How to Give Feedback on a Poem

How do you give feedback to another poet? It’s a good question and something that students often ask about. How do you give feedback while respecting the poet’s original vision? How do you give feedback if you find something in the poem troubling, negatively biased, or just “off”? How do you give feedback that encourages the poem to move with innovation, not just conform in the direction of what you’ve seen before?

Those new to workshop and feedback exchange may also be wondering about how to articulate anything to say. It can be hard, at first, to figure out how to make observations about a poem and to determine what a poet would benefit from hearing.

Here’s a quick and dirty list of some questions to pose to yourself as you compile feedback for a poet. As you go through these questions, some of the feedback may be useful to leave as annotations (notes) alongside the body of the poem. Other observations are best delivered within a summative note/feedback letter to the poet at the end of the poem:

  • Start with writing down a list of objective observations. How many stanzas are there? How many lines are in each stanza? Do the lines of the poem tend to be long or short? What is the point of view (first person, second person, etc.)? What is the poem about? (You could summarize the “plot” in one or two sentences, “this poem uses images of a family of ducks as an extended metaphor for talking about the speaker’s own family.”) Mirroring the poem back to the poet can be extremely helpful. When you start with stating the obvious, not only are you getting your bearings within the poem as a reader, you are bringing back into light what the poet may have forgotten about during the drafting process. Hearing these things again can be helpful to them.
  • Is the poem missing anything? Writers often forget to draft a title. Maybe there is just one mega-stanza and the writer didn’t have a chance to experiment with stanza breaks. You can point these things out, phrased as questions.
  • Phrase critiques as questions. If you’re a fellow writer, you know that it can feel harrowing to receive feedback from other people on a piece of writing. One of the ways to be sensitive to this is to phrase your critiques as questions. “Have you thought of title ideas yet?” is different from “there’s no title.” “What are you trying to express in this last line?” is different from “the last line confused me.” Critique-as-question is a technique many of us learn when we become teachers because it encourages the writer to think analytically about their own work instead of us telling them what to do. And that analytical thinking is also what we’re trying to encourage each other to do during workshop. I should mention here that I’m not suggesting you encode overly critical statements as questions just to “soften” them deceitfully. Instead, I’m suggesting that, as you offer feedback, asking the writer questions is ultimately more helpful than providing a list of direct statements. It respects the writer’s original vision for their work.
  • Point out things that rub you the wrong way. I think that if a poem comes across as racist or sexist or hurtful in another way, you should tell the writer. In my 10+ years of writing workshops, I have found that most people want to know if their work is offensive. I have also found, most of the time, people don’t realize they are coming across this way and are grateful to know that they need to change their approach, especially before they share the poem with a wider audience. For some readers in workshop, it can feel awkward to point out these things to the writer, especially if you are a member of the group the piece is biased against. Each situation is different, and I encourage you to think carefully and critically about how to call out a writer in workshop while maintaining your own emotional safety and integrity. Phrasing like, “I’m not sure you were aware yet of how this stanza came across. To me as a reader, this was sexist because of…” is an approach I have used. It can also be helpful to be as specific as possible. Why is the poem ableist, transphobic, racist, etc.? Is it a single word or epithet is used? Is it the relationship of speaker and objectified subject? Writing workshop is a community-building activity, and just as in any community, negative biases and stereotypes will come up and they must be addressed. Very occasionally, there is a bad actor in workshop who is just there to antagonize the other writers. In this case, I recommend talking with trusted mentors about how to handle the situation. The books Craft in the Real World and The Antiracist Creative Writing Workshop have helped me learn how to deal with these concerns in my own writing and classroom facilitating, and I’d recommend these books to, well, everyone who writes or works with writers.
  • Brainstorm possibilities. Most of us are on a continual journey to try and write more and expand our vision. This is why it can be helpful in workshop to suggest ways for a writer to expand outward. “This is a cool villanelle. Have you thought about writing a series of these on the same topic?” or “The strong energy in this poem makes it feel like the opening poem of a chapbook” or even “I wanted to know what happens next! I’m excited to read more!” can be motivating and useful feedback for a writer. If you don’t express this, how will the poet know you felt that way?
  • There are good things to say. There is something positive to say about just about every poem, even if the good thing is just a single image or a cool word. Searching for the thing you love about a poem (and yes, I honestly believe that every person could find something interesting or worthwhile in just about any poem, if they looked hard enough) can help reframe workshop when it gets stale. Identifying a good thing can help guide you into a wider, authentic analysis of a piece you’ve received in workshop.

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