So not only did you teach me about writing memoir, you also taught me about reading and thinking about how others write memoir. Thank you so much! Rebecca
Showing posts with label poetry critique. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poetry critique. Show all posts

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Become a Better Poet with these 6 Tips

Become a Better Poet

6 Tips for Starting and Running a Poetry Critique Group

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.

Karen Paul Homes

Karen Paul Holmes is the author of the poetry collection, Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014). She was chosen for Best Emerging Poets (Stay Thirsty Media, 2016), and publishing credits include Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Slipstream, Cortland Review, Lascaux Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol 5: Georgia (Texas Review Press), and many more. She’s a freelance writer and president of Simply Communicated, Inc. To encourage fellow poets and their audiences, Karen hosts a monthly open mic in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a poetry critique group in Atlanta. Follow her at

Monday, February 13, 2012

Robert S. King, guest blogger, on Critiquing Poetry

Critiquing Poetry: A Delicate Literary and Social Art
I tend to approach critique a little differently than some. I am more interested in first identifying the soul of the poem than in recommending word changes. In fact, I don’t think I could be a good critic if I put the cart before the horse. To me, one first should understand the levels of meaning in the poem before daring to insist on changes. Of course, some poorly written poems are inaccessible at any level. Obviously, I don't want to get a headache thinking about a poem that even on the surface has nothing to recommend it.

What do I mean by levels of meaning? I mean that any good poem should have a literal level and one or more branch levels or connotations. Too often I read poems that are simply literal statements with a few emotional buzzwords or a few intellectual talking points that do not go anywhere. In my opinion, a poem is not fully written unless it makes you feel or think beyond the literal words. Well-done poems sometimes generate the “electric effect,” perhaps causing the hair to stand up on your neck. That’s a tall order that only the truly gifted poets can fill. Even the gifted ones often fail to achieve this effect in most of their poems. The muse is truly fickle and fleeting. Consider that even the greatest poets in history are each known and remembered only for a handful of poems.

Criticism should not be taken as personally as it often is. This is easier said than done, I know, because most poets feel very close to, and protective of their literary children. Poets are usually willing to consider word, phrase, or line changes, even stanza revisions. However, when you suggest that the poem has no connotative level, many bristle. When you suggest subtly that they failed to identify an obviously more appealing, accomplished poem that could have sprung from their superficial words, many take it as an insult to their intelligence. Such attitudes do not make for a friendly, constructive workshop. I have met some poets who take pride in the fact that their poems are literal, therefore “accessible.” I say that you can have multiple levels that are accessible, so why would you want to limit yourself to the superficial?

I remember a workshop I attended that had a good mixture of skilled and wannabe poets. Unfortunately, one of those poets thought he was skilled instead of wannabe. He begged for comments and criticism of his work. When suggestions were offered, his face reddened. Instead of considering the criticism and exploring the possibilities for improving his poem, he soon erupted from his chair and stormed loudly out of the room. This is not the temperament of someone who wants to improve his poetry.

As a critic, I have my own point of view. As a poet whose work is under evaluation, you need also to assess who is offering the criticism. If you work with someone long enough, you often can predict what he/she will say. With that in mind, you can understand better how much or how little of that person's criticism you should take to heart.

It gets a little tricky sometimes. I know a poet who zooms in on and condemns any phrase sounding remotely cliché. None of us wants a cliché, but we should first examine if that cliché has been cast in a new, fresh context that might deepen the meaning of the poem. In other words, all critics may have knee-jerk reactions or stubborn preconceptions. Consider the source before you revise your poem.

The approach to criticism should also account for the experience level of the poet. A raw beginner should be encouraged with kind criticism. But how do you handle a poem from someone who clearly has not even a modicum of ability? I often feel it isn't my place to tell the poet that talent is lacking, though it bothers me when that person vows to devote his/her life to the art. I consider this aspiration analogous to the TV show, “American Idol.” The audience and judges know a bad singer when they hear one. The family and friends encouraging the singer, however, seem to be tone deaf or far too kind in their assessment of the singer's talent.

Should we as critics break the hearts of wannabes, or should we let them continue to totally waste their time? Should we encourage the poet with honesty to cease and desist? Or should we hypocritically skirt the issue and offer some positive comments on the poem? That's a tough decision.

I think I would opt for compromise. I'd wait to hear more, try to establish a level of trust, and then perhaps be as honest and compassionate as possible. The wannabe poet, like the singer who cannot carry a tune, is still likely to be crushed by any negative comment.

Clearly there are good critics and bad critics, good poets and bad poets. The combination of social beings, the mix of workshop members, dictates how well the critique session will go. Some groups of poets get along very well and offer each other a very positive, helpful environment. This sounds like a good thing, and maybe it is. I wonder, though, if the comments a poet hears from friends are the real truth, or if there is something vital held back that might benefit the poet more.

I suppose there is no perfect answer. One can only hope to find a critique group that at least inspires its members to write, a group that is just honest enough not to discourage. Groups like that do exist. If you are serious about poetry, I advise you to seek out a group and become an active member, no matter your current skill level. Vetting one's poems is vital. The greatest poem I've ever written is always the last one I wrote—perhaps until someone else reads it.