Dear poetry newbies: are you ready to workshop?

A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in October 2008.

What does workshopping involve?
Basically, workshopping is about testing your work out on other writers to see how successful it is, and getting an idea of how your audience will approach it. It’s a tool used by writers of all kinds - from people who pen corporate business documents to playwrights and even musicians. Usually, you get together with a bunch of other poets, and you each read a sample of your work to each other (often, the rest of the group will already have read and thought about your chosen pieces - most workshops I’ve been in have circulated a ‘reading list’ by email a few days before the workshop itself). Each member of the group then offers feedback and constructive criticism on your work, and in turn, you give your thoughts on their work. It may sound a bit scary, but workshops are generally small, relaxed groups were just about anything goes, and they create a safe environment where you can test out poems you’re not too sure about before you unleash them onto the general public!

How does workshopping benefit my poetry?
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do about your poems once you’ve finished them. Editing is a tricky business - the more you look at a poem, the less you can see how to change it (you know how you never notice your own typos? It’s a bit like that). You become so familiar with your work that the only thing you can really do is squirrel it away for a couple of months in an attempt to then come back to it with fresh eyes, but this is tricky and takes a long time. The other people in your workshop can provide those fresh eyes for you.
Your workshop group can tell you exactly what about your poem “needs work” when you can’t see it yourself. It might be your handling of punctuation, a dodgy rhyme scheme… whatever. Your group can offer in-depth criticism, right down to the smallest comma. Workshop groups are also useful when it comes to keeping your poems clear. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head, where every image in every poem makes perfect sense to you. However, workshopping provides a handy reality check - your group may well turn around and say “I didn’t understand what was going on in this poem.” That may sound like a harsh comment, but it’s important that your readers feel able to get involved with and relate to your poems. Your workshopping group is your barometer when it comes to things like this - they’re like a small panel of poetry readers, only better. They write too, they suffer from typos and mess-ups and rejections too, and they want to help you… for free!

How do I know if I’m ready to workshop?
This is a tricky one. If you’ve never workshopped before, your first time can be rather weird, intimidating and even a bit disheartening. You have to bear in mind that you’re putting your work into the hands of other people and essentially saying, “here’s my poem - do your worst.” You’re laying yourself open to criticism, and whilst it should all be constructive, when several different voices are all pointing out issues in your work, you can end up feeling a bit like you’re under attack.
Many young, inexperienced poets are very bad at taking criticism, simply because they don’t get very much of it and when they do, it comes as a bit of shock. I used to be dreadful - hearing someone criticise my poem, I’d just think “what do you know? I like it how it is so get lost!”, regardless of how constructive or useful the criticism was. If you have a similar attitude, you need to work through it. Constructive feedback is your friend, and workshopping will never be helpful to you until you learn to take it on board.
The best thing to do is just get in there and try it. Try to join a relatively new group if you can, or wait until they re-group after a break, say after the Christmas holidays, for example. Joining a really established group who are already very used to each other’s styles and voices can leave you feeling a bit left out. If you can’t avoid joining an established group, at least try not to be the only newb. Take along a friend or two so you’re not the only one who feels out of the loop!
Just go along for one workshop and see how it goes, see how you feel about the treatment your poems get. Bear in mind that each of your fellow workshoppers is just a reader like any other, regardless of age or experience - they’re just like you, and the points they make will often be based on nothing other than personal opinion. Some people will like your work and others won’t, and all the advice you get is just that - advice. You can take it or leave it… just make sure you give all of it fair consideration!
If, at the end of your session you think you’ve picked up some useful tips, you’re ready to get stuck into workshopping - so sign up! If you come out feeling angry, upset or disheartened, however, you may need to a) try a different workshop (some take a lighter approach than others) or b) wait a while before you commit to workshopping. Try getting one-to-one feedback from friends or family first, as practice. Think carefully about how you react to criticism, and try to move away from the fact that your poems are your babies and you need to protect them, and more towards the idea that your poems are babies that need to be nurtured - and sometimes disciplined! - in order to grow. Once you’re able to see criticism as a positive thing, then you’re ready to workshop.

How do I start workshopping?
Finding a workshop can be tricky, and will depend on where you live, who you know and how literary your local community is! However, you’d be surprised - even in the most unlikely places, workshops exist. Do some research online, or ask local literary organisations or establishments if they know of the existence of a creative writing workshop in your area. The local library, bookstores, the University or college closest to you - these are all good places to go to ask for information. If all else fails, get yourself over to Gumtree or Craigslist and place an ad. Be sure to check out the existing ads too - someone else might be doing the very same thing!
Once you’ve found a workshop, make contact - don’t just turn up at a meeting. Find out who runs the show and drop them a line; let them know a little bit about yourself and get as much info as you can about the workshop. Make sure they’re cool with poets, they’re OK to take on beginners and you don’t have to pay too much (workshops sometimes as for a small weekly/monthly fee for buying tea/coffee, renting the room they use or whatever. If for any reason the fee seems unreasonable, look elsewhere.). Ask them what you’d be required to do, and if you’re feeling super-nervous, ask if you could come to your first workshop without contributing - just to sit in and see what it’s like. Most groups should be cool with this… and as I say, if you’re the only newb or you just need some moral support, ask if you can take a friend!

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