Saturday, September 1, 2018

Smokin’ August Poetry Postcard Fest Wrap-Up

The postcards I've received so far.
Way to go, group 4! If more arrive,
I'll update the photo.
Yesterday, August 31st, I dropped a postcard with a poem on it into my favorite mailbox* here in Ashland, and I was done—that was my last card for this year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest. This was my sixth year participating in the Fest, a month-long writing marathon founded by Paul Nelson and Lana Hechtman Ayers, in which people around the world write original poems onto postcards and send them off to other Fest participants. This year I managed to hit a personal best, writing 33 poems in the month of August.

As I’ve said in this blog before, the Postcard Fest is an unusually intimate writing marathon because only one person, the recipient, might ever see that poem. And with about 300 Fest participants this year, the recipient might be in Schenectady or Seattle or County Wexford, Ireland. So along with that intimacy, paradoxically, there’s a pleasant anonymity to the Fest—since the recipient usually doesn’t know me, in my mind, that means that absolutely anything goes. That person doesn’t care if I’m writing about ants or tacos or Trump, so I tend to give my postcard poems a very loose rein. 

This year I wrote almost all of the poems on the same theme, something I’ve never managed to do before. I can’t say I really planned that, but as we got toward the end of July, my region of southern Oregon was suffering from a hellacious, early fire season—several forest fires raged nearby, and we were choking with smoke that settled into our valley and didn’t budge for weeks. Like a lot of people in the area, I became obsessed with the Air Quality Index; several times a day I was checking two apps on my phone, plus a website, to see how bad the air was. Several days we got up into the maroon “hazardous” readings (over 300, the chart's highest range), days of a strange, omnipresent white fog that felt almost moist in the lungs. People got sick, people fled town for the coast, people actually moved away, it was so bad.

Left. What my town normally looks like.
Right: How it looked through most of August.
And like my house, car, office, lungs, and very cells, my poems were permeated by smoke as I began writing them for the Postcard Fest. It seemed pointless to write about anything else, it was so pervasive, so all-encompassing. We are a mountain town, and we literally could not see the mountains around us; it looked like we were living in some kind of flat war zone. After a couple of sputtering starts at smoke/fire poems, I got into a groove one night and wrote one that ended up too long for a postcard. But I just went with it, spent a couple of days polishing it up, and ended up sending it to Rattle’s Poets Respond, since it was about a news story that had gone viral, a photo of five firefighters sleeping in a yard in Redding, California, two hours south of here, during the Carr Fire. Rattle published it on their site the following Tuesday, and to my astonishment, it was shared more than 1,000 times from their web page.

Still, the fires burned on and the smoke blanketed us with its netherworld. So I just stuck with it, writing poems about smoke and fire, each with that day’s air quality index noted on it. There were poems about angry meteorologists, weary berry pickers, finding ash inside the car, the language of evacuation orders, and fashion-forward smoke masks. It was like a bottomless well; writing them was almost effortless. Out of the 33 poems I wrote in August, only 4 weren’t about smoke or fire. And then, late in the month, we suddenly got a clear day, and then one that wasn’t too bad. A few days later, we got two incredibly beautiful, clear days in a row. Now we’ve had about a week of good air. And either I was sick of writing about smoke or the muse had finally blown away, because the fire poems didn't come as easily without that smoke right in front of my face, right in my nose**. One of the last poems of the month was about a horse. Just a horse, not a horse breathing smoke or running from fire.

So now I have to figure out if all these poems add up to anything, a chapbook or section in a full-length collection. I’m not sure how they hold together on their own; I feel like they need a few longer poems (like “To the Firefighters Sleeping in the Yard”) to anchor them, or hang them from, or some other awkward metaphor***.

As for the mechanics of the writing, I wrote poems mostly in batches this year, two or three every few days, rather than one per day. I’ve found that with these short postcard poems, I don’t get my engine running hot enough with just one poem. If I can sit down long enough to write two or three, the second and third are usually better poems than the first one. Also, this was the first year that I wrote every single poem on a keyboard, none by hand. Right at the start I made the decision to write on my Bluetooth keyboard that talks to my iPad. It was partly a practical decision to make sure the poems would all be in one place and backed up (via my Notes app); I got a little sloppy last year and have never gathered all of that year’s poems and typed them up, although I think I know which notebooks they’re in. It was also an aesthetic choice; I tend to write more heedlessly and intuitively on a keyboard because I can write faster on it than by hand, and I was curious how that would affect the poems. I think the experiment worked; that voice seems to be flowing better than the handwritten voice. (Who knew such things could have their own voice?)

Linocut, Mt. Ashland Cabin. Note that in the
smoky photos above, that's Grizzly Peak,
our other iconic mountain.
And this year I again printed up my own postcards to be sure that each had plenty of writing room, which is an issue for me because apparently I blather on. This year I decided to use one of my own linocuts, a landscape called Mt. Ashland Cabin that has a swirling shape on the left that was based on a wisteria trunk, but came out looking like—sorta—fire. I got those cards printed long before I knew I was going to be writing about fire and smoke; it just worked out that way. Now it looks more ominous than I’d planned.

As always, the August PoPoFest was great fun, and remarkably productive artistically. And I got some wonderful work from the other participants—some even hand-make their cards with amazing visual art. I highly recommend it.

* Ask any writer over 50 about their “lucky mailbox,” and they’ll probably have one even though we rarely send out submissions by mail anymore.

** On pretty bad days, it smelled like somebody had built a campfire in my living room. On the really bad days, it was like someone had built a campfire in my nose. There’s no other way to describe it.

*** I am poemed out. Fresh out of metaphors.