Monday, November 23, 2009

When is a Poetry Workshop not Really a Poetry Workshop?

It was with great expectation that I attended, at long last, my very first real-time poetry workshop moderated by a local poet. The course description on the site of the organization offering this workshop depicted a poetic experience devoutly to be wished. It incorporated a criteria which was and still is of intense interest to me -a consideration of the complexities of publication.

I admit that I had anticipated a cathartic experience in light of the fact that my muse and I had become estranged as of late. I suppose that it did not help matters much that my only experience with poetry workshops has come on-line. Yes it is true that my initial encounters with on-line workshops were with poetry boards that were so saccharine-imbued in their literary criticism that it sickened one's literary sensibilities to have to entertain some of the poetry and crits that were forwarded by the local board members.

What purpose - pray tell - does sugar-laced critique serve? It is my humble opinion that it serves no one. Just as it might be argued that the deconstruction and dissection of a poem ad infinitum also does little to assist in the editing process if it is without purpose and/or constructive direction.

Still what transpired in the real-time workshop is an eventuality that I should have logically anticipated. Obviously, it is much easier to be more forthright on-line where there is a very different form of interaction between members. Face to face confrontation is more unnerving an enterprise. To look into the whites of their eyes and tell them that their poetry just doesn't cut it is much easier said than done.

There is much less at stake in an on-line confrontation than in a real-time one. It is a more liberating and less inhibiting feeling to know that by implementing a click of a mouse the poetic interlude is quickly concluded and a possible literary altercation is avoided.

I was clearly taken aback when my critique of a poem which was by no means intended to be malicious or caustic in nature was construed as such by one of the workshop members. The poet in question did not immediately confront me but then proceeded to attack the poetry I was work shopping at every turn. In actuality, I prefer to receive in-line critiques that meticulously point out the elements of poetry that don't work in a particular poem in question. But obviously said critique must be couched and/or based in the objectivity of the concrete and not the subjectivity of the abstract.

The upshot is that I have come away from the experience having gained no insight and having no real inclination to do it again. I would very much like to hear from those of you who have had a positive experience in real-time workshops in order that I might entertain the thought of dismissing this interlude as an aberration.


Brian Campbell said...

Hi Nick

You can read about my positive experience here:

If it was with this session's QWF poetry workshop, it was with the same leader, ironically enough.

The secret of the success of this workshop -- as I suggest in that post (I don't remember exactly what I said, so I may be repeating myself here) was that there were a number of strong writers in the group, and most of the others, if they didn't prove to be committed, had raw talent that was fun to work with. The group gelled well, allowing for honest but not overbearing exchange. Some of us kept meeting for about a year afterwords; one in particular -- Nina Bruck, whose chapbook I helped publish -- is a friend to this day.

When a workshop is open to the general public, though, it's really a case of the luck of the draw; I think I struck it extremely lucky. If I haven't attended a QWF poetry workshop since, it's because they always fall on evenings I teach...

I've heard it said that most workshops suffer from one of several problems: participants handling each other with such velvety kid gloves that nothing honest gets said; a leader imposing a narrow aesthetic that doesn't jive with one or more participants; participants ganging up on each other; one or more participants who is there to hear him/herself speak rather than listen; mediocre participants (or leader). The pitfalls are many; but given the right combination and the right leader, a workshop can be life-changing. The best you can expect to come away with, it seems to me, is a friend who is on your wavelength & who will give you the honest feedback and conversational stimulus you need... someone (and if you're really lucky, some two or three) who will eliminate the need for more workshops, in other words.

Gerry Boyd said...

It helps when everyone involved realizes that they are not the poem:
check your ego at the door, etc. Also, depends on the leader and the group itself. Frankly, though, I do not view poetry as a "craft" so I don't personally view workshops as being that helpful. The mainstream "poe-business" has been overrun with MFAs who think that "real poetry" follows certain rules. fuck that. just write for yourself.

Nick said...
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Nick said...


I can appreciate that your first experience was a positive one and I am somewhat jealous of the fact that you no longer have a need for workshops as you have found a poetic confidante(s) that provides you with all the literary feedback that you require.

Unfortunately, at least for me, the workshop experience did not meet my expectations. This of course does not preclude the possibility that other participants were completely satisfied with the workshop in question. However, I'm sure that had each had their own set of criteria.

I can only speak from my particular mindset and can only compare this experience to on-line workshops and English Literature courses that I took at the university level.

Furthermore, it is unfair to expect a group of poets who have such diverse poetic backgrounds to gel in such a short period of time. What I can emphatically state, however, is that my poetic needs were not met. I am perhaps misguided to believe that somewhere there is a workshop where the moderator instructs the particpiants from the outset to take the kid gloves off; to (as Gerry notes ) check their egos at the door as "they are not the poem" and give the poems that are up for workshopping a firm but fair shake.

Gerry, thanks for dropping by.

L said...

wow.... i've been searching for what feels like ages for someone like you. it did my heart a high much craved to know there are poets only trying to help...i mean dam a workshop is a shop where you work on your craft...but the world is used to being handled with "kid gloves" and that doesn't match up when you treat them like an adult and come at them as such. You already know most don't want their eyes opened to the growth that must occur. nah, they would rather you tell them: "you're perfect as you are", but they do themselves an injustice when at 60 they find out.. I could have improved i could have been better.

I hope you aren't discouraged, I am tired of being broken down by the mediocre just to find out they're destructive ways are keeping me at my mediocre level.

thank you for posting this.

Nick said...


I'm not discouraged. I just don't have the time for all the rigamarole that these kind of workshops include. I'm there for the poetry not the socializing.

Friends I've got.

Straightforward poetic confidantes who know a little something about the six elements of poetry and have good poetic acumen I need.

Sign up if you're the latter.

Nice to meet you you and hear from you on this point.


jeannine said...

I had a great group of poets that I met quite by chance about eight or nine years ago - back when I lived in Seattle - that became the best workshop group I ever worked in. There was no leader - just a group of peers who had a commitment to writing and critiquing poetry. There were about seven of us who were regular - and they all wrote completely different styles and types of poetry. One of them was an environmental engineer; another was an ex-nun who taught English. A good diversity. They were terrifically warm and supportive as individuals and as a group, and there was no sugar-coating; if something didn't work, you heard about it. Someone in the group always caught typos and grammar mistakes, someone else always caught weak line endings. It was the best time of my writing life, the six years I attended once every two weeks.
So I would say, if you can find a group of intelligent, like-minded poets, go for it. Sometimes you have to try out a bunch of different groups, like you would try out dentists or doctors. It takes a little work, but it's worth it.

Nick said...

Hi Jeannine,

Hope all is well with you. Maybe I should move out of Quebec as most of the literary scene here is francophone. (of course I jest) However, you've made it clear that the type of experience that I had seems to be par for the course but that there are exceptions to the rule. Interesting that you note that there was no moderator but that you were all peers. The problem I encountered in my workshop experience had much to do with the moderator. In my opinion they were intolerant of adverse opinions. During one of the critiques that I made of a poem I intimated that if the poet was thinking of publishing the poem that they should take certain criteria in consideration. The moderator quickly told me that the poets in the group were simply writing for themselves and that publishing was of no relavence to the converstaion. So I proceeded to withdraw from many of the discussions and it got to the point that I saw no point in going back if I could not speak freely. I know that I shouldn't give up on finding the right workshop but unfortunately the choices in Montreal are limited for an anglo poet when it comes to workshops. Thanks for your advice. It is always much appreciated.


P.S. - At least I'm writing again and that's a blessing. Although a sounding board for what I'm writing sure would be nice.

jeannine said...

Hey Nick!
Yes, there was a literary center in Seattle that had that same attitude - everything's fine because everyone's writing for themselves. It was frustrating, but even in those kinds of situations, you can find poets that you might became friends with later - at least, that happened for me.
I'm currently scouting the poetry scene here in Napa - which doesn't seem to have many poets in it, at least so far. I miss the wonderful scene in Seattle, though I could drive the hour-and-a-half to San Francisco if I needed to. But I need to do the same work you do - somehow find some like-minded poets here in a new town.
Montreal is one of my favorite cities, by the way. The art, the food, the architecture. I'm glad you're writing - you can always find a good workshop later after you've piled up the poems!

Nick said...


Thanks for coming back to the discussion. Hey Napa valley is a great place to be in. I hope that you find some local poets. Seems that all my poet friends live quite a distance from yours truly.
Oh well - I hope that the poetry I'm writing sees the light of day sometime in the near future. Best of luck with your poetry and any other projects that you're working on.

Joananjoy said...
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