Erin's Poetry Tips

40 tips to poetry and poetry forums

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Workshopping

getting differing views on your poem

Some writers object to the idea of editing or changing their poems in any way, claiming that revision threatens the purity of the original idea/poem, but many others who don’t revise simply lack the knowledge and/or objectivity it would require to successfully edit their piece. Young writers, in particular, don’t have the experience to understand or to even see the problems within their poetry, but can present a poem with great potential nonetheless. And of course, even more seasoned writers can become attached to their work, or an element within it, and need some outside input. These are all perfect candidates for workshopping.

A poetry workshop is a setting where one writer presents a poem (one that they’ve hopefully at least proofread and corrected the simpler problems such as spelling and punctuation) and receives the input and opinions of other writers. Those who provide the critiques will sometimes have differing views, and often one will spot problems or rough spots that another won’t. Above all, the critics will be objective enough to say which parts are working and which parts aren’t. After receiving various comments, suggestions, and critiques, the author of the poem goes back to the drawing board with the poem and responses in hand, and considers all that he may or may not want to use, and edits his poem accordingly.

There are several critical mechanisms in the machinery of a successful workshop environment.

For the critiqued:
The most important component is the open-mindedness of the author who entered into the workshop for help.
They must have an appropriate amount of desire to improve, a willingness to, at the very least consider the suggestions made, and a certain level of conviction for their original intent.
Perhaps you came for assistance and input, but you should not be willing to follow all suggestions as if they were required. The suggestions given in a workshop are just that, suggestions, ideas, not law.
You must want to learn, and must want that more than you want to be correct. Think through whatever changes you makes and decide whether it enhances the intent/message, or changes the poem into something else all together.
However, in the event that there is advice offered that you disagree with, simply thank the critic for the time and effort they spent on the thoughtful critique, and ignore the suggestion. Never become argumentative. That is a sure way to have yourself excluded from the workshop environment in the future, and the workshop is an opportunity you should never waste.
Always, always, be grateful. The critics in a workshop absolutely are not obligated to offer you any advice whatsoever, you aren’t paying them for their time, so be respectful enough to offer only a reasonably polished piece of work to start out with, and to appreciate all that they do. A well thought out critique is not an instantaneous thing, the critic typically spends 30+ minutes per critique. They consider your poem from multiple view points looking for everything from grammatical errors or inconsistencies to the purity of your metaphors, to the success of your stylistic choices, and the effect of all of the above on the message you’re trying to convey. Never underestimate the amount of work involved in what they do, it is considerable.

To the critics
The other vital factor necessary for a workshop to accomplish anything is
the time and effort mentioned above. A well thought out, line-by-line critique deserves a minimum of 30 minutes, especially in a workshop arena. When a less seasoned poet, or a more experienced poet who has recognized his inability to be objective with a piece, comes to a workshop, they have taken a major step. They’ve opted to allow virtual strangers to re-design (on one level or another) a piece of work that, most likely, they care for as if it were their child.

As critics, we should be gentle enough not to offend them. We’ve all seen workshops and critique boards that are harsh, and often downright mean-spirited. We’ve also watched the poet become defensive, and become so indignant and offended that they failed to recognize the value of the suggestions offered to them. Tone is of utmost importance when offering a critique, unless you just have an extra half hour or so to waste, and no interest in actually helping the writer in question.
Also, try to keep in mind the author’s personal style – let’s say there is no punctuation in the entire piece, is this the norm for this writer? Then address it briefly, stating that you disagree with it, or that it isn’t effective for you and a bit about why, but that you understand that it is an intentional stylistic choice. Remember that they know their intentions better than you, perhaps your suggestion isn’t quite right for their original thought. Respect that, though you may be more experienced, they need to know for themselves what works for them and what doesn’t. Accept that they aren’t always going to follow your suggestions.
However, if you have the experience of doing a critique for a poet who becomes belligerent or you find that they intend not to follow any of the advice offered to them, move on to the next poet. Don’t waste your time beating your head on a brick wall. Perhaps the next time you see this particular poet they will be more ‘ready’ to hear a critique; until then, work with one who is. Your time is valuable, don’t bother wasting it if you feel it’s pointless.