Thoughts about workshopping poems

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been selected to take part in this year’s Aldeburgh Eight Advanced Seminar. In just over two weeks I’ll head off for three days at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, followed by five days living at Bruisyard Hall with the other seven people in my seminar group and our two tutors, Peter Sansom and Jackie Wills. I’m increasingly preoccupied with thoughts about eight whole days of poetry and feel excited and quietly terrified in equal measure.

In order to be gain a place on the Aldeburgh Eight Seminar, prospective candidates were asked to submit six (or was it eight? I forget) poems to the selection panel at The Poetry Trust, along with a personal statement about why we wanted to take part. So the people at the Poetry Trust, and our two tutors, already have some feeling for our writing since, of course, they read our submissions. Last week, we were asked to submit eight poems to be circulated to the others on the seminar so that we can now get a feel for each other’s work in advance of our eight days together.

It won’t come as a surprise to know that I sent what I thought to be some of my most polished pieces in my original submission. It’s a competitive process and I really wanted to be in with a chance of gaining a place. However, I’ve sent a different set of poems for the group to read, newer poems, not polished, not published, in need of work (Quietly Terrified). My logic is that I want to develop my writing, move forward with it, take more risks, be bolder, more adventurous. So, if I want the group to understand where I am on my writing journey, I’d like to open up to them a bit and show them some of my true self – not just the tidy version, fresh from the shower with my hair and make-up done, if you see what I mean.

The point of telling you all this, though, is that this whole process has got me thinking about the business of workshopping poems – showing your work to others and developing your writing following their suggestions and criticism.  I wrote about this before and I’d like to re-visit some of the ideas from the earlier post, and hear what you have to say about it all.

I like workshopping groups

To begin with, I should say that I’m a fan of workshopping groups although I don’t belong to one at the moment.  Being a member of Carrie Etter‘s Advanced Poetry Group in Swindon was definitely a big help to me when I started to write again a few years ago, after a long spell of not writing.  Carrie’s group was the right size – I seem to remember eight in the group, certainly no more than 12 – so there was time for each participant to read and comment on the other poets’ work.  Carrie is very talented at summarising what’s being said, adding her own criticism, making suggestions for development and keeping the timing of the session in order (a really essential skill).

Although they do have their drawbacks

One drawback of workshopping groups, and one of the reasons I’ve never stayed for years with the same group, is that there is a danger that you start writing for the group (this is definitely the case with me, I think I just have an overwhelming desire to please). So, in my case, this means that once I’m settled into a group, I start tailoring my writing to what I think the group will approve of.  It’s a subconscious skill, I think, to instinctively understand, or make assumptions about, the tastes of the group, and learn to write material that they will find pleasing.  This can mean that your writing will become stale, and you might avoid taking risks or trying something new.  Perhaps one way of breaking out of this is to leave the group and their influence, then re-join at a later time.  Or to find a new group – but then the pattern might repeat itself.  There are, of course, advantages of feeling confident in a group and trusting everyone, or learning to trust group members who clearly understand something about your literary aims.  If you join a new group, you will have to start from scratch and learn about trust all over again.

Timing – when is the best time to workshop a poem?

If you can overcome the drawback of trying to please the group, or, even better, never succumb to it in the first place, an other issue to consider is when to bring your poem to the group, at what stage of the poem’s life?  Bring a poem in its very early days of development and there is a danger of your initial impulses  being drowned by others’ comments and influence.  Bring it when you feel it’s a finished poem and you risk not being open to others’ suggestions and ideas.  Some of this depends on your own mindset, of course, and of your willingness to engage with workshop dynamics – to be open but to, nevertheless, hold on to your sense of what you want the poem to be.

The thrill of people not liking your work

Although I’ve written about a personal tendency to write for the group, I can’t be alone in sometimes experiencing a thrill when I’ve  brought something in that nobody likes!  Even better, weirdly, if there’s a really hostile reaction.  It might not be pleasant, it might be uncomfortable, there should never be tears, but writing something that causes a somewhat dramatic reaction is exciting.  To be honest I rarely completely discard a poem once I’ve assembled its bare bones in a first draft, and even if everyone loathed a poem, I’d still want to try to hold on to the idea that sparked the writing of it in the first place, re-drafting and re-drafting until I thought the poem was right.  A bit of friction (even a lot, as long as no blood is shed) is helpful for the group dynamic.  You don’t want to get too cosy.  Of course, you need to be civil, diplomatic, gentle (but honest) and sensitive.  But the odd fizzing firework can lend unexpected colour to the writing process and is nothing to be afraid of.

Good workshops need good readers

One of the most vital elements in a workshop group is the presence of good readers.  The ability to be able to closely read a poem, to grasp its sentiments, to assess its technical competence, to give meaningful feedback to a writer in a short space of time, is a rare gift to possess.  If you find someone who displays all or most of these attributes, keep them close.  Try and sit next to them in a workshop, follow them around (if they belong to more than one group – that’s allowed and might be hugely beneficial), look after them.  Learn to be like them.

Just a few thoughts here.  Do share your own ideas in the comments section.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts about workshopping poems

  1. Andrew Rudd says:

    That’s a really interesting and honest account of what a workshop does, Josephine, thanks! I’ve noticed in the best workshops I’ve been to that people are able to bring sketchier and sketchier work – because they have the trust and confidence to know that they have real readers who will be simultaneously brutal, supportive and attentive. They also don’t have to impress each other. REally looking forward to Aldeburgh – with similar feelings!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Hi Andrew! How lovely to meet you here via the wonders of the internet. I think the combination of ‘brutal, supportive and attentive’ would make for THE best workshop audience. It is to do with trust being established, isn’t it, something that all group members should work towards enabling (along with the ‘leader’, of course). Really looking forward to meeting you, too. Thanks for saying hello here! 🙂

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  2. Stephen Kirk Daniels says:

    As always, a lovely blog post Josephine. I have just started the workshop with Carrie – my first was a few weeks ago, and the whole process is very daunting! I want to learn as much as I can (as quickly as I can), so my instinct is to take along my most problematic poems, the issue with this (as a newcomer), is that it’s then difficult for others to get a sense of the kind of poetry you are trying to write / are capable of… the whole experience is very new, but as you said, very exciting. I think I may take a more controversial piece for the second workshop – see if I can provoke some more extreme reactions. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Hi Stephen, thanks for a great comment. It sounds like you’re going great guns in Carrie’s workshop. You’re in safe hands, there, and your work will really benefit from Carrie’s guidance and the comments of the group. It’s tougher but more beneficial to you to take your more ‘problematic’ pieces. It takes a while for a group to get to know your work so things can only get better as time progresses. Very best wishes with your writing and workshopping. – Josephine 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. http://vivinfrance.wordpress.com says:

    I love workshopping, but like you fear and excitement are equally present. I agree with taking poems in need of work – it is devastating to have a poem lambasted which we think of as done (even though no poem is never really finished. Sadly the opportunity for me nowadays is very rare, but next best option is an email friend I studied with and trust implicitly as a critiquing swapper.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. kim881 says:

    I haven’t taken part in a workshop yet and was keen to get on the one at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich but at the moment I can’t afford it. Are there any cheaper or even free workshops over the winter?

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  5. Robin Houghton says:

    Thanks Josephine, good points. I love the idea of workshopping – sharing work-in-progress, getting to hear and be a part of other people’s creative process, getting the reactions of others to what you’ve written. But like you I have some ambivalence. I was lucky enough to be part of a small, regular workshopping group led by Mimi Khalvati, only 8 or so in the group and nearly all poets with collections to their names. It sounds like a similar experience to your Carrie Etter group. I was terribly daunted at first but I learnt a LOT and it was definitely ‘brutal, critical and supportive’. But I had to leave eventually. It hadn’t occurred to me about the ‘writing for the group’ idea but I think you’re right. I certainly got to know what Mimi did and didn’t like, and tried to steer clear of it as a consequence.

    As for one-off workshops, or casual groups where the attendees change from month to month, I struggle with both giving and receiving of meaningful critique. I know it’s entirely down to the poet to decide which comments to take on board and which to disregard, but in that sort of situation I now tend to say what it is about my own poem that I’d like feedback on – what aspects of it I’m really not happy with or would like a reaction to. And I ask the same question of the person whose poem I’m asked to comment on. It can be useful for focusing both the poet and the commenters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Thanks for these interesting and helpful remarks, Robin. Your comments, and Kim’s comment about not being able to afford a workshop, have made me think of writing a follow-up post about workshops not being the panacea to all our writing woes. I completely agree with you about one-off workshops – although I have found them helpful for sparking ideas and extending my reading (but not always). The workshop marketplace is something of a jungle, isn’t it, and a writer/novice writer needs to be honest about what’s helping/hindering the actual writing. As ever, thanks so much for popping in here, you always add great value! 🙂

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      • john foggin says:

        Robin described one workshop group which would have choked the life out of me. Like-minded, tight, fiercely loyal to the group leader. Reminds me of the Leavisites in the 60s. With them or again ’em. For years and years I’ve been going to The Poetry Business Writing Days. Which are never like that. Everything on its merits, and nothing else will do. Every writer his/her own writer. No party line. Similarly the small weekly group I go to in the back room of a pub in Huddersfield. Supportive and critical on the lines of : ‘why don’t you try X and see what happens?’ No bullshit. I should say of the PB Writing days that if I didn’t go to them I almost certainly would write nothing. Six fast writing tasks in two hours, one day a month. Doesn’t suit everyone but it’s lifeblood to me. Workshop leaders who have made a difference to me? Ann and Peter Sansom, Kim Moore, Carola Luther, Jane Draycott. What have they got in common? They don’t faff about, they keep up the pace and the pressure, they don’t give you that fatally damaging time to think yourself out of writing. Like the Nike ad says. Just do it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Josephine Corcoran says:

        Like you say, Fogs, different groups suit different people, and a lot also depends on where you’re at in your writing journey. And it’s also perfectly fine to choose not to go to workshops which I’m going to write about in a follow-up post. I know or have heard about plenty of well-known poets who’ve never been to a workshop in their life (but lead them now) so that’s something else to think on! Thanks, again, for a great comment, generous in that it will be helpful to many others. 🙂 x

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  6. Jill Fricker says:

    I have to agree with John Foggin – I found Peter Sansom’s approach of just getting something down on the page without too much time to think really inspiring (One day workshop in Cambridge.) Of course, the products were very rough drafts, but out of them have come some poems that might never otherwise have been born!

    And both Peter and Catherine Smith have that essential gift of making a critiquing workshop great FUN as well . . . that does a lot to take away the fear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Thanks for commenting, Jill. It’s encouraging to receive another endorsement for Peter Sansom, since he’ll be my tutor for five days in Aldeburgh! There are many teachers and workshop leaders I could praise here, although others might disagree with me. I think sometimes it’s a question of personal chemistry and to do with the stage you’re at with your writing. Sometimes people feel a workshop leader is in tune with them while others don’t find the experience helpful at all. Totally agree with you about the importance of taking away fear.

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  7. martyn crucefix says:

    Hi Josephine – good thoughts on workshopping – a process I always think needs to be very consciously approached, critically reviewed as to whether one is getting what one wants from it. It has to be encouraging doesn’t it – rather stating the obvious – but it’s horses for courses and if a poet feels discouraged it’s not always their own fault. I discussed some of this on my blog a while back: http://martyncrucefix.com/2015/04/07/what-shape-is-your-poetry-workshop/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Thanks for the link to your post, Martyn. I’d always thought that workshopping originated in the US. I think Ted Hughes wrote about the effect Robert Lowell’s writing classes had on Sylvia Plath – although writing classes are different to workshops, of course. One thing is certain, a good workshop is much harder to achieve than some providers realise and participants would be wise to consider what’s being offered before handing over their cash.

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