Poetry Groups: A How-To for Participating & Managing

Cathryn SheaThe following is a guest post by Cathryn Shea, whose poetry appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

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While there are several types of poetry groups and workshops, this article talks about one of the more common formats. Participants of my workshop/poetry group meet in person and are on equal footing. The format has a few house rules to ensure everyone is heard and the meeting ends on time.

Where to Find a Group of Poets

Poetry readings, book launches, and communities of writers are a good place to meet poets who already meet up or who want to form a group. A poet named Yvonne who I met at a library reading had a small group and invited me to submit my work to see if the other poets might like me to join. That was fifteen years ago. I’ve been with this group ever since.

Informal Chair

Yvonne, over the years, has become the informal chairperson of our group, which means that she maintains our address list, sends out email meeting reminders, and handles the email correspondence with prospective new members.

Schedule, “Venue,” and Snacks

We meet every two weeks on Monday night. Our meeting starts at 7:00 PM and we aim to end by 9:00 PM due to work schedules and commutes.

There are currently nine members, but on typical meeting nights five or six show up. If fewer than four can make it, we usually call off the meeting. We maintain the same schedule, however, which means if the meeting is cancelled, we will meet in two weeks from that date, not one. This is what works for us so we can plan around Monday nights and not have as many calendar conflicts.

We now meet only at Yvonne’s home. We used to rotate but as circumstances changed, we are happy to meet at the same place. Most of us bring cookies, nuts, or fruit to share. Our host provides tea and hot water. At all my poetry groups we do not drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol would make us too giddy and silly. In my groups we are chatty and laugh a lot. For some reason, tea is the default beverage of choice instead of coffee.

Logistics

We begin by handing out copies of our poems around the table. Then someone (typically Yvonne) says, “Who wants to go first?”

We take a few minutes in silence to read the poem to ourselves.

The author reads their poem to the group. (No explanations or apologies if you can help it.) We do not strictly time each poem, but some of us remind the group about time. It helps to have a dictionary and thesaurus handy, and optionally, a book of poetry forms. Each turn typically takes fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on how many people are in attendance

This is important: the author remains quiet while the group discusses the poem. No butting in.

We are not strict about the order of who speaks as we go around the table and say what we think works well and what we think does not work, and suggest changes to punctuation, wording, order. We argue good naturedly over commas, line breaks, word choice, stanza order, titles, etc. Places in the poem that threw us out and obscure or archaic words. To outsiders it can sound like we are fighting, but we are amicable and friendly. We never attack anyone personally. We all want honest feedback no matter how bad the news may be for our poem.

After everyone has given their feedback, the author can speak and ask any questions or explain anything they wish. Sometimes we continue debating a few points or we might look up a word or bring out the thesaurus.

We write helpful notes and feedback on the poem, typically during the discussion and quickly before we hand the poem back to the author. (Make sure to sign the poem.)

After we hand our copies of the poem back to the author, we move onto the next person. The next person might just be counterclockwise or might be a volunteer who says, “I’ll go next.”

How and When to Bring in New Members

If after someone has dropped out or attendance becomes low, we might start to feel that the group has too few members. Then we start to think hard about recruiting. This typically happens every few years as people’s lives change. We used to post on Craig’s List if we were stuck for ideas of who to invite; we don’t love this method though. Word of mouth is best. The past few years we’ve been lucky to have members recommend poets to the group.

Our chairperson sends an invitation email to the new person and asks them to send three or four poems. Then the members of the group respond only within our group with their high-level feedback on the poems. We do not copy the new person.

We vote via email to invite the person and schedule a meeting when the new person can attend to try us out and for us to try them out. We hold a final vote via email. Keeping the count at eight or nine ensures that enough people will be available to meet, but is not too unwieldy to manage.

We all feel fortunate to have this community of poets with whom to bond and share our stories of submission and rejection and our new publications and books. These are perks in addition to developing our craft with the group.

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Cathryn Shea is the author of four chapbooks, including Backpack Full of Leaves (Cyberwit, 2019) and Secrets Hidden in a Pear Tree (dancing girl press, 2019). Her first full-length poetry book, Genealogy Lesson for the Laity, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in September 2020. Cathryn’s poetry was nominated for Best of the Net and appears in Typehouse, Gargoyle, Permafrost, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere. Cathryn served as editor for Marin Poetry Center Anthology. See www.cathrynshea.com and @cathy_shea on Twitter.

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