Friday, September 16, 2011
critique groups can be the flaming bag of dog doo-doo on your front porch
I am in a snit today. I admit it. I am in one hell of a big snit. Of course later, when I am working on my new manuscript, I will be "snit-less" and maybe even laugh at my morning snit. Well, maybe not laugh.
What is on my mind is the issue of critiquing "on the fly" in groups. Recently, G, a member of a group I've been attending for 4 years or so, got his jockey shorts in a wedge over comments made about a poem (not his, but he didn't like that critique either). He got very defensive and accusatory. He raised his voice thusly. He has now quit the group in a huff (not unlike my snit). Sigh. This has raised my blood pressure (taking a pill right now). I'm assessing what has gotten me so sudsed up. I am pretty sure it is not due to this person's opinion, but rather the rudeness. It could be something else. Sigh again.
This brings me to question the function of critique groups. I have been part of many of these, as a student, as a leader, as a teacher. In graduate school they were often quite daunting, you know that please everyone, especially the teacher/leader kind of thing. But mostly it was a feeling of self-criticism that got the adrenaline flowing. At any rate, these groups can get dicey. I have friends and colleagues who went to Iowa's MFA who said the critiques there were nothing short of brutal. I'm not up for that, personally don't think that style is particularly helpful to anyone.
But what about the "outside world" of critique/writing groups? Why do we even go to them? I've decided (for myself only) that they fill a few important functions:
1. feedback from others whose opinions I trust (big word there: TRUST)
2. support (emotional and poetical)
3. other pairs of eyes on the details of my poems
4. helpful suggestions (which I am free to use or not)
5. camaraderie (this writing thing can get pretty lonely)
6. the chance to talk about poetry and share ideas for and about writing projects
But there is danger ahead.... a group can be clicking along well, with an ease of attitude and a spirit of cooperation, and suddenly go straight into the ditch. What happens? Why does it happen? Is there a way to predict or prevent the derailing of a group? If I knew the answer to that, I'd....
Critique groups can be your soft place to land or a bag of flaming dog doo-doo left on your front porch.
What I do know is that there are things that can be done to make writing/critique groups have a good chance of sustaining themselves over the long term. There are also a few things that can be done to ward off the apocalyptic shadow that hangs overhead. These are choices, suggestions.
1. keep the group small (6-8 perhaps)
2. realize that everyone comes to critique with personal expectations (seek to find out what these are)
3. decide HOW critiques will be done (written on the poems outside of the meeting and then discussed? done verbally "on the fly" at the meetings with comments written on the poem and handed back to the poet immediately? done by way of a printed critique sheet outside of the meeting, a kind of flow chart with check boxes.?)
4. decide whether to allow the poet to interrupt with comments or explanation (NO, I beg, NO!) or whether the poet will remain silent until all comments have been given.
5. check with each poet or not as to what he/she wants to hear from participants (such as "please consider diction only when looking at this poem" or I want to hear from the group if this poem is too "talky")
6. keep the group small ( big emphasis here)
7. agree that all critique is being given with a genuine interest in giving the poet suggestions for the revision process (here is the trust thing again)
8. have a group where each member respects the opinions and capabilities of each other member of the group (again a TRUST issue).
I think that one thing that sometimes happens is that a group is unbalanced in ability to know how to critique, what to look at in a poem and how to express that. So again, keeping the group consistent is key. This is not to say one should be in a group that is homogeneous in ability. Not at all. We tend to both find the lowest common denominator and seek to raise to the level that the bar is set. I'm a big believer in the raise the bar theory. I want to be stretched.
Personally, I HATE critiques on the fly. It is tough to be expected to figure out a poem at first reading. I think we do not honor the poem or the poet if this is all we do. But we go to these kinds of groups all the time. It is the easiest way to conduct a critique: see the poem, comment, move on.
I prefer to have the poems to look at long and deeply without the poet sitting right there waiting to hear comments. Microwave critiques I call these. I prefer the slow-cooker version. I want fine details examined. I am counting on this attention to detail when I begin the rigorous process of revision. I think we'd all like to think our TRUSTED colleagues would give that to the process, knowing they will get the same attention paid to their poems.
One person I know who was in a group with me once said she did not like the idea of "homework" after she left a session. OK. But this was not good for me. It meant that she might come up with a critique that sits on the surface of what could be discovered with more time. So, her suggestions became not as valid for me when I heard them. Yes, the on-the-fly critique is fine for some. This is what I mean about finding a style for your group. Do you prefer this? Do you want more? It is quite possible you prefer a combination of the two. The point here is to configure the group dynamic to suit the NEED and PREFERENCE of the members. This is more easily accomplished in a small group of 6-8 members. No one person ought to dominate the decision to configure the dynamic. And if your group goes in a direction that doesn't serve you, find or start another group.
This begs the question of how long one ought to stay in the same group... another time
So, good-bye to G and his huff. And hopefully good-bye to my snit. My pill is kicking in now and I am feeling like eggs and toast might finish the remedy.