When poetry meets technology: coaching poets over Skype

The Poetry Society, based in the UK, hosts hour-long mentoring sessions for poets in need of feedback and encouragement. These meetings have been dubbed “Poetry Surgeries.”

Poet Katrina Naomi had been running Poetry Surgeries for the Poetry Society face-to-face for a few years before she realized that Skype would be ideal for garnering more interest from poets in need of help from around the world.

“I live in the far west of Cornwall and I’d already begun mentoring people privately via Skype,” she says. “People from the USA, Peru, and France were getting in touch with me via my website and asking for mentoring on their poetry, and this was working well so I thought it would be worth trying via the Poetry Society too.”

Another British poet, Heidi Williamson, noticed there were lots of great tutors and ways to get in-person time with other poets in Norfolk where she lives, but resources were few in rural areas outside of the big cities in the UK. So she too began providing poetry advice on Skype, and was soon mentoring people world-wide.

For both Katrina and Heidi, helping poets find their own way with words is the point of the Skype Poetry Surgeries.

“Every writer has strengths it’s good to know about, and areas they’d love to develop,” says Heidi. “It’s a bit like learning a new language; one you’ve been aware of since birth but not necessarily pursued. You can be very good at ‘hearing’ great poetry, but less sure how to make those sounds yourself. The Surgery helps with that, looking at the language, techniques, craft and processes that can get a writer closer to how they want to write.”

“Talking about your writing is very personal and can be scary, especially for someone new to it,” says Heidi. “It can be tricky with email feedback to get the tone right so the person understands exactly where you’re coming from, and on the phone it can be hard to interpret the silencesare they thinking, waiting for you to speak, gone to get a pen? Face-to-face discussion on Skype is more reassuring. You can see that the other person is listening attentively, perhaps smiling, encouraging. It’s easier to be warm and helps with rapport.”

Katrina, however, prefers Skype voice call over video: “I tend not to turn the camera on, I prefer to really focus on listening to people and on responding to what it is that they need. I’m not so keen on being viewed over a computer screen, so I use Skype for voice calls and that works well for me and, I believe, for the people that I mentor.”

So how do the Poetry Surgeries on Skype work?

For Heidi, a writer sends up to six poems (or 150 lines of poetry) a week in advance of their Skype call. She then makes notes, suggestions, and recommendations for things to read or new techniques to think about.

“In the Poetry Surgery itself, we go through each of the poems in detail. They might have a bit they’re unsure of, want to know if the story is clear, question if certain techniques are working for the reader.

“It’s very much a two-way conversation, getting into the nitty-gritty of word-by-word and line-by-line commenting, editorial suggestions and changes to try.”

For Katrina, the process is a little different. “I email the person beforehand, with some comments on the poems that they’ve sent me, so we’ve already had that contact,” she says. “In the feedback session via Skype usually people want to ask questions about my comments and to go through the poems with me again. Sometimes people want to talk about their development as a poet and ask for my advice and suggestions. I really enjoy this part of mentoring.”

Heidi recalls one memorable moment on Skype included a client who had a sudden power-cut right at the height of a major point in their discussion.

“These things make you smile,” says Heidi, “And you’re keen to find each other and be wholly present again. A small reunion in the midst of the hour…”

Memorable moments for Katrina fall when she’s mentoring someone and hears them change their view on something, taking new risks they might not have taken. “That always feels great,” she says.

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