Since I joined the online poetry group 52 at the beginning of May I’ve written about 60 poems. Yes, that’s right – 60. Me, who used to write one every few months if I was lucky and would usually add them to my collection of unfinished drafts, having given up on them. Not all the new poems are of high quality but I’ve been quite pleased with a few and think my work is showing signs of improvement. I’d like to believe that as I read all the marvellous poetry other people post something may be rubbing off on me. Many of those people are properly published poets whose work has had or is starting to get the recognition it deserves and I’m deeply grateful to be in there somewhere, even if I’m only waving from the back row. I’m also pretty chuffed and grateful that I’ve now had poems accepted for three magazines and two poetry websites and that a pamphlet of mine was shortlisted for a competition, even though the shortlist was very long.
The way the group works is that every week the person who runs it sends out a theme for the week. The themes vary from apparently safe ones like sound and colour to ones that are definitely near the edge – like the erotic. Whatever the subject, though, it seems to take people right to the limit of what it feels possible to write about. There have been poems about illness, death, bereavement, violence, rape, sexual abuse, guilt and shame and the ordinary varieties of unhappiness, as well as poems that are joyful and loving and celebratory and funny and wonderfully surreal. And it’s genuine poetry, so beautifully written and full of imagination that that alone would make you weep; it’s not simply the kind of ‘therapeutic’ writing whose main function is to say what needs to be said, never mind how.
I’ve found that other people’s openness and the safety of the group have helped me to write about things I never thought I would, and in ways that I haven’t tried before. The poems haven’t always been successful or even appropriate, but I’ve managed to survive that and write poems about it too. Although it is most definitely a poetry group and not a therapy group, what happens in it has many of the qualities of the best kind of therapy. There is acceptance, support, care for one another, freedom to be who you are and a welcoming of diversity. And there’s the shared love of poetry – writing our own and reading other people’s – and encouragement to make our work as good as it can be.
In case that sounds too utopian, the group is very large and poems don’t always get the amount of feedback the writers hope for, and that you might get from an in-person group or class. I’ve sometimes felt overlooked or discounted, even though I recognise that many of the other poems are better and more noteworthy than mine. Nevertheless it’s a community, and some people from it actually met for the first time at the weekend. I didn’t manage to get there, having been away somewhere else, but realised as I was driving down the motorway that I easily could have taken a detour. But perhaps that would have been too far out of my comfort zone: scary and awe-inspiring, not to mention just plain socially awkward. Knowing people online, however well, is very different from knowing them in person. I’ve had some pretty personal online ‘conversations’ with people I’ve never met or hardly spoken to, and the question then is: where on earth do you start? Having seen the photographs, though, I wish I’d had the courage and – more than that – the navigational competence to get myself there and have a go. Had I planned it properly, there would have been nothing to stop me coming back from Nottingham via Stratford upon Avon.
Well, I didn’t. But what I did do was write a poem about it – the shyness and the awkwardness and the fear of seeming an ‘unpoetic fool’, as well as the regret at having missed out on the party. It wasn’t a good poem, but for once that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t have been able to write it at all before I joined the group.