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 poetry.com, 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.