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.