Hanging around poets, I often get random memes thrown in my direction. Sometimes, they’re simple writing prompts gathered from current events or some erudite writer, or “homework” from a workshop or a show I attended. I don’t always pay attention to them, but that’s often left to us to figure out. Then, around every April, I get a flood of e-mails and Facebook messages about this National Poetry Writing Month Challenge, where, for 30 days, a poet must write poems in for each day. The concept has its merits and it certainly looks like fun from the outside.
But it’s crap. Here’s why:
1) Unless you’re fully invested in poetry, you rarely make it through 30 poems. Most people I know only get through 10 on average. Some try to be slick by writing a barrage of haikus, but …
2) The poems themselves often end up sounding mundane at best. While writing with structure in theory is difficult, the exercise itself takes less skill when doing it in this time period because everyone excuses it. They’ll be reading another poem the next day!
These two reasons often lead poets young and old who try this to feel like their efforts have been diminished by those who do complete the challenge (the very few, hardcore, persistent, or simply haikuists). I see it, and wonder if “quantity over quality” is the sort of message we as a poetry community (I’ll include myself in this club) want to communicate. Unless you’re a full-time poet whose become that refined in their work, NaPoWriMo doesn’t work for the growing poet.
Poetry is a means by which we take a whole set of loosely connected thoughts, tighten the string that binds these thoughts, and sow them up just enough so when we pass the message along, the next person can get a snapshot of your experience. It’s less conversation, more soliloquy. It’s not simply boiled, microwaved, and ready to serve: it’s distilled, chilled, seasoned, and then cooked to order. It’s not necessarily lyric embedded in metaphor, but it’s certainly life drenched in voice, and bias.
With 30 for 30, it’s hard to see that extraction all the way through.
Here are some things, however, I might suggest for any of us who decide we’d like to do some activity that takes a few minutes of your time everyday for those thirty or so days that involve poetry. Write a few poems and edit them throughout the week. Try another form you haven’t tried and, upon failing, try again. Work on that magical manuscript you’ve been promising to yourself forever (my personal favorite). Read and support other poet’s works (on deck for me: Paul Martinez Pompa’s My Kill Adore Him and Martin Espada’s Alabanza).
And if you decide to carry on with 30 for 30, that’s also fine. Some of us need that social prompt to force that writing out of us. We can’t better if we don’t practice writing constantly. I just find that NaPoWriMo is not the most effective tool, especially self-esteem wise. Besides, poetry that lasts forever never comes from a couple of days.
Jose, who only has 20 poems out of my 100 or so that I’m happy with. Manuscripts suck until they’re done.