Q&A; with Robert Manaster by Millicent Borges Accardi

Let’s Spend Some Time Together: How to Start a Writers Group

Q&A with Robert Manaster by Millicent Borges Accardi

One Sunday a month, the Glass Room Poets gather to read, discuss poetry and to share literary news. We are a diverse group of talented poets whose gatherings end up being genuine and genial as well as a good deal of fun.

The poet/translator Robert Manaster founded this group in early 2003. In the ensuing ten years, they have developed into a strong core of dedicated writers. Within the last few years, the name Glass Room Poets has been adopted since they gather in a glass conference room at the Urbana library (University Illinois).

Fifteen years ago I met Robert online, and we have been each other’s poetry pen pals ever since: exchanging work, gripes, stories, and pep talks. Inspired by his writing group, six years ago, I began my own women’s writing group in West Los Angeles, so I thought his story about what it takes to sustain and maintain a successful long term writers group would be of interest to PQ readers.

MBA: What made you want to start a writing group?

RM: Here’s a brief history of my journey. I’d been in several poetry groups in the Champaign-Urbana area. The first one I joined was the Red Herring Poets, where anybody who came could just share a poem. The group welcomed anybody who wanted to join. It had a broad mix of poets– from beginners to more experienced writers. Its strength was its diversity of talent. Such breadth of expression! Its weakness was its diversity of talent. . .

Eventually, I moved on and joined the Sangamon poets. That was by invitation; I was sort of “discovered” or “acknowledged” as a poet. A lot of strong writers and their skill level appeared to be more uniformly higher than the previous group. I eventually discovered, though, I didn’t fit in well. A lot of it had to do with my writing ability– or lack thereof on a consistent basis! While I was not a beginner, I was really not in a place that intersected well with this group. . . I had too much energy invested in being a “poet” and wanting to be a “good-enough poet.”

{I began my own group because}. . . I wanted to connect with the poetry community– to give and receive response to poems and to participate more in a broader sense– to talk “shop,” so, I asked some of the poets whom I met before to see if they’d be interested in being in a poetry group. I specifically asked poets who I felt were serious about their writing and who could contribute both as writers AND readers.

MBA: What have been some successes of the Glass Room Poets?

RM: “Success” for me is less external success measured in the published outcome (books, awards, etc). We have only limited influence over external success. The publishing “game” is like baseball: It is a game of failure. The best hitters in the world, for instance, are doing great when they hit 30% of the time. 40% is practically unreachable. Think about it, these great players fail most of the time. What matters more, I think, is what you do with that failure. If you can learn from it and put yourself in the next at bat– always the next one– in position to have a hit– to learn from yourself and work with yourself (rather than rely on outside influence or fate), to build your skills and at the same time to have that integrity of character– that is what makes for great players, at any level and at any level of outcome. The same goes for writers. Any artist actually.

We’ve had people in our group as a natural progression of their process receive some outside success as well: publications, awards, etc. Glass Room Poets have included Janice Harrington, Karen Kowalski Singer, Elizabeth Majerus, Matt Murrey and Julie Price. Matt received an NEA (before group), Janice won the BOA first book award, Karen won a chapbook prize, Elizabeth is getting numerous publications, Julie places in Rattle’s recent competition, I have received a few residencies. We’ve all been published here and there in fairly decent places.

MBA: What are the logistics—where do you meet?

RM: We meet once a month, the first Sunday of the month in the afternoon. If we have at least 3 people– our core/”quorum” for a meeting– then we will have a meeting. Sometimes, another Sunday gets into the mix. And we vote on it. I usually make “executive” decisions, trying to be as fair as possible. Sometimes that involves not my first choice.

After we get an ok, by Friday or after, I usually announce that we are having the meeting at this time. Here is my understanding of who is coming, not coming, and who I haven’t heard from. No one is chastised for coming or not coming. The poet’s choice is un-imposed. I ask people to send the poems electronically to the group. It’s actually not required. It really is for the benefit of the writer, to give readers a chance to provide more thoughtful responses. However, it’s perfectly ok for a writer in our group to bring the poem on the day of the meeting.

MBA:  What’s a typical meeting like?

RM: Our meetings end up being divided into 2 kinds of exchanges: 1) About Poetry and 2) the Poems…. Depending on the feel and flow of the meeting, these exchanges can be in either order.

What happens? In “About Poetry” we share what in the poetry world is on our minds. It could be about the mechanics of what you sent out and what you’ve heard about submissions. It could be about a poem you read that you liked or didn’t like. About a book or magazine you liked or didn’t like. About a residency. About a conference. About a podcast. All sorts of things we’ve shared and continue to share. In “the poems,” we read the poems and respond. We generally do it in the following way:

  • Poet reads his or her poem
  • Another person reads the poem (we just started doing this second reading)
  • The group discusses the poem while the writer of the poem says nothing. Usually we say what works before what doesn’t work in the poem. I think this tone acknowledges the gifts in the poem and encourages the discussion to uncover ways in which the poem can work better to enhance the mentioned gifts or develop new ones.

Sometimes during the discussion, we may ask the writer something but generally we keep the writer out of it. It’s useful for the writer to hear the questions and the struggles and triumphs of the readers without any influence. . .except for the written (and said) word.
One of the questions that I do ask is where he or she is with this poem: Is it new? Is it something worked on for years? That helps with the kind of feedback I’d ideally like to give the writer. If a poem is new, for instance, I consciously try to sort through more the whole of the poem, and I omit details that can be made stronger or changed. In general, I very much respect the writer’s “struggle”– actually “process”– in the writing of a poem. What’s working so far? What may not be? Where is the voice the strongest? How the poem stands at that particular point. 

  • After the group feels it is done, the writer is then encouraged to respond, if desired.
  • A short discussion may follow

MBA: Can you describe how the group has grown? Or evolved? Like for example from maybe grad students to mid-life writers?

RM: Elizabeth mentioned an interesting point the other day. There is a difference in how we see each other through the years. As we continue, we see more sides to each poet. We get to see the range and depth of the poet. On the one hand, our responses then are more informed as well. We can detect (and encourage) when a poet steps out of his or her usual poetics and when the poet develops or uses his of her gifts. On the other hand, we have to be careful– in other words, acknowledge– and step out of that ring of familiarity in order to perceive the subtleties in a particular poem that perhaps we’d have no trouble noticing if read with fresh, unfamiliar eyes.

MBA: Have you had any problems? Disagreements?

RM: The biggest problem is sometimes getting people together to meet. We are all so busy!…. Rather than apathy, for some members, the group provides an incentive to write. That’s fine too. Overall, we stay together because the members in our group appreciate poetry. Ultimately, we have to write. It’s our natural choice.

MBA: Since this is for Poets’ Quarterly, can you share a short excerpt of your own work and how the group suggested edits?

RM: For me, there comes points in the process of writing a poem where I know I’ve got “it”– whatever “it” is, that indefinable quality that makes a particular poem, or part of a poem, work well– to do what the poem has been meant to do. So, I bring these poems where I think the “it”– or a good part of “it” is there.

Leaves Don’t Fall

They float-flail,

      Wincing the cloudy mind:

And some flattening winds

      Vortex them toward a vague

            Wind aground—

                  From there

               Where will they winter?

My group picked up on the sound and verbal flare. They liked it for that. They had slight trouble coming to grips with “flattening” though they felt it was strong. Their main question was the ending. Who cares where they winter? Why care? What’s at stake? They felt it wasn’t satisfying enough. All good points. And I’m especially with them on not being as satisfied with my ending. Looking back, I think I relied on the “heaviness” of this question (after the verbal flare) to lend weight to the poem. And it did add weight– just this time it was dead weight!

The poem ended up being as follows:

They float-flail

  Wincing the cloudy mind—

   From there,

     Wind-scritched aside

      Into the playground heart

        Of Morrissey Park,

      They’ll blend and gristle into ground.

   Yes, they float-flail

Then the flattening winds

  Vortex them toward a vague

     Wind along Windsor Road.

“Leaves Don’t Fall” appeared in Main Street Rag, Volume 18, Number 3, summer 2013

MBA: How do you maintain a non-judgmental environment?

RM: I’d like to think that I keep an eye out for the group’s sake and that I listen for the group’s sake. But, it’s just not me. . .we depend upon each other. Occasionally, I’ve asked for feedback and refocused on the group. Ok, where are we now? Do you like what we are doing? What could we do better? What worse? Any ideas for change?

We are together because everyone wants it to work, I think. And the other members do like it when I make “executive” decisions when the group is split. I’m fine with it, not so much because I’m on a power craze– far from it! But, I know I’m trying to be fair and looking out for the group, and I really do listen to what other have to say and look for compromise or an ease of flow for the group’s sake.

Robert Manaster‘s poems have appeared in many journals including Rosebud, Many Mountains Moving, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, The Literary Review and International Poetry Review. His co-translated poems have also appeared in various journals, such as Virginia Quarterly Review, The Dirty Goat and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He has been awarded several Illinois Arts Council grants as well as residencies at Ragdale, the Midwest Writing Center, and Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming. She also organizes the reading series Kale Soup for the Soul, Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her @TopangaHippie (on Twitter).