Thursday, October 6, 2016

Workshopping From a Distance, or How to Get Feedback From Switzerland

Kevin Higgins
"Likely the most read living poet in Ireland"
                                                   --The Stinging Fly Magazine

One of the teaching methods I appreciated most the years I attended the Creative Writing Program at The University of Illinois Champaign, was the workshop approach. A group of student writers sat around a big table, facing each other, rather than the instructor, and after given ample time to read each others stories or poems, talked about them. We mentioned what worked for us, what did not work, suggested ways to improve and generally helped each other polish our work and improve our chosen craft.

In the entry level classes, we were at first a bit reserved, announcing often, "That was a great poem" but as we advanced, so did our comments. "I appreciated your consistent use of consonance in the first and second stanza's but the imagery weakened near the end." Or my favorite comment, "What is at risk here in this piece?" This phrase was a direct challenge, probing into the intent of the poem and the effort made, if any, by it's author.

Most of the time our instructors kept mum until the end of the session,  not wanting to influence the others, or they handed their suggestions and impressions to us in writing at the end of the class.  One creative writing professor never gave his opinion either verbally or in writing, but instead asked probing questions. No, not like the alien probes folks talk about at the Piggly Wiggly, but the kind that make you reflect on the effort made, such as, "Did anyone else want to know more about Matilda's motivation to kill her pet buffalo?"

Last May, I was thrilled to graduate from UIUC, but after working all summer on new stories, revising the old, crafting new poems and tweaking the old, I realized I still needed and missed Feedback.

I corrected this situation by signing up for an online poetry class a few weeks ago, facilitated by Kevin Higgins of Galway, Ireland. I  met him briefly last summer while studying at NUIG  (National University Ireland Galway) and attended a poetry reading hosted by him and others of  the Over The Edge Literary Organization. I was impressed then, as I am now, by Galway City's strong support of artists, writers and poets and not just the local folks who meet that criteria, but the worldwide community of such.

So, for the next ten weeks I am back in workshop mode. I will read and comment on the poems written by people from all over the globe, while they will read and comment on my work.  Some of my "classmates" are from as far away as Germany, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Switzerland and England. I am genuinely excited about the feedback I will receive, not only because it is a geographically diverse group, but also because the members are broadly different in their poem writing experience levels. Some are just staring out,sharing written work for the first time. others, like myself, have a few published works under their belts, while several are well published both in literary magazines and complete collections of poetry.

I won't share any specific poems of course or chat about individual members of the group, but at the end of the ten weeks I'll post about the experience in general.

Has anyone else participated in an on-line writing workshop? What was your experience? Any specific course recommendations for others?