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Bit of a regroup after a challenging workshop

Ever had a bad day at the poetry workshop coalface? I think I had one yesterday. Here’s what happened and what came from it.

Firstly, I made some mistakes. I haven’t been reading or writing much poetry the last few weeks, as I’ve been consumed with work, research and a very different kind of writing. Tired from a late night, without having decided on a poem to take, I selected something in haste. It was an early draft of a poem in which I was trying something a bit different.  For me, tired can mean ridiculously irritable. I also find reading and commenting meaningfully on other people’s work when seen ‘cold’ one of the hardest things there is, so going at it when tired isn’t a great idea.

Next, my poem came in for much criticism, harsher than usual, or so it seemed. I listened, I made notes. I was surprised to find myself feeling overly sad and disappointed. I could see it had been a bad move to bring something so unfinished, or rather something I was so tentative about. I understood most of the points being made, but I confess not all of them. Maybe I shouldn’t have come at all.

When I had the chance, I couldn’t explain my thinking other than that I’d been ‘trying something new’, which came across as a bit flippant and just fanned the flames even further. Yes, that’s the problem, this poem feels like you’re trying too hard to make it something it’s not. Well, I was taking on board previous comments about my poems being written in ‘neat boxes’ (couplets, tercets, all lines the same length etc) and I wanted to let myself go a bit and be less logical. Logical? What has the correct use of syntax and punctuation got to do with logic?

Dear reader, if you are tempted to say things like ‘I was trying to’ or use the work LOGICAL in a poetry workshop, I urge you to think again. I don’t normally get into ‘discussions’ as I prefer to write down all the comments, say thank you, then weigh it up later in quiet on my own. I’m usually also delighted (yes really) by the frequently insightful and valuable feedback. But  yesterday I conspired against myself. Tetchy, frustrated at my inability to express myself and the pathetic draft of a ‘trying to be’ poem, annoyed that I couldn’t sit quietly and take the criticism gracefully.

And then I disgraced myself even further by not being able to offer useful criticism to another poet, instead just reacting and being picky in a way I hate.

I came home and tried to be grown up about it. At least I didn’t actually cry, even in private. I have so many things to be pleased about, and grateful for, that I shouldn’t let the the odd bad workshop get me down – I know everyone has them. All I can think to do is to read, and remind myself of what good writing is, reassure myself that I can do better, before trying to (sic!) write any poetry.

This morning I picked up and read a little of Sam Willetts’ New Light for the Old Darkwhat a wonderful collection that is!  And then, as if by some crazy sense of serendipity, I read a conversation between Troy Jollimore and Allan Fox in the Spring edition of Rattle, in which they discuss poetic process, anxiety and insecurity, getting at truth and philosophy. It’s a gem of a piece – here’s a short extract:

[Poetry] …. makes almost everybody nervous.  [ … ] If you’re trying to write it’s even harder because you’re afraid of writing a bad poem, and if you do you’ll feel bad about yourself. That’s one of the first things I say to students: give yourself permission to write bad poems. Everybody does. You think that the poets you love don’t, because you never see them, because they’re smart enough, they put it in a drawer. They keep it for a while, then they look at it and say, “Is this any good?” I mean, they might know it’s bad right away, that happens too. But if they don’t know if it’s bad right away, they hold onto it for a while to see if it’s bad, they check back again in the few months, and if it’s bad you never see it. And so we walk around thinking, “Oh James Richardson never writes a bad poem.” I’m sure he’s written bad poems, but he hasn’t shown them to anybody. He’s smart that way. And that’s what we need to do.

I’ve subscribed to Rattle for a year or so now and I have to say I’ve really warmed to its content. These extended interviews/conversations are a regular feature and have a marvellously unedited feel, it’s like you’re listening in to an entire interview verbatim, rather than being fed an editor’s cut, and I really like that.

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  1. jaynestanton jaynestanton

    Robin, it’s really refreshing to read your honest reflection on a workshop experience. I’ve been there myself, on more than one occasion!

  2. Hi Robin. For ages I took to workshops only poems I felt had some merit (even though I told myself I didn’t mind about hearing negative or less enthusiastic feedback). Much later I started taking early drafts of things I was not at all sure about (not sure about for all kinds of reasons) or poems that had long histories and had been through many drafts, sometimes things I have ‘abandoned’. Occasionally it feels painful but I think it is almost always more useful for the process to hear comments about an early draft or an experimental or ‘problem’ piece, and there is more space and flexibility in which to work ahead with these, even if it is about abandoning the piece, or parts of it. 🙂 And the difficulty of the feelings one has… in my experience the more difficult the feelings, the more useful to work with! 🙂

    • Thanks for offering your thoughts on this Clare 🙂 I’ve had some very valuable and useful crits from this workshop group and I think this is the first time I’ve felt ‘set back’ by it. As you know, it can be pretty ‘gloves off’ at times, and I expect I only reacted this way because I was a bit fractious, plus I’ve nothing forthcoming at the moment, all the usual iinsecurities!

  3. Sorry you’ve experienced this and I hope you’re managing to catch up on sleep. On the positive side, over time you might find the comments you received more helpful than bland, vague “interestings” or “not sure about this”. I’m taking a break from workshops this year, mainly because of being busy, but also because I wanted some time alone to write, re-write and read, applying my own, inner-critic to my work rather than being influenced by external sources. Possibly dangerous (and I’m not being particularly productive!) but I felt I needed to shake up my routine. I found Clare Best’s comments helpful and think I will aim for this approach more when I return to workshops.

    • Hello Jospehine, thank you for your comment – I certainly do appreciate specific feedback and this particular group is very strong for that, everyone is serious and the comments in the past have helped me move quite a few poems to a publishable state; if anything I’m the weakest link there in terms of being able to articulate meaningful feedback, and that’s possibly the side of it that makes me most anxious. But I hope I’m learning. I think your idea of having a break from workshops is an interesting one – I’ve certainly thought about limiting my time on social media as a way of focusing more on actually reading and writing. Workshops would be harder to avoid as I run the Brighton Stanza, but I quite often don’t take a poem with me, which takes some pressure off. Like you I’m also juggling work commitments (in my case, unplanned-for) so I guess something has to give occasionally. Thanks again 🙂

  4. This is a very honest piece of writing. I know I don’t take criticism well and recognise the signs. With rejections I have to put the piece away while I have a tantrum to get it out of the system! Then I’ll review it. This is similar to negative feedback but it depends on who is giving it. If the same advice is given more than once then I listen but sometimes people just have their way of doing things or are just being really picky. At the end of the day it is your piece of writing and I think you probably know best and have to trust yourself. I love the quote and how right! I know I have written some pretty bad stuff at times but when it goes well there’s a sort of hum about it If this piece you took along is still an early draft then one day you will either finish it brilliantly or abandon it. Don’t give up trying new things. For me that’s half the fun. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Anyway,these bad days happen. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

    • Hello Heather, thanks so much for your comment and solidarity! I’m actually feeling so much better for having written about it and trying to understand what was going on. It now almost feels like a fuss about nothing (which it was, of course). Everyone’s comments help, and mean a lot to me. We are such delicate souls, aren’t we? 🙂

  5. I’m glad you could write such a useful and interesting blogpost out of a bit of a rough experience. So something good came out of it!

  6. Antony Mair Antony Mair

    Here’s a cyberhug from me…

    We must all recognise your reaction. I liked what you said about being picky about someone else’s poem as much as being bewildered and hurt by criticism of your own. I sometimes get like that and try to keep my mouth shut, realising that I’m just in “one of those moods”. Feeling hurt oneself is a whole mix of ego and frustration, and you’re very honest about it…

    I had three other reactions, though:

    First, I do think that a workshop should be a two-way process. Sometimes, when people have commented it’s been clear to me that they haven’t “got” what I’m trying to express. That’s probably the fault of the poem, but sometimes it’s useful if, rather than remaining in hurt silence, I explain what I was trying to do. I know that when others have done that, I’ve sometimes said “oh well, in that case etc.”. A dialogue is good. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the poem is any better, but at least the comments may be better founded.

    Secondly, I don’t think we should ever be scared of trying something new – pushing outside our comfortable little boundaries. Poetry should all be about enlargement of the spirit, stretching the mind etc. If something doesn’t work, the world’s not going to collapse. And sometimes you won’t know whether it works without someone else’s input.

    Thirdly, I liked the extract from the Rattle interview, but one of the most liberating insights I’ve had over the past year is to see just how variable even good poets can be. Ezra Pound’s an excellent example of someone who varies enormously, writing some total tosh as well as some blindingly beautiful stuff. But, when I was trying to translate a Rilke poem recently, it struck me that he’d been really stuck for a rhyme in a couple of places – so he tortured the syntax in one place (easier in German) and altered the rhyme scheme in another. “Hmmm,” I thought,”it wasn’t only Homer that nodded.” Sometimes we’re too reverential about good poets to spot the turkey among the peacocks.

    So here’s another cyberhug from Hastings.

    • Hi Antony and thanks for such a thoughtful response.. To be fair (as regards your second point) the tutor did say, as you’ve done, that it’s a good thing to experiment and try new things, absolutely. Her parting comment was that I needed to go much further though, and that this attempt was just too insipid – which I do agree with, and was heartened at that. I love your example of Ezra Pound. Yes, no-one’s work is perfect all the time I guess!

      As today has gone on, and with everyone’s comments, I’ve calmed down a lot and am remembering the positives more than the negatives. The tutor of this workshop has a no-holds-barred style which usually makes me laugh, it’s so blunt. But I’d rather this than polite skirting of the issues. So I’m sure on this occasion I was just feeling a bit over-sensitive. Onwards and upwards:) And thanks again for the virtual hug.

      • Antony Mair Antony Mair

        Another thought. On my MA course we have “conferences” which are really online workshop sessions. I found the last one quite bruising and discounted quite a lot of the comments as useless – including some from the tutor who’s a fairly succcessful poet.. Last night, three weeks after the event, I went back to the relevant poems to tweak them and had another look at the comments, which I suddenly saw as useful and relevant.

  7. lynne hjelmgaard lynne hjelmgaard

    Dear Robin,

    I hereby send you a virtual hug too- I know just how you felt- as I’ve had the same experience many times-and have some times wondered why I am partaking in this difficult process of writing poetry– but I can’t not do it……..poets are sensitive beings, otherwise we wouldn’t be writing poetry- and sometimes our skin is thinner than other times– especially when trying something new and bringing it to a workshop. Not everyone can talk about it the way you can, and this is a great strength of yours.

    I think these feelings of insecurity will pass- it’s a ‘one off’- time to move on– a bit wiser now for the experience and the way you’ve shared it so openly.

  8. marion tracy marion tracy

    Hi Robin

    I know where you are coming from and you have my understanding of your feelings but workshops wouldn’t be useful if they were not tough – there’s plenty of people to tell us how great our stuff is – but straight talk well meant is beyond rubies.

    I think Clare raises an interesting issue by suggesting that it might be best to bring a poem to a workshop when it is still in its early stages and is therefore most likely to benefit from an intervention.
    I do understand this – sort of- but for me that would be to allow others too much power! I prefer to present a poem in the spirit of -here it is, this is the best I can do with it – now tell me what’s wrong.
    Bringing an early poem in gives the poet too much of an excuse ie oh well of course it’s only half done I was going to do such and such….
    I think bringing in a finished poem is riskier becos we have more invested in it then but on the plus side also there is more to be learnt if it gets a negative reaction.

    much love marionxxxxxxxxx

    • Thanks Marion … yes I agree straight talking is preferable to mincing words or not telling the truth. I do usually welcome critical comments, as I think you know, and not bothered by attacks on the jugular, which is why I think maybe I was just in a vulnerable mood on Saturday. Also because I was feeling a bit weedy I think it made it harder for me to understand all the points being made, so maybe I came across as resistant, when I was just unclear. All water under the bridge anyhow 🙂 Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson and next time I will keep shtum. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  9. […] this. She reports with unflinching honesty on her writing, reading and workshopping processes. Take this, about a workshop which left her questioning her work. Or this, about a workshop with Katy […]

  10. Hi Robin, this is the first time I’ve read your blog (a link from Anthony Wilson) so I hope you’ll forgive me jumping in. I understand your reactions (we’ve all felt that occasionally). However, the following set my antennae twitching: ‘…I was taking on board previous comments about my poems being written in ‘neat boxes’ (couplets, tercets, all lines the same length etc).’

    Certainly not all, but probably most of the best poetry ever written comes in ‘neat little boxes.’ While the shape of the box can occasionally be of some importance (in concrete poetry for instance), the relationship between the content and the container is far more significant. So long as the couplets/tercets/quatrains, etc. are serving some function, the neatness of the boxes may be an intrinsic part of the poem’s rhythm/technique/etc. You’re probably well aware of all this but, as I don’t know you or the others in the workshop, I just wanted to lay that on the table. My apologies if it seems presumptuous in any way.

  11. Hello Mark – thank you for visiting and making such a thoughtful comment. I agree, and I’m fairly sure the ‘neat boxes’ comment was said ‘en passant’ and if there was any intention in it then it was surely to ruffle me up a bit (tough love?) I suspect I just need to be more careful at what stage I bring poems to workshop and, when I do so, make sure I’m feeling robust. Thank you for the encouraging observations. I’ve been peeking at your blog btw. Nice to virtually meet you 🙂

  12. Nice to meet you too Robin.

    Feeling robust is essential, yes, though I’m not sure there’s any rule of thumb for what stage a poem should be at before it’s appropriate to workshop (some ‘unfinished’ poems stall after the first few attempts and some penultimate drafts need just a wee nudge to come together). Obviously though, if that method works for you stick with it.

    Re workshops in general, or CW courses, etc., I think it’s useful to keep in mind what the American poet and teacher Richard Hugo said, though one shouldn’t take it literally:

    [quote] I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry writing class. You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. [end quote]

    Another couple of things. I once took a ‘Masterclass’ with Muldoon and was very impressed by how he handled pointlessly negative comments; he just kept repeating ‘and…’ till the protagonist realised his mistake. He also gave each participant precisely the same time-slot. Most importantly though, he was never afraid to say ‘I don’t understand.’

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