What Benefits Do We Gain When We Share Poetry Together? An Interview with Redbud poets

Image screen capture of Redbud poetry feedback group. Top row from left: Margaret Philbrick, Melanie Weldon-Soiset, and Cheryl Bostrom. Bottom row from left: Sarah Guerrero, Catherine McNiel, and Prasanta Verma. Not pictured: Tasha Burgoyne, Amanda Taylor, Tammy Perlmutter, and Debbie Harris.

How would you describe the summer of 2020? What images and words come to mind? For me, I see my fingers curling around a cobalt blue pen, my knuckles dried out from floods of hand sanitizer. I’m sitting on a bench by a local river on a sunny June afternoon. A few days before, the White House had unlawfully tear-gassed peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors just a few miles from my home; our President committed this violent act in order to clear a path to a nearby church for a photo shoot with a Bible. How could I respond to this idolatrous abuse of God’s Word, as well as to the rage that was boiling within me? In response, the Lord invited me to listen to the words that were also bubbling up inside. Those words, those cathartic words of fist-raising lament, came out in the form of a poem. 

Just as it did last summer, poetry continues to have high stakes for me. Poetry is what keeps me up at night. Finding God through poetry has become my pearl of great price this season. And while the act of writing verse can be an intensely personal one, I believe poems can also gain value when we share them with others. Last year, God invited me to start and to facilitate several poetry feedback groups that meet virtually once a month. One of those groups is with my colleagues here in the Redbud Writers Guild.

I’ve asked my fellow Redbud poets to offer their thoughts about why they first felt led to join the group, as well as what our shared feedback time has meant to them. Here are their responses:  

  1. Tell me about a specific memory you have of when you first wanted to join the Redbud poetry feedback group. What attracted you to this opportunity? What goals did you have for joining this group? 

“Honestly, I’ve been longing for a poetry group consisting of trustworthy peers who also understand my Christian context. Having been in the Guild for more than a decade, I knew as soon as Melanie announced the opportunity, that I would “stop, drop and roll” right into it. My goal is still the same, to expand my knowledge of poetry forms and voices while refining my work in the midst of people far more talented and further along as a poet than myself.”

—Margaret Philbrick

“I have LONG wanted to be in a writing feedback group. I’ve been both curious and hesitant: what if it’s awful or embarrassing or weird, a total waste of time? But I’d promised myself to learn to walk in community as a writer, so when I saw an invitation to this group, I joined.”

 —Sarah Guerrero

“I was brand new to the Redbud Writers Guild when I read the invitation to members: Let’s talk poetry. Once a month, members could submit their poems or simply join the group to respond to those submitted and to discuss the process used to create them. I replied within seconds, enthused about hearing the hearts and minds of my new friends through their poetry, and grateful to receive input that would allow me to grow in my own craft.”

—Cheryl Bostrom

“I joined the group because I was looking forward to reading and sharing poetry with others who have a similar interest. I was hoping for feedback on my poetry, as well. Hearing comments from the group after we share a poem is enlightening, interesting, and informative. We do not write poetry in a vacuum; when we write our poems, we are often writing in solitude. We have an idea in our own heads, but is that idea coming across in the medium of the poem.

“Even if a poet doesn’t have a poem to share a particular month (we take turns, giving everyone a chance every other month), it’s valuable to listen and participate; poets join in monthly because it is a joy, even if our own poems aren’t being read that month. We aren’t experts; we are all learning and growing, but we learn and grow together, and the collective feedback sharpens us as we continue to develop this craft. Participating in a poetry critique group has long been a dream of mine.”

—Prasanta Verma

  1. What changes have you noticed—in your poetry process and/or style, as well as your walk with God—since you’ve started the group? 

“I’m definitely aware of a sharpened desire to edit my poems based upon the wise feedback of group members. Usually, I’d let a poem simmer longer on the burners of my brain until some random action motivated me to revisit it. Now I take notes when the members are speaking during our group, and then I try to address their comments right away. All of my poems have improved given participation in the group. I’m also thinking about submitting poems for publication, when I didn’t imagine myself doing that in the past. Most of my poetry is based on nature, and being a part of the group has inspired me to get out into the woods more and pray while walking, photographing, and observing to see what God desires to show me out there.”

—Margaret Philbrick

“I’ve only had the privilege of joining one feedback meeting (#kidsandpandemic), but I was humbled and hugely inspired by the level of talent in both the poets and the feedback, as well as the sense that I FOUND MY PEOPLE! I forgot how much I loved poetry. I forgot how much I loved words. I forgot how much I loved writing! I feel recharged.”  

—Sarah Guerrero

“Ever since I joined, our gatherings have been a highlight of each month. I’ve loved becoming acquainted with these beautiful women and have found them to be curious, respectful, creative, and wise. Their questions and insights stretch and plumb my own, and I come away with fresh eyes for my own poems and for those of other presenters.

“I’ve participated in other poetry groups in years past, but for me as a Christ-follower, this one offers loving safety like no other. That ambiance encourages me, and it gives me freedom to experiment with forms and ideas, as well as the courage to risk exposing the raw heart of my inspiration, even before a poem is fully formed. I’m thankful.”

—Cheryl Bostrom

 ”It’s valuable for me to hear how others hear and perceive an entire piece, a particular line, or a particular phrase. One thing I’ve started doing is reading my poetry aloud to myself to hear how it sounds. In the group, the poet reads her poem, and then listens quietly to feedback, without commenting. It’s a discipline to listen and take it all in—but valuable. As writers seeking to develop our crafts and techniques, hearing what others perceive is a gift. There is no pressure to take the suggestions and implement them; each poet is, after all, the author of her own piece and knows what she intends to convey. Joining in this poetry group is a small way of doing community via our writing.”

—Prasanta Verma

**********

It’s no wonder God loves to show up when we share poetry together. The Bible itself is filled with poetry, such as the entire Book of Psalms, as well as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 (often considered to be some of the oldest language in the entire Bible). In fact, Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we ourselves are poems when it declares, “for we are God’s handiwork (poiēma).” As someone who grew up in the church, and has also served as a pastor, I’ve discovered there’s something uniquely sacred about offering each other the gift of our verse. 

For those who are looking for opportunities to share poetry in community, I have a couple of suggestions: firstly, as professor Diana Glyer advised during a recent Trinity Forum talk on “The Inklings, Creativity, and Community” be sure to “pray big, and start small.” Name your desires to God, and be willing to start a group even with just one or two friends. It’s helpful to agree upon norms and expectations ahead of time. 

Secondly, I invite you to sign up for my free poetry and prayer newsletter. I’m working on a guide for those who want to start their own poetry feedback groups, and will announce once it’s ready via the newsletter. I plan to offer virtual poetry events later this year, as well as other poetry-related resources and reflections. I also intend to offer some interactive book clubs around the topics of creativity and faith, and may start more poetry feedback groups similar to the Redbud one mentioned here. My newsletter is the first and best place to learn about all of these opportunities. 

I’ll conclude with a blessing I’ve written for the hands of a poet: the hands of God’s handiwork, and hands that I hope may know healing after all the sanitizer we’ve needed this year. 


This article was originally published on The Redbud Post.

 

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