I’ve taken a number of online courses, some I’ve really enjoyed, others have been really frenetic and after a busy day at work I’ve found them a bit full on. The slower paced ones where each participant has time to chew over other poets’ work and feel comfortable with what they are able to contribute are more me. I have decided participating in an online chat (with a glass of wine to hand), or giving feedback in a forum on a lazy weekend are the most beneficial to me. The feedback received has always been incredibly useful from both the tutor and the other poets and I hope mine is of value too. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to be asking tutors of online courses what they think about them, why they do them and what they get from them.
First up is Bill Greenwell who was my tutor on the very first online course I did around 7 or 8 years ago. I have subsequently participated in a number of his “clinic”.
What do you think is the appeal of online courses/clinics?
That can vary enormously. Some like the anonymity. Some like the online friendship. Some find them cheaper. I’ve run online courses since 2002 and the ‘clinic’ (I called my course this as a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of making it different), and the attraction does vary hugely from course to course and group to group. But what all writers (if they wish to contribute) want is feedback, or, in some cases, to see feedback, and they want it to be constructive.
But one thing I’m sure of: they are generally better than two hour workshops/ classes in real time. I used to teach (and watch others teach) evening classes, and quite often, everyone was really waiting for their bit of feedback. Suppose you have 15 people, and 120 minutes (not unusual). That means that everyone is waiting for their 8 minutes in the sun, and being nice about the other 112 minutes. Of course that’s a simplification, and there are teacherly strategies to improve that, but I’ve seen it turn out like that. I remember the enormous feeling of liberation I got after 28 years as a classroom teacher, when students could dispense with small talk, and I could focus on the work itself. It was really, really liberating. (The downside – thought it didn’t feel like it – was that, as a teacher, you often worked such weird and long hours that your effective pay became minimal. But that’s my look-out.)
What can a new student/poet expect from an online clinic?
I think I might copyright the word ‘clinic’. I can only really write about my own online course, I mean clinic. But all students can find that a) that they can be heard/ read, and b) that the teacher (me) can respond to them considerately and c) that the work becomes the focus. I always have a part of a forum (or whatever the word is) for chat. If you don’t, it’s just too informal. The main part has to be quite formal, by which I don’t mean stuffy.
Here’s how mine got going. I devised an online course for poets called Poetry Form and Experiment – it was an accredited course at the time – with seven sections (weeks) that had tasks and eight sections (weeks) where writers worked as individuals. The students were international as well as living in the next street. The second group, which had 14 students, was the one where I got the system right (I think). Every time I logged on, it was like a party going on. People were posting generously, and starting to critique each other a little. I found I was able to offer some general and some individual feedback. It was an astonishing group. I was new to higher education and I’d pitched it too low (‘level 1’). Consequently, the final submissions were scoring marks up in the 90s (I thought). My manager was appalled. ‘We don’t go much over 70,’ she said (70 being the normal distinction threshold – the Open University, for whom I’ve worked since 2007, uses 85). So I gave her a piece I’d given 92, and sent her away to read it. She was a bit astonished by the talent. The student (a well-known poet now) kept her mark and won a strange historical prize for being student of the year. I loved that group. They all stayed, they all enjoyed it, there was a lot of humour, and I learned to teach on the web. And 15 of us hit the forum more than 3000 times, a record since broken (4000).
Later the university in question discontinued accredited online courses, and so I had to re-invent what I did, what I could offer. I did something very simple. I took all the content out. The content became what the students put in. As it stands, what happens is this: a participant (‘student’ is somehow wrong) can post one poem a week for ten weeks. Unless I’m pressed for time, usually a second one is okay, but I make no promises. They upload a poem, and I download it. I don’t read any of their blurbs. In the meantime, anyone who chooses (and they can choose not to) can offer their point of view. I don’t read these till after I’ve commented. What do I comment on? Anything, really, that isn’t (as I think) working. It might be structural, it might be over-writing, it might be a lack of logic, it might be grammar. I am not good at saying how brilliant things are in detail (I do do it, but I’ve set it up so I point at what needs fixing or debating). Sometimes – and this is a bit controversial – I re-write the poems, although it’s not the words I’m changing, just cutting and re-structuring.
What has happened is that the writers – the regulars especially, and I think one person has done it ten times – often make different and often more pertinent points than me. Very occasionally I will say this. Usually not. It has to be democratic: I am not the expert here (inner voice: yes I am mostly). It gets too complex to comment on comments.
I was taught long ago that marking up in red was hostile, so I mark in a restful blue, sometimes pink. I keep red for spelling errors.
How often does yours run?
Twice a year, ten weeks, October and January starts.
How many students are on each course and what do they go on to do?
10-14. Usually 10-12. Some go on to write privately. Some get published in small magazines. More than a dozen have now published at least one collection. Several have won prizes. Some come back for more. Some go on to do MAs in Creative Writing. It’s become a kind of community now. I don’t want to take any credit as such, other than for being a good editor, a good asker of questions, and suggester of alternatives. People in the clinics boost each other, and all I’m trying to do is to reveal their ability. My role is to be honest, straight and polite. Sometimes it’s incomprehensible that they’re too shy to get published. There are some more who must be on the verge of having a collection now.
But it’s vital that I say that I work with what they write. If there are comic light verse poets, that’s fine; if there are confessional poets, that’s fine. There are no rules other than that I take the poems, and the poets, as they present themselves. I guess what I’m doing is a gentle sort of mentoring. And you do get to know the style of the writers, and sometimes, I’ve said, move on. Mostly I live with their personalities as poets.
How much time (on average) does it take you to crit a poem?
No idea. It can be five minutes, it can be an hour. That’s the beauty of online teaching: sometimes you need to let the poem linger longer in your head. And I don’t really crit a poem, I just comment on it, make suggestions. I can think of more than one poem where I’ve just written ‘so get it published’. The hardest are re-writes, as you have to get your head round the changes.
Do you find it helps or hinders your own writing?
I don’t know. It’s quite hard to write while offering opinions on writing, but if you are part of a community of writers, and that’s how I’d like to be seen, then their talent is going to spur you on later. My writing comes from my mood; I’m sporadic. I’ve written despite teaching/ hosting a clinic, but have also been unable to write. On balance it helps, though not at the time.
Thanks so much Bill. Bill is the author of Ringers and Impossible Objects both published by Cinnamon Press and Spoof from Here Press. He is co-author of A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice, A & C Black Publishers Ltd.