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.