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Poetry writers and poetry readers – a tricky issue

Poetry Shelf

It was a small turnout last night at our Stanza reading group in Brighton – just Miriam, Gary and myself! Of course there are all sorts of reasons why that might have been – the first time it has clashed with a sunny evening, plus there’s been some confusion about the start time and content of meetings in recent months due to an unfortunate bookings error by the pub.

The reading group is a relatively new thing which a few of us thought would be fun and would complement our workshopping meetings perfectly. The idea is that we each bring with us copies of a poem for everyone to read, discuss, perhaps learn something from and even spark an interest in seeking out more by that poet. It’s very relaxed and all you need to enjoy it is an open mind. Last night, Miriam had brought a poem by U A Fanthorpe and I had with me two short poems by C P Cavafy  (incidentally, if you’re interested virtually all Cavafy’s poems are online here.)

Unfortunately I didn’t study English at university and haven’t done a Creative Writing course or anything where I would have come in contact with the poetry canon, so I love the idea of being introduced to poetry and having my awareness raised in this way. But the meetings have been pretty quiet. We talked about why that might be. Are those people writing poetry just less interested in reading the poetry of others? Are people put off because they think it’s going to be too academic or ‘serious’? Or do people just want to do their own reading in private and don’t see the point of going to a meeting to talk about it? (Things like weather and time of day are, I think, the kind of issues easily overcome if the desire is strong enough.)

The Brighton Poetry Stanza, being affiliated to the Poetry Society, is all about encouraging and supporting poetry and the poetry community. In my mind that means the whole business of poetry from learning the craft, giving and receiving feedback on work in progress, discovering and reading poetry, supporting poets, going to events (or staging them) and so forth. Since Jo Grigg took on the job of revitalising the Stanza several years ago it really has really taken off – meetings are full, we’re twice staged group readings in Brighton and have started to take part in ‘Stanza Bonanza’ readings at the Poetry Cafe in London.

But people vote with their feet, and Miriam can’t be expected to keep showing up for the reading group if no-one else does. So maybe the group is a lost cause, for whatever reason. One thing we did talk about yesterday was the possibility of combining the reading and workshopping groups in a more structured way. When we’ve tried this informally, it hasn’t worked because everyone just wants to workshop and when you have 10 or more people there’s no time for anything else. However, perhaps at least one person could agree to bring something by another poet. In that way, everyone would get exposed to something by Hughes, Fanthorpe, Dickinson, Duffy or whoever. A little moment of ‘let’s see how the professionals do it / did it’ – sneaking in the ‘educational’ bit. Or is that just too prescriptive/controlling/patronising?

What do you think? Have you been through this yourself? I’m posting a link to this on our Stanza facebook Page also, in the hope that members might have comments or suggestions. Should we just stick with the workshopping and stop inventing problems? For my own part, I just know that for years I used to write poetry, when the only poetry I’d read had been for A level English. I knew I wasn’t writing well, but thought that was all I was capable of. I just didn’t get the connection. When the lightbulb finally went on it led me to raise my game, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I want others to have that feeling.

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Published inAngstClose readingsReading groupWorkshoppingWriting

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  1. I agree. It’s a tricky issue. I belong to a small private on-line poetry group and though the number of active members has decreased over the years we still have a core of people (who have become close friends) who will comment on each other’s poems – and this is understood to be the main purpose of the group – though we’ve always made it a rule to have a minimum of rules 🙂

    Time is of course the Big issue. People end up having to choose amongst various interests and commitments.

    I am very interested in what you’re saying about the importance of reading poems in order to get better at writing poems!

    I had an epiphany last year after taking the ModPo Coursera course and I’ve signed up to take it again this September. I didn’t do all the assignment – I mostly listened to the videos.

    Al Filreis also has regular Poem Talks which follow the same idea of close reading and discussion.

    So I make a point of listening to them now. You may find Poem Talk as something that could be incorporated into your Stanza group – maybe discuss the Poem Talk poem and then spend the rest of the evening workshopping.

    You’ve got me thinking now :-))


  2. Hi Elly – many thanks for commenting and sharing your own experiences/thoughts … I’ll check out those links. Yes I do wonder if introducing one poem by another poet that may be the way to go.
    Robin x

  3. jaynestanton jaynestanton

    I belong to Soundswrite women’s poetry group and the Leicester and South Leic stanza groups. All have the same formula: a mixture of poetry by others to discuss, and own poems for workshopping. Members can bring one or the other, or both (time dependent) or just enjoy what others bring.
    I like this for two reasons: the breadth of poetry, an introduction to poets whose work I may not have read before and a reminder that reading informs our own craft.

    • Hello Jayne – thank you – that sounds a really good approach and exactly the one we’d like to encourage. Great stuff, thanks for sharing. Robin x

  4. Ray Amis Ray Amis

    This is my first google to find somewhere that would help me develop my late sudden interest in Poetry. For some reason, probably a couple of years ago, I started writing a few sort of poems. All my life I have had no interest in Poetry. Initially I suppose I am looking for a group that would encourage me forward to develop my awareness of the poetic medium and to breathe in from the enthusiasm of others.

    Ray Amis

    • Hello Ray and thanks for stopping by. If you are in the UK then I’d recommend having a look at the Poetry Society to see if there’s a Stanza group in your area that you could join –
      If not a Stanza, there are bound to be other poetry workshopping/writing groups in your area, so keep Googling and you never know what you might find.

      I’d also recommend going to your local library and start reading your way through the poetry shelf. Begin with any names you recognise and go from there. If you’re relatively new to contemporary poetry there are lots of useful books to help ease you into it. I recommend ‘Writing poems’ by Peter Sansom and ’52 ways of looking at a poem’ by Ruth Padel. Good luck!

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