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“.]


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.


Tactics for Sneaky Poets

Big Tent PoetryI had a great time facilitating the “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop at Theater 150 this morning. The workshop is a flurry of creative exercises designed to demonstrate various “tactics” that poets can use to be “sneaky” with themselves in the creative process — to outwit the negative critic and analytical mind, and keep on keeping on in a free, creative space. While none of these ideas are are “new” in any universal sense, they are all tried-and-true techniques that have helped me along in my own creative process.

I have also been remiss in my role as a “sideshow barker” for the excellent Big Tent Poetry project. So here is a contribution to that ongoing poetic circus — a list of sneaky ways to keep the plates of poetry spinning.

Get inspired. Prime the pump before writing by reading poems you love by poets you love. Transcribe them. Memorize them. Carry them inside you.

Trigger yourself. Smells, sights, sounds, textures. Let your eyes and your mind wander. Memories, fantasies, reflections. Start anywhere. Just go.

Keep going. Try pushing past where you think the ending occurs. Write a “Part II.”

Use constraints. Use word groups, poetic forms, made-up assignments from friends. Constraints spark creative freedom.

Read and listen. Read your own work aloud, get others to read it back to you. Listen to the music. Tune it up.

Focus on language and lines. Read the poem bottom-up, focus on each line. Does it stand alone on its merits?
Continue reading…


Winter Poetry Workshop Series

I will be conducting a new series of poetry workshops this winter at Theater 150. Whether you are just getting started with poetry, or trying to find space on the shelf for yet another poetry prize, you are warmly invited to come cozy up to the art of well-chosen words. Theater 150 is also offering a substantial discount if you sign up for all three classes in the series before January 8th. Class size is extremely limited, and expected to fill up fast. All proceeds once again go to benefit our beloved local theater.

Here are the dates and descriptions for each workshop:

Tactics for Sneaky Poets
Saturday, January 8th, 10am-1pm

Learn new ways to spice up your relationship to poem writing in this fun, interactive course. This class will get you writing and revising in unconventional ways, to spark new creative ideas and energize your poems. Class size is limited to a maximum of five participants to give us an opportunity to shake things up. See poetry from a new angle and take away practical tips to overcome writers’ block and invigorate your revisions.
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The Joy of Revision

“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

Poets use words to make art. Each poem is a combination, not only of words, but of decisions made consciously and unconsciously by the poet. Revision is the process of returning to a draft to make different decisions. This process is fundamental to a poet’s development, since it not only affects the poet’s decisions in relation to the poem she is immediately revisiting, but affects her future decisions in composing and revising new poems.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste. Therefore the idea that poetry consists of the “best words in the best order” can not be considered in the context of some universal, objective “best.” Rather, it is a personal best one is always striving toward as a poet, to bring forward what is uniquely one’s own, 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 other. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive other for herself in composing and writing her own poems. This is why workshop groups can provide a powerful boost to the development of any writer, and especially poets.
Continue reading…


Kuusisto on Writing Workshops

Stephen Kuusisto posted an insightful take on writing workshops today. Though I have had the good fortune not to encounter those workshop leaders “who want to wave from a considerable height,” his words (and those of St. Augustine) ring true with regard to the conviviality necessary to have a meaningful discussion of art. Sobriety is for the sciences; with aesthetics one must dance around a little in the bacchanal of subjectivity. In this game, stimulation trumps pronouncements, and questions beat answers hands-down.