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?


  1. I agree, the facebook group adds a community feel that makes those other poets out there real people. I like the way you designed the back of your postcard to have more writing room and less address room :)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Kristin. Designing the card did make me wonder why most postcards have such a huge space for the address!

  2. Alo-HA Amy.....nice coverage of the 56 Days of August Poetry Postcard Fest 2016....I totally enjoyed my first year and found myself sending postcards to friends and family instead of calling or facebooking or emailing....I think they enjoyed the postcards and I know that I enjoyed sending them...I am eagerly awaiting next years sign up...blessings StanleydelGozo

    1. Aloha, Stanley -- Glad you enjoyed it so much. See you next year!