Friday, 16 October 2020

Introduction for poetry group members

I help run the poetry workshop group of Cambridge Writers. Anybody can attend provided they're a Cambridge Writers member. People can try us free for one session. All sorts of people come along - in Cambridge, people come and go. Occasionally someone turns up with poems and the ambition to publish a book having published nothing before. More often we get serious amateurs. First I mail them this info sheet -

We’re part of Cambridge Writers (http://www.cambridgewriters.net/) so if you join us you can attend the group’s other meetings too. The poetry group meets monthly. 3-10 people attend. Some of us are unpublished and are happy that way, but I think it’s true to say the tone is “serious amateur” rather than academic or therapeutic. The format is pretty standard. At the start we exchange market information and sometime swap magazines. Then we take turns to read our non-published work. The poet hands the work out. After having given people time to read it, the poet reads it. Then all but the poet discuss it. Finally the poet joins in.

Cambridge has some other poetry groups and several poetry places of interest

  • The Poetry Society organizes some Stanza groups nearby
  • The Central Public Library has events and a good selection of poetry books. Before covid they had poetry meetings on the 3rd Thursday of the month.
  • The University Library has many poetry magazines (it costs outsiders £10 for 6 months of access)
  • Students have their own groups. The University sometimes has a writer-in-residence
  • “CB1 Poetry” holds readings, some open-mike - see their website
  • College literary societies organise readings - see Varsity
  • Cambridge holds 2 literary festivals each year - see (http://www.cambridgeliteraryfestival.com/)
  • The Poetry School run a few events in Cambridge and many in London-see http://www.poetryschool.com/. The Writers’ Centre at Norwich is good too (www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/).
  • Heffers and Waterstones bookshops have some current poetry magazines. The Amnesty International bookshop on Mill Road and the Oxfam shops in Burleigh St and Sidney St have some older ones, plus pamphlets.
  • See http://bit.ly/camspokenword for a list of Spoken Word events (poetry slams, storytelling, word- shops, open mics etc), many at “The Fountain” on Regent Street.
  • There are some poetry evening-classes.

If your aim is to publish a poetry book, beware. If you’ve not had dozens of poems in magazines, you’ll have to pay for it and there are many people only too happy to take your money. The University Library and poetry library on the South Bank has hundreds of magazines you can browse through. Some of them have been scanned in online (see http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/).

Below are the sort of things I sometimes say when new people attend.

Suppose we weren't a poetry group. Suppose we were a music group instead. We might get Jungle House DJs, players of authentic instruments, people from oil-drum groups, buskers, opera singers and brass band fans. They might not have much in common. They might not even consider each other's work music.

Poetry has as much variety, and poets may have as little in common. What makes poetry more confusing is that it's easy for poets to mix and sample styles. You might not even notice when they're doing the verbal equivalent of combining synths, ukeleles and oboes. So don't worry if you can make no sense of someone else's work. When I'm in that situation I often find that by the end of the discussion I know a lot more than I did at the start. So hang on in there!

It works both ways - you may need to develop a thick skin when people comment on your work. Don't be surprised if when you pour your heart into a poem, people comment mostly about the spelling and line-breaks. Just try to extract whatever you find useful from the comments and ignore the rest. If you're writing for a particular audience (kids say) it might be worth telling the group first, but we don't want a poet to preface their poem with an explanation of what the poem's REALLY about. The poem itself should do that, and our format is designed accordingly.

The group discussion may come as a culture shock. A lot of what goes on in the poetry world never reaches the mass media. The members of the group might not be able to claim many Eng-Lit degrees, and they have many blind-spots, but several of them have lurked for years in the hidden underworld of magazines, networks, and small presses where poetry changes fast. We may mention magazines and poets you've never heard of. Don't worry - hardly anyone else has heard of them either.

So whether you're a head-banger or a serialist you should come away with something of use. And don't forget that other poetry groups exist - ask if you want to know more!

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