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.