Why Poetry Workshops Matter

The following reflections appeared in the recent print edition of the Ver Poets newsletter.

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
-Marvin Bell

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
-Stanley Kunitz

“You must revise your life.”
-William Stafford

Poetry can be a lonely art. Yet the best poems are rich in influence, and poets seeking to improve their writing (that is, all of us) do well to read widely and solicit feedback. One place we can all help each other is in workshop groups the likes of which I recently attended at the home of Ver Poet Simon Bowden.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem. And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive reader. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive reader for herself in both composing and revising her own poems. It is useful, therefore, not only to the poem in question, but to the poet over time.

The temptation for the author to explain something in the middle of a feedback session can be great. After all, we often write to be understood — if not intellectually, perhaps emotionally. Yet the greatest benefit a willing author can receive from her writing group is the opportunity to be a silent “fly on the wall” as a group of intelligent readers speak their thoughts aloud in response to the poem. It is a privilege they will not have once the published poem is read silently and more widely in the minds of others.

The best thing a feedback group can do, then, is to reflect their honest experience as a reader. You can reflect on the form of the poem, and what you understand about how it is working. You can try to answer the question, “What happens?” (far more useful than “What does this poem ‘mean’?”), giving insight into where the practical details are ambiguous or clear. You can reflect on what is evoked by the poem, what lines stand out, or where you felt your attention starting to dwindle. You can be curious and inquisitive about what you would do (if the poem were your own) in relation to these observations. All of this can be helpful.

The American poet Billy Collins once quipped that the greatest mistake of the journeyman poet is “being mysterious where one should have been clear, and clear where one should have been mysterious.” It can be hard to tell when and how this is happening on your own. A good group holds up a mirror. The best workshop groups operate in this spirit of confraternitas — all on the journey together, and I saw much evidence of both talent and familiarity in the recent meeting.

[For more tips on getting the most out of poetry workshops, including a list of useful questions, see “The Joy of Revision“.]

The (Poetry) Doctor Is In (Hertfordshire)

surgeryThe chill of autumn brings the start of a new school year, and the beginning of a new venture for me. I am pleased to offer “poetry surgeries” through the UK Poetry Society for the Hertfordshire area. If you’re local, and interested in a bit of encouragement and some fresh perspectives on your writing, you can book your one-hour slot for an individual consultation through the Poetry Society website. I expect them to go quickly.

Since I naturalised as a British citizen just one year ago today, let me explain to my American readers what this is all about. The term “doctor’s surgery” actually refers to a local family doctor’s office, where he or she sees all manner of patients for initial consultations. The term is used exclusively for the operating theatre in America. So, please, think tongue depressors and stethoscopes — not forceps and saws.

In fact, I am a firm believer that, as Wordsworth said, “we murder to dissect”. Which means, far from taking a surgical approach, that at the heart of all my writing, thinking, teaching, and consulting about poetry is the sheer love of poetry itself. This doesn’t preclude incisive perception, but it does mean that I believe we can take our art both very seriously and without pretension.

So if this kind of “surgery” sounds like something that could give you a boost, do have a look at the available slots. I shall look forward to poring over some poems with a nice cup of tea with you in the charming medieval market town of St. Albans soon. No scalpels required.

So Long, Mannahatta!

“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! / The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.”
-“On The Town”, sung by Frank Sinatra

So a book tour that began in the medieval English village of Much Wenlock ends in New York.

We capped off a feasting-our-senses-through-Manhattan city break with a trip to Walt Whitman’s birthplace on Long Island. I gave my “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop to a receptive and talented local group, and was given a private tour of the house and very room where Uncle Walt was born, before taking to the stage.

What a pleasure and privilege it was to read with Peter Cole, who drew parallels between Whitman’s transcendentalist philosophy and ancient Jewish mysticism. He read poems from the depths of his own multitudes as well. Afterward, we answered questions from the audience about translation, displacement, and the necessity of the creative act.

I also marked the fourth anniversary of moving to England while here, surrounded by New Yorkers and ancient Egyptian artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York feels in many ways like a midpoint — both geographically and culturally — between my native rural California and adopted London. Yet it is entirely its own place as well. I will be sorry to say goodbye.

I won’t be sorry to get back to a radiator I can control, however, as all the apartment buildings seem to keep them on full-tilt until the end of May. As the street below is waking up, the cast-iron pipes beside my bed are banging furiously, transforming our tiny West Village apartment into a dry sauna.

Val and I have stripped off completely, lounging around like Adam and Eve. We have tasted The Big Apple. I have a feeling we will be back for more.

21 Most-Mentioned Poets

As the year comes to a close, I find myself in a reflective mood. Having compiled a list of the more than 350 poets I have mentioned on my website since I began writing about poetry in 2003, I was curious to discover which poets I have mentioned most often in the last ten years.

What follows is that list of poets — most alive, some dead; most writing in English, some not; many I have met, some I won’t and never will. Click on the name or image for a brief summary of who each one is and and what they mean to me, and to read what I have written about them over the years.
Continue reading…

Why Sharon Olds?

Sharon Olds

“You must revise your life.”

-Wiliam Stafford


The audience at the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading were the real winners. They were treated to Gillian Clarke’s quiet tenderness, like a swan navigating a near-frozen lake. They relished the sweet sibilance of beekeeper Sean Borodale. Julia Copus gave visions of ova during IVF as ghost-like “luminous pearls.” Michael Schmidt wove Jorie Graham’s linguistic basketwork into their ears. Simon Armitage read out passages of “the British Illiad”. Kathleen Jamie let us witness how she, like her “Roses”, “haggle for my little portion of happiness.” They gasped overhearing Jacob Polley’s conversation between a mum and her stoic stabbed son. They were dogged by Deryn Rees-Jones into regarding “man’s best friend” a little differently. And wisecracking Paul Farley made them all laugh out loud.

Then a girlish woman with long grey hair, pinned back by three small sparkling barrettes, took to the stage. She seemed to read for the shortest span of time — just two poems. Yet what was remarkable is that just as these poems, in their simple, plain-spoken way, were getting good enough for most poets to consider them complete, hers go further. An impressive meditation on breasts transcends the obvious observations, as the poet tells us that, just as this one part of them was once adored by boys when they were teenagers, what all women really want is to be as adored in their entirety this much.

This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home this prize.

Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Continue reading…

10 Transcontinental Poets for 2013

Transcontinental 2013The Internet gives us the illusion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. But when it comes to art, I find that so much still comes down to local knowledge. Americans and Brits alike have long maintained a fascination with the literary work of their overseas cousins, but usually only the biggest names make the trip across the pond.

Hoping in some small way to remedy this, I have written an article for the US edition of The Huffington Post on “5 British Poets to Watch in 2013” and, for sake of symmetry, an article in the UK edition of The Huffington Post on “Five American Poets to Watch in 2013“.

How closely you watch is, of course, up to you. My hope is that you will seek out the work of these ten fine poets out for your own sake, to bring a little transcontinental mischief and mirth to your poetry reading in the year ahead.