Tips for running a Stanza

The ways in which Stanzas organise themselves and agree their objectives vary from one group to another – some are workshop groups, some are reading groups, some focus on performance and publication. Here, some Stanza reps and members past and present offer their tips on running a successful group.

Ruth Baxendale, Isle of Man Poetry Society

Alongside our regular face-to-face meetings, we use a Facebook page to discuss events and matters of interest; publish a regular booklet of members’ works, and run other ad hoc events such as workshops or formal poetry readings. We’ve just supported a book launch for one of our members, and have staged a poetry open mic event. This variety supports the various strengths of members – some prefer the written word, some like to see their work in print, some like to take part in discussions and get feedback from the group, and some are performers who love to take the stage. Around a dozen people come to our monthly meetings; some are regulars, others who come and go. We aim to be inclusive and non-judgmental, so we get a wide variety of styles and choices, and some lively discussions!

Katherine Gallagher, North London (Palmers Green)

Our Stanza began as Palmers Green but as we had no one actually living there, the group preferred to be called London North. Our first meeting was at the Hornsey Library in March, 2007, with only a few members. The plan was to meet on the first Friday of the month for two hours, 5 -7pm. Library hours made this a little restrictive; it was a nuisance having to finish at 6.45 pm so we began to look around, finally taking up Maggie Butt’s offer to meet at her house. Gradually, more joined and we decided that meeting at each other’s houses was the best option. Currently there are 19 members, with usually about 11 or 12 for our meetings. This feels about right for our monthly get-togethers, which are a mixture of gossip and critique. As Carole Bromley found, if there were more than 12 or 13, they couldn’t do justice to everyone’s poems. When it seemed that our group was growing too large, we started a waiting-list.

Stanzas evolve. A couple of years ago, due to the growing number of north London Stanzas, we became Palmers Green again, in a nod to the great Stevie Smith, a one-time resident of this part of north London. Strangely, we still have no members resident in Palmers Green; they come from Crouch End, Southgate, Enfield, Bounds Green, Wood Green and Muswell Hill.

The main value of the Stanza seems to be as a support group, bringing friendly advice and encouragement and sharing poetry skills, and supporting poetry events and venues in the area. The Stanza helps to bridge the gap between working on one’s own and more official poetry activity such as public workshopping and presentation of work in magazines and readings wherever. Finally, Stanza-friendly support spreads the word about poetry both locally and further afield. We like meeting other Stanzas and especially enjoy Stanza Bonanzas.

Rich Goodson, Nottingham

Nottingham Stanza has been going strong for over five years now. I think it’s a little unusual in that it’s excusively a poetry reading group. Every month we meet at Nottingham Playhouse and chat about a recently published collection (decided upon at the previous month’s meeting). We now have a deal with the local independent bookshop, Five Leaves, who give us – and the public at large – a 10 per cent discount on the book we’ve chosen, advertising it in their shop as “Nottingham Stanza’s Book of the Month”. So this a tip – make a connection with a bookshop! As far as I know there are no other poetry reading groups in the East Midlands, which I suppose is why there are people who often travel to us from Derby and Leicester. Our uniqueness has guaranteed commitment. (Whereas writing workshops here are two-a-penny!) We start meetings by simply reading our favourite poems from the collection, which immediately leads into the discussion. As the facilitator I gently guide things along, but there’s no other format – just friendly, passionate, occasionally frank chat. If we don’t like a book, we don’t hold back! We have diverged from this format: once our monthly ‘book’ was the latest issue of The Poetry Review. Another time we invited Sarah Jackson to our meeting. We’d all read her (fantastic) book, Pelt, and we asked her to read a few poems from it and explain how and why they came to be written.

Andy Hickmott, formerly of Original Poets, Clapham

Be absolutely clear at the outset what the group exists for and communicate this clearly and consistently. In the case of the Original Poets, the group exists to foster and encourage poets of all levels of ability, so for us the following are important: make meetings as appealing as can be: give plenty of notice, explain clearly what to expect, and emphasize that all are welcome. Give recognition where it’s due: I always send a follow-up email listing the poets who read and the titles of their poems. You can’t overstate what it means to a beginner to know they’ve been heard and appreciated. (Andy was the founding member of Original Poets.)

Sarah James, Worcestershire

Find a friendly way of making time on each poem fair – we have a mobile phone duck quacker. It’s fun but at the same time ensures we move on from one poem to another without any awkwardness.
Balance friendly chat and critical feedback. We have half- hour chat at the start, which helps members get to know each other and means suggestions for changes (and even negative comments) don’t feel personal. Treat it as a working together thing – feedback as a collaborative way of making a poem better.

Balance needs, aims and styles individually – this helps generate the right feedback for a particular poem or poet. A mixed bunch of writers with different aims, styles and needs is a good thing, not just in terms of it meetings being varied and therefore interesting, but also because it prompts a variety of feedback. Running Stanza buddy groups, generating more detailed email feedback between smaller groups between meetings, has worked well for those wanting more feedback and motivation to write. But it does require matching people with similar needs and time and also someone organised within each group to keep it going. Regularity no matter what is important too.

Finally, holding meetings in people’s houses requires enough people able to host meetings but it is a major plus in providing a friendly atmosphere and minimizing the organisational burden (no worrying about hiring venues and numbers). It also means that if you cover a wide area or county, you easily can spread meeting places across the area.

Peter Keeble, Metroland, Amersham

There’s merit in hiring a cheap room for the meetings as this should at least ensure everyone has a comfortable seat around a big enough table. It also means everyone is on an equal footing. When workshopping a member’s poem, our approach (following a demonstration by Graham Fawcett) is that the poet reads their poem with no preamble and then keeps quiet for about eight minutes while the group discusses it. This way the group experiences the poem in the same way as a reader coming across it in a book and it gives the poet unalloyed feedback. If parts of the poem are incomprehensible then they will surely know this by the end of the discussion. It also helps a discussion develop if you aren’t being interrupted by the poet. We like to start off with what is appreciated about the poem before going on to what may puzzle or annoy us. More generally, it seems wise not to spend too long dissecting the meaning and to leave enough time to consider the poem’s effectiveness, use of technique and overall impact. A useful question before asking the poet for their reaction to the discussion is often: “And is there any last piece of advice we can give that we think might help the poet to improve the poem?” Lastly, a ‘rotating chair of the willing’ has worked well in Metroland, giving a wider group the opportunity to facilitate the discussion and introduce fresh nuances into how this is done which may be taken up by others.#

Carole Bromley, York

You need a maximum of 12 people, 14 at a push, so at least a dozen wine glasses. People should bring their own photocopies of poems. Chair the discussion diplomatically so no-one is discouraged.Start promptly and finish on time – be a strict time-keeper. Provide a variety of drinks and snacks and make a small charge for refreshments. Follow up the meeting with details of the next one. Keep an up-to-date email list of members and forward on details of competitions, members’ events etc.

Alison Riley, Derbyshire

For creative inspiration try holding your meetings in unusual venues. We meet in a different location every month and so far the list has included village halls, pubs, museums large and small, poetry festivals, members’ homes, historic houses, churches, chapels, a canal boat and a tattoo shop! Do book them well in advance, try to get free or discounted rates, refreshments (bought at the venue or brought with you) are essential (poets love cake!), as is access to a loo and car parking.

Jane Mclaughlin, Mary Kirk, Geoff Lander & Jocelyn Page, Meantime Poets, SE London

Mary Kirk: Do ask everyone to bring written copies of poem and let the group know the ‘status’ of the poem submitted, ie finished, stuck etc… Do keep to time though with some flexibility (if a poem brings up issues relevant to the group generally, for example). The chair needs to be good at keeping things moving. Don’t focus on the negative: always begin with the positive and comment on what works well.

Jane Mclaughlin: Keep a comprehensive and up-to-date mailing list. Send out news regularly but not too often. Send out reminders just before the meeting. Try to make new members feel at home, especially if they are inexperienced writers. Use a ground-floor accessible venue if you can. Take part in the Stanza Bonanzas (held at the Poetry Café) and other similar events so that your members can experience in reading in public and have the chance to showcase their work.

Jocelyn Page: Flexibility is key with a group that comprises different ages, interests and styles. Try to include everyone and have a happy group. Good communication is important, as is timekeeping, punctuality, friendliness and tact.

Geoff Lander: The group should be open and friendly – we are all on a journey. Negative criticism is as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Angela Topping, Mid-Cheshire

Keep it fresh. I do this by having different people run the workshops. If we have a guest, I offer them the chance to do it if they wish. Give Stanza members the chance to lead workshops, even if they have never done it before. It helps them develop. Make sure everyone feels welcome. Avoid turning yourself into a clique or a praise group by staying friendly and open. Collaborate with local arts groups. Recently we had three sessions in a local pop-up art gallery, Visual Arts Cheshire. They displayed our poems alongside the art which had inspired it, after one of our workshops. It’s worked for us to not have regular meetings – we do a series, then we have a break. People can’t always commit to coming once a month, whereas they can manage a series of three or five meetings
Sharing members’ successes makes us feel good. I think Stanzas are all about making members feel part of The Poetry Society. Consider a publication – it needn’t be expensive to have a pamphlet printed. Organise readings for members alongside local lit fests. This gives publicity to the group and is wonderful for members’ self esteem.

Rosemary Wagner, Mole Valley Poets

Mole Valley Poets is a long-standing group of about 10-12 local poets, which meets monthly in Dorking, Surrey, to discuss poetry and workshop our own poems. We have been a Poetry Society Stanza of the Poetry Society for several years now. We devote half of our two-hour meeting to a talk or presentation given by one of our members, and the second half to a workshop of four poems from members. The talks can be on any aspect of poetry – many people choose to talk about a favourite poet and his or her work, others may discuss poetry writing techniques or forms. These have always proved interesting and informative, and can lead to very lively and enjoyable discussions. This year, for example, we have already ranged from topics such as ‘Poetry as a spiritual practice’ to ‘The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’. This format gives a broader dimension to our meetings, and enables new members, who may be just starting to write poetry, to integrate quickly into the group. When workshopping, our approach is ‘first poem submitted (in advance), first served’ (or read). The time available is divided into four, and having read, the poet does not join in the discussion until all the others have had the chance to comment. We may seem a bit strict, but we are all serious poets who want to learn and improve our work. We don’t have food and drink – we are usually concentrating so hard it could be a distraction, though we do let our hair down a bit at our New Year social meeting. We seem to laugh a lot at all our meetings. We also organise public events every year, such as ‘Sofa Poet’ – when we invite an established poet to come and read to us, open mic events in pubs or cafes, and public readings in local libraries.

Julia Webb, Norfolk

Do make sure everybody knows the rules. I usually tell new members how it works in the initial email, and again in another email before their first session. If a new member comes to a session ask everyone to introduce themselves, and run through the rules again. If the group is large, time each critique so that everyone has a fair chance. Do try and ensure criticism is constructive and positive. Send a reminder with instructions to “reply all” the week before the meeting. If you are lucky enough to have a free venue, ask participants to buy a drink – it’s good manners. Don’t bring your own drinks to a free venue in a pub or café – it’s bad manners. If a new member persists in being rude/negative or spamming you, don’t get into a confrontation, just remove them from the mailing list. Don’t meet in a noisy place. Don’t overdo the mailings – the occasional event reminder is OK, but try and email once a month.