Friday, August 28, 2015

The Long and Short of Postcard Poems

This month's haul, as of
August 28th. Go, Group 3!
The August Poetry Postcard Fest is coming to a close. This is the third year I’ve done this month-long marathon where you write a poem every day, jot it down on a postcard, and send it off to someone else who’s doing the project. I had more than my share of slacker moments this year; one day I had to write seven poems to get caught up, and I spaced out badly last week and had to write four yesterday and two today. So my postcard recipients are getting a motley, ill-timed bunch of poems from me. But the reverse is also true; some days I get a fistful of postcards, and then for days and days my mailbox goes dark. So a lot of us seem to be, shall we say, sporadic. But I’ll end up writing 31 poems, one way or another. I have yet to break out the “emergency haiku.”

This year more than 200 people signed up to do the Fest, and the structure was a little different than in past years, thanks to organizer extraordinaire Paul Nelson. This time he divided the big list into subgroups of 32 people so that each group could send postcards to just the people in their group, creating a tidy loop we haven’t had before—now you get postcards from the same people you’re sending postcards to, instead of sending them off into the ether to someone you’ll probably never hear from. I actually liked that ether-sending of yesteryear; there was a freeing, anonymous quality to it that pushed the Postcard Fest into a more intimate part of the spectrum than, say, the much more public Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, or even our local NaPoWriMo group. The act of sending that postcard off to some unknown person always felt a bit like whispering in a stranger’s ear. But this year, I’m enjoying getting poems back from the people I’ve written them to. They’re not answers, or even responses, to the poems I send out; they’re more like pings coming back on the radar. Hello, poet—I am here too.
        Paul also put together a Facebook group for the participants, which I’m starting to think every project in the world should have. People post about the challenges of writing a poem a day, intriguing postcards they’ve received, other news in their lives, and the books they’re reading. The past few days we’ve been posting links to our own books. Again, it’s a mix of anonymity/randomness and camaraderie/intimacy. Here are all these strangers participating in the same project, all these people at this virtual cocktail party, and some of them are smart and damn funny.

Dear Stranger
This year Paul suggested that we all write epistolary poems—poems written in the form of letters. I don’t know if that was the suggested form in years past; honestly, I tend to skip right over rules and suggestions about what to write in these things and do whatever the hell I want. But I got stuck for ideas early in the month, and those first few poems were painful. Then I thought, “Epistolary, hmm...,” and wrote “Dear _______” as a title, and a poem popped out very easily. Since then, I’ve structured almost all of the poems as letters. Most of them don’t have titles, only the “Dear _______” part. That proved to be very, very fertile ground. Intimacy again, I guess; the feeling of writing a missive to one person gives me less stage fright than trying to “write a poem,” and the month’s output has taken on the air of a dreamy conversation. And now I’ve got this odd little collection of letter-poems, many with river images from a recent rafting trip on the Rogue—dismantled dams, abandoned power stations, salmon leaping out of the dark waters, the lazy bends and chaotic, crushing rapids. The collection feels more cohesive, like more of a project unto themselves, than my August postcards usually feel. So my hat’s off to Paul for that suggestion.

Shorts get the short end
Every year when I do this postcard project—a marathon in which each poem can’t be more than about 12 lines because, again, you have to squeeze it onto a dinky postcard—I always wonder if these shorties will ever get published anywhere. I’m gratified to see that some journals favor the short form—Right Hand Pointing* comes to mind, among others. Still, I can’t help feeling that an unspoken length-ism prevails in the literary world: The longer poems get most of the love and win most of the prizes. So in a way, it feels especially good to invest a whole month in short poems. Maybe someday short poems will walk alongside their tall cousins, respected at last. In the meantime, somebody’s got to do some captive breeding to keep their numbers up. Postcard Fest to the rescue.

*Right Hand Pointing’s sister site, White Knuckle Press, has a series of fantastic online chapbooks, all consisting of short prose poems. I just got the good news that they’ll be publishing my chapbook Rough House early next year. Their whole list of chapbooks is worth exploring—strong poetry, striking designs—and here are a couple that I especially love:

The Russian Hat by Claudia Serea

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