How to Cook Up a Poetry Jam (Guest Post by Daniel Ari)

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Please welcome Daniel Ari, who has offered up a guest post on how to start a poetry jam. Ari has been putting writing jams together since he was an undergrad. In the late 90s, he had a long-running group called "Poetry Slide," and nowadays, he hosts monthly sessions at home for reading and writing poems together.

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"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life," says Hemingway, which is fine if you like it that way. On the other hand, when poets share energy, the writing life can get even more rewarding.

Bruce Niedt makes an excellent case for writing in a group. Poeming together fuels creativity, sparks new ideas, and puts individuals in touch with sympathetic listeners. And while writers' retreats require large commitments of time and money, poetry jams can be informal, improvisational and affordable--even free.

Writing jams typically emphasize process over product. Since time is limited, revisions tend toward the minimal. If poets share their work, it's understood that the poems are rough, and no apologies are needed. Because of this, jammers can feel free to experiment, stretch and surprise themselves. Even if the quality of "the product" slips when written in company--as Hemingway fears--it benefits us as poets to bring awareness to our connection with our audience, our peers and our artistic tradition.

If you're inspired to find a group, searching online may turn up some options. But if you can't find a group you like, you can certainly start your own. Here are some tips for creating poetry jams:

Decide on a flavor. The sessions I like best are relaxed, inclusive, and process-oriented. My typical announcement emphasizes these aspects:

Let's get together for a relaxed session of reading and writing poetry. Bring a favorite poem to share if you wish. All levels welcome. Please invite others who would enjoy the group. (Donations accepted in cash or refreshments to share.)

Be clear about what you want from your group. If you're only inviting experienced poets, if the focus will be reading poetry, if you're looking for collaboration, or if the goal is to produce solid drafts; knowing what you want will help you attract the right writers.

Find a good place to spread out. Whether it's a cozy den, a sunny park, a kitchen table, or a multi-purpose room at your local library, the setting for your jam is important. It should be conducive both to conversation and to quietude. And for me, snacks and beverages are also necessities.

Prepare your ingredients. What do you do once the tribe is gathered, the pens are uncapped and the notebooks are open? Sometimes a group steers itself, and as a facilitator, I'm always ready to let the group decide what it wants to do. But it's also important to have some structure prepared. Here are elements I've used in poetry jams:

  • Check in: participants share thoughts about poetry or wishes for the group
  • Reading: a leader or several participants share poems for inspiration or as a keynote to a discussion
  • Discussion: the group mulls over some facet of art, creativity, or living poetically
  • Prompting: a leader or several participants propose one or more directions for writing, which could involve a theme, a poetic form, an activity, a word list, a language experiment, or any number of options
  • Writing: participants work independently for a set period of time
  • Sharing: participants have the option to share what they've written and receive feedback
  • More: multiple rounds of writing and sharing can happen depending on time and inclination
  • Logistics: scheduling the next meeting, sharing community announcements, etc.

Learn to share. I've found it helpful to review a few rules for creative feedback before sharing starts so that everyone can feel safe:

  1. The person who is sharing directs the feedback, asking for the kind of critique or input that he or she wishes to receive.
  2. Input should be given as "I" statements: "When I hear your poem, I think about..." not "Your poem is about..."
  3. Participants with specific edits should ask before offering the suggestion, e.g., "Would you like to hear an idea about your last stanza?"
  4. Insist on respect. End any feedback session if voices are rising and feelings are at risk of being hurt. It's okay to err on the side of caution, especially in new groups.

Happy Jamming!

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Thank you, Daniel! I know I feel inspired to test the waters sometime in the future after reading this post.

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