Poetry Workshop Update and Field Trip

This Thursday is the penultimate workshop of the fall term. I’m really pleased with how the group has come together. I have a nice core of participants who have been there since the summer but also have room for new people. I’m also getting more confident in developing a model that differs from other workshops I’ve attended.

dreamstime_head_tree_logo_72dpiThe metaphor of a garden of words really applies here. With its focus on positive feedback to new drafts, Toni Amato’s workshop is a wonderful place to nurture seedlings. With its focus on poetic technique and ruthless revision, Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s workshop is excellent place to thin and harden those seedlings. My vision is to create a hybrid of those two models: to develop both fluency and objectivity when looking at our work.

In earlier sessions we focused primarily on sprouting new seedlings. Germination happens through free-writes, the use of different writing prompts, and a close reading of a “host poem” — one which I feel has something to teach us about technique or language. We give first drafts written in workshop nothing but positive feedback  Now that we all seem to have developed a greater level of confidence — both in ourselves and in each other — I’ve asked people to start bringing printouts of more finished drafts. Something happens when you transfer a poem from longhand to type. I almost always end up revising as I go. Seeing it in print also gives me emotional distance. We’ve begun critiquing one another’s drafts, but in a manner that I hope is gentle and supportive. Other members of the workshop seem to appreciate this second phase of the poem-growing process.

If first and second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, and more) drafts grow a poem from scratch, the poem finally bears fruit with publication. It can be hard to keep all three balls in the air at the same time. I find that I usually fluctuate between creating and revising my work and sending it out for publication. Starting in January I made a concerted, consistent effort to send out my work and got much better results than I expected. I’ve given my students a few pointers on where they can find open calls, but the focus of workshop right now is still on creation and revision. I’m curious to see how that might grow and change in future sessions. In the meantime, I continue to be humbled by how much I learn myself while facilitating workshop. Artists really do develop in tribes, just like Julia Cameron says. I’m happy to be following in the footsteps of my teachers by creating one of my own.

Our small tribe will be taking a field trip to the Chapter and Verse Reading Series this Friday, October 9 at 7:30. The Jamaica Pond Poets are talented and welcoming bunch. I look forward to both the featured readers and the open mic that follows.

Summer 2015 Poetry Workshop Is Off to a Great Start

The first session of the new poetry workshop was even more successful than I’d hoped. Turnout was better than expected: just enough people to fit comfortably in my living room. I start each session with a simple exercise that sets an intention for the evening — that we support one another in the creation of new work. Then we have a grounding exercise followed by a free write. The first free write follows the tradition of Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a sort of throat-clearing, a flushing of the pipes. Achieving that flow state is such an important part of writing, and even more so when it comes to poetry. There’s something about longhand writing that makes this flow state come very naturally. I asked people to pick an object in the room and to use it as a jumping-off point for their writing. When we were finished, we didn’t share the work — we just moved on.

We followed this exercise with a close reading of Julie Ebin’s “Dear Dad,” a poem originally published in Solstice Magazine. In close reading, we go through a poem line by line, word by word, in an effort to see what makes the poem work. I chose Ebin’s poem for its tight wording and surprising turns of phrase — two essential components of good poetry. One of the lovely things about close reading is that other members of the workshop invariably call attention to details I don’t notice myself during my first or second read.

I used a line from Ebin’s poem — “I will try to unlearn dust” — as our second prompt. We wrote for five minutes only, since I find that time limits help me to write without overthinking. At this point I introduced my two basic rules of workshopping new poems:

  • Feedback must be exclusively positive in nature. Focus on what works in the poem rather than on what you didn’t like or what you would change.
  • Refer to the “I” in the poem as “the speaker” or “the narrator.” This creates some emotional distance from the work and allows the writer to see the piece more objectively.

Toni Amato’s workshop also includes two other rules:

  • No apron-wringing, or protestations that your piece is no good. The term comes from the idea of someone who has just baked a pie and is wringing her apron while her family tries it for the first time. I didn’t specifically ban the practice in our first workshop, although I’m considering doing so for future sessions, since it does color the perception of the work.
  • No comparing someone’s work to a published author, as in “This piece reminds me of Herman Miller.” What might be considered a compliment may come across as an insult, depending on how the writer perceives the other author.

The results of the prompt were pretty fantastic. I’m always amazed at how many different poems result from the same prompt.

After a short break, I used my box of postcards for our final prompt. Over the years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of interesting images, many of them sent by a pen pal who found my site more than 20 years ago. I pass these around to members and invite them to write something inspired by the image or words on the postcard. Once again, the results were varied and fantastic.

At the end of the workshop I had that wonderful, expansive feeling of endless possibility that follows a creative act with like-minded people. We meet again on Thursday July 9 from 7pm to 9pm. After that are two more sessions: Thursday July 23 and Thursday August 6. Once the group establishes trust in one another, I plan to have people bring in more finished pieces for constructive criticism. And I’ll be sending out information on how to find calls for submission — poetry isn’t meant to molder in a desk somewhere, and it’s easier to go through the submission process with others.

If you’re interested in attending future sessions, you can fill out the form on this page for more details.