Before Covid changed everything, I had run a good many poetry workshops live, and tutored for Arvon residential courses several times. I wasn't as experienced as some, but I'd done my stint. Enough to develop methods and preferences.
Nonetheless, learning to do these things on Zoom has been a new learning opportunity. It's mostly been a joy.
For example, I love the widened access. I like the way people can take part in a tutor-led writing session for a relatively low (or sometimes no) cost, from their own homes. So if they're unwell, or disabled, they can still come. And they can do it from different countries, different time zones — whatever.
I don't like that people without good broadband access and/or computer confidence are excluded. Shy folk and HSPs are also wary. So even though some are as comfortable in this new element as grasshoppers in grass, others are not.
This is something I 'get', not least because I participated as a student/learner/writer in several online workshops last year, enough to sample the highly varied way these things can be managed.
For me, being a poet is as much about reading poems as writing them. So my workshops are structured around a group of poems, and I like participants to see them on screen, not just hear me (or someone else) reading them aloud.
Of course, there are suggested writing tasks, too. I explain these out loud but I like to have the instructions typed up too, on pages that are screen-shared. Why? Because when I'm a participant (as opposed to the organiser), I easily get confused. Things distract me. I forget a) what the task is and b) how long we're supposed to have to do it — unless it's written down.
I like to read the discussion poems aloud to the group. I don't ask participants to take a turn at reading. That's because there are specific aspects I want to bring out.
My writing exercises (all of which are optional) are closely connected by a central theme or idea of some kind. The aim is to sow seeds, not harvest whole plants.
I do like a bit of readback/feedback, but not usually until the end of the workshop. And of course that's optional.
However, I like people to feel they have to work. Work hard and think hard, and have a bit of fun. That's what (to my mind) they've come for.
I like a bit of follow-up after the workshop, too, a chance for people to communicate something individually and privately. I usually send participants copies of the poems used in the workshop, and perhaps some links to follow up ideas.
Generally the Tricks of the Trade workshops have attracted people who look from their Zoom faces as though they're over 40; and many are well over 60 (like me): the magnet effect. I've run some on Saturdays, because that way people who work through the week can come. I haven't, so far as I know, attracted anybody under 24, though not because I didn't want to. Nor have I, so far as I know, attracted anybody who's hearing-impaired, though I do try to share text on screen for all tasks.
For one of my workshops, Giles Turnbull agreed to come along not just as a poet, but as a poet who is blind, so that I could 'see' how it worked for him. I gave him the shared pages in advance, so he could preview with his screen-reader. We thought it worked pretty well. It was certainly great having him there as a participant.
I ask for some evaluation from my groupies each time. That evaluation has changed the way I do things. It's taught me stuff.
I've learned that detailed advance communication is important. Clarity about content and timing is appreciated, with reminders near to the event.
Also people like to know at the workshop what's likely to happen, how and when. In business they call this 'managing expectations'. But I feel it is important. I've learned this the hard way when people told me they were disappointed by certain aspects.
Technical things can also go wrong. They sometimes go wrong with broadband connections. They go wrong with local gadgets (my Imac has more than once stopped processing audio-feed, for reasons unknown); luckily I have a laptop too so can always switch from one machine to another. Worse things happen at sea.
For me as organiser, online workshops are intense. I find they demand absolute concentration. In a virtual element, you can't pick up the usual cues.
But that doesn't mean cues aren't there: in the faces, in the gestures, in the chat box. Then suddenly it's the end and it all stops. Everyone has left the meeting. They all left it in precisely the same second. Weird.
I sit at my desk, surrounded by silent bits of paper. I put my head in my hands. The planet spins.
New Tricks of the Trade workshops:
Tuesday 6 July, 10.30–13.00
Saturday 17 July, 14.00–16.30
Theme: Serving a sentence (the role of sentence shapes and structures in poems)
Tutor: Helena Nelson
Numbers: Max. 10 participants.
Cost: £30.00 (there's one free place in each session, so if strapped for cash, say).
Email me to reserve a place. If you don't have the email address already, please use the contact box.
These sessions will involve looking closely at other people's poems, as well as various writing exercises. Any readback is optional. There will be follow-up in the form of optional interaction on one of your own poems.
More detailed information to be shared nearer the time.