If you’ve never taken poetry workshops online, it can be hard to tell if they’re worth your time and money. In this article, we’ll discuss eight things to know before signing up, so you can be sure whether online poetry writing classes are right for you.
What to know before taking poetry classes online
1. Online poetry classes offer more community than you might think
My first time sharing a poem in an (in-person) workshop was terrifying: I was 19, maybe 20, and had never even tried to write my own poem, let alone handed it over to a room full of strangers. I don’t remember what I wrote–something about stairs, I think. But I do remember the care and attention that my classmates brought to my work, and that I brought to theirs, and the relationships that grew from that workshop and continued for years. Years later, when I was leading in-person workshops for my own university students, I got to see that same camaraderie develop for them.
Community is essential for writers. Writing itself is such a solitary activity–just you and your thoughts and the page–that it can be easy to get discouraged, lose accountability and motivation, or just plain feel lonely. Discussing your writing with other people who care deeply about the art serves as an important reminder that you’re not just talking to yourself: writing may be solitary, but reading brings us together.
When I first started teaching online poetry classes, I was a bit apprehensive: how could online poetry writing classes allow for the same kind of community-building that I’d seen in in-person classes? I was pleasantly surprised to find that, if anything, my online poetry courses were more tight-knit: the online format and self-scheduled hours allowed students to give and receive more feedback on more poems than they would in a typical in-person class. And because of that, the students got to know one another—and one another’s work—in greater depth.
2. Taking poetry classes online is a lot of (fun!) work
There’s a persistent myth that poets are people who go off into the woods, think deeply, and come back to their desks just long enough to jot down their fully formed works of genius. As someone interested in poetry classes online, you know that this myth is silly—writing is hard work!
In an online poetry writing class, reading is hard work too. “Writerly reading” is very different than the way we normally read—different than the way you’re reading this article. When you’re reading as a writer, you’re not just reading for information or for story. Reading as a writer means reading that way, plus engaging with the text in an extremely hands-on way in order to understand it.
The poet William Carlos Williams described a poem as a machine made out of words. Reading like a writer means becoming a mechanic: if ordinary reading is like driving a car, then writerly reading is like taking apart the engine and giving it a tuneup.
So what does that mean in practice? Taking poetry workshops online means not just writing your own new poems each week, but also reading and giving feedback on everyone else’s. Not only that, but you’ll likely be revising your poems based on all the feedback that you receive each week.
It’s hard work, but it’s the best way to improve your own work and to help your cohort improve theirs.
Check Out Our Upcoming Poetry Writing Courses!
From Writing Circle to Finished Poem: Turn Raw Writing into Poetry (Session 3, Mondays and Fridays at Noon Pacific Time)
with Susan Vespoli
August 11th, 2021
Gather together in a virtual writing circle, hit the mute button on your internal editor, and uncover inspiration to shape into poetry.
In Bloom: Nature Writing Workshop
with Dana De Greff
August 18th, 2021
Want to write about nature like Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau, or Annie Dillard? Join us for this six week nature writing course.
Crafting the Poetry Novel: Advanced Workshop
with Kelly Bingham
September 1st, 2021
Want to make headway on your poetry novel? This workshop offers the structure and resources to get it done, with instructor Kelly Bingham.
Writing Mindfulness: Sensual World/Poetry Mind
with Marc Olmsted
September 8th, 2021
A four-week class, melding the language mind with the sensual: How to turn detailed observation into a poem. With Marc Olmsted.
Poetic Prose: The Prose Poem
with Barbara Henning
November 10th, 2021
Explore the border between prose poetry and flash fiction. For writers of fiction, poetry, essay and memoir.
Building a Career as a Literary Artist
with Lyzette Wanzer
January 26th, 2022
Not sure how to start building a literary career? By the end of this course, you'll have tackled the author's bio, C.V., LinkedIn, and more!
3. Good online poetry writing classes mean lots of constructive criticism
If you’re thinking about signing up for poetry workshops online, you should know that online poetry writing classes involve a lot of constructive criticism—and that’s a good thing!
Even the best writers have to try again and again to get things right. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms over 40 times before he was satisfied; when asked what the problem was, he said, “Getting the words right.”
It took Robert Frost, one of the most famous poets of the last century, over twenty years to finish revising this sonnet!
The kind of feedback you get in an online poetry writing course will help you figure out how to go about “getting the words right.” And while it may seem intimidating or unpleasant at first, you’ll likely find that you value all of your classmates’ feedback—both positive and negative—very highly. In fact, I still have every critique letter I received during my MFA workshops filed away in a big drawer—I’ve carried them with me through 4 or 5 moves!
4. Taking poetry workshops online involves even more reading than writing
When you sign up for online poetry writing classes, you’ll spend at least as much time reading in your genre as you will writing in it. Many people who take online poetry courses don’t expect how much time they’ll spend reading published poems, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
Imagine you wanted to learn to build a house, but you’d never seen someone do it before. You could probably figure it out, eventually, through trial and error. But you’d get much better, much faster (and have the walls tip over much less) if you watched some expert carpenters, studied what they did, and then put it into practice yourself. The same approach works for learning to build a poem.
Don’t worry if you don’t know many poems at the beginning—most people don’t, and a good online poetry writing class instructor will help you find poems you love. What matters is your interest and willingness to learn.
If you want to start reading right away, there are tens of thousands of wonderful classic and contemporary poems available for free online from the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets.
5. There’s no consensus on what makes writing good
Some beginning poetry classes online students worry there’s something wrong with them because they don’t “get” a particular published piece of poetry. If you’re considering an online poetry writing class, you should know that there’s a lot of disagreement on what makes a poem “good,” and there’s nothing wrong with not liking this or that famous poem.
T.S. Eliot, one of the most recognized poets and critics of the last century, famously called Shakespeare’s Hamlet— widely considered one of the world’s great masterpieces—a “dramatic failure.” Mark Twain despised the work of Jane Austen, writing that “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Poet Stanley Kunitz’s Selected Poems was rejected by eight publishers. Eventually a press did pick it up—and it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Think of it this way: you know that just because most critics liked a particular movie doesn’t mean you will. And you may not like the restaurant local foodies are raving about, if it doesn’t suit your personal taste. The same thing goes for poetry: we all have different tastes, and one of the most valuable parts of an online poetry writing class is learning what you do and don’t like in a poem.
6. Different people have different reasons for taking online poetry courses
Students join online poetry classes for all kinds of reasons. Some students want to explore a new genre, others want to prepare for MFA programs, and still others want to get their work ready for publication.
In my online poetry writing classes, students are often surprised when I suggest that they can and should pursue publication. While I always provide information about how to get published, I never push students to do it. Some people want to publish; others don’t.
When you sign up for online poetry courses, think about what’s important to you, and be ready to learn from others with different goals.
7. Online poetry classes are useful for fiction writers and essayists, too
Even if poetry isn’t your primary genre, an online poetry writing class can still be very valuable for your work. Online poetry writing classes encourage you to examine writing extremely closely, thinking in fine detail about how seemingly small changes to a word (or even a punctuation mark) can dramatically change the poem as a whole.
Put another way, online poetry courses help you learn to find the best possible way of saying something—whether in poetry or in prose. While taking poetry classes online won’t involve detailed discussions of story structure, character, dialogue, and so on, online poetry classes can be invaluable in mastering beautiful prose style.
8. It matters who teaches your online poetry writing course
Before you sign up for online poetry classes, check out the instructor’s work and make sure that you’d feel comfortable taking writing advice from them. It’s not that you need to find a online poetry writing classes instructor with exactly the same aesthetic preferences as you. Nor do you need to be absolutely in love with your instructor’s work. But if you can’t stand the instructor’s work, their online poetry classes likely won’t be a good fit for you!
That said, it’s useful to have a wide range of perspectives on your work, and taking multiple online poetry writing classes with very different instructors can help you to think about your poems in new ways. For instance, one of my most influential poetry mentors is a very traditional poet, and the other is highly experimental. In learning from both of them, I was able to build my own unique style—just like you’ll learn to do in your online poetry classes.
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