Tip of needles
Tap of bones
Swish of rushes
Slap of stones
You’d expect me to be delighted when my lines appeared in one of Germany’s biggest selling magazines. I wasn’t.
Years ago, two gentlemen arrived into the Dublin Writers Workshop, introduced themselves as researching the phenomenon of writers groups in Ireland for a popular German publication, and asked everyone present to come out to the front of the premises, Bowes, for a group photograph. Most went, I declined owing to (what is usually) an unhelpful streak of contrariness. They stayed for the evening and told us they were visiting a few other groups as well.
Eventually the magazine arrived with article, photograph and my lines as a lead in. It was scathing. The members felt insulted and resented their hospitality being abused. They had good reason. DWW was a breeding ground for a number of good writers including Ted McNulty, Shiela O’Hagan and Jean O'Brien to name a few.
The main contention of the article was that writers’ groups foster a low standard of writing. This can happen for a number of reasons e.g. participants may not want to criticise in case they cause offence, the level of knowledge maybe poor, some writers are writing for themselves not publication, they are not looking for rigorous standards. No one slates the provision of snooker tables just because the players aren’t of professional standard.
Poetry is a lonely pastime. Writers’ groups are frequently used for social reasons; if they fulfil this purpose, they are successful for some. If the group is being used for focussing the mind or providing a writing regime or as a forum where information on events and competitions can be got, then again it may well fulfil its purpose. Some consider a poem worked through a group to be like a committee horse but that does not take into regard different strokes for different folks.
However, the issue of standards should be addressed. A teacher of English might be a good addition to a group, or invited guests who have a proven track record in literary criticism. Participants with different aspirations should be facilitated, a group should discuss its procedures and policies when setting up, and be open to change. An open door approach to new members or even once-off visitors can only be positive in general, (though there will be some less than helpful arrivals), and contact with other groups can be a source of useful ideas as well.