Monday, February 13, 2012

Critique groups and how they work

Robert S. King, owner and former director of Future Cycle Press is also an awesome poet. Today he was a guest blogger on Writers Circle. His subject is Critiquing Poetry and the article is excellent. I recommend it even if you don't write poetry.

I had not attended our NCWN West Poetry Critique group in a long time, but this month I went and took a poem for critique. I found one of my students, a new member of Netwest, also at the table. This was my student's first time with this group. I had told my classes how the Netwest critique groups worked and that no one ever felt threatened or defensive because we always talked first about what we liked, we did not talk directly to the writer and ask questions or begin by saying, "you should do this or that." We discussed the poem among us and then the writer has the opportunity to respond or explain if anyone needed an explanation.

One of the first things I learned years ago when I took a Dale Carnegie public speaking course.
Never, never start your sentence with You should or I think You should. Beginning a sentence with You is like waving a red flag at a bull. It sends a signal that often causes a defensive attitude.

That is why the critique method we learned from Nancy Simpson many years ago still works best.
I saw right away the group was not following the outline we had always used and the first two poets felt threatened or felt they needed to defend their work. Anger rises in people when others tell them what they have done is wrong. But -- if the group had talked about the poem and not the poet, had expressed what they liked about the poem and then questioned words or lines that might be made better, the poet would not feel defensive, would not feel anger rising. The poet would take those suggestions and make notes and later she would go over them and decide for herself if she wanted to change her poem or whether she liked it as it was. After all, it was her poem to do as she chose.

When individual members of the group begin to ask questions of the writer of the poem, this can become a long and time-consuming discussion. An example: Why did you mention those other people. They aren't necessary for us to know about. What were you trying to tell us?
This can dissolve into an argument where the poet is defending her thoughts and words because she feels threatened. Those of us who have been around a long time, have grown a thick skin, can handle that better than a new member of the group.
When it was my time to read, I asked that we go back to our original way of critiquing where I would be silent until all the comments were made about my poem. I learned that others agreed with me - my title was not good, but most of my poem was pretty good. I took their comments to heart and later, after some revision I submitted my work with a new title.
I believe it is the responsibility of the facilitator to make sure new members are welcomed and  introduced prior to the meeting starting.  The facilitator should, at every meeting, go over the guidelines for critiquing in the group, especially when the meeting is open to the public. Strangers often show up to test the waters to see if this group is friendly, helpful in a civilized manner, and generous with their efforts to improve and enlighten the poet.

I look forward to going back to our Netwest Poetry group next month. We have some wonderful writers and poets who can offer great ideas to improve our work. I take advantage of their experience and their knowledge. It has helped me for years.


Nancy Simpson said...

Glenda, I agree with you 100 percent. I did not dream up this method. It's the old tried and true method used in university writing programs throughout the country.

I learned it from my poetry mentor Steve Harvey, who learned it when he was in the MFA Writing Program at Johns-Hopkins. I saw it day after day when I as in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. They had two workshop leaders who did all the talking that was to be done about the poem.No one else said one word. I like getting lots of comments by all in the group. It is best to begin talking about what we like about the poem and what is working well. It is the only way to start a critique. Beginners learn the terms and techniques from each other that way. The poet should not speak during the critique. When the poet does not speak and others talk about the poem and say, "I wonder if she meant ______" or "Is she talking about _______? then the poet can save face. I used to sit there with my mouth closed and say silently to myself way back in the beginning, " Please Just Let me just get home and fix that." Another good thing to do at the end is to say to the poet, "Did we get it right? That way the poet can if they want to say what they were trying for. That would not be good to do before the poem is read. I still use this method you mentioned in my classes. I have no desire to be in a critique group that starts out as soon as the poet reads the poem with cutting remarks. It seems to be the fashion now, or so I hear, but that will never help the poet to grow in the slightest.

Barbara Gabriel said...

Glenda, as a new poet & very new to helping critique other's poetry, I welcomed this post. I've been reading everything I find about critiquing (poetry & prose), because it is important to me that I offer well-founded critique that will help another poetry do the best work they are capable of, and also that I learn how to improve my own pieces by listening, listening, listening to those comments I get. I'm grateful for any help that I receive and I look forward to future meetings of the NCWN-NetWest Poetry Critique Group.

Glenda Beall said...

Thanks, Nancy. I learned from you and I, too, use this method in my classes. Maybe that is why our students bond over time and work together so well long after the classes are over.
I continue to call on friends who started in our Netwest critique groups when I want someone to give me good informed advice and critique.
Even people who do not mean to be harsh or extremely critical toward the poet can appear that way just because the poet feels "under the microscope" already and feels he/she must defend themselves.
I love to hear the comments about my poem while I sit and listen. I take notes and then go home and revise or not, it is still my poem. I learn every time I have a poem critiqued in this manner.I don't get defensive no matter what is said about my poem. I just take the remarks home with me.

Glenda said...

Thanks, Barb.
I feel the excellent poets in the Netwest poetry critique group will be helpful to you in your quest to be the best poet possible. And I commend you for learning all you can about how to critique and how to accept critique.
I've heard writers and poets say they have to look at lots of groups before finding a good match for them. I am fortunate. The Netwest poetry critique group was the only one I needed for many years. Many of us started with this group fifteen years ago and with the help of Janice Moore, Carol Crawford, and of course, Nancy Simpson, we have all grown over the years in our love for poetry and our ability to write poetry.
Hope to see you there next month.