On Giving …
Opinions are like … um … noses. Everybody has one, and they all smell, although we are naturally more tolerant of our own. By the same token, we tend to be blind to the faults of our children. Poets are the most sensitive people on the planet. It takes real courage to subject our babies to close scrutiny, and the temptation is strong to rise to their defense when the absolute perfection we see in them is not as readily apparent to others. But this is the purpose, and the value, of workshopping — to see our work through other sets of eyes. Whether coming from an experienced or novice poet, no opinion is of more value than another, and when offered in the spirit of camaraderie, each is a gift. Holding up a full length mirror for one another requires fortitude and commitment. Here are some generally accepted guidelines for providing useful feedback:
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- Don’t assume that the narrator and writer are one and the same; poets often write in fictional voices.
- Be specific in pointing out sections that succeed, or don’t, and why.
- Share your emotional response to the poem, if any. (Be honest about any bias you may hold toward a particular genre or topic, and try to overcome it for the duration of the critique.)
- Respect the distinction between revision suggestions and wholesale rewriting.
Candor can be tactfully presented in the formula known as the critique sandwich. Spread some goodwill toward the poet, get to the meat, and close with a layer of encouragement. Praise, praise, and more praise results in a bland sandwich of dubious nutritional value.
On Receiving …
Graceful acknowledgement of meaningful critique is an art form in itself. It may take a village to raise a successful poem, but workshopping is not poetry by consensus. A poet who acts on every suggestion is at risk of losing his own voice, resulting in what has been dubbed the MacPoem, a flavorless mystery meat concoction indistinguishable from other forum produce. On the other hand, a poet who is too intractable to consider a range of perspectives is at risk of losing her audience. If one is lucky enough to have a piece of writing read by 10 people, and two of them notice the same flaw, that’s 20% of readership. A poem should be able to stand on its own without explanation from the author. Correcting or instructing the reader is bad form, and will not lead to a second opportunity. Ignoring the person who has poured thought and time into a critique is simply unacceptable. The best response to a critique you don’t immediately agree with is, “Thank you. I’ll give that some thought.” And then do.