When I became the second Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, I wanted to continue the poetry workshop that the first Los Gatos Poet Laureate, Parthenia Hicks, had started. That group met on a weekday evening, once per month. Some of the attendees told me that they would prefer a daytime option, so I started a monthly, noon-to-2:00 p.m. poetry workshop at the Los Gatos Public Library. The workshop, free and open to the public, ran for three years.
A core group of between eight and ten dedicated, talented poets came every month ready to share their work, comment on the other writers' work, and offer encouragement and ideas. Since we met at lunchtime, I named it the "Brown Bag Poetry Workshop," and at first, people did bring sandwiches and fruit along with their poems. Later, no one brought food, just poetry.
Part of the group's success was due to its dependability and regularity. One of my duties as Poet Laureate was to "promote and encourage poetry writing for the town." Every third Thursday at noon, I waited at the library for my poets. And they always came.
Part workshop and part writers group, the Brown Bag Poetry Workshop observed just a few rules: bring at least ten copies of one poem, accept feedback silently, and offer feedback to the others. With eight to ten participants and only two hours, we proceeded at a relatively quick pace. At the beginning of every workshop, I did a little mental math to see how much time we could allot per poet. If we had eight poets, each received fifteen minutes; if ten or twelve, it was closer to ten minutes. With my eye on the giant wall clock that hung over the elevator, I did my best to make sure each person received the same amount of time.
Remaining silent when others discussed their poems was one of the most difficult things for the workshop participants to master. The impulse to explain and defend is strong, and not easily overcome. I reminded people over and over to just listen, and not offer explanation until the end. By the end of the first year, the core group had greatly improved.
The best part of running the group was watching the poets grow into a community. They got to know each other through their writing, became attuned to each other's strengths and weaknesses, and, at the end of three years, had developed a high level of trust with each other, both as writers and as friends. The worst part - and this is mostly due to the fact that the workshop was open to the public - was dealing with the occasional people who didn't fit in. Generally speaking, these fell into two camps: those who wanted to be heard without giving feedback, and those who wanted the workshop to function as group therapy. I tried my best to weed these people out; some came a few times and then never again, and some persisted. I found that the core group handled these situations best. They politely but insistently reminded all newcomers that in our group, we received and gave equally. Most of the attention grabbers stopped coming after a few meetings.
Most of the poets in the group were experienced writers. Some wrote mainly in other genres, and were new to writing poetry. Many, if not most, had read poems by Rumi, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. As the group progressed, I observed them writing through and away from their influences, experimenting with forms, and taking more risks.
After the first year, the group developed a critique style that encouraged and challenged at the same time. Hardly anyone ever said "This takes me out of the poem" or "I don't get this part." Instead, I heard "can you add a sensory detail here?" and "I feel like this is getting close to the truth" and "this ending - could it be more surprising?"
I've always felt that there's something holy about listening to poetry read out loud, and indeed, at times the workshop took on the atmosphere of a Quaker meeting: one of the poets read his or her poem and waited while the rest of the workshop attendees absorbed what they had just heard. I could never predict who would break the silence, or who would be the first person to comment. I always reserved my comments until the rest were finished.
Major life changes occurred over the ensuing three years: people moved, had grandchildren, took new jobs or retired, published their poems, became ill and recovered. The writers' spouses, partners, parents and children frequently appeared in discussions and poems, and many a husband or wife stood outside the glass wall of the meeting room, waiting patiently for the group to finish. Our families got to know each other. We had parties at each others' homes. We celebrated each others' successes, came to each others' readings, and helped with suggestions for publication.
As the group's facilitator, I looked forward to the third Thursday of the month, a time when I spent two solid hours listening to my poets read work that moved me more and more. The environment of trust helped these writers open up some of their deepest secrets, i.e., events from childhood, struggles with addiction, the pain of losing a beloved child, and facing serious health crises. I encouraged them to publish their work, and some of them did, but the true satisfaction came from the work itself, and the writers' increasing skill and courage.
At the end of 2015, my time as Poet Laureate was over. I'd enjoyed it very much, but like all good things, it had to end. I accomplished many things during those three years, and I'm proud of them all, but my fondest memories are of sitting in the upstairs meeting room at the Los Gatos Library with the view of the oak-tree lined parking lot, enjoying the rich silence as the members of the Brown Bag Poetry Workshop absorbed a poem we'd just heard.
Five Tips for Starting and Maintaining a Drop-in Poetry Workshop:
- Locate a public place that's easy to find and has good parking; i.e., library meeting rooms, coffee shops, church community rooms.
- Spread the word through your website, the facility's website, email and social media.
- Find a day of the week and time of day that works for you and the attendees.
- Set a few ground rules: how many poems per person, how much time per poem, how feedback should be given, etc. Don't let anyone monopolize the group's time and attention.
- Foster the spirit of support and community between writers.
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Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, from 2013-2016. In 2011, she won the Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2013, and for Best of the Net in 2016. She is co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls: www.mediapoetrystudio.com. Her poetry collection Night Court won the 2016 Lyrebird Award and will be published in 2017. She is the author of Wild Place (Finishing Line Press 2012) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets(PushPen Press 2014). Her poems, articles and reviews have appeared and are forthcoming in many journals, including Contrary, Atticus Review, Tinderbox, The Tishman Review, Connotation Press, Gravel, Hotel Amerika, Pearl, Passager, Main Street Rag, Rattle, Eclectica, Blood Lotus, Wild Violet, The Bohemian, Café Review, Zoland Poetry, Comstock Review, The Lake, Lake Effect, and Perigee. Erica is a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools. Please visit her at www.ericagoss.com.
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