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.

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