Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tupelo’s 30/30 Project: Off to the Marathon

Starting this Tuesday and continuing all through July, I’ll be taking part in a public poetry spectacle: Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project. This is Tupelo’s ongoing fundraiser where a handful of poet volunteers bravely (stupidly? crazily?) write a poem a day for a month and post each day’s work on the 30/30 website. It’s like a literary bike-a-thon, where we poets sweat and huff and risk embarrassing accidents while raising money for a good cause—in this case, supporting one of the most respected literary publishers in the country.

Why on Earth did I agree to do this nutty marathon? Three reasons:

1) Tupelo Press is worth supporting. This 15-year-old publishing company, based in Western Massachusetts and headed by editor Jeffrey Levine*, keeps coming out with beautiful, world-class books—mostly poetry, but also fiction and essays—by stellar writers like Ilya Kaminsky, Geri Doran, Floyd Skloot, and Kate Gale. They’ve just announced upcoming books by my Ashland bud Allan Peterson and the wonderful Tony Barnstone. And, like most independent publishers, Tupelo depends on fundraising to keep its doors open.

2) I’ve become a little bit addicted to poem-a-day marathons. For the past six years, I’ve done NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) each April with a Rogue Valley group, where we write a poem a day and e-mail them to each other. At first, I thought the whole thing was nuts—who wants to see their lumpy first drafts wandering around in the world? And writing, let alone finishing, a poem every day is freakin’ hard. But I decided to give it a try, and you know…it was freakin’ hard. But I came up with a couple of decent poems that I wouldn’t have written otherwise, and I liked the camaraderie of it—the communal kvetching, encouraging comments, and weird little thematic threads that ran through the group’s poems.
            Last year I also joined two postcard-poem groups, where we wrote short poems on postcards every day for a month and sent them to each other. That was even more fun—having to fit a poem into the tiny space of a postcard, then sending it off to someone, often a complete stranger, felt crazy and exotic.

3) My good friend Amy MacLennan did the 30/30 Project in February and seems to be physically unharmed.

Useful addictions
Aside from thrills and philanthropy, I’ve found some practical benefits in these poem-a-day marathons, new habits that help strengthen my writing practice the rest of the year. For instance:

• It pays to keep a little notebook of ideas. In every marathon, there comes a time when I’m sitting there, completely stuck for an idea and sweating the midnight deadline. That’s when I grab the little notebook that I keep for such emergencies—the one with lines from movies and bits of conversation and conundrums that I’ve jotted down at odd moments. Sometimes one will pop out and hit the right chord just then.**

• Having to write a poem every day fine-tunes my poetry antennae. After a few days, I find I’m automatically sifting through each day’s experiences—sights, phrases, stories, puns, tragedies, questions—and asking myself, “What kind of poem would this be? What would be a surprising way to approach writing this?” That’s a handy habit to get into. And the leftovers go into the little notebook (see above).

• The pressure of cranking out a finished piece every day makes me take risks that I would probably be too lazy to try otherwise. It might be a persona that I think is silly, or a rhymey-dimey thing with nonsense lines, or an angry rant. Whatever it is, it goes into the assembly line and comes out…however it’s going to come out.*** Sometimes it comes out kind of cool.

Not quite cheating
The side benefits are all fine and well, but to do this kind of marathon, the hardest part is just sitting my ass down every day and doing it. There’s no shortcut to that, but I’ve found a small trick that helps: I write the poem the night before I have to post it. It still works out to a poem a day, but I take full advantage of the 24 hours. This way the poem can percolate overnight before I look at it again the next day, type it up, and post it. Having that extra time takes some of the pressure off, which, for me, results in less anxiety and better poems. Of course the system breaks down now and then when something—work, apathy, beers with friends—messes up the schedule. Then I have to cough up the poem the same day as the midnight deadline. And that’s fine, I can do that, but the marathon is less of a grind if I can keep to that night-before groove.

You can help me out—and win a prize!
Just like a bike-a-thoner, I’m looking for sponsors to make this thing a success. So I’m asking everybody—cohorts, co-workers, co-conspirators, and kind strangers—for donations (see instructions below). How much is up to you; $1, $10, $20 or more will make my toil in the poetry salt mine that much happier, and will help keep Tupelo Press alive. My goal is to raise $350 for them.
      And to sweeten the deal, I’m offering a prize: At the end of the marathon, I’ll randomly draw the names of two of my sponsors. If you are one of the winners, you’ll get your pick of: a) two Tupelo books of your choice, or b) three hours of my time as an editor or publishing/writing consultant to do whatever you like—help you put together a chapbook, do a Kindle version of your book, copyedit or critique anything from poems to your manuscript to your resume, or just talk about your writing. I work fast. I can get a lot done in three hours.

      It’s easy to donate. Here are two ways:

1)   Go to Tupelo’s donation page to donate using a credit card or PayPal. Important: In the box that says “Is this donation in honor of a 30/30 poet?,” put my name. Again, you can donate any amount from $1 up.

2)   You can donate by check (made out to Tupelo Press) or cash by sending it straight to me; I’ll forward it on to Tupelo. If you need my address, just e-mail me at amymillerediting[at]gmail[dot]com.

Whether you donate or not (and there is no obligation), I hope you’ll check in with the 30/30 site throughout July to see what my co-marathoners and I are coming up with. And keep looking in on this blog for periodic updates, whinefests, and thoughts on poetry blisters, similes for carb-loading, and metaphorical watering stations.

* For a funny and informative read, check out Jeff’s article about putting together a poetry book manuscript. (Item 9: “Weak poems. You know which they are. Don’t include them.” Jeff has also taught at the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, which I wrote about on this blog last year.

** Case in point: “We flowers all sleep in the winter,” a line from Bambi that I love. But that’s about all I love about Bambi. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and I guess you have to see when you’re six—before you learn words like “sanctimonious.”

*** There’s a line from ER that I find useful for a lot of things: “Treat ’em and street ’em.”

Bike sprint photo by I, Kuebi