Thursday, September 22, 2016

August Postcard Poetry Fest 2016 wrap-up

The dust has settled on this year’s August Postcard Poetry Fest. This is the fourth year I’ve done this month-long writing marathon, invented by poets Lana Hechtman Ayers and Paul Nelson, where more than 200 poets around the world write a poem on a postcard each day in August and mail it to another participant. This year I managed to write the full complement of 31 poems/postcards, and I mailed them all before the end of August. I think this is the first time I’ve written a full 31 and sent them on time; in the past I’ve usually had a flakeout or three during the month, or sent 10 cards on September 6th or whenever in a mad rush to catch up. This year I received 32 postcards from writers all over the U.S., and one in the U.K., a vivid array of artwork and poems that lifted my mailbox out of its usual gloom of bills and ads for laser surgery and window-blind cleaning.

Parties vs. poopers
This year the Postcard Fest had a Facebook group. I’m starting to think every project in the world should have one of these; it’s a great way to bond with other people who are doing whatever you’re doing. Even before the postcarding got underway, the Facebook group was buzzing with people posting about how they were gathering their postcards, buying cool stamps*, getting acquainted, and just checking in with daily details of life. This made me feel much more connected to the project than in years past, and as August dawned and the writing and postcard-sending began, I felt more motivated than usual to keep writing poems and mailing them. It was like I knew these people now, and I didn’t want to let them down. It was also like there was this great party going on, and I didn’t want to be the pooper. Keep the party going!, the Facebook group seemed to be saying. Don’t bring down the room.

De-cluttering the card
This year I made my own postcards. Now, when I say that in the context of this Fest, it’s like saying I built my own house, and then showing you a cardboard box with some holes I punched in it. People in the Postcard Fest set the bar high—there are some real artists in this group, for whom the postcard itself is at least as important as the poem they write on it. Some of them construct elaborate works of art, everything from collages to hand-drawn sketches to prints of their own paintings, write poems on the back, and mail them out. I’m not that much of a visual artist; the postcard, for me, is really just a poem-delivery system. In past years I bought touristy cards at local shops; one year, I got a big stack of them from a brewery. But I was often frustrated by how little room there was on them for a poem; with all the photo-captioning and copyright gobbledygook, there was only about a three-inch-square space to write in, sometimes less. This real-estate issue is part of the Postcard Fest challenge, but to me, it was annoying.

So this year I decided to just make my own damn postcards—that way, I could leave a consistently generous space for poem-writing. And I’d just been looking at the Vistaprint site, pricing out some business cards, and I saw they print (among a zillion other things**) postcards at a really good price. I didn’t overthink it; I just found a few photos that I took last summer of various artsy/natural things, and I chose one with a hornet nest that I always liked. I made a PDF of the photo in Photoshop, laid out the back side of the postcard in InDesign and made a PDF out of that (with a big white space for poems), uploaded it, and ordered 50 of them for about $15. The whole process took maybe a half-hour. The package of postcards arrived a few days later, and they looked great—glossy and professional quality, pretty much like what you’d buy in a gift shop. And there was enough room to write about a 14-line poem on the back.

Baking by the batch
Another thing I did differently this year—and this broke the rules a little—was that I wrote the poems in batches. The guidelines for the Fest encourage people to write a poem every day…because it’s, you know, a poem-a-day marathon. And that’s usually great—I love the discipline of this and other marathons like NaPoWriMo and Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, and I rely on them to generate a lot of new poems in a short time. But during this Fest I discovered something interesting: I seemed to write better poems when I wrote them in batches.

I stumbled across this by accident, right at the start. The guidelines suggested that we write three poems a few days before August 1st and send them out so our first few recipients would start receiving poems at the beginning of August. So I sat down on about July 27th to write three poems and get things started. The first poem—cold start, sputter, cough—took a long time to form in my head, and it came out a little wooden. It wasn’t really a keeper, but that’s OK—the Fest is all about generating first drafts. But the second poem, to my surprise, was better; my poetry engine was warmed up, and the poem slipped out easily and was a lot more interesting. And so was poem #3—it ranged farther off leash and had more natural energy to it than that first, stage-frightened poem. Okay, I thought…maybe writing only one is not the best way to do this. And because postcard poems have to be short enough to fit on the card, writing a batch of them didn’t seem too daunting.

So all through the month, I wrote poems about every three days instead of every day, always in batches. The jury’s out on whether these poems are any better than in years past; I haven’t typed them all up yet (I made photocopies of all the cards I sent), and I’m not even sure what I’ve got there. But I know that I felt excited about some of them, perhaps more than usual. And the “batching” definitely made this marathon feel easier than it usually does—I never got that grumbly-teenager feeling of not wanting to sit down and write. Or if I did, I just didn’t write that night, and wrote an extra poem the next time around. And I had a lot of fun with these poems; somehow, writing batches of them took the pressure off each one. If a couple were duds, maybe others in the batch would come out better. And then I had a couple days off to recharge.

Unexpected conversations
This year I tried to write some poems with a common theme, mixing mythology with cars I’ve known and owned, along with found poems that mashed up car-related public documents in a sort of word blender. I don’t know yet if those poems will ever amount to anything; I have to think more about the structure of that sequence.

But you never know how a series of poems will end up playing off each other, or off other poems that don’t seem related. Last year I wrote a bunch of postcard poems with images of the Rogue River, based on a rafting trip I took when the Rogue Valley was choked with forest-fire smoke. Later I wove several of those poems together with another sequence of poems I’d been working on, and found that they spoke to each other in a way I hadn’t expected, different voices in a conversation I didn’t know my subconscious was having. I made them into a chapbook manuscript called I Am on a River and Cannot Answer, which the wonderful BOAAT Press will be publishing next month as a downloadable PDF book. More on that in a future post.

To find out more about the August Postcard Poetry Fest, visit its web page here.

* One day, yes, I will blog about being a lifelong stamp collector. For now, I’ll just mention that on an episode of The Simpsons, the family’s house was about to burn down, and Lisa went running back to it, yelling “My stamp collection!” The rest of the family stood in silence for a moment, then they all burst out laughing, even Homer. Philatelists—our coolness has not been discovered yet.

** Including phone cases, coffee mugs and…pillows?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

NaPoWriMo 2016: Public, but not too public

It’s almost the end of April, and for those of us who have been writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), that means one thing: We’re almost done. And holy crap, are we glad about that.

Bigger is better
This is my sixth or seventh year doing NaPoWriMo, and the past couple of years I’ve set the bar higher by doing the writing marathon with a large group of people on a public internet forum. Writing with a lot of people watching makes me work harder to fish for the right idea and then craft and revise the poem. Not every day’s output is beautiful, but I end up with fewer lazy poems when peer pressure is squashing me a little.
            For last year’s NaPoWriMo I did the Writer’s Digest April Poem-a-Day Challenge. That certainly provided the “large public forum” I was after: A huge community of writers—hundreds—do that challenge every year, and they comment freely and encouragingly on each other’s poems. I enjoyed that a lot, and this year I’m using many of the good daily prompts that WD poetry editor Robert Brewer provides for that group (see “To promptly go” below), but instead of posting my poems there, I’m posting them to a couple of secret Facebook NaPoWriMo groups—one with about 100 members, and another local one with about a dozen, both with some very fine writers. The “secret group” format eliminates the fudgy business of whether a poem that’s posted on a public site/blog is considered published and therefore ineligible for submission to literary journals. And the smaller, more intimate groups make it easier to get to know my fellow marathoners. It’s a good balance of public vs. not-too-public.
            As usual, I’ve had some ups and down with the poem-a-day thing. This year I got off to a painfully cold start; the first few poems felt forced and awkward and probably will never amount to anything usable. Then I hit a good stride; for a few days the poems came out easily, and I was excited to sit down at the end of the day and write them. Hey, I thought, I’ve got the hang of this thing. Then, of course, I stalled out again—more exhausted late nights, trying to make steel out of straw or some other completely inept metaphor. I skipped a couple of days when I was just too tired. (Doing NaPoWriMo during the busiest season at work and the NBA playoffs is, for me, a perfect storm.) Then a few days later I rallied and came up with some more poems I liked. Now, almost at the end, I’ve got maybe 6 poems that I like a lot, and another 5 or 6 that could be OK with heavy revision. That’s not bad for a month’s output. And, as always, some of the poems I like—including a couple of angry ones—are things I never would have written if I hadn’t had to sit my ass down and hit that midnight deadline.

Paper or plastic
This public NaPoWriMo business, strangely enough, has changed one of the most fundamental elements of my poetry writing: I now write a lot more on a keyboard than by hand. I used to be a pen-and-paper purist; I had a whole theory about why hand writing was better than keyboard writing, something about that fraction-of-a-second delay between the thought and the hand writing it down, which served as a first edit and made me choosier about the word or phrase. But during NaPoWriMo, I’m often writing late at night and want to post the poem as soon as it’s (more or less) done. So I just let my fingers fly on the keyboard and cut and paste straight from there. I can type much faster than I can write by hand, and as a result I sometimes end up with breathless, headlong poems without line breaks or punctuation. Sometimes I go back in and add those boundaries afterward; sometimes I don’t. Other times I write purposely in set stanzas or line lengths. The upshot is that I now write in several different styles, some more fragmented and jumbled than others. Whether that’s all for the better or worse, I’m not sure yet. But it’s change and evolution, and that feels good. And during NaPoWriMo there’s another advantage to the keyboard thing: I can just copy the poem from my Word or Pages doc and paste it onto wherever I’m posting it without having to transcribe it out of the notebook. That makes for less work late at night, and my 54-year-old body gives that a big, arthritic thumbs-up.
            But the greatest benefit of NaPoWriMo is still simply the poems. By month’s end I’ll have more than 25 of them, some that excite me and some that don’t yet. Some that never will. But those that do, and those that might, will help fill the well of poems I’ll be working on and sending out and assembling into quirky chapbooks and sequences and I-don’t-know-what-yet for the next year. They’ll be the sketches or the paintings or the…crikey, some metaphor. I’m too tired to think of one. Must … save … metaphor … for next poem.

To promptly go
Doing the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge last year taught me something I didn’t know: I like writing to prompts. Not always, not every day (my mind likes to go off leash, and my inner wild dog is already riled up about having to write a poem every day), but every day this month I looked at several prompts and picked one to think about for a few hours. And sometimes I used it to write a poem that night. These were my favorite sources for prompts this month:

The original NaPoWriMo siteBack in 2003, poet Maureen Thorson saw what the people over at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) were doing, and she decided to start a similar month-long writing marathon for poetry—and NaPoWriMo was born. Every day in April she posts a prompt, ranging from forms (lune, tritina, fan letter) to subject matter (food, fear, technical terms).

Chris Jarmick’s Poetry Is Everything blogChris’s prompts—some his own, some by guest prompters—have been extremely varied and provocative. Today’s prompt, for example, is to steal words from the NOAA’s National Weather Service Glossary and use them in a poem.

The Found Poetry Review. Each day in April, FPR has featured a prompt by a guest writer. These are fairly complex prompts; April 28th involves taking a piece of source text, eliminating any words that don’t start with A, B, C, D, E, F, or G, and then using an online program to make a piece of music out of what’s left. I loved the imaginativeness of all of these prompts, but I didn’t try a one of them because they were too complicated. I am a lazy promptee; if I even have to click to another page or look something up, I’m out. But I may go back and try some of these when I’m not hustling to cram in a poem every day.

Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides. This is the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge site I mentioned before. I like Robert’s prompts because they’re often just a word or phrase, which makes them very open-ended: “love or anti-love,” “important,” “set the poem in a food establishment,” “experienced/inexperienced.” These simple prompts were a strategic move on Robert’s part, since, like I said, hundreds of people post poems on that site every day based on the prompt. So if the prompts were too specific, the poems would all sound alike. (Here’s an example of the kind of too-specific prompt I don't like, totally made up: “Take the strongest emotion you felt today and imagine how you would dress it if it were a child.” I would not want to read 400 poems about that. But if you’ve got 400 people writing about “office,” you’ll get a pretty good variety because there are so many different directions you can take.)

Jennifer Givhan. Jenn, a talented poet and editor at Tinderbox, wrote a prompt each day for the “larger” Facebook group I wrote with, which she founded. I won’t put any of them here because I hope she’ll put them together in a book soon. Look for it. They were awesome.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On Being Wrong

Geocentric solar system from Harmonia Macrocosmica
(1660) by Andreas Cellarius.
Question: Name one thing you’re sure of, and how you know it.

Answer: I’m sure that if I say I’m sure of something, sooner or later someone will disprove it and I’ll look like an idiot.
        I find this comforting. Think of all the things people have believed over the centuries—that demons made you sick, alchemy could make you rich, people could own other people, stars were holes poked through the sky, Jews caused bubonic plague. Every one was proven wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. What beliefs that we hold today will be proven laughably wrong in a few hundred years? Even now, some old tropes are eroding: women shouldn’t be combat troops or play baseball; chained-up animals make great entertainment; to settle new land, you just move the existing people off it and kill all the large predators. Who knows what’s next? No more God, capitalism, 40-hour workweek? Will we find that air is actually a food that can be flavored, cut up, and cooked if you have the right kind of oven? That we already have the capability to teleport or cure cancer, but we just don’t know it? That there’s no such thing as death, and our dead friends and relatives have just gone someplace we haven’t stumbled across yet?
        Make no mistake about it: The discoveries will be soul-shaking. When you think of air travel and television and what I do all day at my job—type on a keyboard—and women presidents and the four-minute mile, all of these were, until recently, inconceivable to a vast number of people for a very long time.
        One dictionary definition of hope is “grounds for believing that something good may happen.” And things do. Big things. Sometimes being wrong is one step in that direction.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ashland U-Haul: An Ode

The U-Haul office at the south end of Ashland has finally shut down. I’m surprised at how sad that makes me.

I only rented a truck there once, and to be honest, the place was perplexing and a little scary. For starters, I couldn’t tell how to get into it. Did you go through the auto-repair shop to the right? Its bays were stuffed with dismantled cars, and there didn’t seem to be a safe way to get in there. So maybe the entrance was that unmarked, dirty glass door on the left that led to some sort of bygone showroom, its plate-glass windows so silvered with grime that you could barely see through them. And what was going on with that asymmetrical overhang out front, the giant, uptilted, Jetsons-type wing that signified a gas station from the Eisenhower era, or maybe a car dealership? In its youth, it must have been so futuristic.

But I had a truck to rent, so I pushed through the heavy glass door that squealed on its hinges. I could see a counter at the far end of the showroom, but to get there I had to sidle past teetering piles of cardboard boxes, some assembled, some flat, and a few battered filing cabinets, and a wheelchair, and an old dining room table with two clear plastic cups standing on it, half-full of green liquid. I couldn’t help eyeing the ceiling that was spectacularly disintegrating overhead, long strips of vinyl hanging down, exposing dark recesses of wood beams and bent nails, lighting fixtures askew and dangling. It looked like some apocalyptic way station in The Stand or The Road Warrior, a place where the hero might find a life-saving, ancient jar of peanut butter.

At the counter stood Ron, a businesslike, elderly man whose hands shook a bit. But he still could walk, slowly, out to the parking lot to retrieve a truck for me. I watched him through the hazy windows as he climbed stiffly into the cab of a 17-footer and drove it a few yards to the front of the lot, checked the gas gauge and odometer, then climbed out just as slowly, clipboard in hand. When he came back in, I followed him through a door next to the counter and into his office, a cramped little room with a ceiling so high that it receded up into shadows. A second door on the other side of the room opened out onto the repair shop crowded with oily equipment, four or five mechanics busy in there with their hands in the engines and undersides of cars.

I sat in a plastic chair as Ron punched my info into his computer on a scratched, once-beautiful oak desk with nice dovetail construction on the drawers, most of which weren’t quite pushed in all the way. On the top of the desk was a large dark patch where Ron’s hands and those, no doubt, of countless mechanics had touched it over the years. All the way up to the ceiling, the walls were lined with shelf after shelf of parts manuals and auto-repair guides, mostly Chiltons, some of them looking as old as the shop itself. On the wall was a new calendar featuring splashy photos of racecars. On one dusty shelf, a bright turquoise Hot Wheels, a Vette or something, pulsed its little beacon of color.

It was almost too much to take in. I sat there, reeling with sensory overload, happy to my core that such a place existed, so alive and well used and smelling like my dad’s garage. He did all our family’s auto repairs; I never needed a mechanic until I was well into my 30s and Dad got too forgetful to trust himself with an arc welder or the critical steps of a brake job. He spent his life hanging out in places like this, buying parts and chatting with men whose names were embroidered on their blue shirts, at home with all those Chilton manuals and echoes of a distant conversation about a leaking clutch. When Ron handed me the keys to the truck, I walked out of there giddy, like I’d just stepped out of a time machine.

And now the place stands there empty, a new and hasty hurricane fence keeping out the curious. Whoever buys it will surely knock it down; maybe we’ll get a square new paint store or another gas station, this one shining yellow and red and selling Slim Jims and Cokes to tourists. Perhaps Ron still drives by, shaking his head at the complete irretrievability of the past. Or perhaps he’s joined my dad where all the old mechanics go, talking about bleeding lines and valve timing and metric versus English while here on Earth we go on inventing and repairing and building what, at the time, we think will be the future.