Online Workshops

Related Whale blog post.

1. ROB
The danger is that an exquisitely crafted poem may draw plaudits in a workshop and fall cold outside. Equally a flawed poem might get destroyed in a workshop, but make a real emotional and intellectual impact on readers outside. […]

Also, poems outside the workshop environment break the ‘workshop rules’ with great frequency. It’s important to keep a broad perspective by reading widely, and realise that rules-of-thumb useful for beginners have no general application. For example, the ‘rule’ that forbids sentence fragments may be useful for those learning to express themselves in clear sentences, but fragments are an important tool in poetry.

In workshops such as PFFA and the others, the words are really all we have; and so I find them far more useful. There are limitations, of course, especially in my case, where my background and context have given me a completely different point of attack for poetry and writing — how many people in the USA and Europe still have the sense of creating a national literature, or the need to do so, with the weight of Shakespeare, Whitman and Frost on their shoulders? Limitations, and differences in focus and purpose. But that doesn’t entirely matter when one is discussing craft.

I think that workshops foster a tendency toward deliberate conformity and toward a sort of art through the lowest common denominator. They’re dangerous and useful at the same time, like a prescription painkiller. I recommend them to people at the very beginnings of their artistic careers, when they need to hear as many voices as possible. After a point, I think many poets need to break away from workshops, to listen to their own inner critic. Then, after that while, I think many can find something useful in workshops again, a confirmation of what they thought they knew. It’s easy to become complacent. It’s easy to workshop for the ego, not the craft.

4. SARAH my absolute beginner days, the workshop (online) was crucial to me. I still enjoy participating, but with time you learn to trust yourself.

My experience of both suggests that the value of workshopping depends almost entirely on the quality of the participants. An ill-informed critique is useless, except in the trivial sense of warning you how some readers will misread your work. […] My experience of online workshops is limited to PFFA, which I find an excellent resource for general poetry things and for that sense of a writerly community. My attitude to the workshops there varies – since you don’t get to choose who comments on your work, the value of the critiques varies enormously. Because the membership of online workshops is so varied in terms of ability, experience, background, tradition, geography, even critiques by experienced participants can be hard to convert into technical changes to a draft. It’s especially difficult when you’re trying to do something out of the ordinary – how far is the reader’s bafflement a problem with the text and how far is it just a fact of life? I do think that workshops can have a homogenising effect, promoting the ‘workshop poem’ which satisfies the usual rules of thumb but not the basic requirement of interest and originality.

Right now, I’ve pulled away from all workshops. I think there comes a time when you need to explore individuality without compromise. But workshops in my past have been a godsend as far as craft goes. […] Both in-person and online workshops can be invaluable. One thing about online though, you’d better bring your toughest skin because the criticism can be brutal. I’d recommend in-person for any beginner. In person, people usually have more of a heart in them.

Workshops were important in my poetic development after I obtained my undergraduate degree in creative writing. […] There’s obviously more traffic in an Internet workshop than for a local one, and maybe a little more tendency for flamboyantly negative critiquing because of the relative anonymity and distance. Still, I think at their hearts they’re similar animals–equal portions of quid pro quo back-scratching, nasty backbiting, and genuine attempts to help with poetry. To me, the most critical task in looking for a workshop is to find one where the responders take the time to read the poem multiple times and give a true deep reading rather than “Nice images” or “I don’t understand this line.”

I’ve participated in a number of online workshops and have likewise found them quite valuable. Obviously, the quality of critiques varies from workshop to workshop and individual to individual, but I owe a great deal for whatever development I’ve experienced to the knowledgeable advice and suggestions of workshop participants.

Workshops mean craft to me. I belonged to a leather-working co-operative in the 60s where, to eke out a precarious living, we made sandals, belts and bags. We improved our standards by competing and collaborating with each other to make creative, useful artefacts of a high standard. Any opinions or advice offered from worker to worker was instantly recognisable as being real and useful or not. The result was very good sandals. That’s the kind of workshop I like. Since I first started writing poems (at the age of 14) it has only ever been the opinions of a few close friends that have mattered to me. By “friends” I mean people of a similar set of characteristics and experiences to my own – educational (formal and informal), spiritual, cultural, emotional, and so on. At first those friends were just in my immediate circle. Now I find some of these close friends in on-line workshops as well, where any opinions or advice are instantly recognisable as real and useful or not.

10. KATY
The online workshops I’m familiar with – and I’m a moderator at one – tend to lean much more towards a common consensus when critiquing a work. It’s seen as a fault if the participants don’t understand something in a given poem – there is a tendency, I think, to favour a particular kind of poem, and there can be a push to the middle ground, I think. And you get these endless debates about whether a particular rhyme stands up to American, Australian, English readers. That seems daft! It’s like Harry Potter being edited in the US editions because they thought American kids couldn’t handle English words for things.

I’m afraid I disagree with some of these standards, even though I’m on the inside. I believe that if one person in twenty, say, gets your allusion, you should leave it. […] The best criticism I’ve had online – and in “real life” – has been from people who can engage with a poem on its own terms, rather than trying to mould it into their vision of a poem, and from those 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.

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