Friday, January 9, 2015

Starting a Poetry Group: Tales from the Steeple Street Poets

Note: My brother, Dell Smith,  is a member of the Grub Street Writers which has its own blog called "Beyond the Margins." In this interview, he talks with us about starting a poetry group on Cape Cod.
Robin Smith-Johnson and James Kershner are Cape Cod poets and founding members of the poetry group Steeple Street Poets. Today we present a conversation between these two seasoned writers about their experiences starting their own group and cultivating a writing situation to suit their needs. They bring their collective years of experience writing poetry and attending other groups to bear with insights into how poetry groups operate and thrive.
Dell Smith: How did you start Steeple Street Poets?
Robin Smith-Johnson: Back in 2010, I mentioned to fellow poet and colleague at Cape Cod Community College, James Kershner, that we should consider starting our own poetry group. We agreed that a group closer to home was a wonderful idea. I was traveling a half hour each way to the two poetry groups I belonged to, many times at night along dark roads after a long work day.
Since writing poetry is a solitary occupation, it is vital to get together with other poets to share our work and form a social bond. We decided to approach the Mashpee Public Library to find out if space was available for our fledgling group. The librarians were very supportive and offered us a conference room on the third Saturday morning of each month. So, we put our plan in motion. We were on our way!
James Kershner: I had been a member of another group, but I found myself going less and less frequently because it was about a half-hour trip from my house. Robin and I were both living in Mashpee then, so it seemed logical to try a new group in Mashpee. Also, Mashpee had recently built a big, beautiful, new library, and their meeting room is a perfect setting.
We started out calling ourselves the “Mashpee Poetry Group” but nobody was entirely satisfied with that, so we tossed around a lot of ideas. From our conference room windows, we can see out to Steeple Street, which is named for the steeple on the beautiful Roman Catholic Church across the street. One day, one of our members, Rich Youmans, was reading a poignant poem about soldiers being killed in battle when the bells in the steeple began to chime, as if in response to his poem. I think we all knew by then we were the Steeple Street Poets.
Were you as surprised as I was, Robin, at the rapid growth of the Steeple Street Poets?
Robin: Yes, very surprised. At the beginning, we might average six to eight poets, but now we’re seeing sixteen to eighteen poets per meeting. Most of the poets are local and include writers with books under their belts: Judy Askew, J. Lorraine Brown, Sheila Whitehouse, Judith Partelow, Rich Youmans, Alice Kociemba, to name a few. I also like that I have strengthened my friendships with the various members of the Steeple Street poets as well.
James: And your book came out recently, too, Robin: Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter. The Steeple Street Poets also includes plenty of enthusiastic amateurs like myself. I was a professional journalist and now I teach writing, but I never took my occasional forays into poetry seriously. I am learning a lot from the more experienced poets.
Dell: When you start your own group (as opposed to joining one in progress) do you have a set of rules or guidelines in mind? Or do you let the group evolve organically?
James: When Robin and I started the group, I think we both wanted to keep the guidelines to a minimum and let it evolve. We decided to rotate the leadership, so that a different member gets to be the leader and choose the format each month. This gives the meetings a lot of variety. We meet for two hours on Saturday mornings, and most leaders have included at least an hour of classic critiques. Each of us, in turn, reads a new poem, and then the person to the poet’s left reads it a second time. Then the poet sits in silence while the rest of us comment on the poem. When everyone has had their say, the poet gets to talk, and usually it’s just to say something like, “Thank you very much!”
But what makes the Steeple Street Poets different is that we do a variety of other things. One time I led the group in silly poetry-writing games suitable for children. We have had members offer lessons on good poetry markets, on the haiku, on enjambment, on movement and poetry, and many other topics. I think that has kept it fresh, don’t you, Robin?
Robin: I like having a different poet lead the group each month and it’s definitely a unique approach from other groups I have been in. It’s also a way to highlight different interests within the group. One person might lead a workshop on the pantoum form, for example, while another poet gives a refresher on line breaks or meter. The workshops are often surprising and innovative.
Dell: Do you find having the deadlines imposed by writing groups helps you write at times when maybe the muse escapes you?
Robin: I have always found deadlines helpful for me. Since I’m busy with work and family, a deadline allows me permission to sit down and work on my poems. Sometimes, if I’m really pressed for time, I might take in an older poem for critique that still needs revision. How about you, James?
James: We all have busy lives, and poetry-writing tends to fall to the bottom of my to-do list. The deadline of an approaching meeting encourages me to pause and look for that illusive inspiration. Because we are all friends, and everybody is supportive, I’m not afraid to being in a new piece that may not be finished yet. I think of it as “wet paint.”
When I really can’t come up with something new, I will bring in an older poem of mine, and it is exciting to get a fresh perspective on a piece I thought was finished long ago.
Dell: Do you have any advice for writers thinking about starting a writing group?
Robin: I think you need to throw caution to the wind and plunge in. Also, I’m glad that James and I worked together to form our group. We take turns putting out a monthly reminder (via e-mail and Facebook) about upcoming meetings. Also, if one of us can’t attend a meeting, the other steps in. James maintains the growing list of poets, while I’ve been searching out new venues for our group to perform. During 2014, we had readings at the Cultural Center in South Yarmouth and Sturgis Library in West Barnstable. Of course, starting a writing group is a big responsibility but the rewards are worth it!
ROBINpictureRobin Smith-Johnson grew up in Orleans, Massachusetts where she honed her love of reading and creative writing. She has degrees in English from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her poems have been published in various journals, including The Aurorean, CapeWomen, The Larcom Review, Sandscript, Voices International and Yankee Magazine. Currently, Robin works as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times and teaches at Cape Cod Community College. She is also a co-founder of the Steeple Street Poets of Cape Cod. Robin lives in Mashpee with her family. Her book of poems, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, was published in 2013 by Word Poetry press. Read the Beyond the Margins interview with Robin.
Jim2James W. Kershner teaches writing at Cape Cod Community College. During a 30-year newspaper career, he was staff reporter for the Providence Journal, city editor of the Carlisle (PA) Sentinel, Sunday editor of the Cape Cod Times, and executive editor of the four weeklies on Cape Cod of the Community Newspaper Co. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Marietta College and a master’s degree in journalism from Penn State University. He is the author of The Elements of News Writing, published by Allyn & Bacon. His interests include writing, meditation, running, hiking, and camping.

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