“Four hours to read a few poems?” – The Poetry Workshop

“Four hours to read a few poems?” – The Poetry Workshop

How can you spend four hours discussing poems? Well, if you belong to a group that meets regularly and whose members are committed to improving their work and the work of others, then it is actually pretty easy – though no one at home seems to realise that!

Once a month I luxuriate in the company of other writers as we ‘workshop’ (nasty verb) our poems. The format goes like this …

There is a theme for the month – you can use it or ignore it. Themes have included ‘mud’, ‘an item found in a kitchen’, ‘the colour blue’.

Take the poems along to the next meeting – are you theme or non-theme? The meeting now has two categories and will work through one and then the next.

You read your poem aloud – then say nothing. The circle of 8 -12 people is silent as they re-read your piece and pens scribble, cross words out or tick lines. A natural point is reached and the Chair of the group will break in with something like “I think that second stanza is excellent / I don’t know if it is just me, but I can’t follow this at all / Would anyone like to begin …?”

The group now discuss your poem as though you are not there, and you must resist the temptation to say “actually it is not about Hitler it is about my mother”, or some such gut reaction. Be brave – the group has the poem’s best interests at heart – what they say is not meant to hurt or be personal, but also remember that just because Sandra or Terry loves the image you use in the second line you are not about to sign with Faber.

I struggle to remember anyone saying “This poem needs to be longer.” But I have seen poems reduced from five stanzas to something pretty minimal “Actually I’m not sure you need those lines … the third stanza does not really add anything – it can go too.”

When the others have had their say on your poem you come in, and you might respond with “I think you are right that I need to change the line breaks / I did wonder if the title was giving too much away/ you’re right –the word myriad is over-used” and then, if you fancy, you might say something more about how and why you wrote the piece. “Well I was in Sainsbury’s and a woman dropped a bottle of wine and it made me think about the time …”

Then we are onto the next person’s poem.

A break half way through – a chance to swap magazines and journals and then on we go; until all the poems have been read and discussed and we have a final read-round, perhaps even reading with the edit that was suggested.

A pretty high standard is achieved by the group; many are regularly included in well respected poetry magazines, a few have had a collection in the past. There are also those who write for the pleasure it affords and they have no particular desire for mass readership. The group reads at local events and we have been part of Stanza Bonanzas at the Poetry Cafe.

What I get from the group is an honest appraisal of a recent poem, and a standard to maintain. I also get the impetus to write knowing that the next meeting will soon be along and I don’t want to go empty-handed.

The social aspect of the workshop is definitely present, but we have no real time for lengthy chats on the back of another’s poem about Devon and the great places to visit etc. In fact the Chair keeps us on the straight and narrow – we are there for the poems and four hours long enough.

The success of the group and the popularity of poetry at the moment has meant that we recently had to put a cap on membership numbers; 12 is more than enough. Concentration goes and clock watching comes in if the session runs on and on – and that means poems don’t get the time and space they deserve.

This month its “food that reminds you …” Real life shall have to be suspended for a few hours because I’ve got something on the go involving oranges – let’s see if it is still intact after the group have kicked it around a while.

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