Setting up a Poetry Reading Group

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?
Eight years ago the PRG got started because a friend and I wanted to read more poetry, discover new poets and to talk about poetry. Over the years it's grown and reformed but it's still going strong. We're 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 (this year the Writing Competition), 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 January, not only had the group gelled, we had a stronger sense of the contemporary scene.

Since then we've continued each year to ‘shadow' the prize. Members volunteer to choose one of the shortlisted books to present to the group, selecting the poems to be read out at the meeting. "We come away from discussing the shortlist having had to be clear about exactly what we each liked."

In the last two years we've further refined the task. As a way of trying to compare the disparate voices on the shortlist, we've looked for common themes such as loss, nature, memory and war. Doing this enabled us to group the ten books across themed meetings - how had each poet explored the theme?

The 2015 list offers yet another wide-ranging selection of books. Since the list includes 5 men and 5 women, this year, controversially, we've opted to consider the gender divide. We'll have two meetings - one to consider the women's collections, the other to compare this with the collections by men.

With the downloadable poems offered though the Reading Group Scheme, it's easy to get started and it's even more fun if at least a few in the group have some of the collections as a whole.

Keeping going - stay flexible
We've agreed that no one has to come every time. On average 6 people turn up, yet we have 26 names on our email list - men and women, ages from late 20s to over 70s. 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. That said, early in 2014 we realised we'd became a touch too flexible and had too many drop-in members. It's inevitable that people will drop away due to changing family and work commitments but you do need to retain a solid core of, say, 4-6 people. In 2015, having canvassed the group, we met less often, tried different venues and have found ourselves revitalised as new members have formed an eager core. One founder member notes, "the new people have brought a freshness to the group."

Beyond the T S Eliot Prize shortlist we'll programme 2015 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. There was deep engagement for a session on Gerard Manley Hopkins as we tried to pin down why non-believers still felt drawn to this priest poet. We've had animated discussions on Rilke's sonnets and the work of Charlotte Mew; contemporary American, Kay Ryan was another popular choice. We've been back to T S Eliot himself and re-read The Waste Land and Four Quartets. Popular in 2015 was a return to themed sessions, "choosing a theme and concentrating on just 4 poems, which members choose, works well. We can concentrate on the form and words, compare poets from different ages and backgrounds."

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 any time from 7.15 allowing time to chat before we begin reading. We start promptly at 7.45 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.

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, William Carlos Williams - 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 but do try to keep a committed core.

How often? Once a month works well. In the autumn and for the T S Eliot Prize shortlist, have a couple of extra sessions.

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, her third novel, Taking In Water, is due in spring 2016. She is Associate Tutor on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and runs the literary website Words Unlimited which includes interviews with poets: