I've been reading D.A. Powell this weekend, with an eye to what I hope to be able to learn from him when I take his workshop in Provincetown this coming June. His work is very different from mine (to put it mildly) -- but I think that's good, to try to learn not only from people whose work is similar to your own. If I only sat around reading Mary Oliver and Ellen Bass all day (not that my work is as good as theirs! --but I work in a language similar to theirs) and only studied with that sort of poet, I think my work would be pretty one-sided and I'd never try to risk stepping out of my own comfort zone. Cathy Bowman's work is very different from mine, too, and I learned a ton in her class a couple of years ago. As a teacher, she's good at reading her students' poems for themselves, not trying to impose her own voice upon them but understanding what the poems are trying to do and working to help the students figure out how to get them there. At the same time, she encouraged us to play, to take risks, to experiment outside the voices we were accustomed to using -- and that was so good for me. (She also had us read widely, and a lot of the work we did in class arose from the reading we did -- which was wonderful; some of my undergrad creative writing coursework was a bit too student-manuscript-based, although I didn't realize at the time that this was a gap in my education.)
At the same time, I've learned a lot from poets whose voice is more similar to my own -- Roger Mitchell, who's a terrific teacher (and his most recent book, Delicate Bait, is incredible); and Michael Carey, with whom I took a week-long summer workshop some years ago at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Michael's not very well-known outside of Iowa, I guess, but he was exactly the teacher I needed at that time -- I somehow came away from his workshop both firmly convinced that I had some talent (and that takes some doing, as I'm usually pretty insecure about my own strengths and talents) and also utterly terrified of the responsibility that comes with having talent. If that makes any sense at all. I remember walking through the streets of Iowa City after my individual conference with him simultaneously feeling like I was walking on air & feeling like throwing up. It was a wonderful, terrible, powerful thing.
I think part of the problem with writers' groups (and I'm very pro-writers' group, don't get me wrong, I love them) is that there's a real tendency to gather with writers whose voices and experiences are similar to your own. It's easy to find yourself in a group that encourages sameness, that never pushes you outside your comfort zone. This risk increases when you've been with the group for a long time, two or three or four years or more -- the other members can begin to have expectations of your work, can feel like they know your voice, and if you risk something very different, it gets critiqued by the usual, comfortable standards. For example if you have a group that tends towards a fairly traditional lyric/narrative voice, and you bring in a piece that disrupts that, the critique may tend towards "I don't understand this" or "What is happening here, I can't follow the story." And you may come away thinking your poem fails -- and, well, maybe it does fail, early experiments in a different/risky voice often do, but reading the poem from the point of view of your previous body of work may not help you understand why it fails. The group can easily become a way to reward sameness, familiarity, comfort. And that's not helpful at all.
And so while I love my writing group, I am really looking forward to "Vision and Revision" with D.A. Powell this summer. I hope I get real uncomfortable for a bit. I hope he scares the crap out of me. No, better still -- I hope I scare the crap out of myself.