Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Writer's Life: 10 Tips on a Giving a Successful Poetry Workshop

I taught a workshop with Lillias Bever at the Frye Art Museum this past Saturday.The workshop was free to the public and sponsored by the museum and 4Culture which had awarded us both grants for ekphrastic work. According to a few students who wrote me to say how much they learned, the day seems to have been a success. Honestly, both Lillias and I spent an enormous amount of time planning this event - and it was based on a lecture and workshop I had given before --- so what did we learn this time around?

1. Write out a schedule! Make every minute count! The topic of poetry and visual art expanded as we studied more and more. We wanted to give our students lots of information without overwhelming them. Two and a half hours flew by. We had a schedule for the day broken into ten minute intervals.

2. Hand-outs are crucial. Ours was whittled down to fourteen pages! We included a section on further reading, helpful websites, and favorite ekphrastic poems. When we found ourselves having to let part of the workshop go, we consoled ourselves with "it's in the handout; we can mention it!"

3. Do-it-yourself registration is easy with Yahoo. Easy, yes, but also time consuming. The museum wanted us to handle all questions etc, and we had a limit on how many students we wanted in an intimate workshop. I created a Yahoo account for the event where people could email us if they wanted to sign-up. The trouble was that people have questions about parking, directions to the studio space, etc. I would use Yahoo again, but create a few simple emails that would answer frequently asked questions -- now that I know what those are.

4. Balance exercises with information. There was so much cool information we found out about the history of ekphrasis -- as well as contemporary examples. We needed to let particpants write poems, read some poems, and then move into the poems we brought as examples -- always coming back to how what others accomplished could be useful as writing strategies for our group.

5.  Powerpoints can be useful; and are easy to create. For a workshop on the relationship of poetry to the visual arts, the powerpoint was so useful!
Before everyone went off to the galleries, we did an exercise using this painting, "The Bride" by Marc Chagall.

6. Teach what you love - the energy will transfer to your students. It felt like I gave myself a crash course on the different types of ekphrasis in the week leading up to the workshop. I already knew quite a bit, but I wanted to learn more. One young woman wrote to me after the workshop saying that my energy for the topic had been contagious and she left feeling invigorated about her own work and with much  more to read and discover.

7. Don't be surprised if you are exhausted by this kind of intensive teaching. I teach full time at a local college and so I didn't expect to be so exhausted at the end of this half day workshop - boy, was I ever wrong. I fell asleep in the late afternoon and it really took me two days to recover. This type of one off workshop feels more like an acting job.

8. Publicity matters. We had hoped for about 15 students but ended up having 20 and a long waiting list  as well! Okay - so it was free! Still, we had no idea so many people would be interested. We tried to see if one of our many publicity tactics brought in the most students, but it seemed we got one or two people from --- posters in bookshops, website of the museum, students who had worked with me before, my Facebook page! In other words, make sure you get the word out early and often! We went from being concerned there wouldn't be enough people to having to turn poets away.

9. Remember, joy! We needed to do publicity, registration, directions -- the whole sheebang. Before we began we needed to get new energy for our actual subject - poems inspired by visual art. It's as if I taught myself a class that contained at least twice as much as what we could actually use.

10. Keep in touch! Many people asked when we would be teaching again and to be kept on a mailing list. I usually forget about this kind of follow-up, but this time I am going to try. In the next few months I am teaching many workshops (although none for free) and I promised myself to actually make a list.

I hope this list is helpful. If I wrote this tomorrow, I might add in other elements, but this is what I am thinking of tonight. Working with someone else forced us both to be much more schedule oriented than one person alone might have been. The benefit to the group was that they got two teachers and we packed in even more information. Would love to hear what others do for giving workshops. What tips would you add here?


  1. Wow, Susan-- very informative! Thank you!

  2. Hi Kelli,

    You are a pro! I can't imagine this is anything you didn't already know. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. great information. i don't know if you know about slideshare. it's an online app that allows you to upload powerpoints and make the visible, downloadable and embeddable. (i hope those last two 'able' words are real words.)

  4. Hi Nancy,
    Can you explain embeddable. What would be an example? I don't know about this - thanks!

  5. Susan, very helpful - and congratulations on a successful (if exhausting) workshop!