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How to Cook Up a Poetry Jam (Guest Post by Daniel Ari)

Categories: Guest Posts, How to Write Poetry, Writing Poetry, Poets Helping Poets.

Please welcome Daniel Ari, who has offered up a guest post on how to start a poetry jam. Ari has been putting writing jams together since he was an undergrad. In the late 90s, he had a long-running group called “Poetry Slide,” and nowadays, he hosts monthly sessions at home for reading and writing poems together.

 

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“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” says Hemingway, which is fine if you like it that way. On the other hand, when poets share energy, the writing life can get even more rewarding.

Bruce Niedt makes an excellent case for writing in a group. Poeming together fuels creativity, sparks new ideas, and puts individuals in touch with sympathetic listeners. And while writers’ retreats require large commitments of time and money, poetry jams can be informal, improvisational and affordable–even free.

Writing jams typically emphasize process over product. Since time is limited, revisions tend toward the minimal. If poets share their work, it’s understood that the poems are rough, and no apologies are needed. Because of this, jammers can feel free to experiment, stretch and surprise themselves. Even if the quality of “the product” slips when written in company–as Hemingway fears–it benefits us as poets to bring awareness to our connection with our audience, our peers and our artistic tradition.

If you’re inspired to find a group, searching online may turn up some options. But if you can’t find a group you like, you can certainly start your own. Here are some tips for creating poetry jams:

Decide on a flavor. The sessions I like best are relaxed, inclusive, and process-oriented. My typical announcement emphasizes these aspects:

Let’s get together for a relaxed session of reading and writing poetry. Bring a favorite poem to share if you wish. All levels welcome. Please invite others who would enjoy the group. (Donations accepted in cash or refreshments to share.)

Be clear about what you want from your group. If you’re only inviting experienced poets, if the focus will be reading poetry, if you’re looking for collaboration, or if the goal is to produce solid drafts; knowing what you want will help you attract the right writers.

Find a good place to spread out. Whether it’s a cozy den, a sunny park, a kitchen table, or a multi-purpose room at your local library, the setting for your jam is important. It should be conducive both to conversation and to quietude. And for me, snacks and beverages are also necessities.

Prepare your ingredients. What do you do once the tribe is gathered, the pens are uncapped and the notebooks are open? Sometimes a group steers itself, and as a facilitator, I’m always ready to let the group decide what it wants to do. But it’s also important to have some structure prepared. Here are elements I’ve used in poetry jams:

  • Check in: participants share thoughts about poetry or wishes for the group
  • Reading: a leader or several participants share poems for inspiration or as a keynote to a discussion
  • Discussion: the group mulls over some facet of art, creativity, or living poetically
  • Prompting: a leader or several participants propose one or more directions for writing, which could involve a theme, a poetic form, an activity, a word list, a language experiment, or any number of options
  • Writing: participants work independently for a set period of time
  • Sharing: participants have the option to share what they’ve written and receive feedback
  • More: multiple rounds of writing and sharing can happen depending on time and inclination
  • Logistics: scheduling the next meeting, sharing community announcements, etc.

Learn to share. I’ve found it helpful to review a few rules for creative feedback before sharing starts so that everyone can feel safe:

  1. The person who is sharing directs the feedback, asking for the kind of critique or input that he or she wishes to receive.
  2. Input should be given as “I” statements: “When I hear your poem, I think about…” not “Your poem is about…”
  3. Participants with specific edits should ask before offering the suggestion, e.g., “Would you like to hear an idea about your last stanza?”
  4. Insist on respect. End any feedback session if voices are rising and feelings are at risk of being hurt. It’s okay to err on the side of caution, especially in new groups.

Happy Jamming!

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Thank you, Daniel! I know I feel inspired to test the waters sometime in the future after reading this post.

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22 Responses to How to Cook Up a Poetry Jam (Guest Post by Daniel Ari)

  1. Hannah Gosselin says:

    I’m inspired by this, thank you Daniel! I’ve been trying to wrap my head around starting a poetry circle at my church for the last few months. This information truly helps!
    Smiles~

  2. Jennifer Jackson says:

    I live in a small town in north-central Wisconsin. It is so difficult to find writers to meet here: I cannot travel out of town so I am stuck.
    Online hasn’t worked well as far as groups go but I try.
    Maybe something, maybe someday…

  3. Hi there Gillian…mhmmm…you are jamming to this post! Delicious :)

  4. de jackson says:

    Daniel, LOVE Natalie Goldberg!

  5. I hear you Daniel. It might be a good experiment for me to turn off my internal editor occasionally. I love the name ‘poetry jam’ – it sounds freeing (and I have this great image of apricots hot from the sun, warm curves tucked in glass, the taste of orange, juices running down my chin …

  6. Bruce Niedt says:

    Pardon me for this, but my last post was inaccurate. Here is the correct description of the workshop:

    Thanks for that excellent article, Daniel (and the "shout-out"!). I never referred to this process as a "poetry jam", but that’s a great name for it. A good workshop sometimes follows this format, like the one I took with Jane Hirshfield earlier this year. We started each day reading a poem by another poet that inspired us, then she discussed craft and process briefly with us. Next she offered a writing prompt, and we took about 45 minutes to write a poetic response, after which we shared them with the group. Then we read and critiqued previously-written poems that we had brought with us, and received critique from Jane. It was a great way to spend five mornings with poetry – I really enjoyed working with some talented peers and getting advice from a poet I greatly respect and admire.

  7. Daniel Ari says:

    Thanks for the lively discussion, everyone!

    Of course there are many ways to write together, and most of them are highly rewarding. Lately, I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s "Writing Down the Bones," an excellent book about writing practice that also touches on writing together. It’s all about community.

    I wanted to tell you about the group photo. We jammed at an art space in Berkeley (during a hail storm!). After writing, my wife, an artist primarily, suggested that we put our poems on the wall. There was a big gap from a piece that had been taken down, and we found white chalk in the gallery office. So our backdrop is our poems scrawled large :)

    Gillian, for me jams are about letting people write however they wish. Some people naturally incorporate editing into their writing time. For me, it’s more about writing drafts and turning off the editor. Like you, I craft my final poems very carefully, but I feel that’s something people can do after the jam with the raw material they have woven. Since not everyone wants to edit, I try to keep the structure loose.

    Amy, I have a writer friend in Madison – I’ll hook you up on Facebook if you wish.

    And if any of you visit the Bay Area, let me know. It would be great to meet in person, and I’d try to organize a jam in your honor :)

  8. This comment has my website hotlinked for those who want to watch poems be edited online.

  9. Gillian Wallace says:

    Thanks for such a helpful post, Daniel. I’ve been to something similar in the past but we would have benefitted from your guidelines. The only change I would suggest is to add in time for revision, since I’m a keen believer in the power of editing to help a poem sing better. See my website, http://gillianwallace.ca, where I edit my poems online.

  10. Willy says:

    Daniel: Thank you for your encouragement, inspiration and guidance. Well put together posting. Greatly appreciated.

    W

  11. Bruce Niedt says:

    Thanks for that excellent article, Daniel (and the "shout-out"!). I never referred to this process as a "poetry jam", but that’s a great name for it. A good workshop sometimes follows this format, like the one I took with Jane Hirshfield earlier this year. We started each day reading a poem by another poet that inspired us, then she discussed craft and process briefly with us. Next she offered a writing prompt, and we took about 45 minutes to write a poetic response, after which we shared them and offered each other critique, as well as receiving critique from Jane. It was a great way to spend five mornings with poetry – I really enjoyed working with some talented peers and getting advice from a poet I greatly respect and admire.

  12. To MY favotite Daniel, thank you for sharing these thoughts of such complex simplicity. When we left Marin for the desert, it was art which brought us many new friends and acquaintances. Now that we are exploring another new home area, poetry jams might just be the ticket to open the doors to a new circle of kindred spirits.

  13. Daniel and Bruce,

    Since moving to Madison, WI, I came upon a group who meet just before an open mic in the back room of a book store. I got to my first open mic early and found that, while the group were mostly friendly sorts, they all defer to a strongly opinionated woman who kind of turned me off… now I’m all for strong opinions, but not in the format of growing your poetry. I’m still looking for that right group, and perhaps I will end up hosting one here in town… Thanks for the excellent advice. This is one I’m printing out and keeping for future reference, in part because I respect you both so much as poets. Thanks and peace to you and yours, Amy

  14. Marie Elena says:

    I ditto Melissa’s response: Your statement "Input should be given as ‘I’ statements: ‘When I hear your poem, I think about…’ not ‘Your poem is about…’is eye opening. Amen, that!

    Great insight, Daniel.

    Funny … Now that I’ve heard your voice (thanks to Mosk!), I was reading this in your voice. I’m likin’ that!

  15. Great tips, Daniel! Your statement "Input should be given as ‘I’ statements: ‘When I hear your poem, I think about…’ not ‘Your poem is about…’" is eye opening. Poems are very subjective – to the writer and the reader – and one should never tell a poet what he meant with his words! I hadn’t looked at it that way – and hope I haven’t offended anyone if I’ve done it! :)

    I lead a teen poetry group once a month called Teen Poetry Happens @ The Bean. We have come up with some hilarious/moving/thought-provoking stuff over the past two years.

    You and Bruce are so right about the energy and creativity that is fueled by being together with other poets. Creating in a group setting once in a while brings good things to life. I know just being with the young poets where I live has spurred on my poetic jones.

    If you want to see some of the stuff we’ve done check out

    http://missmelsblog.blogspot.com/

    Thank you, Daniel.

    Mel

  16. Karen L says:

    Daniel, thanks so much. A friend and I are working to form a summer poetry group and this post is full of great advice and suggestions.

  17. Thank you, Daniel, for your post!

  18. Thank you, Daniel, for your post!

  19. Great read DA. Way to promote the process!

  20. DANIEL ARI… eerie, wonderful synchronicity….was writing to you over at PA friends…checked in here to this wonderful surprise….! GREAT INTERVIEW…VERY INSPIRING…. wonder if you could jam on- line….?
    Thank you Robert for a thoroughly enjoyable interview with "one of our own!"

  21. de jackson says:

    Sorry, meant "Love this POST." :)

  22. de jackson says:

    Love Daniel Ari! Love this interview! Thank you! :)

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