Finally getting my poetic mojo back, I recently went on a poetry workshop dayschool with the fabulous Jenny Lewis. The topic for the day was 'Revisioning and Editing'. We were invited to send, in advance, two poems that weren't quite working in their current form and then, on the day, after some suggestions as to how to approach such problem poems on our own, we were split into groups to workshop.
In the event, we only had time to workshop one each of the poems we had sent in and in some cases, only a fragment of the poem. The practice in Jenny's workshops is well-established: the poet reads their poem, sometimes providing a little of the background , and then the rest of the group discusses what works for them, what they like, what they don't like, what they might do instead. The poet remains silent during the discussion but is free to take notes. After a while, the poet is invited to join the discussion and can rebut or comment as they see fit. Then the group moves on to another poet and poem. It is up to the poet to redraft later according to their own wishes. During our dayschool, we had somewhere between forty-five minutes and an hour to work on redrafting. In the afternoon, Jenny used a timer to provide eight minutes each to present the new draft with comments on how the workshopping had helped or otherwise, with copies of the original poem circulated for comparison.
My poem was quite a short one; there was one word that I couldn't settle on and I wasn't happy with the title, but I liked the idea behind it, so I felt it just needed some fresh eyes to help me polish it. The group collectively ditched the word I wasn't sure about and didn't mind the title, though they discussed several others in the process. However, they detected a sinister tone that I hadn't noticed and suggested that I write it out in a prose poem form, switching the order of a couple of phrases here and there and changing one punctuation mark, which they felt would emphasise the poem's sinister nature.
Into the redrafting phase, I gratefully crossed out the ditched word, switched the phrases around and set it out as a prose poem. Switched the phrases round again and rewrote it as a prose poem. Crossed out some phrases completely and rewrote it as a prose poem. The prose form just wasn't working for me.
However, thinking about changing the lineation made me think about the way lineation might affect the tone of a poem. I wondered if the inherent menace of the narrator would come over better with more space, more pause, between words and phrases. Set out in three-line stanzas, with the middle line of each indented slightly, I felt the sense of something not being said was much stronger. Playing a little more with a couple of phrases, and the poem reached a draft that I'm quite happy with (and will doubtless submit somewhere, so no, I'm not publishing it here - yet). Overall, a very useful and successful day.
You might wonder, since the title didn't change, the main word that went was one I had wondered about anyway and I ignored the advice to set it out as a prose poem, how I can regard the day as useful. It doesn't matter that I didn't follow their advice - it's my poem, I don't *have* to do what anyone else says about it - but the group made me look at a different aspect of the poem, one that I hadn't considered, and that made all the difference. An article in Mslexia by author Jane Rogers discussed the different effects writing in the first or third person can have; when I met Jane shortly afterwards, I thanked her for the article and told her it had inspired me to rewrite my WIP in the present tense rather than the past. She probably thought me rather odd ( many people do, doubtless!) but by making me think about such a fundamental aspect - narrator - of the story-telling process, I was able to think about other fundamental aspects - tense - and rewrite accordingly.
So next time you have the opportunity to workshop a poem, go for it. It doesn't matter if you disagree with every single one of the suggestions made, because if it makes you think about your poem and how it can be considered, it's worth the time and effort.