Saturday, September 4, 2021

Poetry Postcard Fest 2021: Both Sides Now

All the postcards I received this year,
plus a bonus Buckley.
The poems are written, the cards are mailed: The 2021 Poetry Postcard Fest is a wrap.
        This year, the annual August writing marathon attracted more than 500 participants from 13 different countries. My group (go, Group 8!) had 33 people in it, and I ended up writing 33 poems—32 to the other people in the group, and an extra card to someone else.

Side 1: The poems
Those 33 poems meant that I wrote a little more than one poem per day, but this year I didn’t even try to write one every day; I almost always wrote them in clumps of three or four and then took a few days off between writing sessions. I’ve done this in the past, too; it makes the “poem-a-day” thing less of a chore for me. And as I’ve said in past PoPo recaps, writing several poems in one sitting sometimes makes them more interesting; often I'll riff on the subject of one poem and expand it into others. This time I had a series of poems about eavesdropping, since I seemed to be overhearing a lot of conversations and was fascinated by the relationship between the loud talker and the unwilling listener, and the incompleteness of the information you overhear—Is that person always like that? Did that person bring this problem on himself? How reliable is the narrator of this story? I also had a few poems about painting (more on that below), and lots of small scenes from around my town of Ashland, Oregon, which was plagued by hazardous wildfire smoke all through August.
        Looking back through the poems, I can see a few that seem like keepers, like something I might end up getting published if some editor likes them. A few fizzled. My favorite one is about my bathrobe, which had nothing to do with eavesdropping or smoke and just sort of flew in on its own, as the best poems sometimes do. 
        Thinking about which poems I might send out to journals made me go back just now through poems from past PoPo Fests (this was my 9th year), and I see that fewer of them have been published than I thought*. None at all from last year. And in fact I rarely send those postcard poems out to journals at all. I suspect that some part of my mercenary brain thinks that short poems—and especially short abstract poems—are less “publishable” out there in the mean world. In April, during NaPoWriMo, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write longer, more “serious” poems, whatever that means. April is sort of a poetry crucible, when I think hard about a lot of things and try to write deeply into them. In contrast, the August Postcard Fest is more of a lark; I have fun with these shorter poems, and I feel pretty much zero pressure. Hence I think I tend to take them less seriously. Or perhaps they really are “slight.” I need to think about that more.

Side 2: The postcards
This year, I took a totally new approach with the actual postcards: I hand-painted all of them. In past years I’ve used giveaway postcards from restaurants, touristy ones I picked up at the drugstore, and ones I got printed at Vistaprint with my own photos on them. But I’ve been doing a lot of watercolor painting this past year, and I was intrigued by the idea of painting each one individually. In retrospect, that sounds kind of nuts—paint 33 individual paintings?—but I was already thinking of it back in April or May, so I started painting them then. I tried out lots of different paper—postcards made for watercolor by Daniel Smith, Hahnemühle, Schmincke, and Strathmore, and also 4x6-ish pieces of heavy watercolor paper by all sorts of companies. Pretty much anything I ran across the past few months that seemed like it would hold up in the mail. I ended up putting a few in envelopes, especially if the paper was 100% cotton; it seemed too soft not to get torn in the canceling machines. 
        I painted them in batches of 4 or 5; I’d do a bunch of skies in slightly different colors and styles, and then some kind of land or trees or whatever. I tried really hard not to overthink them. I did a few others with markers. And it was an absolute blast—serious fun, and again, with no pressure at all. I was surprised at what a useful process it was to paint so many little 4x6 paintings; I kept a bunch of them because I want to do larger versions of them, and I was constantly experimenting and coming up with techniques and color combinations that I didn’t expect to find. Just totally screwing around with paint. It wasn’t hard, it was joyful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I ended up painting about 50 postcards total because I kept painting ones that I liked enough that I didn’t want to send them away.

Bonus track: The community
Once again, the PoPo Fest’s Facebook group was really fun to keep up with all through August. People take such different approaches to the postcards; some do collages, one person used grocery cartons (she sent me one made from a Kleenex box). Some found vintage postcards; one woman in Alabama sent me an old postcard featuring a building in my town in Oregon, which amazed me. And many, many others didn’t really care about the postcards; for them, it was all about the poems. I’ve done it lots of ways over the years, and they’re all good; the PoPo Fest is flexible enough to accommodate pretty much any way you want to do it.

* Here are a couple of PoPo poems that did get published:

Speaking of smoke,
this one was in Crab Creek Review, 2019.

In Right Hand Pointing, 2021.

Past PoPo Fest Recaps:

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Writing Year: Get thee behind me, 2020

Derailed subway train in the Netherlands saved by a whale
sculpture, 11/2/20. Seems like an apt metaphor for the year.
I will just start by saying: All through the shitshow of 2020, the writing world remained an inspiration for me. I don’t know quite how we did it, but writers kept on writing. Poets figured out how to do readings online. Everybody learned Zoom. Literary journals continued, adapted, and sometimes thrived. A few really beautiful anthologies were produced about the pandemic, the ugliest of subjects. 
        Back on March 11, I wouldn’t have believed any of this. That was the day the NBA shut down, which, for some reason, was the watershed moment for me—the end of the civilization I knew. I pictured us at the end of the year, holed up in our dark bunkers reading old can labels to each other and trying to find the last station on the hand-crank radio. 
        So yes, as of today, we’re still here, but I won’t say it was a good year for writers. Or for my writing. Or for anything. That would be crass, cruel, and beside the point. Still, there were times of beauty and weirdness. Here are some things that changed, and things that surprised me, and some actual good things that grew, mushroom-like, in the dark year now ending.

Zoom poetry events: some good, some bad.
Seeing friends read in other cities—amazing! Seeing famous poets whose voices I'd never heard—fantastic! Attending open mikes with readers from other countries—transcendent! Going to online poetry
        Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute.
        I “went” to some online poetry conferences, the kind with presentations and workshops happening at various times through the day, where I could pop in on Zoom to check out each classroom and pop out if the thing wasn’t to my liking. I’m a restless conference-goer at the best of times, and on Zoom it was very easy to hit the “leave meeting” button when a presentation wasn’t floating my boat. At one day-long conference, I found one class I liked, stumbled across another that I sort of liked, and then bailed on another six—six!—after watching them for five or ten minutes. I can’t imagine walking out on six classes at an in-person conference; it would be too embarrassing to stand up and look at my watch as if thinking Oh dear, I left the baby in the car and clunk noisily out the door. But on Zoom, leaving is easy, silent, instant. Click. And I’m not sure if that’s good (freedom!) or if it’s hazardous to people like me with short attention spans; I wonder if I missed anything good. And the one thing I love most about writers’ conferences—the hanging out with other writers, grabbing a coffee between classes and drinks at the end of the day—was completely absent from those online ones. So, for me, Zoom conferences offer all the things I like least about conferences, and none of the things I like most.

I wrote a lot about the pandemic. 
I journaled to preserve the strange, disaster-movie quality of it all: the sudden shutdowns and surreal speed of it, the news from overseas, the appalling lack of response from the U.S. government, the rumors, the social divisions. It felt important to chronicle these things. I also wrote a shit-ton of pandemic poems early on, some of which I posted on Instagram with graphics, which was an empowering, absorbing project. I published some others in journals and anthologies. Some poet friends, I know, didn’t write at all about the pandemic. I totally hear that (see the next paragraph); I just felt compelled to make bread with the dough at hand, and pandemic dough was what I had.

I wrote almost nothing about a disaster close to home.
As if the pandemic, layoffs, racial tension, and that nail-biter election weren’t enough, my region got hit with another huge blow on September 8 and 9 when the Almeda fire tore through our Oregon valley, destroying more than 2,500 homes. It was epic, horrifying, unbelievable, frightening, and very, very sad. Many of my friends and co-workers lost everything. Even now, the burn zone—which starts 3 miles from my house and stretches 10 miles to the northwest—is a mind-altering, life-changing thing to see: miles and miles where homes and businesses used to be, everything now reduced to a hip-high, gray/white landscape of debris that looks uncannily like ruined tombstones. I’ve written a grand total of one poem about all that, although I did journal a lot. It was just too close; I know too many people whose lives are forever changed. To make art out of that and put it up on the internet did not feel like the right thing to me. It’s delicate, and I was not in the right mental space to do it.
        This made me think a lot about poems of witness and current-events poems. I write a lot of those, and I’ve always recognized that it’s different when you’re farther from the disaster; of course it’s easier to write about it. But there’s a voyeurism to it, an inauthenticity that, paradoxically, makes it possible to take the art/poem in different directions than if you’d seen the event yourself. But when it happened to people you know, there’s a line of ethics in there. Maybe there’s always a line of ethics, and we just trample over it all the time without thinking. 

Working at home hasn’t given me more time to write. 
I’ve been working at home full time since March 17 (and am so grateful to be working), and I still never feel like I have enough time to write. It turns out working at home in sweats is still working. I still really look forward to weekends.

I superly, very muchly miss drinking with poets in bars.
This surprises me, how much I miss the after-reading drink with a few friends at the pub. The big group walking to the restaurant for a meal with the famous poet who’s in town for one night. The random meet-ups in the hotel bar after a long day at the conference. The dinner with a poet friend where we talk about sequencing manuscripts and have a bit too much to drink and laugh our asses off. Writing is great, but being a poet is also about living in a world.

I miss doing road trips for out-of-town readings. I also enjoy not doing them.
Honestly, my relief at not doing them slightly outweighs how much I miss them. That’s mostly because of my 18-year-old cat, whose health has (knock on wood) been more stable during this quiet, stay-at-home year. I’ve also saved a lot of money by not traveling. I've loved the online readings I’ve done, but they don’t sell a lot of books. So the metric is all different. Two online readings I really enjoyed doing this year were the Spring Creek Project’s video series The Nature of Isolation (check out their other videos too, with writers and visual artists) and Rattle’s interview/reading series, Rattlecast, where I talked a lot about poem sequencing and revision and last lines and the music business and the problem with persona poems. 

I had to take some new author photos.
Because my hair is much longer now. I wasn’t identifying with the photos taken a couple of years ago, the short-hair ones. Is this isolation some kind of chrysalis? Will some of us emerge with antennae and tails? Will that be a wonderful thing? The pragmatist in me says Stop it. Cruel. Crass. The writer in me says…wings.

Netherland subway train photo by Robin Utrecht/Getty.

Almeda fire photo courtesy of Governor Kate Brown's office.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

NaPoWriMo, Plague Year Edition

I got an early start on NaPoWriMo by writing
Instagram poems in March. Let's just say
there was a theme.
It’s April 15th, which means I’m halfway through National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). This is the annual poem-a-day writing marathon that thousands of people do during April, and that I've been participating in for about 12 years. As usual, I’m running a small private Facebook group with about 15 other people who are writing poems every day and sharing them there, where only we can see them. Every year, I rely on NaPoWriMo's discipline to help me produce a stockpile of first drafts that I can revise later, poems I probably wouldn’t have written if I hadn't set myself the goal of writing one every day for 30 days. And I’ve always loved the camaraderie of doing it with a group. (Left on my own, I’d flake after about three days.)

Hard syrup
So, how’s the marathon going? I won’t lie to you, reader; this one's been a slog. I haven’t had a single good patch of days where the poems were flowing freely; this year they’re all feeling sort of extruded, like old maple syrup that you have to squeeze really hard to get out of the bottle. Most years, there are a few days like that. But this time, it’s every day—a steady diet of hard syrup.

Of course, this year is different. Everything is different. We’re all carrying the immense weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, a horror show that keeps morphing with its shutdowns and layoffs and fevers and ventilators and shortages and epic presidential incompetence, and so many of us are waiting it out at home, isolated and bewildered. (For my part, I'm working at home, extremely grateful to still have a job, and staying away from people as much as possible.) There’s no guidebook for how to live and be during something like this, let alone try to keep up a writing practice. I see writers on social media talking about how they haven’t been able to write at all, and others saying how all their writing is doom and gloom and mostly cathartic, or they find themselves writing chirpy upbeat nonsense that even they don’t buy. On Twitter I’ve been reading good advice that people are getting from their therapists and counselors, and most of it boils down to this: You are going to feel all the feels, and many at the same time. Whether or not you choose to make art out of this (or substitute “be productive” or “stay positive”) is up to you, and there’s no one way; we’re all learning this, and because it’s grief, it will take its own path through you. Just know that it will.

Getting out there, metaphorically
But I had a poetry-writing marathon to get on with, and I realized that the pandemic felt a lot like the choking wildfire smoke we've had for weeks at a time in southern Oregon in recent summers. I was writing a lot then too, and all I could write about was that damned smoke; it was literally in my face, constantly. The pandemic is functioning like that as well, but of course everyone, everywhere, has it in their face. As with the smoke, I felt like I needed to break the current crisis down into small increments, micro-scenes of my own everyday life; it’s too vast and overwhelming—not to mention still developing—to take on much more than that in a single poem. And the whole thing is surreal, isn’t it? Like a dream that you’ll wake up from and think, Whoa, that was nuts.

I started writing poems about the pandemic back in March, before NaPoWriMo began, because the emergency was beginning to hit us locally and hard. And I decided early on to post a lot of them on Instagram (@amymillerpoet). I’ve been dabbling with Instagram poetry the past few months; I like the mixture of text and images, the block of art. The whole thing about how the poem is now published because I went and blabbed it on Instagram is just another interesting thing; I’m not sure what to do with that. But suddenly it felt like a time to let the poems walk out the door, since I literally couldn’t. We are truly all in this together, and I had a strong compulsion to get poems out in the world where all sorts of people could read them, not just the ones who subscribe to literary journals. And, I don't know, maybe I just needed a gigantic distraction. The discipline and techie geekiness of making those Instagram poems was like a lifeline I was following through some very dark water.

And now that NaPoWriMo is halfway through, I’m continuing to write and post some Instagram poems; the impulse to put together words and images is still strong. So maybe NaPoWriMo has felt like a slog because I was already tired from writing a poem a day in March, more or less. But, like I used to say about the great NBA player Tim Duncan, what made him great was that he kept going on bad days too; he just changed his game a little. So I’m still welcoming the daily discipline of NaPoWriMo, even if it hurts more than usual. I’m still hoping to hit a few three-pointers.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

100 Rejections: Pain or Gain?

I keep the guidelines of journals I'm interested in
on my desk. That way they're right in my face
and I can't avoid them.
It’s the start of a new year, and I’ve just crossed the finish line of a marathon I began last January, a strange, windmill-tilting quest to collect 100 rejections of my writing in one year. Yep, that’s right—I sent my work out to a lot of publishers during the past year, hoping that 100 of them would reject it in 2019.

The idea of boosting your submission process by trying for 100 rejections was championed back in 2016 by writer Kim Liao in her now-famous article “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” It’s great reading, and it got a lot of writers talking about Liao’s philosophy, which was inspired by a friend’s advice to her: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

I like this approach, and although I’d never really counted rejections, I knew that in past years I got way fewer than 100 per year; probably more like 20 or 30. So this past year I decided to participate in an online group where everyone was trying to get 100 rejections in 2019. (I like to do these things with groups because without any accountability or encouragement, I know I'll probably blow it off after a couple of weeks.)

The count & the amount
How did it go? In short, I didn’t make it to 100 rejections. I got 52, so I basically ran a half-100 marathon. And to get those 52 rejections, I sent out a lot more submissions than I normally would in one year. So my first takeaway is: It’s really hard work sending out enough submissions for 100 to bounce back.

My second takeaway was that it was fascinating to actually keep track of how many submissions I sent out (71*), how many were rejected (52), and how many were accepted (19). That meant a 27% acceptance rate, or roughly 1 out of every 4 submissions, and it held steady pretty much throughout the year. That 27% stat makes me happy. I’d never done enough analysis to figure out my acceptance rate in past years—I was afraid to, to be honest, fearing the percentage would be so depressing that I’d hang up my notebooks and never write again. But 1 in 4? I can live with that.

I kept a simple ongoing list of rejections and acceptances in my Notes app so I could jot them down anytime I got an e-mail with a yes or a no (and even at that, I may have missed one or two; I track submissions with an index card system that I love but that isn’t stat-friendly). By my calculations, I made $970** from writing in 2019, most of it from a second-place win in a national contest and reprints of a couple of articles that I wasn’t expecting and that I counted as a win. I didn’t keep track of how much I paid in contest entries and reading fees, but I'm cheap about those so I figure they came to about $100.

The reckoning
Because I’ve never kept meticulous stats on acceptances and rejections in the past, I can’t say how many more of either I got in 2019. But at a glance back through my 2018 submissions, it looks like I got more than twice as many acceptances in 2019. So based on that alone, this is a good system. I got into a few journals I didn't think I had much chance at; I was in "why not?" mode a lot this year, and that's a good way to be. And although, as I said, I worked a lot to send out all of those submissions, I never felt exhausted or defeated by the project. It was fun; it was a game. I’m a sucker for games.

However, I can’t help thinking that the whole process made me very eager to be published, perhaps more than was healthy. Like many writers, I was often told early on that writers should write more and publish less. (Somebody famous said that; I forget who.) Parts of me are at war over this. That publish-less thing is sort of a puritanical philosophy, like we all need to suffer to be worthy, and I know there are times when I rush off poems and essays for publication before they’re ready. (I can only hope they get rejected.) I also know that I’m 57 years old and don’t have the luxury of time that I felt in my 20s or 30s. And I sort of feel like, if I can’t rush to publication when I’m pushing 60, when exactly do I get to that? And I laugh, because writing is all about joy and not about rules. And I know I need to just keep writing and send out what I like.

On to 100?
I guess this was a success, since I’m already planning how to get more rejections in 2020***. But as always, I was surprised during this year of rejections by the way some of them broke my heart and others rolled right off me. In general, the 100-rejections practice helped take the sting out of them; when collecting them was a goal, it changed my feelings about them a little. ("Rejection? Great! Put it on the list!") That said, it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting rejecting any more than usual. This system is not a magic antidote; it’s more like desensitization. But, as I always tell young writers when I do presentations for them, this kind of desensitization is your friend. If you’re the kind who wants to rip up every rejection letter and mail it back to the editor in a Sharpie-scrawled envelope, you’re going to get very tired of doing that when they’re coming in at this rate. You log them in and move on and send out more, and that’s what takes up a lot of time in a writer's daily life.

Which brings up the question: When do you have time to write when you’re beating your brains out sending out all those submissions? I didn’t actually find that to be a problem; I continued my usual practice of doing two month-long writing marathons in April and August, and I sent out fewer submissions during those months because I was concentrating on a lot of writing. Through the rest of the year, I wrote about the same number of poems as usual, as well as some essays. So I guess the answer is that the writing still takes first priority; the submitting time, for me, ended up pushing something else out of the way, like Netflix or yard work. Which reminds me, please steer clear of my yard. While I was sending out submissions, I think skunks moved in there.

* I tracked submissions, not individual poems or pieces of writing. And note that the “submissions sent out” is just the sum of acceptances and rejections received during 2019; some were submitted in 2018, and I think a couple of publishers sat on them longer than that.

** I love it when writers tell you how much they make, don't you? The great taboo. This figure only tracks journal payments and contest wins, not book sales or honoraria at readings.

*** I'll try to be more methodical, like make lists of journals I want to be in and then actually go down the list and send poems to them. So far, I've been very good about making the lists. Not so good about the sending part.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Writers & One-Nighters

Poetry night at the Barkin’ Dog Grill, Modesto. A warm
room with fellow featured poet Paul Neumann and
gracious series host Stella Beratlis at the mike.
Earlier this week I took a quick road trip to central California to read at the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center’s Second Tuesday poetry series. I was reading with Paul Neumann, a former professor at Modesto Junior College, at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto in this long-running series that was founded by poet Gillian Wegener and is now hosted by Modesto’s city poet laureate, Stella Beratlis. 

That is one healthy reading series; when I got to the Barkin’ Dog Grill, the place was packed, and as soon as Stella and Gillian arrived, I realized that they were waving at or hugging almost everyone in the restaurant—all these folks were there to see the reading (empty-house nightmare averted!). The audience was lively and engaged, with the kind of rapt faces that I always enjoy reading to.

And I would just like to say: This was the first reading I’ve ever done where the audience was eating dinner. And I loved that, and now I’ll always want people to be eating. There was something wonderfully assuring about the clink of forks and the light glinting off wineglasses while I read my work; some little existential cell inside me was happy that these people were getting sustenance. I have a longstanding blood-sugar issue—an aftereffect from a scary health crisis about 12 years ago—and I tend to get glucose crashes at inconvenient moments, like right in the middle of a reading*. So I’m obsessive about eating a solid meal before doing a reading. At the Barkin’ Dog I was able to order a full sit-down meal (and a giant glass of iced tea), and then ate half of it while the first reader performed. This was pretty much a perfect scenario; by the time I got to read, I was warm and tanked up, and there was still food left to polish off after my show was over. All the eating and waitstaff did make for a little extra noise during the reading, but it was nothing a seasoned open mike veteran can’t handle. (What poet hasn’t had to shout over a growling cappuccino machine or a phone ringing or a fight breaking out in the bar?)

Did you know Lodi is full of wineries and has miles
and miles of vineyards? I didn’t.
When I was planning this little road trip, it seemed like an awfully long drive (about six hours) to do in a day, only to return home the next day; I generally turn into a pumpkin after three hours in the car. But my 17-year-old cat had a tough summer healthwise, and I didn’t want to leave him alone too long. So I decided to just see how this whirlwind, long-drive one-nighter went. And it went fine. Great, in fact. To my surprise, I enjoyed the driving and even took a longer route the second day, adding about a half-hour to the trip home**. 

The Best Western in Lodi is right by the truck stop, but
actually really nice. Tiniest lap pool I have ever seen.
Over the last two years I’ve done more than 10 road trips to support my new book, The Trouble with New England Girls. This has made me ponder a lot about the economics and logistics of out-of-town readings, since I live in southern Oregon, a long way from everywhere. Pretty much every out-of-town reading requires an overnight stay, so I experimented with one-nighters and two-nighters, and even a three-nighter, to see what felt best for me. To my surprise, I prefer one-nighters and long drives over two-nighters and shorter, broken-up drives. It may be because I’ve had two high-maintenance cats the past few years (one with diabetes), but staying away a single night is much easier on me psychologically than arranging to be away for two or three nights. And I’m always amazed at how much I pack in during a one-night, two-day trip; when I get back home, I always feel like I’ve been away much longer. And the longer drives are (counterintuitively) bothering me less as I get older.

And did you know the Deshmesh Darbar Sikh Temple
is also in Lodi?
And then there’s the money side of it; of course one night in a hotel is half the price of two nights. We writers have to think about this stuff. Out-of-town readings sometimes don’t pay for themselves. But sometimes they do; sometimes you even turn a profit. In the long run it feels like a wash, and that’s fine. And there are many intangible benefits to doing these readings: meeting interesting people, seeing fascinating places I never expected to run across, and making connections with other writers that often lead to readings and opportunities later on. (For instance, I met Stella Beratlis last year when I read with her at another series in California.)

So here’s to the one-nighters, and pistachios fresh from the orchard, and the Sikh Temple in Lodi, and chickens in the road, and the modern Gold Rush feel of Marysville, and Mt. Shasta with its lenticular clouds. And poets traveling through it all.

We don’t have a Cost Plus in southern Oregon,
so I got a German food fix in Stockton. 

And here I thought Red Bluff's claim to fame
was consecutive days over 100 degrees.
Not so! They have some fantastic orchards
and roadside fruit stands.

The massive burn scar from the Delta fire north
of Shasta Lake is still horrifying a year later. 

I still maintain that the Weed airport, just north
of Mt. Shasta, has the best rest stop on I-5.

* If anyone was at my reading with John Sibley Williams a couple of months ago in Medford, that was why I rudely left the podium for a moment during the Q&A, went to my seat, and brought back a Tootsie Roll and a protein shake I’d stowed in my purse. In the past I would have just suffered, but I could see you were all friends. So I just ate the damn Tootsie Roll and felt much better in a few minutes.

** Southern Oregonians, take note: To bypass that 2-1/2-hour stretch of I-5 from Sacramento to Red Bluff that I always find a bit depressing, take highway 99 north out of Sacramento, bear east onto highway 70 through Marysville, and hook up with 99 past Chico and into Red Bluff. Miles of orchards, rolling hills, and roadside fruit stands. An unsettling view of Oroville Dam high on a plateau. Great vistas that will answer the question of how Butte County got its name. Way fewer semis.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

August Poetry Postcard Fest 2019 Wrap-up: Fresh Horses

All the postcards I received for the
2019 Postcard Fest. Fist bump, Group 5!
OK—the dust has settled, the postcards are mailed. The total: 36 poems written in 31 days. That’s a lot for me, a new record.
        That’s my final tally for this year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest, a month-long writing marathon that I’ve been doing each August for the past seven years. This is the one where about 300 people from around the U.S. (and a few overseas) write a poem each day on a postcard and mail it to some other participant. This is one of two month-long writing marathons I do each year (the other being NaPoWriMo), and I’ve become dependent on these mini-writing retreats to generate new material and focus on cycles of poems, projects that sometimes only come together in the white-hot forge of a daily writing discipline. I lack that discipline the rest of the year, for all the usual excuses (full-time job, too tired, life…), so I really try to make the most of these 30-day pushes.

Just fill in the box
Okay, so—in this, the seventh year of doing this postcard-poem marathon, did I beat my previous record because this writing-marathon thing is getting easier? Well, maybe. Even though I find most poem-a-day marathons daunting (at some point I'm always staring at a blank page, thinking Why why WHY do I sign up for these things?), this year’s Fest seemed surprisingly breezy. Pretty much every time I sat down to write a poem, I wrote one. Or two, or three. I wrote in batches again (which works well for me when writing short poems), and once again I often found that the second and third poem of the night were better than the first one, like the pump had to be primed before the clearer water could come out.
The notebook with the boxes drawn into it.
I'm assuming this will not count as publishing
these poems because there's no way in hell
you can read my handwriting.
        This time I always wrote at night, taking the hour or so when I would normally read before bedtime, and I wrote all but three of the poems by hand in a notebook that I’d sketched boxes into, approximately postcard-size. The notebook thing was unusual; recently I’ve been writing much more on a Bluetooth keyboard than by hand. But for some reason, this year I kept reaching for that notebook; there was something soothing about its quietness in the evening with the crickets* singing outside, and the pre-drawn boxes made the writing seem less intimidating—surely I could fill that little space. I did, however, break my lucky 1980s PaperMate pen, and I think it’s a goner. But then I wrote some decent poems with a cheap hotel pen. (I steal those when I do out-of-town readings; they seem to be lucky too.) After all that analog writing, my hand hurt and my handwriting was barely legible, but old-school was working so I stuck with it.

Release the horses
Hackney pony (Breyer mold #496). 
One of the keys, I think, to how smoothly this year’s Fest went was the fact that I settled onto a theme early: the horses I see every day on my way to work. This was a bit of an indulgence; although horses creep into my writing a lot (I grew up around them), horses are a tricky subject because the poems can often go too soft and sticky, or too hackneyed (horse pun!). In their way, they’re as dangerous as cat poems. But I’d been thinking about those horses by the road a lot—I have the world’s most beautiful commute—so I decided to give myself a challenge: write horse poems that did something I wasn’t expecting, whatever that would turn out to be. I ended up working a lot of mythology and religion into the poems, and found horses often standing in for other aspects of nature vanishing from our world. In the end, about half of the month’s poems were about horses, so that may make a chapbook or something down the road.

Lake effect
The other half of the poems were a bit more random, although a kayak outing on a mile-high alpine lake provided almost a week’s worth of poems. That lake really got under my skin; the clear water, harsh landscape, and volcanic mountain looming over it permeated my writing for several days, much like a trip down the Rogue River three years ago formed the basis for my chapbook I Am on a River and Cannot Answer.
        Some themes, though, pop up every year in my August postcard poems. As usual, there was a poem about crickets. And the obligatory August skunks. And many of them were about place, perhaps because I associate postcards with traveling. Postcards make me think of big places and long distances, and that gets reflected in the poems.

Oh, right—the postcards
I like art. I was an art major for a year in college. But I’m not an artist like some of the participants in the PoPo Fest; a quick browse through the Fest’s Facebook page shows dozens of beautiful original collages, watercolors, drawings, and photos that participants used for the picture side of their postcards. For me, although I love seeing other people’s postcard art, the Fest is mostly about generating new poems. So this year I just scoured the house for leftover postcards from past Fests—about 20 from last year with a photo of one of my own linocuts (I had the cards made online at VistaPrint, which I highly recommend), along with a few giveaways from local restaurants (thank you, Caldera and Standing Stone!) and some tourist-y ones (Rogue River, Crater Lake) that I had stashed away. I didn’t spend a cent on cards this year, nor did I think about them very much. And that was fine.

Bottom line
So, as a generative writing exercise, was this a success? I think I always say, oh sure, it was worthwhile—justifying the time and energy I put in on these writing marathons that some other writers, frankly, look down upon. But this year I ended up with about 15 poems that I think I can get something out of. Normally I might get 5 (which I consider a good return on a month’s work), so this is a much higher number than normal. Of course I may look at them differently a month from now (“What was I thinking?”), but I felt like the horse theme turned out to be very fertile ground; I had a lot of unresolved issues to work through in those poems, and of course for poets, that’s literary gold. I was also trying hard to surprise myself with each poem; I was really working on that discipline all month.

Sign-ups for next year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest are already happening; click here to see what it’s all about. Also check out the fascinating essay that Fest founder Paul Nelson recently wrote for Rattle; the journal will have a special feature next year devoted to postcard poetry.

And here are my own reports from past Postcard Fests:

Smokin’ August Poetry Postcard Fest Wrap-Up (2018—oh lordy, the one with all the fires and smoke)

August Postcard Poetry Fest 2016 wrap-up (the first year I made my own cards)

The Long and Short of Postcard Poems (2015)

I guess I was a slacker in 2017 and didn’t write a wrap-up.

* And skunks, who do not sing but chatter.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 30: “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost

This one’s in the public domain, so I’ll put it right here.

After Apple-Picking
by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

When pondering what to post today, the last day of April and therefore the last post in this series of Great Poems for April—no pressure!—I realized a strange thing. Even though I’d been concentrating on going through my own trove of favorite poems through the month, I hadn’t really thought about which one poem is my very favorite. You know, that one that accompanies you through life, whose lines remain with you like bits of a song that you find yourself humming while doing dishes or driving to work. As soon as I thought that, I immediately knew which one was my favorite: “After Apple-Picking.”

What I love most about this poem is its unusual rhyme scheme. This being Frost, of course there’s a pattern. But it’s so erratic, so—dare I say—rebellious that I wonder if Frost was thinking, screw the establishment; I’m gonna go all Picasso on the old end rhyme. And he was a master of the old end rhyme. And yet he was young when he wrote this. And probably somebody out there knows what that was all about, but I’m kind of glad I don’t know, in the same way I’m glad I don’t know for sure what the different kinds of sleep are that he talks about. Or whether this is about the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the banishment from Eden. Or about the burdens of fame (that’s my go-to—“I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired”—but again, he was young, so I’m not so sure). And if you want to see what other people think about all those things, spend an amusing hour or so surfing the internet, looking at the different theories. Those people are all so sure they know what this poem means.

What I do know about this poem is that it’s beautiful. Phrases of this poem are, I think, among the best in American poetry (“ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,” “load on load of apples coming in,” and that low-geared, four-word musical breakdown of a line, “As of no worth”). I love the way he changes up the rhythm and sentence length, and of course those erratic line lengths that sneak the rhymes in there among all the truncation where you can barely hear it. The phrasing is so memorable that I literally can’t pick up a stepladder without whispering “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still,” or cut open an apple without thinking “Stem end and blossom end.” And this line—“Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.” I can go back and read that for a lifetime and never get tired of it.

Every year that I reread this poem, it means something different to me; I find some small part I hadn’t thought much about before. (Right now it’s the "pane of glass / I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough”—can’t you see it? Don’t you sometimes go a whole day, unable to rub that strangeness from your sight?) Loving a good poem is like a friendship. You go through time together, and even though you never know everything about that poem, you keep discovering things that it didn’t tell you before. And your relationship with it changes too. If it’s really a great poem, the poem weathers the changes. And so do you.

Readers, it’s been great fun this month to write about these 30 poems I love. Thank you for all the likes and comments on social media; I hope you’ve had as good a time as I have.