Arts & Culture · Poetry

Writing for Fun: Enjoyable Workshops for the Fledgling Poet

5906333875_04f299bb20_zImage by Nick Kenrick via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

For the last six years, to my joy and surprise, I have been writing couplets, haikus, and sonnets. To my joy because I’ve had a lifelong love of poetry; to my surprise because fear of a professor’s scathing criticism of my fledgling effort—decades ago, when I was a college student—so paralyzed my spirit that I’d been unwilling to try writing poetry again. What has opened my heart and mind was the encouragement I’ve found in poetry workshops.

I was terrified when, in a class about surrealism at Queens College in Flushing, New York, the late Paul Zweig, a renowned poet and scholar, assigned this homework: “Write a poem in the style of André Breton.”  I was an undergraduate literature major at the time, and I enjoyed reading and thinking—but not making anything except the sweater from a pattern I’d admired in Glamour magazine or a plate of scrambled eggs at home, and certainly not anything as serious as a poem. 

Because I was a student with good habits, I wrote something in a sweat and handed it in—but found some lame excuse not to show up for the class when my professor was going to discuss what we’d written. I know now that Zweig—whose reputation and good looks made me feel small—was trying to prove a point with this assignment, not to dissect his students’ worthiness or psychology, but of course, in my immaturity, I firmly believed the opposite.

Reader, here’s the kicker. When I sheepishly returned to the class the next week, I was still too fearful to ask for the written feedback—and my very busy professor forgot to return it to me. His scathing criticism was my imagination in overdrive. Years later, I find it interesting that there was something about writing even an imitation of a poem that triggered a sense of vulnerability in the young woman I was then—a vulnerability that today, seven poetry workshops later, I am amused by.  

Fast-forward to 2009, when I registered for my first poetry workshop—a very cheap, beginner-level workshop. I was between jobs, and that workshop got me hooked.  Though since then a few friends have suggested that I should not be so dependent on teachers and others (the usual mantra that I should simply get up at five o’clock every morning, scribble anything for fifteen minutes, find my voice on my own, blah blah) I simply cannot do this.  Not now; maybe someday, maybe never.  Instead, I have opted for the It Takes a Village approach to writing for fun.

If you’ve never taken a poetry workshop, check your local library, arts council, or independent bookstore to get the skinny on what’s available at your level. Once you’ve found a class that feels right for your schedule and wallet, here’s what you should find beyond the welcome mat: good assignments, good manners, and good listeners. You’ll follow the rules while doing the work: you’ll take your turn; you’ll listen with intent; you’ll criticize constructively. Warning: If you happen to land in a lemon—with a teacher or a group that’s neither smart nor respectful—head for the door, get your money back, and find another group. They’re out there.

My favorite teacher borrows choreographer Twyla Tharp’s setup for creative conditions. No goal other than to try things. No fear of failure. No obligations other than to do your best. Let’s entertain each other: I challenge you, you challenge me.

I also like to think of workshop assignments, over time, like doing circuit training at the gym. Some force you to contend with one thing: for example, form. Write a haiku. How about a ghazal? Let’s try a Sapphic ode.

Other assignments are the prompts that tease out surprises. Those are my favorites. For example:

Write a poem making a reference to a childhood game.

Go to a shelf of books, close your eyes, pick anything, turn to page 108, choose a word, set a timer, write a stanza. Repeat. Write another stanza. Repeat.

Write an abecedarian of your own invention.

Some assignments make you feel panicky and adrift, sort of like Sandra Bullock in Gravity right before (spoiler!) George Clooney cuts the cord. That’s how I felt about attempting the Sapphic ode. Tried. Tried. Tried Again. No way.

Other assignments make you feel as if you have a chance at winning the Triple Crown—like the abecedarian I wrote in a sweat (yeah, always a sweat) the night before a class. I’d had a tough week at the office. I played with random memories about my long-deceased Filipino parents:

A is for adobo, the national dish, and
Astoria Federal, where you put your full faith
In the promise of compound interest

B is for bibingka, the sticky rice pudding 
Served to guests
From then dented aluminum pan …

Though I’d managed only to write up to the letter P (ran out of time), I read what I had. Poems presented in workshops are always under construction. I sat up straight, read what I had, and listened to our teacher’s impressions and comments.

Then a hand went up. Was it Alice, Bracha, Catherine, Helen, Jamie, Marcia, Marian, Michael, Tom? Whoever, it was—my classmate, my friend—said: “I’ve never heard this side of the poet. It’s great. I hope she’ll share much more.”

Well, you know, that is precisely the point.


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  • Karen McClelland April 14, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Great advice! I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young, but I never seriously considered writing for the enjoyment of anyone but myself until I attended a 5-day poetry workshop at The Clearing in Door County WI in 1999. The instructor was Norb Blei, who is now deceased. During those five days I gained confidence to write and share and that workshop led to another and another and another. I still have lots to learn about crafting poems, but it is a fun journey. Thanks for addressing this topic!