve listened to what the poem means. So say what you think the poem means. The poet thinks h/she knows but if you’ve heard something different then that’s important. It tells her/him that they hasn’t got the message/significance/meaning across to one reader at least, and they may need to think about why.

 

Groups of a certain size 

In other words, there’s a contract between the poet and the readers, and everyone has to trust everyone else. I tend to think this works best in groups of a certain size. For me, five or six is optimum, 10 is manageable, and bigger than that means that whoever is in the last three of the session will not actually be heard by anyone. Because it’s a tiring business. It really is.

Fifth: (actually, I’m not sure this part of the sequence but it’s coming here nonetheless).

It’s about one-to-one workshops. These are a feature of most, if not all, residentials. David Tait, again, is very clear about ground rules. Let’s assume this is not a session where you are asking how to get published, or how to sequence a pamphlet, or how to get readings, or how to become famous.

The first is that you will have a time allocation. Whatever it is, both you and the tutor must honour it. You will be punctual. The tutor will be punctilious. When you time is up, it’s up.

Secondly, you supply the tutor with two or three poems that you want advice about. You do not turn up with a manuscript, or ask the tutor to read a potential collection. You’re going to get 20 minutes. Deal with it.

Thirdly, you do everything you can to help the tutor to help you. Ask the tutor if s/he’d like you to highlight the bits that you think are not working. S/he may prefer to read the poems blind, but it does no harm to ask.

Fourthly, in any case you should go to your workshop/tutorial with your highlights ready. It might be the title, the last line, the pivot; it might be that you think there’s too much or too little; it might be that you can’t make it dance … but have an idea what you want to focus on.

Now, you might think this is obvious, commonsense, doesn’t need saying. But I’ve been in a blind-reading workshop (all the poems anonymised) where an extremely famous poet said that my contribution was a "crock of sh*te". And to be fair, it wasn’t much good, but the point of a workshop being to make poems better vanished right there. It didn’t do much for the ambience either. Tutors can break the contract, but so can ‘students’… the ones who, despite everything, want to be told how to write a collection or get on the radio or whatever, who want to criticise the course, or just turn up for vaguely poetry-related therapy. The rules are crucial, and we have to trust that we all make them work.

So what’s it like, chucking your poem into the ring, like a prizefighter’s hat? I thought I’d finish with a sort of case study. Let’s start with the version of the poem I wanted to workshop because it wasn’t working.

 

     Inside out

 

     Men caught heaven,

     made a place to hold it. Light fills it

     like a cistern, to the brim.

 

     Outside: cliff-face, course on course

     of great stones shutting off the sky,

     the earth breathing its last, pressed to death.

 

     Inside: suspended gravity.

     Mass without weight,

     where everything takes flight…

 

     cobweb banners of dead regiments –

     small dry waterfalls,

     the arrested drift of falling leaf…..

 

     where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

     spreads its arms, its fingers

     that it clasps in prayer.

 

     where light smells of incense, wax,

     scented dust and God;

     sounds like the oldest music

 

     that murmurs and whispers;

     a shout would vanish,

     a pebble in a well.

 

     Press a palm on the stone,

     its cool grain, small snags

     where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

     make yourself remember

     this is simple stone –  quarried,

     split, carted, hauled

 

     by men with callouses,

     fighting brute inertia,

     bulk, weight, awkwardness,

 

     who wove traceries in stone

     and netted heaven

     like a bright moth.

 

The copies circulated round the group weren’t highlighted in bold, but just for convenience, they are here … they’re the bits, including the title, that I wasn’t sure about. I’d started from the simple idea that great Gothic cathedrals are bigger inside than out, that enchantment of stone to create the illusion of weightlessness. When I was writing, in my mind I was standing outside Durham cathedral, outside York and Lincoln and Winchester and then walking inside into that rare light.

You see what it does when I tell you that;  it’s special pleading before you can read what’s in front of you. I started to think that maybe the idea is a) blindingly obvious, b) the poem was just assertively arguing a case that didn’t need arguing, and c) that it probably wasn’t worth salvaging, but we could give it a chance. Intriguingly, some readers didn’t see that it was about cathedrals; maybe I was making too many assumptions. (I grew up with Banister Fletcher’s history of architecture). Anyway, it made me think.

As well as people in the group making oral suggestions, several will annotate their copy and give it to the writer afterwards. I think this is great, regardless of what they write. Here’s two to make a point:

 

 

What do I make of this? The left-hand one reinforces my unease about the title. It means I need to do something about it … I trust this responder, as it happens. Ditto the suggestion about omitting two stanzas. Why? Because I’m not sure about the introduction of scent and sound into a poem that’s focused on sight and touch. I really like the images, but I have to ask if they belong, if they earn their keep. What about the right-hand one? Well, it’s curtly radical, isn’t it? It would be easy to take umbrage or shrug it off. But maybe I need to listen to the voice that’s saying: this poem is too long, there’s too much stuff going on. It needs some cuts. Possibly not these.

embedded image from entry 89582 Meanwhile, as group members are making their annotations, I’m making mine. What’s happened is that I feel confirmed about the title. Lots of folk mentioned this. Ditto, the inside/outside opposition which tips the rhetoric of the poems in the wrong direction. It’s clunky. Get shot. As I read the poem to the group I heard what was wrong with the line about the leaves … I heard it before I got to it and changed it as I read. You think you’ve read your poem aloud, but it’s different reading it to listeners. I decide to get rid of the pebble in the well, much as I like it. It’s distracting. And so on. On the other hand, no one has found that those imperative verbs, press, make yourself, are a problem. Maybe I can keep them. A week later, I go back and edit. I don’t think this poem is up for submissions or competitions. It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it. On the other hand, I think it’s better than it was, thanks to that workshop. Here it is. See what you think.

 

     Weightless

 

     Men caught heaven,

     made a place to hold it, a cistern,

     full to the brim with light,

 

     suspended gravity,

     mass without weight,

     where everything takes flight…

 

     cobweb banners of dead regiments:

     small dry waterfalls –

     arrested drifts of falling leaf;

 

     where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

     spreads its arms, flexes fingers

     that it clasps in prayer;

 

     where light smells of incense, wax,

     scented dust and God,

     sounds like the oldest music.

 

     Press a palm on the stone,

     its cool grain, small snags

     where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

     remember

     this is simple stone – 

     quarried, split, carted, hauled

 

     by men with callouses,

     fighting bulk,weight,

     awkwardness;  men

 

     who wove traceries in stone

     and netted heaven

     like a bright moth.

 

[first published in Gap Year. co-authored with Andy Blackford, SMP]

 

Next time I’ll be looking at the business of drafts, of getting started. See you then.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Alan Pascoe

Sun 14th Apr 2019 16:38

John,

This is so long it could be mistaken for an early version of Anna Karenina.

As a writer - be a master butcher!

Alan Pascoe

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Greg Freeman

Sun 14th Apr 2019 13:31

Fascinating tips and observations on this process, of which I have some experience, and on the evolution of a poem as a result of it. Thanks, John. I'd love to know the name of the extremely famous poet who said your contribution was "a crock of sh*te". And your verdict on the poem at the end - "It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it" - was something I'd never considered before. Poems that don't really want to be written. I suspect I have loads of those cluttering up my computer ... and on my Write Out Loud blog entries, too.

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