by Michelle True
The object of a poetry group is for like-minded people to get together once a month (or as often as the group agrees) and aid one another in learning about poetry, critiquing poetry, working on poetry reading skills, and sharing resources such as websites, books, magazines, and other poetry-related material. To find participants, you can first look within your circle of friends. If you share a love of literature then sharing poetry will be a small leap. If you can find no interest among your friends then you can put up small posters in your local library or bookstore (with permission) advertising your desire to start up a poetry group. I would recommend limiting the numbers in your group to no more then six people to start. Intimate groups work best because there are less distractions and more time can be devoted to each individual's poetry.
What is the proper format for a writing group? Typically, all you need
is a location that is available during a regular date and time (or online
space if you're following that route), and an agenda for each group gathering
(real or virtual). Also, a writing group can start with just two people,
and grow from there - there is really no minimum number of participants,
although you may find if the group gets very popular that productivity
is reduced when a large volume of people participate. You can split the
group into two separate writing groups should you be
The location should NOT be at anyone's home. What would be best is a public building, such as a church, synagogue, library, school, or community space. Restaurants, coffeehouses, or pubs may also welcome you, providing you visit during off hours so you don't impede the regular flow of customers.
The regular date and time that works for group participants is usually discovered by general consensus. In addition, how frequently the group meets is up for discussion also. If you are all just getting started at this, it might be wise to meet every month. This helps ensure people get the chance to write or rewrite poems between meetings.
The agenda of the writing group can be very loose, or very structured. Initially, part of the agenda should include getting to know one another a bit better. You don't need to be best friends with all of the group's poets, but understanding who they are is a very valuable key to understanding their work and being able to effectively critique it.
Typically, the body of the meeting is spent sharing poetry and giving feedback. A basic level of trust is required, and a common understanding that constructive criticism is the norm. As the group matures, feedback can be bandied about, generating ideas for ways to improve a poem. It's vital that people be able to give and take feedback with an appreciation that the group's goal is to make all participants better writers. There should be no requirement that people must agree with one another with regards to their opinions (you can't please all of the people all of the time, nor should you try to). There should also be no requirement that all feedback must be implemented - it is certainly the poet's prerogative to disregard feedback they feel will detract from their work, well intentioned though it may be.
How does a group decide what to review or discuss? Consensus over time will lead the group to one or more basic practices. People could all agree on a shared assignment such as writing about a given topic, or in a given poetic style, in a specific poetic form, or emulating the technique of a particular poet. Typically, each participant writes something based on the assignment, and then the next session or two is devoted to reviewing and critiquing the results. Rewriting may or may not follow, depending on the wishes of the group.
Other things the group can do is share favorite poems or favorite poets, or review recent works of poetry or newly published books of poetry. If the participants have the goal of being published, they can discuss publishing resources (such as the Poet's Market), encourage one another, share helpful hints and tips, celebrate accepted poems, and commiserate over rejection slips.
There are other organizational structures you may want to put in place for your group. If it costs anything to run the group, obtain snacks or drinks for group meetings, or to rent space for the group (either physically or online), you might want to charge membership fees. You may or may not want to put objectives in place for your group. You may decide you want to get together for regular workshops or tutorials, led either by group members or by well-respected local poets. You could attend local poetry events as a group, also. Remember, with a new writing group, you get to make up your own rules.
My group is going to do poetry readings at nearby hospitals, nursing homes, and senior/retirement homes. Another venue is schools. A local K-5 school called the library and was referred to me because they wanted a local poet to come do a poetry reading one morning. It could have been my poems or any poems. I couldn't make it that morning, but someone else in my group could and it was a wonderful experience for all!
Make sure that before each poem is read, the writer can give a little statement about what inspired them to write this poem. It's very helpful to those listening and critiquing. It would also help if you set some sort of a meeting agenda, where by the first part of the meeting is for disseminating informational and handouts, discussing upcoming poetry readings, etc. and the second part of the meeting is set aside for reading 2-3 poems per person, time permitting. It's important to make sure that one or two people do not dominate the discussion. Everyone there who wants to speak should have the chance to do so. Make sure that distractions are avoided, (i.e. if someone must make or take a cell phone call they should leave the room; avoid loud, crunchy snacks, etc.). While most people to not want poetry to be censored, it's clear that certain subject matters are less appropriate than others for sharing in a group setting.
About the Author: Michelle True writes poetry, non-fiction and memoir. She is a published and self-published author, facilitates writing and publishing workshops, leads poetry-writing and memoir-writing groups, organizes and hosts an annual multi-author event, mentors high school students, performs book editing and book reviews, publishes a newsletter for writers (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/writeonnewsletter) and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Chicago Writers Association (www.chicagowrites.org). She has also hosted an Internet radio talk show podcast and published an internet poetry magazine. Her website is www.michelletrue.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.