Pamela Johnson helped set up a poetry reading group - The PRG - and it's thriving. She reports on its progress, with comments from group members, offering a model for how to get started.
Why have a group dedicated to reading poetry?
Reading poetry offers a challenge. It's easy to be put off - what if I don't ‘get' it? This common fear may be overcome with collective reading.
A poetry reading group offers a different experience from a novel group and, crucially, a flexibility that simply isn't possible with one dedicated to full-length prose. "Poetry can be more successfully discussed, probed, enjoyed, by being shared." The novel can only be read as a solitary activity prior to the meeting. At The PRG we're not simply there to discuss, retrospectively, our solitary experiences. Even if you haven't read the poems beforehand it's always worth turning up as poems are read aloud.
The Collective Reading Effect
We stay with a single poem longer than we might when reading alone. With several eyes and ears on the task, the poet's voice is heard in multiple dimensions: "This, I'm sure, wouldn't happen so easily if I were reading the same stuff on my own."
Even if we're focusing on a whole collection, ten or more poems will be read out and discussed in detail. You can't help but get involved. "Having to lay my cards on the table about a particular poem has sharpened my senses as a reader."
And we don't always agree. We often encounter a range of perspectives on a single line. Such close attention clears the mind of everything else. We arrive tired after a day's work, wondering why we haven't stayed at home with the TV, but always go away refreshed and eager to read more poetry. "Even if there are disagreements (maybe especially if there are disagreements) over what a poem means, the process feels uplifting."
Getting started - who is it for?
Five years ago, the PRG got started because a friend and I wanted to read more poetry, discover new poets and to talk about poetry. It's now grown into a disparate bunch in age, background and reading habits. We've been surprised to discover the different ways people approach poetry. We're searching and thorough in our reading, but not bound by Lit Crit - "I like the fact that this is a non-academic, non-competitive collection of people."
From the start we agreed that, though we both write, we didn't want a writing workshop. We wanted readers. We didn't mind if they were eager, sceptical or timid. If they had never read poetry before, that too was fine. We sent an email to anyone we thought might be interested, inviting them to an initial meeting, and asking them to bring copies of a poem they admired, were puzzled by or simply wanted to share.
Eleven people turned up, some new to poetry, some already regular readers. We shared work by a range of writers including Derek Walcott, Ruth Padel, Ezra Pound and a few in translation. At first we were tentative, reluctant to admit when baffled, but the ice soon broke when one newcomer to poetry asked: "how important is it to know a poem's title and its context - can you ‘get' a poem without either?" That kicked off a lively discussion and we haven't looked back.
The T S Eliot Prize shortlist - a boost to the reading year
Reading the T S Eliot Prize shortlist is an excellent way to start a group and is now a highlight of the PRG year. With ten recently published books, the ink on the stamp of literary authority not yet dry, "we feel free to criticise."
Present at our founding meeting in 2007 was someone involved with the Schools Shadowing Scheme, which invited sixth formers to arrive at their ‘winner.' We devoted the next three meetings to the same task. Thanks to the Scheme, three poems by each of the ten on the shortlist were available to download. Between us we had some of the collections to add to those thirty poems. We booked tickets for the Readings in January.
Throughout November and December with ten poets to consider and a deadline, the group lit up. Now we had the added frisson of trying to pick a winner. Impossible, of course, but as the deadline approached we'd ask, "Which collection would you take to a desert island?" or "Which book is still on your shortlist?" By February, not only had the group gelled, we had a stronger sense of the contemporary scene.
In 2008 we too ‘shadowed' the Prize, ten members chose a single collection from the shortlist to present to the group. That person selected the poems to read out at the meeting. "We came away from discussing the shortlist having had to be clear about exactly what we each liked."
In 2009, our third year of the T S Eliot Prize, the PBS introduced the offer to buy the whole shortlist at a discount, which we did. Individual members also had several of the books, so we were able to circulate the collections between meetings. Again, one person chose a poet from the shortlist to champion and present to the group at the three meetings through November and December. Only one of our group chose Philip Gross, the winner that year. No matter, we had read much fine poetry and discovered new poets.
In 2010 several of us were already ahead of the game having read Seamus Heaney's Human Chain and Simon Armitage's Seeing Stars, both PBS Choices and therefore certain to be on the shortlist. Even more of us than the year before bought the bundle of books on offer and we added an extra session having four meetings from early November until just before the readings in January. Again, one person was lead presenter for each poet, but we added a back-up reader for each poet. One memorable meeting saw a heated debate of issues around Annie Freud's ‘found poems' in Mirabelles.
We had the same format in 2011. Though we weren't sure he would win, there was wide agreement that the PRG would like to see John Burnside take the prize. At last, we were in tune with the judges.
This year the list is as rich as ever. How do you compare such disparate voices? I've already read the ten collections and a development for the PRG this year is to group the books by theme or preoccupation for our planned four meetings. For example, Sean Borodale, Gillian Clarke and Kathleen Jamie all take a close look at our relationship to the natural world; Julia Copus, Deryn Rees Jones and Sharon Olds, in their very particular ways, all explore loss.
With the downloadable poems offered though the Reading Group Scheme, it's easy to get started.
Keeping going - stay flexible
We've agreed that no one has to come every time. On average 8 people turn up, yet we have 22 names on our email list - men and women, ages from 23 to over 70. This flexibility seems to satisfy everyone, we have continuity but avoid complacency. There are regulars but it's never quite the same group around the table.
Beyond the T S Eliot Prize shortlist we'll programme the rest of 2013 at our February meeting, inviting suggestions from the full group. We aim for variety: themes, men and women writers, contemporary work, poets from the canon, key twentieth century poets and translations. In the past we've had an evening devoted to work pre-1900, another two sessions devoted to studying the sonnet, answering the question - why does it endure? 101 Sonnets, edited by Don Paterson, proved a rich text. We've tackled female wit in poetry, had memorable discussions on Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Several of the group admitted to being intimidated by Stevens but the collective reading effect worked its magic - all went away with a new understanding of his work. A surprise highlight of 2012 was a session on Gerard Manley Hopkins during which we explored why it was that non-believers still felt drawn to this priest poet.
Because the size of the group is flexible we've kept the venue fairly stable, alternating between two houses of group members. One person does the emailing, reminding everyone of dates, texts and venue. We arrive 7-7.30 allowing time to chat before we begin reading. We start promptly at 7.30 and end around 10, with a 15-minute break in the middle. The meeting is chaired and we begin with brief remarks about the theme or poet under discussion, then each member presents at least one poem.
So far, meetings have been memorable. "Honest and friendly, a balance of informality and commitment to reading." We've each read more poetry than we would have done alone. We've tackled difficult work - Jorie Graham - and survived; brought fresh eyes to poets we thought we knew - Phillip Larkin, Louis MacNeice, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson - and discovered many writers new to us, past and present. All agree that the most important development is, "increased confidence and enjoyment in our own reading."
Consider this ...
Who should join a group? Anyone with an interest in reading. Those curious but cautious about reading poetry. If you have a novel group, why not try poetry?
How many? The bigger your list the more likely you are to keep going. We've had meetings with as few as 5 and up to 14. How often? Once a month works well. In the autumn and for the T S Eliot Prize shortlist we meet twice a month.
Where? If you have a large, flexible group list, try to keep the venue stable with one or two locations.
What to read? - A good way to break the ice - try an initial meeting to which everyone brings a poem. Poems can be typed out or downloaded from the Internet. From then on follow the group's curiosity. The T S Eliot Prize shortlist introduces the contemporary scene.
Organising - Easily done by email. One person to administer the email list. It's useful if those coming can email the host so they know how many chairs to put out and wine glasses to polish.
Chairing - It's worth chairing a meeting, nothing too officious, simply to move the discussion equally between poems.
Catering - Pot luck. Everyone brings either a snack or a bottle of wine.
Pamela Johnson, novelist and poet, is Associate Tutor on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London; she also runs the literary website Words Unlimited which includes author interviews, literary news and notes on writing: http://www.wordsunlimited.typepad.com/