Why Poetry Groups? by Shirley Bell

I want to think a bit in this article about poetry groups, their uses and their horrors. Many of our readers are in groups and also run groups, and the writing groups they belong to will have many faces.

I have attended many poetry/writers’  groups and they have been an interesting mixture. There was an online Open University group where one of the editors staged a coup and took it over from the other two editors (one of them was me!). There was a group where a non-poet couple were pulling faces behind the back of a poet reading fine poems. On the other hand, there was a wonderful group when I was a fledgling poet and left my husband to take care of the children – including a tiny baby – while I was nurtured by such good writers, such lovely people –  and copious amounts of wine.

I suppose the ideal group is one which is friendly and inclusive, and always making new members welcome.  It should be fun and unintimidating, though the readers’ work should always be treated with a serious respect.  Participants should have prepared in advance, ideally with handouts of the poem/s they are reading. Someone should be leading the group, to make sure that the session keeps on track and there is not too much gossip and conversation. This means that everybody gets a chance to read.  Comments are important but they should be helpful and constructive – no put-downs, whispers, snidey asides!

People have all sorts of reasons for joining groups. In my case I was, I admit, a little afraid that, without the momentum my recent MA had created,  my resurrected writing voice might stutter and die.  I had completely lost my poetic voice for many years and took the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln to try to get it back.  Without an ongoing group with whom one can share work, with whom to talk and read and listen, there is no such invaluable support. I have good friends and family of course, but they are not that interested in poetry, so it is important to have met and to continue to meet interesting and inspiring people to talk poetry with.

I  think the article in this issue, by Maureen Sutton,  is an interesting insight into the lives (and sometimes deaths) of poetry groups.  Some die because they lose a charismatic leader,  some just fizzle out,  some never get properly started, and some lose their comfortable venue. However, sharing any interest with a group of like-minded people is one of the most privileged experiences you can have, so these meeting places are a vital resource.

At the moment I belong to two writers’ groups. One is Lincoln Creative Writers which is unusual in that it is workshop based. We take turns in hosting a meeting, and each host is responsible for providing all sorts of prompts and exercises. It meets monthly in The Victoria pub in Lincoln on a Sunday afternoon, and it has a huge, if shifting, membership.  I have written in past articles in The Blue Nib about all the ways you can try to defeat episodes of writers’ block and I have listed all sorts of prompts and approaches. In LCW you have a space to try  things out. We have had two anthologies published and were even interviewed by Michael Portillo for his Great Train Journeys.

My other, complementary, group is Pimento Poets, which is based on reading out our poems and receiving some critical appraisal. Maureen’s article gives more insight into the group and its trajectory. Our next project is an anthology containing 5 poems from each poet, chosen from 8 previously read at a meeting.  The group has to agree, which could be fiery.

I have only ever known Pimento Poets in its last but one venue, the Pimento Tearooms. I had heard the group launch a collection at the University of Lincoln when I was studying for my MA there,  and I sought them out after I graduated.

Steep Hill has a 1 in 7 gradient and I rushed up it as I was late, and turned up to my first meeting hot, sweaty, exhausted and embarrassed.  However, I was made very welcome and I have been going along for several years. I think one great deterrent from joining a group is that first entrance when you present yourself to a group of strangers. You are bound to feel vulnerable at that moment, but it is a moment that is worth getting past.

I live in reclaimed marshlands in Lincolnshire on the East Coast of the UK, so it is a flat agricultural landscape and the 30 mile drive to Lincoln always feels like a getaway! Lincoln is a perfect small city, with its hills, castle, cathedral and Roman ruins. So when the tearoom changed hands and we lost our venue, I was really afraid that the group would fold. Happily, Maureen and Nic Lance found us another venue, close by our old one. Steep Hill rises to the Castle and the Cathedral, and our new home is just a short walk through the Castle grounds.

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