The Beatles sang, When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. And, young or old, that’s how some poets feel. I wrote in a vacuum for years, scribbling in a spiral notebook and never showing a soul.
But now I admit: I need help. Pretty much a workshop junkie, I’ve studied for a day or a week with poets of fame (Dorianne Laux, Thomas Lux, and others) or no fame. When I’m not doing that, I’m meeting monthly with a trusted group of local poets.
A little history: Nine years ago I occasionally attended a writing group in the mountains where I vacationed and realized I also needed that kind of connection at home. So I started a critique group that we eventually called the Side Door Poets. It’s become a trusted group of peers who offer critique and encouragement, and we’re all better for it.
Here are some tips on starting and running a critique group, based on what has worked for the Side Door Poets.
- Find a venue: We meet at a community room in my condo complex, centrally located in Midtown Atlanta. The room is free, and I can reserve it. Before this, we met at a library—many have free meeting rooms (look on their websites). When we began with three people, we met at Panera Bread Company, but it was noisy, there was no guarantee we could get a table, and once our group grew it became impractical. Other ideas: rooms at colleges or churches or meeting at someone’s house. (When I first started with a group of strangers, I wasn’t comfortable having it in my home, but now I would be).
- Get the word out: I list the group with the Atlanta Writers Club and the Georgia Poetry Society. I have invited poets I met and liked while attending writing workshops. You could also contact English teachers—several of the Side Doors are high school or college English instructors. I recommend publicizing a regular meeting day and time. (Now that we’re more informal and are friends, we’re flexible with our schedule but still meet monthly). Also, a name helps. I felt funny with people calling it “Karen’s Group,” so we brainstormed on a name—that’s a story for another time, but I will say it involved wine. Nowadays, we’d publicize on Facebook too, if we needed to solicit new members.
- Select members: The Side Door Poets have grown and no longer even keep a waiting list—we have little turnover. But, when we were starting out, if someone wanted to join, I asked for a few poems, wanting to be sure that the poet was serious about craft. I aimed for a mix of experience and backgrounds because diversity helps everyone become better writers. We’ve had only one problem. When we were small and less selective, one new woman ruined our group dynamic. She talked too much and didn’t know anything about craft. Because she was a needy person, I thought it would be mean to kick her out. But members convinced me it was unfair to everyone else to keep her. That did it—in an email (because I was chicken), I politely asked her to find another group or take a class, and I gave her resources. She sent an angry email back, but that was that.
- Determine format: If you’re in a small community, you may need to combine poets with prose writers, but the Side Doors only critique poetry. We can effectively review a maximum of ten poems in a two-hour period. (I ask members to RSVP for the meeting, so we know how many plan to come). We don’t send poems ahead of time (though some groups do); instead, we bring copies. I randomly shuffle to determine the order. One poet reads while the rest follow along. It’s also useful to have another person then read the poem out loud, but we don’t often do this. We take a minute to digest and jot notes, and then we discuss. Though many groups follow the Iowa workshop model (i.e., the poet doesn’t speak), we don’t enforce this. The poet is quiet for a while but can then ask and answer questions. We all feel the dialog is useful. Rather than pointing out minor typos or grammar errors, we mark them on the paper. Afterward, we put our names on it and return it to the poet. We don’t set a timer—there’s usually a natural pause in the discussion, and we move on.
- Set the mood: In the beginning, we all agreed that critiques needed to be kind but useful. No tearing a poem apart viciously but also no mamby-pamby “what a lovely poem.” Our purpose is to help each other be better poets. We say what we like, and we say (kindly but firmly) what could be improved. We don’t re-write the poet’s poem but may make wording suggestions. We discourage defensiveness on the poet’s part. We’re an amiable group. Sure sometimes one of us gets on another’s nerves or says something someone doesn’t like; but generally, we trust each other and get along. When we meet at night, someone might bring wine and munchies. On a Saturday morning, it’s coffee and tea. We don’t have a formal sign-up for refreshments.
- Support each other: The Side Door Poets became friends quickly because we shared our intimate stories and vulnerabilities via poetry. We’ve had Christmas parties and hosted book launches for each other. We buy each other’s books, write recommendations and blurbs, gravitate toward each other at readings, and share our acceptances—and ah yes! the rejections.
Members often thank me for running the group, but I thank them for making it a mutually beneficial community. The Side Doors have had better-than-average successes with publishing and winning contests (e.g., our Andrea Jurjević won the Philip Levine Prize!), and we attribute that, at least in part, to the mentoring and accountability the group provides. It keeps us writing through slumps.
Here are a few words from members:
“If I hadn’t chanced upon the Side Door Poets when I first arrived in Atlanta, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing and publishing poetry today. Let’s face it, there have been times when I seriously considered quitting. But you know what? Nowadays there’s no way I could. How could I face our group? Thanks to the feedback, encouragement, support and, above all, the friendship, I continue to write and to grow as a poet.” – Diana Anhalt, Second Skin (Future Cycle Press, 2012), Lives of Straw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Because There is No Return (Passager Books, 2015)
“When I was invited into this wonderful group, my life as a practicing poet began. I’d been reading and writing for over 10 years, but there is no substitute for airing out your poems with intelligent, open-minded and, if you are lucky, more experienced and talented poets. The community is a goal in itself, but better poems and publications will also result.” – Trish Percival, Bargain with the Speed of Light (Kattywompas Press, 2015)
“After attending many big-names, big-bucks conferences, I always returned home with a certain sadness from loss of community. But local workshops like the Side Door Poets allow us to tap back into that creative push we get from conferences. Each meeting spurs me to create new work, even if the word “draft” is in the title. Plus the effort to look carefully, to “close read” others’ work pays dividends to our own. And sure, sentimentality towards a friend’s feelings sometimes creeps into our participants’ comments (I’ve been guilty myself), but overall, my inclusion in this group has been a much-needed monthly kick-in-the-butt to get something new out there. – Rupert Fike, Lotus Buffet (Bric Road, 2011), Hello the House (Snake Nation Violet Reed Haas Prize, 2017)
I encourage poets to join a group or start one if there aren’t any in your area. You may have to start small like we did, but as the energy of the group develops, it will draw the right people to it. Besides improving your work, you might make a few new best friends.
Earlier version published at https://www.exit271.com/become-a-better-poet/
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Karen Paul Holmes has two full-length poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014). She was chosen as a Best Emerging Poet in 2016 by Stay Thirsty Media. Publications include Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Review, Poetry East, diode, Crab Orchard Review, and many more. Besides running the Side Door Poets in Atlanta, she hosts Writers’ Night Out with featured readers and an open mic in the Blue Ridge Mountains. www.karenpaulholmes.com www.facebook.com/karenholmespoetry