You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, when hundreds of thousands of people attempt to write 50,000 words of their book in one month, November. (Why not start planning now? We have lots of articles to help you!)
NaPoWriMo is NaNo’s kid sister. People write 30 poems in 30 days in the month of April, otherwise known as National Poetry Month.
I’ve done the poem-a-day-for-a-month challenge a few times now, and not only in April. In my experience, unlike NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t require a lot of advance preparation to make it worthwhile. Writing one a day makes me more aware of themes, forms, and tones toward which I gravitate. Sometimes this inspires me to write a few poems in a series, i.e. “poems about food,” which is great because I hope to put together a book-length collection. Other times, writing so many so fast forces me to try out a new voice or a different tricky device. What’s helped the most with NaPoWriMo, however, is having a regular audience for the poems.
The first time I did the 30-day challenge, I posted my daily drafts on a social website where a small number of followers, almost none of whom I’d met in real life, could see them. It helped hold me accountable. A few of my followers were doing the same challenge, and we cheered for each other. About a year ago, though, I decided to just post my rough drafts on Facebook instead.
I probably did this because I have a need to be the roughly the same person to everyone, everywhere. It still made me uncomfortable at first, because my poetry writing has always been somewhat more private. I traveled halfway across the country, away from anybody I knew, to get my MFA in poetry a couple of decades ago. Unless I did a reading, which was rare, or got something published in a literary magazine, which was rarer than I would have liked, nobody knew my poems.
Something about writing a poem tends to bring out the least socially acceptable versions of ourselves: the inappropriate thoughts, the weirdness, the angst. That would be fine for, say, tumblr, but Facebook is for being chatty and telling everybody you are fine. So when I started posting poems, I thought, Well, people are going to think I am a huge weirdo.
I was surprised. Former high school classmates, coworkers in non-creative fields, and my in-laws started liking them and even commenting on the lines they liked, or talking about experiences of their own. Poetry was not the odd, arcane exercise I had judged it to be. People got it.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. My poetry has changed quite a bit from when I was in grad school. I feel like my work back then, and the work of too many contemporary poets in general, was for fellow poets, people who have a lot of patience with dense language, oblique associations, and other factors that can make poetry reading more difficult.
Today I want my poems to be intelligent and interesting, with fresh insights and images. I also want them to be emotional, even at the risk of the unforgivable crime of sentimentality. They are aggressively accessible. Having a built-in, non-specialized audience for my writing has helped me focus on this aesthetic instead of getting caught up in any gratuitous bullshit.
Instead of just “expressing myself,” I think more about questions like: what kinds of poems does the world really need? How can I tell other people’s stories? It’s a strong corrective to the writing workshops I attended in college in grad school, where someone might take exception to your use of a comma, but would never ask, “Why don’t you write about anyone besides yourself?” or “What do you really want to say to everybody?”
Now, writing bad poems is part of being a poet. I’ve written rooms full of bad poems, and I don’t know another way to get to the good ones. Nonetheless, posting on Facebook has also upped my game a little. If I wrote three slight or just plain crappy poems in a row for a small group of writer friends, I wouldn’t think much about it. At the moment, I have 852 Facebook friends, and I’m not going to half-ass it in front of that many people. If I fail, it’s not going to be because I didn’t try.
I do take down the poems after about twelve hours. Literary magazines do not publish things that have already been published elsewhere, but I figure a rough draft on my Facebook page for half a day is not a big deal. If the poem really sucks, it only lasts a few hours. Some of my writing deals with adult themes or uses R-rated language, and on a few occasions, I have censored my daily rough draft from Facebook because it seemed particularly likely to offend. My posting on Facebook hasn’t prevented me from writing this kind of poem, and it shouldn’t.
I know what an obnoxious use of Facebook this is. I am co-opting a huge group of people as accountability partners and captive audience members for some of my worst and certainly my most unpolished writing. If someone came up with anything more annoying, I’d be surprised. At the beginning of a poetry month, I warn my Facebook friends ahead of time that they should hide me if they find this kind of thing irritating. I do this so people won’t unfriend me. Many people, though, are generous enough to say that they actually dig it.
It’s the end of April now, and I’m frankly a bit worn out from this challenge, which has cut into my sleeping time. I also know that I’m not as strange as I had feared, and I have a handful of new poems that I like, all because I had some help from my friends.