Recently I started attending a new poetry writers’ workshop type thing. The organiser was looking for new members and she asked the organiser of my other writing group to pass on her details. I was interested to try a new group, and this one was specifically for poetry, to get some different feedback on my work. My beloved writing group, BWI, consists mainly of prose writers and they often protest that they don’t have the expertise to critique the poems I bring along. I was also interest in getting a different perspective on my writing. The people in BWI are very supportive and nurturing, but each of them brings a particular set of skills with them, and their criticisms seem to follow a pattern based on these skills. This isn’t a bad thing, but surely getting a range of feedback is important for my growth as a writer.
So I went along to a meeting of this new group (I’m going to call it GCP even though it doesn’t really have a name). The first meeting was weird, which is to be expected. I took along two poems, one was a free verse, fairly angry sort of poem about love, and the other was an attempt at pentameter that I wrote after having read a lot of Milton’s Paradise Lost for uni. Once we were all settled in, we started work-shopping some of the existing members poems. There were four existing members and four or five new members. When it came to my turn I chose to do the free verse poem. The process was a fairly standard sort of thing: when it gets to your work, you read it out aloud and then the others have a chance to offer you constructive feedback. I was quite anxious as there’s something extremely vulnerable about asking for a critique of a poem from people you don’t know. People can be very cruel, often without really meaning to be.
Most of the group were cautious and constructive in their feedback, they made some insightful comments about my use of particular words, and had only a few suggestions for changes. I was so relieved. But at the same time there was one guy, and there’s always one guy, who insisted on having the last word on every piece. Who insisted on saying his bit about everything, and often disagreeing with the feedback that other members of the group were suggesting. Many of his criticisms were very picky, like concerns about whether a comma or colon was required. He got my hackles up from the very beginning of the meeting and made me feel wary of what he was going to say. I’ve spoken to a few people and they’ve said that there is almost always one person, usually a white man of a certain vintage, who behaves like this in any poetry or writing workshop.
Last Monday I went to my second meeting of GCP. This guy was there again, and again he was nit-picky and spoke significantly more than any other member of the group. I was not impressed. I guess the question I’m facing now is whether I want to keep going to this group or not. On the plus side they’re all poets and are, for the most part, very encouraging, knowledgeable and have some great insights. But this one guy really colours my experience of the group.
I feel like this isn’t a story that’s exclusive to me. I know a lot of people, particularly people who are not white-men-of-a-certain-vintage, have this experience. It makes me both a bit sad and a bit angry that there are still people out there who insist that their voices are the most important voices in the room. It makes me more sad and angry that these voices almost always belong to the same group of people.
I guess I’m just having a bit of a rant, I don’t really know what to do about the whole thing. I’m going to miss the next meeting because I’ll be in Europe gallivanting about for the whole of August (woo, more on that to follow). Maybe I’ll reassess how I feel about this group when I get back. I’ll give them one more try to see if I can separate any value I get from the group’s feedback from the bad feelings I get from this guy, but if I can’t or if the bad feelings outweigh the good ones, then I guess it’s a case of another one bites the dust.