03 May 2009

What I Learned From The April Poem A Day Challenge

Robert Lee Brewer (no relation) from Writer's Digest Poetic Asides put out the call in March, challenging poets to join him in writing a poem a day for April, National Poetry Month. At first I thought Nope, I can't do that. I like to craft my poems by some elaborate and Byzantine system stretched out over weeks, if not months. . . which is precisely the reason I needed to do the Poem A Day Challenge. I was getting too fussy, and every now and then I suspected I'd revised the life out of a poem. Could I learn to write more quickly, and still craft a poem I would be happy with? Could I write to a specific prompt, and develop a poem around someone else's vision that would still satisfy me? April would be a good month to find out.

Of course the second problem is having the discipline to actually focus and write a new poem every day - which meant no cheating and using stuff from my fragment file - (lines, titles, partially written poems, things needing a major overhaul). The only cheating I would do--reading the prompt from work if the daily prompt was posted past 7:00 am (the site is not blocked by the IT minions, hallelujah. Poetry is not on their hit list, I guess) and maybe working on the poem during lunch or breaks, and posting it. I managed to do that the first two days, by posting poems I was not completely happy with, but were finished enough that I didn't cringe when I looked at them.

By day three I realized I could look at the prompt in the morning, think about it all day, perhaps jot down notes or write a quick version of the poem I had in mind. What I discovered was the 'percolating' time is critical to my process. When I got home after work and swimming I had 5 hours until midnight to put something together, get it posted and still make my goal of doing a new poem every day. The poems seemed to come a bit quicker if I let the ideas bounce around in my head all day. Even when I thought I had a theme and the poem plotted out sometimes when I sat down to write the poem would refuse to form the way I envisioned it and insist on becoming something else.

It took me a good week to realize my brain knew what it was doing. I need to let go and trust that background, experience, and 'percolation' would come together and produce a poem. I needed to have faith. I also needed to allow myself to write a poem that wasn't quite up to my usual standards, and post it on Poetic Asides and my blog for the world to see. Then live with it. Posting didn't mean I couldn't go back later, rewrite, tidy up, rearrange. I made another rule for myself. No poetic housekeeping until after May 1. I would live with the poems posted as is until then.

As the month went I discovered a new way of working. Previously, I would have a line or two spring to mine, or maybe a title for a poem that summed up what I needed to write about. Now I was working from the opposite end, having a subject or theme and needing to craft the lines around it. I think the reversal of process helped me to get some poems that wouldn't have come about any other way. Strangely enough, prompts that looked impossible by the morning were ones that produced some of my favorite poems. The prompts that were wide open – color, for example – I had the most problem with. I wasn't happy with anything I came up with there. Choosing a favorite color was like choosing a favorite child, and writing about him over his sibling. One of the prompts involved taking the title of a famous poem, changing it, and rewriting it. Or making your own version. I choice to rewrite, attempting to capture the voice of Allen Ginsberg as I rewrote Howl to Foul, complete with zombies. Not all of the prompts produced excitement, but I muddled through and produced a poem, which was my objective. A side benefit—I can write a blog post a day about a poem, when necessary.

Looking over the month, I see reoccurring themes pop up in my work, ideas, words, phrases. So I've also learned that I can produce a coherent body of work, and quite possibly I can write a chapbook's worth of poems centered around a theme. Before the Poem A Day Challenge, that seemed impossible, now it seems doable.

I learned my poetry doesn't have to be limited to being written at certain times, I learned I can, under pressure, produce poems, and sometimes even produce poems that I like. I learned to trust in myself, to trust the process, to let go and let someone else dictate what type of poem to write. I've gotten excited about the process of writing poetry all over again, an added bonus. Did I write a poem on May 1? Nope. But I began to craft my own prompts for a series of poems on a theme, I looked at what I'd written with an eye towards revision, and I stopped to read and enjoy other people's poetry from the Challenge. It was worth the time and effort I put in. If I only wrote poetry, I would be tempted to incorporate a lot of 'challenges' to my everyday schedule. I am looking for ways to incorporate what I learned into the writing of the novels and short stories. The best lesson I should take from doing the Poem A Day Challenge, is simple. Trust myself, and the words will come.



Carla said...

"The best lesson I should take from doing the Poem A Day Challenge, is simple. Trust myself, and the words will come."

What a lovely thought. I couldn't keep up with you, but I did enjoy the poems I read.

Constance Brewer said...

Carla - thanks!