The Joy of Workshopping a Poem

An Evening at the Green Street Poetry Workshop in Philadelphia

Well, folks, Andrés Cruciani of Toho Publishing here once again, but today we have a special post from poet Josh Martin. Josh has been at work for the past year establishing a poetry workshop in Philadelphia (Green Street Poetry—website forthcoming!), and Toho Publishing has established a partnership with him and Green Street. We are very excited to see where the collaboration leads.

Without further ado, here's Josh on the poetry shop he held the other evening at London Grill in Fairmount (Philadelphia).

As the day began to simmer down, I set up the round table

downstairs at the London Grill, a restaurant/Jazz club just up the street from my apartment in Philadelphia. The kind folks over there let us reserve a small section called the Paris Wine Bar, tucked away just enough to achieve the quiet we need for our poetic endeavor without the deafening silence of a library. The lighting was relatively low, and the rustic décor and half-covered piano made the atmosphere ideal for a wine and whiskey-fueled poetic discourse. I eagerly awaited the new faces and, of course, the regulars—who I now call friends.

As folks began to trickle in, I felt the familiar aura of apprehension from the first-timers. They subtly, silently expressed an unease and uncertainty that, if spoken, would have sounded something like, “Who are these people? What do they know? What will they think of me? My work?” It makes sense: the poetic craft attracts a range of personalities but the eager, confident socialite isn’t exactly the most common.

In fact, like most artists, poets and writers generally have a way of wallowing in their solitude (at least in respect to their writing), worrying that their work isn’t ready, isn’t finished, or just isn’t any good. The idea of sharing an artwork-in-progress requires a level of trust and comfort that we seldom find in artistic communities.

“Who are these people? What do they know? What will they think of me? My work?”

That’s the reason I started this workshop in the first place.

Ah, the thrill of editing!

Once everyone had arrived, grabbed a seat, and ordered their beverage of choice from our trusted server Jonathan, we got the workshop underway. As usual, we had a returning member go first, passing copies of his poem around the table for us to mark up and read along to. The poet read his poem to the group—a biting, smart, and sassy piece, as was typical for this particular fella—which was followed by the customary Beatnik-style applause (that is, finger snapping).

Then, the pens around the room started to boogie, like people at a party when the cocktails kick in. The copies he handed out began to fill with graffiti. Notes, suggestions, punctuation tips, little scribbles, and smiley faces. People wrote what they thought was working—and what wasn’t. They suggested new line breaks and marked where they lost track of the message. They took a stab at title changes and drew hearts around the phrases they wish they wrote themselves.

The next step was to open up the floor for discussion, which is where the magic of the workshop happens.

We got to ask the poet questions about his piece. About the lines we misunderstood and the pop culture references we didn’t get. We told him how we felt reading it. How we felt listening to it. We asked where the inspiration came from. What his ambitions were as a writer. Everything. We even asked what he thought the piece needed—or, in other words, why he brought it to the workshop in the first place.

By the end of the discussion, we were all on the same page. We handed back his marked-up copies for him to reference when he next sat down to edit the piece. He had had crippling writer’s block when he walked in, but he left with more ideas than he could possibly explore. He seemed so eager to run home and make his edits by the end of his turn that I was genuinely surprised he stuck it out for the rest of the workshop.