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.