When I first started writing, I shared poems with a few friends who appreciated the written word. After they read it and said it was good, I added the poem to the rest of my collection on my hard drive. I was writing for myself, to express the feelings and memories that silenced my tongue. When I declared myself a poet, I somehow realized I had a duty to share what I wrote. But more than that, I wanted to make my poems better–though at the time I had no idea what that meant.
The Living Poetry Sharing Creativity workshop was the first time I had ever had my poems read by strangers. I found it helpful to hear my poem read in someone else’s voice, understand the places where the reader was confused or moved, and consider other possible directions to take the poem. After I finished my MFA, I found myself looking for a group to help me review and revise poems I wanted to send out for publication. At first, I joined a group that exchanged poems on a weekly basis via email, but found it difficult to keep up with the pace. Also without seeing the poet’s reaction, it was difficult to gauge whether the feedback I had provided was helpful. Fortunately some of my female poet-friends formed a face-to-face group that meets monthly and know I feel I have a safe place to test drive my poems.
Here are a few observations that I think make critique groups work:
Having structure for sharing feedback: A common structure for feedback starts with reading the poem twice, by someone other than the poet and then by the poet herself. Participants provide positive and negative feedback to the poet, trying not to repeat what someone else has said. Most of the time, the poet remains silent until all feedback is shared. Then the poet is allowed to ask questions or react to the feedback. Whereas our monthly group doesn’t follow this structure exactly, we’ve all been in enough workshops to know the usual process and that helps moves things along.
Working with poets whose work you like and whose feedback you trust: Most of the women in my monthly group have known or known of each other for years through poetry events in the Triangle. I’ve read or heard their work and always look forward to seeing what they are working on.
Commit to meeting on a regular basis: My monthly critique group is full of busy women who are balancing custody arrangements, teenager activities, business travel, and long-distance relationships along with everything else in our lives. But we manage to work around everyone’s schedule to find dates and time that work (Doodle helps!)
Sharing more than poems: A critique group is a place for us to connect as poets, share our successes and challenges, be supported by people who have responded to the same call.
Let me hear about your experiences with critique groups by leaving a comment.