If it were not for my writing group of 20 years, I most likely would not have completed dozens of poems. No one would have been as well equipped to read them carefully and diligently before I considered sending them out into the world of publishing: a competitive and sometimes discouraging place for writers. I might not have completed two nonfiction books nor finished my essays and short stories. Without editorial deadlines for much of my work, I needed a self-imposed deadline, i.e., my group, to keep creating, writing, and revising. I am often a slow writer. I need feedback. The group was invaluable to me.
Writers may create in solitude, but all writers, of poetry or prose, need readers. Almost no first draft is final. Poet Galway Kinnell, a one-time Vermont state poet (1989-1993) who received a Pulitzer Prize and was co-winner of a National Book Award, admitted that he did up to l00 revisions on some of his poems, often a word or a line at a time. Knowing when to finish, deadline or not, is often the most challenging part of the work of creation. Readers can help.
Aside from diaries or journals never meant for publication sharing, everything else you produce is waiting for an audience. We all need readers to make sure our work is clear and at its best.
A Poetry Group for Community & Support
In On Writing, Stephen King famously penned, “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.”
If you don’t have writers in mind to form a group but want to create one, read local papers for writers’ names you admire. See if there are ads in public media for existing groups. Put up a sign at a bookstore or a food co-op. Check out or advertise on your local Craigslist if such exists in your community or state. Ask writing friends whose work they admire. If you take a writing or literature class, reach out to classmates whose work shows promise. Alternatively, your city or state arts council may have a writers’ organization with a list of names that you can peruse.
For a poetry group, it is undeniably ideal to include only poets. That said, you don’t have to be a poet to critique poems. But you do have to have a good ear, understand language, and have read quite a lot of poetry. If your group has non-poets, be sure to explain various forms of poems – haiku, sestina, sonnet, ballad, and so forth – if that is what you write. Prose writers might not know these terms and their requirements.
A Small Poetry Group Works Best
Writers’ groups work best when they are small and when meetings and membership are consistent. I found four or five members work well. Sometimes one person would be absent (two people are not a group). Also, we wouldn’t have had time for any more writing during our two- to three-hour meetings. Within our small group of four, everyone had a chance to share at each meeting.
Should you decide on a larger number of members, maybe half would read and receive feedback at one meeting and half at the next. Don’t rush through the process. This is serious business. Every word, every line break, every stanza, every paragraph matters.
Writers’ groups are most useful when writers are at about the same level of writing skill. If you are a published writer, you want other published writers to first critique your work. Unless you’re forming a beginning poetry group, you don’t want to hem and haw over grammar, trite cliches, or the placement of commas and periods.
Groups work well if the members are fairly similar in age. I prefer a female group because they represent my intended audience. If there is a much younger person in the group, or much older, keep in mind that you may need to define some time periods or events in history, song titles, or other terms. I have found different generations of writers have different interests and tastes in style, and men and women often read quite disparate things. That said, these considerations may not matter whatsoever.
The more you share in common with your writers’ group, at least in terms of enjoying writing and reading some of the same genres or authors, and being absolutely committed to continue to write, the better it is to move forward and stay on track. Outside similar interests are useful – movies, other cultures, politics, equality, or animals.
When I decided I needed a group to critique my work (I was doing more creative writing, less journalism), I searched my acquaintances for prospective members. Two of these people were former friends and colleagues. One was a poet; the other was a nonfiction writer. I taught writing and literature for 30 years at a community college and at various other venues, including at the local correctional center. These are the places I met these two women – at college and at the local arts council that funded courses at the jail.
The fourth member, a woman 15 years older than the rest of us, was someone I greatly admired, a very good writer for a daily paper who I knew had more talent than she was showing the world. She loved poetry and novels and always received the assignments of interviewing high-profile visiting poets and novelists.
Much to my delight, she accepted my invitation, and we soon met as a group and set up tentative rules.
Always Bring Something
All members must bring something every time, even if it’s a tiny poem or a couple of reworked paragraphs. Don’t hesitate to bring back the same manuscript if only slightly changed.
If someone has the dreaded “writer’s block” or has been too busy to squeeze in writing time, assign a prompt each of you will write about for the next meeting: death, hands, dogs, flowers, loss, porches.
Limit the length of manuscripts – two or three poems or l0 pages of prose, for example. Generally speaking, in my group, we had work we initiated on our own, and some were assignments from a newspaper, magazine, or journal with deadlines.
Read and Reread
Once you’re physically meeting, if you have time, read the other members’ manuscripts through once without pen in hand; then read again to add written praise and make suggestions. Read silently. With poetry, the poet also reads aloud. Read thoroughly so you don’t have to ask embarrassing questions that have been addressed in the manuscript but which you may have missed if reading too quickly. Once everyone has had the time to read, which takes everyone a different amount of time, discuss the work in the group.
Always remember, this is not a proofreading or editing group. If one writer needs a lot of editing, send them back to their computer or even, more drastically, reconsider their appropriateness in your group. Group members want to be able to read smoothly without taking a pen to every sentence, stanza, or paragraph.
After about three years, my group decided to try out another woman as a group member. Although she was an excellent writer, her subject matter, mostly scholarly religious research, did not mesh with our concerns or styles.
Poetry Group Rules
These were the conditions we followed for 20 years: we agreed to meet at regular intervals, to each bring a piece each time (revisions were fine), to photocopy or print out the work for the other three, and to give ample notice if not able to attend a scheduled meeting. We also agreed to meet at alternating houses and not to drink wine or other alcoholic beverages, which does not help creative collaboration. We generally had tea and cookies or iced tea and cheese and crackers, depending on the season, and we generally met for two to three hours once every two or three weeks. We almost always had a cat in attendance as well, a comfort many poets share.
We had no TV or music on in the background, and we turned off our phones. We generally avoided slipping into gossip (unless it was about a difficult or fabulous editor, useful information) or discussion of favorite books, films, or recipes.
When we critiqued each other’s works, we would start out with the positive points, leaving “negative” criticism or questions and misunderstandings to later. I learned never to use a red pen in graduate school as it looks too much like blood on the page. We writers are a sensitive lot. Start gently; give praise where praise is due. Taking feedback often requires courage, especially if readers don’t understand or care for your newest work.
Give honest feedback, and if you don’t know what to say, admit it. Always offer kind, positive comments first. There ought to be no biases re: topics. That said, if someone’s writing (topic or language) consistently makes you uncomfortable, the group needs to discuss this and see if the two of you can work together. I learned I was uncomfortable with a woman member, with us for a while, who dominated the meetings and wrote about her open marriage.
You do not need to take all suggestions. Use what makes sense to you or what two or more members agree doesn’t work or is unclear. Sometimes, a poem takes its own directions. Your group members may see this before you do; try out their suggestions. You can always return to your original draft.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t understand.” If you don’t, some other readers won’t, either.
We sometimes shared the names of editors or agents who were looking for new work. Great teachers, local and online, were recommended, too.
While you’re in a writing group, it’s always important to keep reading. If you’re a poet, of course, you’ll be reading the latest work and perhaps restudying the classics. Encourage your other members to read some of the work you love or bring some to share. My group occasionally attended local readings together: I distinctly remember Kinnell, Ruth Stone, and Mark Doty, all renowned poets.
Try to continue to meet as a group for at least a year. Although you may become busier in your lives, if you carve out time for your writing, you will begin to understand each other’s styles and concerns more truly. If you are serious about writing, and publishing, your meetings deserve to remain a commitment.
Staying On Track
One of the primary reasons for a longstanding group whose members know your work and your worth is just that: to keep you on track and to help you improve. King’s “someone(s) who believes in you” makes a huge difference in your journey to becoming a better writer and not giving up. Share successes and rejections. Few except working writers understand the often-long process of submitting, being rejected, or being edited and then published and being paid or not, sometimes after a very long time.
If the idea of an on-the-ground poetry group meeting doesn’t appeal, you can connect to or form a new group on Zoom and other platforms. However, for me, a bit of a Luddite and a former classroom teacher, seeing the writers in person is always preferable, more intimate, and somehow more genuine than seeing people on a small screen. Meeting outside the home takes more energy and time than sitting down at your familiar computer and signing on. Now that the incidence of COVID has lessened, you can also hug a colleague in congratulations or empathy, not just say “good work” with a smile. Also, the risk of staying at home for an online group may make you feel you ought to be doing other things when the meeting comes around (walking the dog, doing laundry, preparing dinner), thus causing you to miss more often.
In my two-decades-long group, aside from helping me start and finish a lot of work, I learned that my poetry was sometimes too repetitious in meaning (not in language) and included too many ands (not used in much poetry). Other members can help suggest titles, too. And your readers indicate whether something is clear or ambiguous. You may forget to define something or someone, or you may use words or images that just don’t fit.
Giving feedback, listening, is also good for you. You learn about new worlds, new perspectives, maybe even new words or concepts. You understand how critical your comments are to your other members, who may have initially been reticent or even afraid to share.
Writers’ and poetry groups are there for you: they listen to your work, they read your work, they believe in your work, they keep you on track, and they help you grow, as a writer and as a person.
Deborah Straw publishes essays, poems, articles, and book reviews. She has also published two nonfiction books and taught writing and literature at the college level for 30 years.