Oh dear. Reading this I laughed until I nearly wet myself. (And trust me, cringing and laughing simultaneously will test the bladder control of any woman over the age of fifteen.) It’s all so true. And yet …
One friend of mine has commented more than once with horror and distaste on my predilection for workshop groups. He is offended by the notion that you could read a person’s poem a couple of times and then feel competent to offer criticism. (Dear man. And yet he’s willing to be seen in my company occasionally!) I can understand his feelings – he is a meticulous craftsman, and believes (quite rightly) that coming to grips with a good poem is something that takes dedication and time. Not a committee meeting.
And yet …
When I made the decision to start writing poetry “seriously”, I was writing on my own. Reading heaps, and as widely as my local library would let me (and we are blessed with a very good library). I was … ok. Not too bad. Editors would occasionally offer comments, and I would try to work from there. Then I heard about a local writing group, the Airing Cupboard.
It was a revelation. All these other people – real people – who also wrote poems. Who loved poetry. Who were knowledgeable and encouraging. Once a fortnight, I’d bring poems to the group. The good bits would be praised, and it was a wonderfully affirming experience. Exactly what I needed at that point.
And yet, and yet …
After about a year I started to feel restless – I wanted some actual critiquing. Which wasn’t what the Airing Cupboard was for. I knew that there were problems, that I wasn’t writing high calibre poetry all the time (ok, or even very often). I wanted more. I needed more.
And I got it. Four other women had already formed a second group, intended to provide some real workshopping of/for each other’s poems. And they asked me to join. We’ve been meeting for the best part of ten years now, and this is the group that I take my work to on a regular basis. (I also belong to a couple of other groups who meet to read each other’s work, with varying levels of critique involved). We all know each other’s work and each other’s weaknesses. And every one of us writes better poetry now than we did before we started meeting. Sometimes the discussions get quite heated (we prefer to think of it as “passionately engaged”), but there’s something wonderfully fulfilling about those sorts of discussions, even when we disagree. Quite often a new poem is born from them. I know that there are plenty of times when a poem has been saved.
The thing is, while all the points made by Jough Dempsey are perfectly valid – I’ve been guilty of all of them at some point or another, although never consciously intending malice – they ignore the fact that those exact same judgments can and probably will be leveled against your poem (lets pretend that most critics do remember the distinction between “you” and “your poem”) by everyone else out there in the big, bad, poetry-reading world. Editors. Judges. Critics. Readers.
So maybe the way of thinking of even the most toxic workshops is as a form of vaccination. Building up your tolerance. Raising your immunity. Even, or especially, when they get it all completely wrong.