by Karen Paul Holmes
(I am happy to have poet, Karen Paul Holmes, as our guest today.)
Writers often write in a vacuum. I used to. I broke free from my isolation six years ago when I joined a writing group in the mountains. I realized I also needed that kind of connection in Atlanta (where I spend most of my time), so I started the Side Door Poets. And here’s the thing I discovered: Since I’ve been part of this trusted group of peers who critique my work and encourage me, I’m a better poet.
Here are some well-tested tips on starting your own critique group, based on my experience with the Side Door Poets.
1. Find a venue: We meet at a community room in my condo complex, centrally located in Midtown Atlanta. The room is free, and I can reserve it. Before this, we met at a library—many have free meeting rooms that can be reserved (look on their websites). When we began with three people, we met at Panera Bread Company, but it was noisy, there was no guarantee we could get a table, and once our group grew it became impractical. Other ideas: rooms at colleges or churches or meeting at someone’s house. (When I first started with a group of strangers, I wasn’t comfortable having it at home).
2. Advertise: I list the group with the Atlanta Writers Club and the Georgia Poetry Society. I have invited poets I met and liked while attending writing workshops. You could also contact English teachers—several of the Side Doors are high school English teachers or college instructors. I recommend publicizing a regular meeting day and time. (Now that we’re more informal and are friends, we’re flexible with our schedule but still meet monthly). And make your group easy to find!
3. Select members: When someone wants to join the Side Door Poets, I ask for a few poems, wanting to be sure that the poet is serious about craft. I aim for a mix of experience and backgrounds because I know that diversity will help everyone become better poets. I have had only one problem. When we were small and less selective, one woman ruined our group dynamic. She talked too much and did not know much about craft. Because she was a needy person, I thought it would be mean to kick her out. But members convinced me it was unfair to everyone else to keep her. That did it—I politely asked her to find another group or take a class, and I gave her resources. She sent an angry email, but that was that. As the leader of a critique group, sometimes you will have to make tough choices.
4. Determine format: The Side Door Poets only critique poetry and can effectively review a maximum of ten poems in a two-hour period. (I ask members to RSVP for the meeting, so we know how many plan to come). We don’t send poems ahead of time; instead, we bring copies for everyone. I randomly shuffle to determine the order. One poet reads while the rest follow along. We take a minute to digest and jot notes, and then we discuss. Though it’s often recommended that the poet should not speak, we don’t enforce this rule. The poet is quiet for a while but then can ask and answer questions. We all feel the dialog is useful. Afterward, we put our name on the poem and return it to the poet. Rather than discussing typos or grammar, we mark them on the paper. I don’t set a timer—there’s usually a natural pause in the discussion, and we move on.
5. Set the mood: In the beginning, I emphasized that critiques needed to be kind but useful. No tearing a poem apart viciously but also no mamby-pamby “what a lovely poem.” Our purpose is to help each other be better poets. We say what we like, and we say (kindly but firmly) what could be improved. We don’t re-write the poet’s poem but may make wording suggestions. I discourage defensiveness on the poet’s part. We’re an amiable group. Sure sometimes one of us gets on another’s nerves or says something someone doesn’t like; but generally, we trust each other and get along. When we meet at night, someone might bring wine and munchies. On a Saturday morning, I bring coffee and tea. We don’t have a formal sign up for refreshments.
6. Support each other: The Side Door Poets became friends quickly because we shared our intimate stories and vulnerabilities via poetry. We’ve had Christmas parties and hosted readings for each other. We buy each other’s books, write recommendations and blurbs for each other, and share our publishing acceptances—and rejections.
I can honestly say each Side Door Poet values the group professionally and personally. We have grown and no longer even keep a waiting list—we have little turnover in membership. Members often thank me for keeping it going, but I thank them for making it a mutually beneficial community. We’ve all had better-than-average publishing successes, which we attribute to the challenges and encouragement we get from each other. I’ve had a book published and am working on another manuscript—something I couldn’t have done without my group’s support.
I encourage you to join a group or start one if there aren’t any in your area. You may have to start small; but as the energy of the group develops, it will draw the right people to it. Writing shouldn’t be lonely—sharing your work takes it to a new level. Your poetry will improve, as will your confidence.