The Necessity of Feedback

On Friday I finally met with A.P., after what seemed like an eternity, to discuss poetry, and more specifically, our poems. Really, I should say that we met to discuss our poems, and that a more general discussion of poetry developed from our responses to those poems.

I have other friends who write poetry who, in turn, have other friends who write poetry also and with whom they conduct weekly or bi-weekly or monthly or yearly workshops. There was an article in Poets & Writers (this month's issue) about the importance of writing groups, but I'm sure most people missed it because this was also the issue in which they posted the oh-so-controversial MFA Program rankings. (By the way, the editorial in Slate that I've just linked to is about as bogus as the rankings themselves -- enjoy!)

Anyway, W(here)TF was I?

Ah, yes. The column in Poets and Writers by Ann Napolitano was a nice account of how the novelist has continued to maintain her friendship and writing relationships with two other female authors, one of whom is the talented and really-expensive-to-book-for-your-podunk-creative-writing-festival-but-I-won't-get-into-that-here Hannah Tinti, author of a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Good Thief. Napolitano and Tinti and author Helen Ellis have been meeting as a writing group for over sixteen years, and Napolitano describes in her article how her friendship and, more topically, her writing relationship with these women has changed over the course of nearly two decades.

I think it's kind of interesting how these relationships work for writers, and how they work in different ways. A.P. and I have met to share poems and give each other constructive feedback about said poems for about seven years now. And that's how long I've been working at SCCC. The fact that those two elements of my life coincide is no accident. If I hadn't taken a job at Stuffolk (Oh my god, that was a typo, but it's a hilarious one, so I'm leaving it!), I wouldn't have met A.P. and formed a friendship that has had a profound influence over my development as a writer, a thinker, and a teacher. (Yes, I know I just wrote "thinker" -- SHUT UP, A.P.)

He is the best reader of my work that I've found yet, and I would hope that I'm one of his. I try to keep in mind when we meet that I don't have to take all of his suggestions to heart, but I'm pretty sure that 90% of them end up working their way into final drafts of my poems. Sometimes just the conversation about the work is enough -- I leave his specific suggestions written on the draft, file the draft away, and revisit my poem with his comments floating somewhere in the dark and murky recesses of my head. I like this form of revision best -- working with an idea of the feedback, of what works and doesn't work so well in a poem, is best, so that the feedback-giver's hand prints aren't totally all over your poor little poem when it comes to the final draft.

Of course, we've developed our writing and reading relationship over time. We can identify what works and what doesn't work in the other's writing fairly quickly, I think, and our feedback has developed and grown more useful to one another, I suspect, because we've worked together long enough to know each other's writing history, more or less. Our comments can be specific, about a particular line or word, but they can also be broad and made in the context of what we see in each other's oeuvre, if I'm allowed to use that word. (I don't think I am, really, but hey -- it's my blog and I'll live dangerously.)

One of my writer friends, C.M.H., has at one point engaged in two writing groups simultaneously. I believe that one met more frequently than the other (something like every week vs. every month). She talks in Brian Brodeur's excellent website How A Poem Happens about her experience sharing work with two groups on a regular basis:

Having those two sets of trusted readers was invigorating, albeit a little exhausting. During the four years I met with both groups, I was fiercely productive.

I think she's so fortunate to have found so many people with whom she . . . clicked, for lack of a better word. (I guess I'm saving the "good" words -- and my brain -- for my poetry, eh?) I know that since I moved to this area roughly eight years ago, I've met a couple of people (mostly colleagues) whose writing I admire, but lucky A.P. is the only poet I've really trusted with my work. We did, at one point, try to create a writing group among our colleagues at Stuffolk (oh, it's so good!), but it was made up mostly of prose writers (oh, those mysterious prose writers!) and it proved unsuccessful -- mainly because good ol' Stuffolk keeps us running like jerks. Coordinating the schedules of 5-8 people running in different directions is hard, dude.

Also, C.M.H. was really excellent about carving out time for her writing, and not just time for the actual writing of the poems, but time for the revision of the poems via her writing groups. A.P. just reminded me that when I go back to teaching in the spring I need to guard my writing time jealously -- and that's something that I've always known I should do, but knowing and putting into practice are two completely different things. At least, on my planet, they are. But I'm going to try to persevere with this writing-daily thing once spring and my 5-course teaching load arrives . . . until I have a nervous breakdown, and then I'll just give up and turn into the rabid suburban soccer mom I'm closer and closer to becoming.

The point is, I know that I don't have time in my oh-so-glamorous life for one writing group, let alone two, but I recognize how crucial it is to have a sounding board for your ideas and your drafts. I had to cancel on A.P. for our first Friday poetry date of the semester because of Little Miss Talkalot's bout with the plague, and then I was on edge for the next week, filled with doubt and dread concerning my work because I couldn't talk to him about it. When I finally did, last week, I left feeling like all was right with the world. Of course, I should probably own up that he was super supportive and very enthusiastic about my new poems, but I do believe that even if he'd told me that he thought they were failing, I'd have the same reassured feeling, because I know we'd talk about possible reasons as to why the poems failed and how to fix that.

Much of the writing life is private, but you can't spend your whole writing life under quarantine, especially if you expect other people to read what you write. I try to practice this as much as I preach it to my students, many of whom arrive in the classroom resistant to constructive feedback or even the idea of reading someone else's work (they don't want to be "influenced", you know, that old chestnut). Eventually it would be nice, and probably healthy, to start exchanging my poems with another poet I trust (C.M.H. is one, but she's a wee bit busy lately with her new book and her adorable toddler). It would probably be best for A.P., too, if he had someone other than yours truly and her mush-melon brains dissecting his poems.

But for now, I'm pretty content and grateful, because while it's good to trust your instincts, sometimes your instincts are just plain wrong, and a good writing friend will tell you that.


p.s. Eff you, A.P.

p.p.s. Shout out to M.D. -- who shall make a more glorious appearance in this blog soon, I promise.

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