Last night, I met with my writing group, the Black Socks. They've been around in one form or another for 25 or 30 years and lots of good folks have moved through there. I joined maybe 6 years ago (??? Note to self- do research before starting blog posts) and they've been a huge help in my growth and success as a writer, such as it is. I get good, solid feedback about what is and isn't working in a poem, I hear a steady stream of poems in all kinds of stages from talented poets with very different voices and goals, and I have a twice a month deadline to have something done worth bringing. Never underestimate the pressure of showing up empty handed as a motivational tool.
All 3 of those factors are huge. We've all been in the middle of a poem and you can no longer tell what's working and what isn't. In fact, being able to identify what's functional and what's not in a poem is probably the biggest thing I've learned. That doesn't mean I don't get surprised sometimes by feedback, but I have a much better sense now of where poems need work and what's "done".
Seeing other people's poems in progress is powerful too. It's very intimate and you begin to get a sense of what order they build in and how the engine of the poem works. That helps me know what drives my own work and what's simply offlimits to revision. Last night, someone didn't like my timekeeping in the poem, it's sort of steady heartbeat, but I wanted that particular heartbeat in that particular form, so I knew I wasn't going to change it.
I'm also a huge believer in exposure and appreciation of radically different types of poems and poets. I know what I want my poems to do right now in my life (live large, evoke big thoughts, feelings, reactions) but I also know I might not always want them to do that. Nor does everyone have to want their poems to do that. Seeing all the things poems do and all the ways they do them helps me a lot, even if I don't always get it or buy in.
I probably get asked more often about writing groups then anything else- do I know one to join, any that are forming, how to start on. I feel lucky I stumbled into one that works for me so I don't know how I would go about joining, finding or forming one, except to say think about diversity of styles (which might look like diversity of age/sex/race/class or might not) and having rigorous feedback. Say what rings with you and what doesn't. Don't let your feelings get hurt and remember the poet is not his/her poem.