Online Workshops (2)

I joined PFFA in May 2005, just shy of two years ago. I had been writing really bad poetry until then, but had almost never shared it. In fact, at that time, to me a shared poem became a contaminated poem in which I immediately lost interest. PFFA was very much a baptism by fire, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my work was cliché- and abstraction-ridden and had a hundred other faults. (And yes, it still has a hundred faults, but at least they are different ones now…)

A key life lesson I took from PFFA is how to accept negative criticism – PFFA jumps hard on anyone who pushes back against negative criticism, and although sometimes the process looks needlessly violent to newcomers, stepping back and looking at the sheer volume of newcomers to poetry who pass through PFFA’s General Forum, you can see why a zero tolerance policy is necessary. I’ve been around there a while, but I’m still oddly intrigued every time I see that lashing-out “wounded animal” reaction from a newcomer who has just posted a mess of clichés and abstractions to being told that it is just that — a mess of clichés and abstractions. (Have seen the same reaction elsewhere from much more proficient poets too, but that’s another story). Newcomers are divided into those that swallow their medicine and dig in to learn, and those that try to fight back. The latter types are promptly re-squashed and given a chance to become productive citizens. Some do settle down at that point, while some just flounce back out into the ether (and into the more sensitive arms of, one imagines).

The three best things about PFFA are 1) the people. Some great folk there, period. 2) The fact that receiving critique at a certain level is contingent upon your ability to give critique at that same level (and at a ratio of one poem to three critiques). The mandatory critiquing has been one of the best learning tools for me, as has the security given by the PFFA no carping at negative critique policy. Over the months I found my critiquing skills improving, not just in substance, but in delivery, to where I feel comfortable giving blunt but still courteous negative feedback, as well as comfortable (actually downright grateful by this time, heh) receiving it. I realize it has required quite a bit of training to get to that neutral distanced point which focuses only on the poem. And 3) the Blurbs of Wisdom which has years and years of accumulated wisdom on just about every topic poetic, all neatly arranged by subject.

In September last year, I joined The Waters, which is a much smaller community (43 members last time I looked). Again, great people here, especially Jude Goodwin and Toni Clark, the administrators. This is a good place to get an initial “feel” for a piece before throwing it into deeper (shark-infested) waters, heh.

In December, I joined The Gazebo, which seems to be a natural step for PFFA-ers as they become more practiced. The advantage of the Gazebo is that it is not a forum for beginners (and says so), so overall, the noise-to-substance ratio is more in favor of substance, and the overall quality of both the pieces posted for comment and the comment given is higher than at PFFA (although nothing I’ve yet seen at the Gazebo comes even close to beating some of the in-depth critiques given in PFFA’s upper-level and even mid-level forums, which also carry some seriously good poetry content). One serious downside of the Gazebo for me is that critiquers rarely describe how they read a particular piece. At PFFA, it is more the norm than not for a critiquer to start with an overview of what they think is a poem’s main narrative/theme/intent, and I think this is vital to making the critiquer’s analysis of the poem useful to the writer. At the Gazebo, for example, you have someone recommending some course of action without indicating whether or not they have understood your intent, which tends to mitigate the usefulness of some of the advice. Giving this initial overview is also a great learning tool for others – sometimes you haven’t the foggiest idea what someone else’s piece may be about, and by the end of a row of cryptic comments you aren’t any the wiser (and wonder whether in fact anyone is). In her comments on workshops (see sidebar), Poet No. 10 Katy Evans-Bush says in part:

The best criticism I’ve had online – and in “real life” – has been from people […] who understand the power of simple description. A description of how someone sees your poem working is often the most useful criticism you can receive.


Our ten poets across the board seem to make several key points with which I agree:

— workshops tend to gravitate to common-denominator conformity, in which certain kinds of poems are generally regarded as more successful than others. This can diminish the value of a workshop for participants who have reached a certain level of technical proficiency and want to try new approaches.

— Quality of poems and critiques in (and therefore the usefulness of) workshops can vary wildly (!)

— Workshops are a great tool for beginners, but at some point, you have to pull away from workshops to develop and learn to trust your inner critic.

I feel I’m at the point where I should do this, and keep saying I will, I will, but then I always begin to suspect that the new thing I’ve written is either totally flat and obvious or else so obscure that no-one will understand it and am somehow inexorably drawn to post at one place or another.

We’ll get there eventually.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

16 thoughts on “Online Workshops (2)”

  1. What I appreciate about PFFA is that poets from the higher levels will comment on poems in the lower forums. That generosity is hugely helpful because it isn’t just the blind leading the blind. Blind as in inexperience of course. When I see a comment from someone whose poetry (and commentary) I respect, I just think that is wonderful.

  2. Hi Vicky: Agreed. There is a “mentoring” aspect built into the PFFA structure that is both useful and attractive — to both mentors and mentorees, I think. “Giving back” to the community that helped you grow (even though you yourself may have grown into needing something different) makes a lot of sense for many people. Good for poetry in general, too.

  3. As one of the more recent poets to begin at PFFA and survive its ring of fire, I am grateful to it and to poets like you, Nic, and Rob, too, who remain friendly and helpful to those of us who are intimidated (it’s true) by experience. I’ve learned a lot just by reading your poems and responses to others’ poems, here and on the boards. So thank you for that. I liked your poetry right away and chose to become your “mentoree” whether you liked it or not! Heh.

    I know I’m not ready for Gazebo, yet. But I will keep in mind that it’s most helpful to offer a description or interpretation, as you and Katy Evans-Bush agree, since I can offer little else to you at this point!

  4. It’s been ages since I’ve been at the Gaz. I used to be fairly regular there but left when it became too narrow and polticized for my taste (a lot of ugliness happened the year or so following 9-11), then stopped back once or twice as it reorganized to keep an eye on it. The Gaz can be credited with inspiring the Lily series — it was there that the idea was given me. I stopped back today, though, and may stick around if I have the time — the community seems a litte broader than it was. Who knows? And Julie likes it.

  5. G – Telling how you see things is always one of the most useful things you can do critique-wise, in my view. The kind of thing ADK did at the beginning of his post on The Water Carriers today, or what Rachel says in her
    Focus and Filters Crib Sheet:

    When you actually write out the critique for the writer, please make sure you first provide an overview of what you thought the main narrative / theme / intent was to the poem. It may seem obvious to you, but it’s crucial in situating your analysis for a writer. If they don’t know how you saw a poem, it’s difficult to know why you liked something or why you’re making suggestions to change things.

    As for mentors – spread the wealth and get yourself a few! There are dozens of aspects to poetry, and no one person can give you all the best advice/be the best role model all the time.

    Scavella – if Lily came out of the Gaz, then woohoo, the Gaz! It’s a different atmosphere, with its own peculiar advantages – overall impossible to say which is “better” between it and PFFA, I think. (Although I admit to a bias in favor of the latter, heh.)

  6. You’re so nice to post that link, Nic – it makes me feel better, as did a long hot bath and a glass of wine (whine). I almost decided to give it all up but here I am, scathed but recovering.

    You’re all right about the poem, of course. Dammit.

  7. For me, the attraction of Gaz is generally that we are understood to be adults. Real names are required, stifling rules generally don’t seem to be.

    And the single forum format meant that everyone had to rub shoulders. Now, the metricists can exile themselves, or stop tainting themselves, or however someone might spin it.

  8. Hi Julie: Yes, stating up front that it is not a place for beginners is an effective filter for the Gaz, and ensures a naturally more orderly atmosphere than a place like PFFA, which caters to both beginners (rambunctious and otherwise) and to the more proficient. PFFA is an elementary, middle and high school rolled into one; the Gaz leaves out the elementary part. There are advantages to both models, for all parties, I think, and both contribute to poetry overall in effective but different ways.

    The metric/non-metric split at the Gaz meant different things to different people, obviously. I’m a cowardly loser when it comes to form, so have not spent any time yet in the new metric forum, but you know what, the fact that it’s now there is pushing me to think about confronting that cowardly loserness.

    Great to hear from you, look forward to seeing how your thinking develops on this theme. Nic

  9. Well, if it tempts you to write metrical pieces, I guess it can’t be all bad.

    But I have the feeling that for most people out of sight is out of mind. You can’t just stumble across a dizain or a sonnet or a villanelle if they are hidden away in their own forum. Now, true, I would rather not stumble across a villanelle. I would rather crush them all beneath my gargantuan boots of doom! But that’s another story for another day.

    I do suppose that out of sight out of mind is countered by the fact that there is a forum, and it’s right there, and it’s getting traffic. Hmm. Yeah, I’m probably full of hot air again.

  10. Hey VLAW: I just read this post and I love what you are writing about, and how you are writing it. Tough critique is, well, tough, but if you can separate your “self” from the “work” then the critique is a little easier to swallow. It isn’t an attack on you the poet; heck, it isn’t even an attack on the poem. It’s simply a truth about what’s going on in your poem whether you meant it or not.

    Also, I always try to remember: when I write something and send it out into the world, I have some idea of how I want people to read it. If they are not reading it that way, I can’t really blame them – I need to look at the text to see where it is failing and where it is strong, and how I can make changes to it to get people to read it the way I want it to be read.

    Which is why I love what you said in this entry: that some of the best critique is the simplest: when a reader tells you what s/he is seeing in your poem, not judging whether it is good or bad, but just telling you, then that’s great. Because then you can see where you missed the mark in getting across what you want, or you can also see other things your poem is doing that you might not have intended, or, in the end, like better than your original idea and can go with it. Those are the “critiques” I like best, because after you get good enough to know how to work your craft, that’s the kind of thing you need in order to see your own poem: outside perspective.

    As a reader of poems, I always try to just tell the poet what I see is going on. If more critique is invited, then I make suggestions to them, helping them figure out how to acheive the read of the poem they are going for, or even more, tell them where they aren’t acheiving that. But it is always most important to me to take the poem on the poem’s and poet’s terms: not hammer it into something I specifically like or think is “good.” Which is one of the most common failings of a workshop, as you’ve noted.

    Thanks for your site. I’m just getting comfortable and will be back again to read more of your ideas for sure!

  11. Hey PWADJ! Good to hear from you! And yes, one of the toughest things to remember when critiquing *is* precisely that — keeping the terms of the poet and the poem uppermost in your mind as you work your way through it.

  12. Hi.

    For me, the difference between Gazebo and PFFA’s “Merciless” is less a matter of level than of bravery. Many good poets I’ve known don’t want to engage PFFA’s higher forums: the conflict is that they may feel they “belong” there, but fear they’ll discover they don’t–and that lack of confidence often does them in (I’m not sure whether it’s their criticism or poetyr that’s rejected ). On the other hand, Just about anyone can post a poem to Gazebo without fear of seeing it rapidly removed for being “inadequate.”

    If poetry were furniture making, I’d read PFFA for finishing techniques and the Gazebo for design and construction. In the former, where standards keep “level” somewhat fixed, I won’t touch a poem unless I think I understand its purpose/intent, and will criticize it heavily for design/construction problems that render addressing its finish pointless. In Gazebo, where “level” fluctuates, I try to adjust to it, and, generally, find myself addressing structure far more than finish. If I think I don’t understand the purpose of a poem at the Gazebo, then, with a few exceptions, I regard that as a flaw of the poem.

    My participation in these or any site is motivated by: the possibility of encountering new language, ideas, and art forms; the decent mental exercise of critiquing (including the too-rare stimulating dialog that can entail); maintenance of decent standards in an art whose democratization has it sinking to a very low and conformism-driven all-too-commom denominator (this includes off-board encouragement of promising writers). Oh–and the time for all of that.

    I’d like to prefer in-person to online, but can’t: in the former, too few people are able to critique without flinching, hyper equivocating, or setting up codependent “treaties” (you nice to me nice to you)–and, the immediacy doesn’t suit those who need more time to digest. On line, the anonymous or disembodied (and not readily locatable) are brave/honest, and are under far less time pressure.

    This is an interesting site, which I’ll bookmark. Thanks for putting it up.

  13. Bill! Great to see you here. Interesting differences you pinpoint between PFFA and the Gaz, worth thinking about. Had not seen things in that optic before. Thanks for posting. Nic

  14. I cannot agree with the idea that workshops are for novices, or that it is better to move on after we learn something there.

    At its logical conclusion, that leads to the blind leading the blind. Skilled people would be gone, and only novices would be entering. In which case, how would anyone learn anything? At best, it is a self-contradiction to say that is how it should work.

    I think workshops are useful even after you know something about poetry. They are not helped at all by those who leave in the belief they are too good for a workshop now.

    At a minimum, we might give back something of our on-going time to sites that helped us. As mod and admin of one workshop, I try to do that. Hopefully some might join me in both the practice and principle of this at whatever sites they once favored.

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