Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Wonder of Workshops by Guest Blogger Basil Rouskas

Have you ever attended a poetry workshop? Many poets, novice and experienced alike, find that attending workshops can be rewarding. 

Not all poetry workshops are created equally, and it’s always a good idea to do some research before enrolling and paying fees. A good poetry workshop, one worth your investment of time and money should:

1. Help you discover your writing strengths and weaknesses.

2. Provide you with practical suggestions (and, if applicable, non-judgmental critiques) for improving your writing, along with prompts and other motivational and generative resources.

3. Present opportunities for sharing your passion for poetry with other poets.

For this week’s guest blog, I invited Basil Rouskas, a long-time member of the poetry group I conduct to share some of his impressions of workshops and how they’ve been helpful to him. Some of you may be familiar with Basil’s work: for the past few years, he has written a poem a day throughout April (National Poetry Month here in the US) and has posted his poems as comments. (Our workshop, by the way, is in its tenth year, and I’m so proud of our members, all of whom have published numerous poems in journals and anthologies, have won awards, and have had books published.)

Basil Rouskas has been writing poetry for over 30 years. His first poems were written in his native Greek and were protests against the military junta that took over Greece and ruled it until the mid 1970’s. He translated literature and theater during his first years in the US, and gradually his poetry became bilingual. He currently writes mainly in English. He is the author of two books, Redrawing Borders and Blue Heron on Black River. A third book, The Window That Faces South, was quarter finalist in the third (2014) Mary Ballard poetry Chapbook Prize by Casey Shay Press. Basil’s poetry has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, Princeton Public Library Podcast, Helix Magazine, Shot Glass Journal, and Tiferet. In addition to being a poet, Basil is a management consultant, coach, mentor, advisor and expert in executive development. He is the co-founder of NovAspire and has taught at several institutions of higher learning. He has been a lecturer, consultant and leadership development instructor since 1993 at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management (MBA) at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

From Basil Rouskas

What I have found through ten years of sharing with the Westfield Poetry Group is easy to articulate: special people—both colleagues and coach. What that means is encouragement, inspiration, honest feedback, resources, books, and tips. (Oh, along the way we dissect poems and suggest things to each other. All of a sudden (over a period of years) we realize that along the way we become better at the writing “craft” as well.)

Specific Things that Evolve through Workshop Experiences:

       You discover your natural preferences for the poetry writing process. I prefer to first write out long hand in a notebook that I reserve for poetry only. Then I enter the draft into my computer’s word processing program

       You develop strategies for “hearing” your own work. I read all lines aloud when I write them

       You learn to evaluate sound in your own poems. When my ear is not happy with the sound of a word, I refer to an online thesaurus and substitute the word with many candidates. I then reread the draft again using each option until I find the one that works best.

       You develop systems for organizing your work. I file my poems so I can sort them out by date of creation or alphabetize by title

Note: I have a drop box account and save my poetry chronologically (for details, visit and establish an account. It is free.) One of the benefits of,  is that when I revise a poem, I automatically see it updated on my iPhone, where I also have Dropbox installed. This way I have my poetry always portable and I have an instant copy of  it on my regular desktop computer at home, without any extra effort.

Some Things I’ve Learned:

1. When I want to bring up the “energy” of a poem, I switch it into the present tense and read it aloud. If I like it, I commit to the new tense.

2. I don’t read poems at workshops or public readings that I have not revisited at least three times.

3. I avoid predictability like the plague. If a poem takes me down that path, I abandon it.

4. I read and mark (or copy) intriguing or touching stories from digital newspapers to use for inspiration.

5. I always read my “works in progress” and ask myself how I might make improvements. (For example, how necessary are all my adverbs, adjectives, and articles?)

6. I mark websites or URLs that contain rich language; I find they are great for kick starting a poem.

7. I visit and mark good Blogsites that offer prompts and craft tips. My favorite of these is right here (The Music In It).

8. At times I read foreign language websites, and I get inspiration from the sounds of foreign words I don’t understand. In doing so, if something intrigues me, I use Google translator to see if the meaning of the poem/song still interests me. I then put something on paper and revisit it within a couple of weeks.

9. I’ve learned to edit, edit and re-edit. And when I am editing, editing and re-editing, I cut, cut and re-cut. I’ve learned not to fear that I might “toss out and lose inspiration for ever.”

10. I’ve also learned not to push myself when the muse wants some time off on her own. We sometimes take a sabbatical from each other. We travel separately. When we see each other again, good things happen.

11. I read poets who are on the same wavelength and find that their work does miracles for my own new material. Some of my same wavelength poets are: George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska.

12. As an editing exercise, I translate into English poems from (my native) Greek, when I don’t have direct inspiration in English.

I realize I have been sharing a lengthy list here. If you ask me to condense it down to only three,  that have helped me the most, I would include:

A)  Form a community of honest competent poets and learn from them. Like other arts, your poetry stands on the shoulders of others’ work, book recommendations and balanced feedback.
B)  It is human to want to be published and share our work with the world, but I try to not lose  my “voice” just to make it more publishable.
C)  Cut, cut and re-cut (counts for only one word !)

PS. Here is an exercise you may try: Start with a poem that you have been struggling to complete. Decide arbitrarily a percentage    perhaps 30% — of words that you want to eliminate. Cut enough words to reach your goal. Every word processor has a “word count” feature. Once you’ve reached your goal, is the poem closer to where you want it to be? If yes, great. If no, cut more or consider “tossing” the current version. (Sometimes I find tossing a big relief from a thankless struggle. BUT … be sure to save and “re-use” lines and images for future poems.)
Thank you, Basil! 


  1. Interesting observations! I wish we lived on the same side of the pond so I could attend some of your workshops!

    I remember Basil's lovely poems from past Aprils.

    1. Thanks so much, Jamie!

      Thanks to the Web, communication is possible and we can share poetry via this blog.

  2. Some very interesting comments, Basil. I've never attended a poetry workshop, feeling that I might not be able to come up with a poem in a group setting, and I didn't want to embarrass myself. What makes the workshop you attend work so well?

    1. Sandy,
      In one word, the "people" in it.
      But to check the style and quality of "the people" in a group, you have to take the risk of at least one exposure. I am willing to bet you that nobody will embarass you for taking the risk. Go for it, is my advice. Talk to people who may know of supportive poets and ask them for recommendations. Have you checked local libraries? Googled the Internet?The fact that you disclosed your hesitation to this blogogroup tells me you can (and you will) take the risk. Let us know the outcome!!

    2. Sandy, Basil's advice is good! If you feel that you'd like to try a workshop, go ahead and give it a go. You just might be pleasantly surprised.

      If you have a poet friend, consider signing up to attend a workshop together, which might make you feel a little less uncomfortable.

  3. When I do poetry prompts in the classroom, I call them "workshops." I'm not sure that they really are, but the students enjoy the change of title from "class assignment" to "workshop."

    Thanks, Basil, for your interesting and insightful comments.

    1. Hi Rich,
      If the title of the experience offers a stronger motivation to your students, that's great.
      In my experience, life satisfaction also depends on the "narrative" we use. A good re-titling can do miracles for a new narrative.

    2. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

      Thanks for your comment, Rich. It's always so nice to hear that you find the prompts useful!

  4. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)March 5, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    These comments are well-taken and much appreciated, Basil Rouskas. I thank you for sharing your thoughts about workshops with us. Here in Mumbai I don't know about private workshops (other than classes in Universities), but you've inspired me to do some research.

    1. Amita,

      Hope you find a group and you do give it a try. It this blog and my comments helped you connect and grow, it would be a pleasure and an honor for me, and I am sure, for Adele.

    2. Amita,

      I wonder if you might find out about workshop groups in Mumbai via the Internet or perhaps through one of the colleges or universities.

      Another option might be to start a group yourself—a few poet friends to get things started. I wish you the best!

  5. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)March 6, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    Very interesting comments and good reasons for exploring the possibilities of poetry workshops. Thank you, Basil Rouskas.

    P.S. I've attended several small workshops over the years and have found that, for the most part, there's always something to take away, and the group sharing can be very enriching.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Maire! I hope winter in Ireland has been warmer than it's been here!