Monday, May 20, 2013

Is a workshop for you?

Let me introduce Ann Howells, my dear poet friend whose depth of experience makes this post a valuable one!

Bio: Ann Howells’s poetry recently appeared in Borderlands, Calyx, Crannog (Ire), Free State Review, RiverSedge, and Third Wednesday among others. She serves on the board of Dallas Poets Community, a 501-c-3 non-profit, and has edited its journal, Illya’s Honey, since 1999. Her chapbook, Black Crow in Flight, was published by Main Street Rag Publishing (2007). Another chapbook, the Rosebud Diaries, was published in limited edition by Willet Press (2012). She won first in The Legendary’s Bukowski contest in 2011, was a finalist in both NavWorks and Southern Hum contests in 2008, won first in the Southwest Writer’s Club poetry contest in 2006, and was named a “distinguished poet of Dallas” by the Dallas Public Library in 2001. Her work was read on NPR, and she was interviewed on local television in Annapolis, MD. She has been nominated twice for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net.

Picture the writer, an emaciated poet, bent over his desk, working late into the night by the light of a candle stub. He is wrapped in a blanket, but still shivers in his drafty garret room. Granted, our circumstances are likely not so dire, but writing is a solitary pursuit. Other than readings, lectures, and the occasional poetry festival, how can the writer make contacts with and benefit from other writers? Enter, the workshop.

I am, perhaps, a bit biased, as I have workshopped for over twenty years. During that time I have stayed consistently with Dallas Poets Community, but at various times, I have also belonged to two other groups. Each had its advantages and disadvantages. Not every workshop will be a good fit for a particular writer. It is a good idea, when considering a workshop, to visit once or twice (with or without bringing a poem) and take part in discussion. A poet who writes only sonnets might feel uncomfortable in a group where everyone else is writing in free verse; on the other hand, all participants might benefit from the mix. The sonnet writer might find a different type of critique helpful and be able, in return, to teach other participants something about writing in form. Also, if other participants are a bit more accomplished, you may learn from them. If they are less accomplished, you have an opportunity to teach and to view your poems as a reader might. If members are genuinely interested in poetry, offer constructive criticism and avoid ego, the group will work.

Finding a workshop takes a bit of research. You might ask at your local recreation center or public library where poetry workshops often meet. Check bulletin boards. Ask other poets for recommendations. Find a group on-line; there are many. Some have flourished for years. If all else fails, find several like-minded individuals and start your own group. I have heard tales of workshops in which name-dropping and self-aggrandizement seemed the norm and critique was often hurtful. I have never encountered such a group (and suspect they are urban myths). Another complaint about workshops is that, eventually, everyone’s poems begin to sound the same. I suppose that could possibly happen, but I find it hard to imagine a writer so willing to give up his own voice.

Some workshops charge a fee per meeting, some require you to send your work to other members up to several weeks ahead of the workshop. Some groups exist mainly to approve each other’s work and give little critique beyond spelling and grammar. Some have been meeting together for years and will be difficult for a new member to enter.

Let me tell you about my workshop group, Dallas Poets Community. Our group currently has eight to twelve attendees at each workshop, a good number for a two hour workshop. We have a good mix of sexes, ages (we’ve had as young as 16 up to mid-80s) religious preferences, and ethnicities. A wide variety of occupations are represented. Anyone seriously interested in writing good poetry is welcome. Our meetings are open. Those of us who have been with the group a while can generally recognize a poem by another member of the group by the individual voice (which we consider proof that workshopping has not made our writing generic).

We begin critique by having a member do a cold reading of another poet’s work. This allows the poet to really listen to what he has written. It allows him to catch sound patterns and places where his writing does not flow. Then, the poet rereads his work aloud. After that, he remains quiet as the group discusses the poem, trying to answer four questions:
What is happening in the poem?
What is working in the poem?
What is not working in the poem?
Where might the poem be elaborated or expanded?
We make it a point to critique the technique used and never the philosophy behind a particular poem, and we encourage everyone to voice their thoughts, even dissenting opinions. We also offer suggestions for places where the poem might be submitted, and let the poet know of any other poems on a similar topic or in a similar style that he might want to read. At the end of this discussion, the poet may ask any questions he has about the poem that were not answered or request further clarification about points made.

We bring enough copies of our poem for each person to have one on which is can write comments and either keep or return to the poet. A good workshop will allow you to see your work as an editor might see it, encourage thoughtful revision and allow you to develop your own voice. The Dallas Poets Community workshop has been meeting twice monthly for twenty-three years. We have included high school students, college students, retirees, MFAs, PhDs, and even the occasional songwriter. Some have stayed, some have moved away, some have left and returned, and some gone on to other pursuits. I credit the turnover with keeping the group from becoming stale and predictable. That said, currently five of our members have books published by national presses; one has two. Most of the group has work in a variety of small press and university journals.

If you are new to workshopping, keep in mind that your work will be criticized. If you believe revisions alter the original thought and make it inauthentic, workshops are not for you. If you feel compelled to defend every word you’ve written, workshops are not for you. If you keep an open mind and consider changes other suggest, you might benefit from workshopping, but remember, it is your poem and recommendations put forth can be rejected as well as accepted.
Use what you like, ignore the rest.

Find Dallas Poetry Community on Facebook or their website:

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Out Loud: Giving a Great Poetry Reading

Hi, folks! Let me introduce Michelle Hartman, a guest writer for PoettoPoet. An experienced reader and a frequent attendee to poetry events, Michelle is the perfect person to give us advice on performing our poetry. Enjoy her article, then check out her book!
A little about Michelle: A Pushcart nominee, Michelle Hartman's work can be found in Crannog, Poetry Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, Raleigh Review, San Pedro River Review, Pacific Review, Concho River Review, RiverSedge, Illya’s Honey, among others, and numerous anthologies. She is also editor of the award-winning journal, Red River Review,, as well as a past president of The Dallas Poets Community. Her first book, Disenchanted and Disgruntled, from Lamar University Press is available on Amazon here: Michelle's book of poems.

Giving a Great Poetry Reading

If you are like most people the last time you read anything out loud it was a Dick and Jane book. You were six and the other kids might have made fun of you. And now you’ve been invited to read your work in public. It’s Mrs. Edleman’s class all over again. But it does not have to be. There are simple tips and tricks to help you learn to read like Billy Collins.

If you are phobically shy or prone to panic attacks you might want to speak with your doctor first. But for the rest of us who were simply never trained to read in public, the following can get you ready to give a Frank Sinatra performance.

My first and best advice is, go to a poetry workshop. I belong to a free read-and-critique group called the Dallas Poets Community, with two workshops a month. You read your poem and then someone else reads it after so that you can hear it in another voice. This gives you the experience of reading in a small friendly group before launching out into the world.

Once a month, the DPC holds an Open Mic, inviting a professional to open, and then anyone who signs up reads later. This gives a poet a chance to see a pro and ask questions. Check us out in the Dallas area: But wherever you are, a workshop group can help. Or use your family as an audience, but practice, practice, practice. That way you are comfortable with the poem, itself.

Second, go to some readings and pay close attention to the way the poet reads. What do you like or dislike about the way the poet presents his or her work aloud? Maybe you like certain forms of delivery, but be sure it suits your work. Not all poems can be read the same way. Practicing articulation is even more important than slow speed. Avoid monotone delivery and sing-song delivery. You can record yourself on software like GarageBand and analyze your style. We are our own harshest critic. When you are comfortable with your work then you are doing your best.

Do have your poems ready - it is not fun to watch a poet flip through a book and mumble to himself. Breeeeeeeeeethe... and pause before you start. Take it s l o w l y, but make it short! If you feel you're rushing we won't hear you. Start with one poem and work up to a full routine.
Don't try! Simply hear yourself speak - if you're listening to thoughts about what you just said or are about to say then you're not 'PEARL': Presently Engaged And Really Listening'. Don't over explain – trust the reader and the listener. A short lead in such as 'My girlfriend once said -------- to me' then go into the poem. Or 'My ex-girlfriend used to do this' and go into the poem - just something to tease their expectations and FRAME the poem in their minds. Poems obviously should stand alone, in live performance the audience doesn't have unlimited time to check references, re-read lines, explore possibilities. It is a singular experience, so a little help is good.

Don't try anything too theatrical, but equally, allow yourself to feel the words and subject matter. There's nothing worse than watching a performer who seems indifferent to their own work - it makes the audience indifferent too. Match your material to your audience. Nothing will ever scare you as badly as showing up with a pile of erotic poems and learning most of your audience are evangelicals. Make sure you have sufficient material both in quality and quantity. Maintain eye contact with the audience whenever possible. If your eyes are looking down it is more difficult to build a relationship.

At the end of a poem, don't rush into the next one. A short pause will help the audience absorb the poem you've just read and prepare for the next one. I've seen many poets finish one poem, immediately say "and," then launch into the next piece, as if they were lumping the whole reading into a continuous poem. One thing I do is memorize the last lines of the poems. Then, when I am finishing a poem, I lower the paper even further and finish looking completely at the audience. This also gives them a cue that the poem is over, although it's pretty obvious when mine are done.

If your poems are on sheets of paper, make sure they're on a clipboard or something solid so the pages don't shake as you read--this can be both visually and aurally distracting. Avoid long, dangly earrings and bunches of bracelets (especially if you talk with your hands). I have actually seen poets who were drowned out by the sound of jangling jewelry. Also avoid wearing wild patterns; your clothes should not be putting on their own show. A corollary of this is comfortable clothes and hairdo so that you are not constantly fidgeting and adjusting. Deep poetry is not conducive to wardrobe malfunctions.

Finally, if you can project to the audience and the venue accommodates it (and your nerves permit it), don't stand behind the podium, unless your poetry needs the distancing it will provide. I believe that it's easier to connect with members of the audience if you stand directly before them. This requires more practice, more control of body language, and a bit more courage. But you will get there. Remember, we all started out exactly where you are, and I do not know a single poet who was harmed at a poetry reading.