Saturday, August 26, 2017

Running a poetry book group

As some readers of this blog may already be aware that I have started running a poetry book group in cooperation with my local independent book shop, The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham. For six months of the year, we meet monthly and discuss one recent, single-authored collection of poetry. Later I produce a list of discussion points for other readers or groups to use. This doesn't seem to have inspired a mass movement as yet, but I'm hoping it might still encourage other readers of poetry (and other poets) to organize and facilitate similar groups elsewhere.

Our group seems to work pretty well, from the reactions I have had so far, which emboldens me to offer the following pointers for anyone else thinking of setting up a similar project. There are probably many ways to do this, but this is the way that we've done it, and it seems to be working so far.

1. Choosing your venue

As already mentioned, we work with an independent book shop, but I know that larger and smaller chain book stores are amenable to hosting groups. It works for a shop if you can guarantee that those attending will buy their copy of the book to be discussed from the venue, but it is good to be clear with those attending about this, so that they are not tempted to visit on-line retailers offering discounted copies.

It's a good policy to work with your venue so that copies of the book for discussion next time are available at the end of each meeting. Make sure your venue orders the books well in advance, as it can be trickier that you imagine to quickly get hold of ten or a dozen copies of a book from a small press.

Groups of friends may want to run a book group like this and host it in one of their own homes, but we've chosen the route of using a book shop so that people who don't already know each other can participate. It really helps with the diversity of the group, and new friendships are formed!

2. Choosing your book

There may be avid poetry readers (and writers) in the group, who are clued up about the latest releases. To make sure that the book you choose isn't one that some people have already bought and read, you need to keep a close eye on forthcoming titles. Most presses keep an up-to-date list of what is coming out next on their websites.

There always seems to be a lot of poetry being published, but if you actually follow the 'big' publishers (like Faber, Cape, Picador, Bloodaxe and Carcanet) and the reputable small presses (e.g. Nine Arches, Shoestring, Shearsman) you'll see that they publish only a few new titles each quarter. Publishers often have a sample of new collections available to download and Carcanet even has a full preview facility for selected new collections.

When choosing a collection to discuss, thematic cohesion  is a key consideration. A book of occasional lyrics on no particular theme is not as easy to start a discussion about as is a collection with a clear thematic focus. Issues-driven writing isn't automatically the best writing, but it does mean that everyone can discuss how well they feel that those issues have been tackled.

Poets are also more interesting to discuss when they have an awareness of the cultural tradition(s) in which they write. Where they drew draw on the influence of other writers, philosophical ideas, mythology, other art forms, intertextual references, and so on, they will provide lots of avenues for the discussion in the group to explore.

Finally, you may find that more 'experimental' writers, whether avant garde or postmodern (for whom language itself is a stronger concern than theme, situation, the expression of personal emotion, and so on) are quite hard to address in a context like this unless you have a very specialized group of enthusiasts.

3. Facilitating the discussion

Our group isn't a class, but it is facilitated by me. As a poet and reviewer myself, I have a strong interest in recent poetry and am willing to spend the time before the meeting working out some basic areas for discussion and chasing up any obscure intertextual or cultural references the poems may contain.

We don't always stick to my 'plan' of the key themes and ideas that could be discussed, but it does help to have someone in the room who has an idea of a basic structure for the discussion so that the evening feels like it has direction and purpose.

Discussing poetry in a group and discussing prose fiction are two quite different things. Even if a reader of fiction has no interest in style, the construction of the narrative or the use of language, they can still talk about the characters and what happens to them, and about their own subjective reaction to the book. Without (in most cases) extended narrative and character to fix onto, discussing poetry collections necessarily means a more technical focus, although there also has to be room for subjective impressions of the work. Having someone to facilitate (even if that role rotates within the group) helps to maintain this focus.

4. Organizing your time

Two hours seems to be about the perfect length of time for a discussion of this kind. It can be quite intense, so its important to include a break of ten to fifteen minutes, not least so the group can enjoy socializing and discussing the book in a more relaxed way if they'd like to. Sometimes, individual conversations throw up new ideas that get discussed in the second half.

5. Reading the poems

Discussing a novel largely relies on remembering what happened. With poetry, what 'happens' is the poem itself. Once you have identified an issue everyone wants to discuss, it is a good idea to home in on one poem and discuss that in detail. There are usually plenty of suggestions from the floor, but to get the discussion going it is important to read the poem out. You can take this in turns or ask for volunteers, but it is definitely the best way to start looking at the collection in detail.

6. Giving the poems time

Related to the issue of reading out the poems to help with close reading is the problem of sticking with the poems until everyone feels they have really engaged with them. Particularly with a very good collection, it can be tempting to read a poem out, say a few things about it and then move swiftly on to the next one. It's more rewarding for everyone, though, if they have time to really think about and discuss each of the selected poems, drawing out all of the things that interest them. Reading one poem closely can often be the cue to move to another poem on a related or contrasting theme, but there's no need to rush.

Well, that's a distillation of everything I think we have learned together at the Suffolk Anthology in the first season of our group. I hope it proves useful to anyone with a similar project in mind!

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