Westside Women Writers: Kathi Stafford, Millicent Borges Accardi, Susan Rogers, Georgia Jones-Davis, Maja Trochimczyk, Lois Jones.

Last month, WVFC was fortunate to hear from several members of Westside Women Writers–a long-running poets’ group in the Los Angeles area–who talked about being part of the group and the impact it had had on their writing. Now, after the holiday break, we’re back with one more article and poem from WWW member Kathi Stafford, who offers a set of useful pointers for those interested in starting a writing group in 2012. –Ed.     

I remember one of our professors at the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing program telling us a story about Thomas Hardy, who returned to his first literary love, poetry, in his later years. Hardy would always modestly explain that whatever poem was gaining attention was just a little something he’d found in a bottom drawer and cleaned up a bit.

In Westside Women Writers (WWW), I find three big pluses for writing as a part of a group: motivation to produce fresh work, insights into how to improve my work, and support from the community. One of the huge benefits has been that we encourage each other not to pull work out of the “bottom drawer” from the dusty past. Instead, each writer tries to come up with new work every month to share with the other poets in the group. This schedule is both a motivator and a deadline that helps us stay disciplined and focused in our work. I see the results in literary journals and poetry collections, where the new work is then published and shared with a larger group of readers.

Another huge benefit to our group is the constructive and insightful commenting on the work as we each go through our offerings. There is an excellent spirit of encouragement every time we get together. It also helps to hear the feedback given to the other writers as well, as the group moves through each person’s writing. For example, in one recent meeting I was encouraged to pull a stronger stanza up to the beginning of a poem, so that the reader might be brought into the sense of the work much earlier.

I would also add that because writing at times feels like a practice in isolation, the community of this group of wonderful women has been a boon to me. Their individuality comes across so remarkably in their work. At the same time, we share our challenges and bright spots with each other on a regular basis. I especially appreciated the group’s support when I unexpectedly ended up living in Bangalore, India for several months.  They kept haranguing me to find good yoga teachers—and to keep writing. Their kindness and support blessed me, even though I was half-way around the world. And their feedback helped me build up my work inspired by the Tamil Nadu poets of southernmost India.

So from my perspective, the benefits of a writing group include the production of more work; helpful feedback on that work; and the strength gained from community with others who share the same intense focus and drive to become the writers we want to be in the future.

Here are some basic suggestions for running this type of group:

Set a regular meeting time. We meet on the last Saturday of each month, almost like clockwork. It is rare for us to reschedule a meeting.

Share a meal. We share a meal together before we start reading and critiquing each other’s work. A shared lunch gives us time to have some catch up time before we start on our reviews.

Send out reminders. Send email reminders about scheduled meetings a week or so before the date, then a few days before.

Send work ahead of time. We provide our poems to each other by the day before our meeting at the latest. That way, each reader is able to print the poems and prepare comments before the actual meeting.

It helps to have an ‘enforcer.’ To keep meetings running smoothly, it’s useful to have someone focused on agreed-upon rules and procedures. For instance, our leader reminds people that they are supposed to simply accept comments on their poems during critiques, rather than offering responses.

Pay attention to time. We spend about the same amount of time on each work. We don’t use a timer but we are careful to move on before we get too bogged down in one poem.

Emphasize mutual encouragement. The competitive spirit that sometimes damages writing groups is not present here. Everyone shares their latest publication news, and personal news as well. We really celebrate new releases, upcoming retreats, teaching opportunities—every good thing that happens in our group.

‘Just right’ feedback. I think of this as the Goldilocks rule. Not too hot, not too cold—just right. We provide critiques that are helpful, but not cruel. Just saying, “Well, isn’t that a lovely work,” misses the mark.

Making it a priority. We all live in Los Angeles, where there are lots of activities competing for our attention every month. We all try to attend every meeting, despite distractions.

Expand the support. People in the group share information about new composers, local art shows, websites for writers, publishing opportunities—the list goes on and on. We’re a support system for each other on many levels.

Our group reminds me of the sparkler in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” Every which way the group turns, it becomes “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. . .”, as reflections of life shine out in our work and in our shared friendship.

Kathi Stafford, a corporate attorney, graduated from the Master of Professional Writing at the University of Southern California with a poetry concentration. She has been both poetry editor and senior editor at Southern California Review. Her poetry, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in many journals, such as Rattle, Hiram Poetry Review, Connecticut River Review, Chiron Review, Nerve Cowboy, and Southern California Review. Her poetry has been anthologized in Chopin and Cherries and Sea of Alone: Poems for Hitchcock

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