Ten Tips For starting a Poetry Discussion Group in your Library

by Alice Kociemba

  Alice Kociemba introducing Mark Doty at Calliope Reading Series

Recently, Mass Poetry’s website shared exciting news from the National Endowment for the Arts: Nearly 29 million adults in the United States read poetry not required for work or school. It is the highest rate ever recorded during the 15-year period in which the NEA has conducted the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

As the founding director of “Calliope—Poetry for Community,” I have been privileged to see some of this firsthand. Calliope began in 2008 as a reading series to present work from poets not just on Cape Cod (where the series was held), but from around the state as well. It soon drew a core audience whose enthusiasm for poetry led to Calliope’s expansion—first into the development of professionally led workshops, and ultimately to the creation of a poetry reading group. That group, open to poets and non-poets alike, still meets the first Friday of every month at the Falmouth Public Library. Every month, it chooses a different poet, a list that has now grown to 80 poets—male and female, young and old, with a range of styles.  

I still facilitate the meetings, and it still thrills me to see new faces appear, and to watch their initial shyness disappear as the poetry works its magic. This caused me to wonder: What if every library in the Commonwealth had a monthly poetry discussion group? Imagine how many more people within our communities would experience how much poetry matters, and how it breaks down barriers of isolation, ignorance and indifference that divide and separate us.

So this is a call to action for my fellow poets, to volunteer to work with their local libraries to expand the audience for poetry.  To help with that, below are some tips for facilitating such a group, based on my own experience.

1. National Poetry Month (April) is an obvious time to launch a poetry program. Try choosing a particular book to discuss. The Falmouth group originated from a National Poetry Month discussion of Edward Hirsch’s book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. The participants really did fall in love with poetry and asked me if an ongoing monthly poetry discussion group could continue. Obviously, it could and did.

Other books that could be used to test the interest in an ongoing poetry discussion group include Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry, and Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, just to name a few.

2. Plan a community “Favorite Poems” reading as a kick-off event. Started by Robert Pinsky after he was appointed the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, the Favorite Poem Project is devoted to “celebrating, documenting, and encouraging poetry’s role in our lives.” Several anthologies and a series of short videos offer poems volunteered from readers of all ages, in all walks of life. The videos of people reading their favorite poems can be found on their website. Invite people in your community to share their own choices, and show some of the Favorite Poem videos to set the tone. Have a sign-up sheet for attendees who may want to meet and continue to read contemporary poetry.

3. Host a New Year’s tribute to poets who have died during the past year or so. For example, the Falmouth reading group hosted a community tribute to Seamus Heaney. I was moved by how many people came to read their favorite Seamus Heaney poem and reflect on how his poetry spoke to their experience. (I wish we had hosted a similar tribute to Adrienne Rich and to Phillip Levine.)

4. Show and discuss a film or media presentation. Calliope recently presented a documentary film featuring the poetry and environmental activism of W.S. Merwin, Even Though the Whole World is Burning. Our book group chose his Garden Time for that month’s discussion, and we also facilitated a discussion after the screening.

You can also demonstrate the close reading of a poem by showing how the WGBH series Poetry in America works to deeply engage a reader in a single poem.

  Calliope Reading Series at Falmouth Public Library

Calliope Reading Series at Falmouth Public Library

5. Ask your local librarians about their needs and solicit their ideas. Donna Burgess, librarian at the Falmouth Public Library says, “One of the major goals of planning library programs for patrons is to expose them to a variety of ideas and generate interest not only in reading, but also in lifelong learning.” Poetry offers an excellent opportunity to achieve both aims.

6. Remember to incorporate diversity of voice and style. Each month our group agrees to read a poet’s body of work, alternating between male and female poets.  (We seem to remember the male poets more spontaneously than the women, which is why having a rule like this is so important.) Over the ten years, we have read 40 men and 40 women.

We do not usually recommend a specific book. Exceptions to this rule have been choosing Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard. We read Derek Walcott and Lucille Clifton back-to-back, and likewise Billy Collins and Jorie Graham. A diversity of voices and a range of poetic styles challenges our group to shift poetic gears.

7. Work collaboratively with other literary and artists groups, if possible. Yearly, Falmouth runs a special Falmouth Reads Together program, in which a book is selected as a community reading experience. Our group reads a certain poet or a book of poetry to coordinate with a given year’s selection. For example, we chose to read Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems when Falmouth chose a Civil War novel as its selection.  And we always choose to read one of Mass Poetry’s featured poets before the Festival. We also host a Common Threads discussion for the community. In these ways, we connect to the larger poetry community.

8. Whatever jumping off point you choose, find a convenient and regular time, and maintain an invitation for new members to be able to join a group. Remember, not all readers are writers of poetry. A balanced group is a mix of writers and readers, so members will approach poetry is a variety of ways. Some members respond primarily to the emotional context of the poem; some respond to visual images or language; some relate to aspects of craft, like repetition, lineation, and formal structure. Finding the balance between appreciation and analysis of the poet’s work is what our group strives toward.

An ideal size for a group is 10 – 12 members, many of whom will come and go according to their schedule. A core group of at least 6 members helps to create consistency and comfort in exploring a poet’s work.

9. Choose a leadership model that’s right for you. I would recommend one of two approaches.

The single facilitator model: The leader sends out email reminders and, to ensure maximum participation, keeps track of who presented poems during the last meeting; those who didn’t get a turn can go first when the group meets again. This model works well when people come with varying degrees of exposure to poetry. Members may read extensively, or just a few poems that are available on reputable online sources, such as the Poetry Foundation or the Academy of American Poets.

A rotating leadership model: Each member is responsible for selecting a poet, making a brief presentation about the poet’s work, and running the meeting. This is done in most book groups.

No matter what the model of facilitation, it is important to be “an encourager” rather than a didactic know-it-all. According to one of our group’s original members, the ideal trait of a leader is the ability “to draw out the thoughts of the members so that no one has to be an ‘expert.’”

10. Have FUN! If you answer this “call to action,” I promise you that this activity will be fun, without a lot of work! I have often said that our poetry discussion group has sustained my interest in poetry. When I read a poet’s work alone, I miss the excitement of hearing the work read aloud by other people who find connections to the poem that I often overlook. In addition, I often find that someone new to poetry or someone who does not write poetry will choose the more interesting poems to bring to the group. That fresh perspective keeps me engaged and curious.

And of course, for those of us writing poetry: The more you read, the better you write. What better incentive is there than that!

I would be glad to consult with anyone interested in starting a poetry discussion group at their local library. Feel free to contact me at calliopepoetrycommunity@gmail.com.