What makes a successful Stanza group? Carole Bromley, founder of the York Stanza, explains
Poetry Society Stanzas are a supportive and often highly sociable environment in which to exercise your critical faculties as a reader and to hone your work as a writer.
Three years ago I approached Paul McGrane, Membership Manager at the Poetry Society, to ask about the possibility of me setting up a Stanza group in York. Paul was encouraging, so, with his support and help, I went ahead. The initial meeting saw 16 people crammed into my front room. We talked about the way forward and workshopped poems.
I made mistakes. I lost a couple of people who felt out of their depth, and one or two who didn’t write and wanted a group to discuss poetry, and another possibly who found criticism difficult. I learned from my mistakes, though. I aim to be welcoming to new members and the group has changed a lot in three years. For a start it is now huge – 41 members at the last count. I now have to have a booking system for each meeting, which seems to work. Often I can squeeze in everyone who wants to come, although, occasionally, I have to have reserves who I contact if someone drops out. I found if there are more than 12 or 13 we can’t do justice to everyone’s poems, the atmosphere is less relaxed and I spend much of the evening boiling the kettle!
Members come from all over Yorkshire, many travelling quite a distance, from Hull, Selby, Malton, Harrogate, Otley, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Leeds, Wetherby, Thirsk and various villages on the North York moors, as well as from York itself.
Running the meetings
We meet monthly on Wednesday nights. The format of our meetings is always the same: I make tea and coffee and provide wine, soft drinks, crisps and biscuits, and we share poems we have read recently and enjoyed. I make a note of these and circulate the list by email the following day. We have a break and I offer more drinks, and then we workshop poems in progress for the rest of the evening. We start promptly at 7 and finish on the dot of 9.30. I time each person’s turn so we have ten minutes each. I’m told I run a tight ship. Teaching experience no doubt helps.
In addition to regular meetings, we have given two very successful readings, one in York to raise money for York Against Cancer and one at the Ilkley Literature Festival.
Success and shared values
I love running the group and enjoy hearing of successes by individual members. Every year since we started, someone from our group has come second in the Stanza Competition (Will Kemp 2011, Julie Corbett 2012). In 2013, two members (Chris Bridge and Brian Clark) came joint second and three of us were commended (me, Julie Corbett and Will Kemp). I don’t take any credit for this beyond encouraging people to enter.
Last year, members were also successful in the National Poetry Competition (Stuart Pickford), the Bridport (Doreen Gurrey), the Keats Shelley Prize (Will Kemp) and the Hippocrates Prize (Chris Bridge), as well as in many smaller competitions. Many of these winning or commended poems were workshopped with the Stanza group, and small but vital changes made as a result (an elephant taken out, a title changed, a line put back in, an ending rejigged).
We are not fixated on success, though. For me, what matters is that the meetings provide a safe place in which to test poems out and edit them, and an opportunity to meet and share a love of poetry with like-minded people.
One member, Joanne Stryker, kindly emailed me her thoughts about what makes the group work. She commented that: “it is open, inclusive and democratic with no apparent cliques… everyone has equal opportunity to be heard and all voices are respected; consequently the feedback is quite rich and varied, and so much more useful… the focus is always on poetry, not egos.”
Carole Bromley’s A Guided Tour of the Ice House is published by Smith/ Doorstop. carolebromleypoetry.co.uk. Read her poetry blog at yorkmix.com
This article was first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in spring 2014. © The Poetry Society & the author.
Elsewhere on our website, other Stanza reps share their ideas on setting up and running a Stanza group. You can find out more about the Poetry Society’s Stanzas on our website.