" 'Tis great Confidence in a Friend to tell him your Faults, greater to tell him his."

--Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, August 1751

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Writers' Groups: Observations Doug McClellan

The group had been meeting for several years when I joined as something of a wild card: I had only started writing poetry when I retired from teaching and after a full career as a visual artist. My métier had been collage and assemblage. Years spent haunting garage sales and flea markets for material to be pasted or nailed into some anti-narrative context was on all counts a seriously non-linear activity. Writing (as I saw it and practiced it when necessary) being much a more sequential business and a craft I found difficult. There are limits to paste and scissors. Only when the Macintosh entered my life did my collage instincts find their writing machine. This uncorked a reservoir of things itching to be written.

As a graduate student, and later as a budding painter, I would get together with other artists for talk but we seldom discussed our work, we kept the conversation more to the comings and goings of the art world. The macho climate of the '50s art movements had marketed a distrust of verbal analysis. Statements like, “I see you're using that new red, I hear it's crap” were as close as we got to penetrating critique.

Joining the writing group with something of a second language problem (“Sorry, I don't speak literature”)––my tools for dealing with a poem when it was laid open on the table were meager. This meant that I benefited much more from the group than I felt able to contribute. At the outset I also discovered what a haphazard reader I was and that I was very close to being one of those dopes I had battled with for ages, one who could say “I don't know anything about X, but I know what I like” and mean it. Time and tolerance on the part of my peers made the transition painless and to my delight, I had finally found colleagues who were willing (yea eager) to discuss each other's work.

Before the group addresses individual poems there is a short but valuable period of tea-making, general conversation and shoptalk. As a standard procedure for new poems, the poet will read his/her new piece; this is followed by another reading by a fellow member. To me this is consistently valuable. The second physical voice often relocates the poem into another poetic voice, as well as serves to catch rough terrain and line break problems along the way. Hearing my own words read by another voice, often a woman's, is invariably illuminating in that it breaks the poem free from an internal mumble that accompanies me when I write. The 'read and then shut up' rule, though not universally observed, seems to suit my needs. To have various members quiz each other about my fresh words, and to come up with such diverse (and may I say, irrational?) readings can lead to both deflation and clarification. But it always leads to a next step.

The machinery of groups, their boons and tribulations, are well known and I can't add much that's new. Rules and protocol vary: experience levels vary. I think we all agree that it is the collective, the stock company if you will, that makes things productive. As a collection of poets we are virtually an anti-school. All over the stylistic map. This seems to have great advantages, my earlier experience in brushes with art 'colonies' that have become hothouses producing a cloned product, convinces me that our differences are a genuine strength. As critics we all seem quite able to step out of our own armor and engage the poem at hand. Some groups may be more overtly supportive in style while others may dispense with foreplay entirely; we fall somewhere in between. Individual roles derive from our individual needs-hopes-dreams-fears, whatever––obviously we all have our angle of approach to a new work. But it is a diversity that can work because of an overall quality of trust and fellow feeling that has developed and continues to develop, assisted by an occasional potluck supper.


Douglas McClellan,a painter who has exhibited nationally and internationally, is currently working on digital fusion of words and image.

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