A Most Excellent Unwanted Dog Sestina, or Why I Heart National Poetry Month

Image Why yes, that is a picture of a picture of Leonard Nimoy and Jimi Hendrix. And what does this have to do with writing? With poetry? I wrote a poem about it, naturally. That’s how I roll. But seriously, I had been wanting to do something with this picture/idea since I first saw it back in January at  coffee shop in Tryon, NC. Nothing came to me until inspiration struck on day 29 of National Poetry Month when two prompts came together from poet Maureen Thorson’s NaPoWriMo site and Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides site. 

NaPoWriMo gave a prompt by Jim Simmerman called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.” I love list/directions prompts, especially when they have instructions like this “2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous” and this “17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.” This prompt was pretty much irresistible. I came up with lines like this “If you start at my left big toe, you can unpeel my skin like the devil peels a hard-boiled egg.” Yup. For whatever reason, I was thinking about spirals, like the grooves on a record, and then jumped to the image of Robert DeNiro peeling an egg in one, long strip in Angel Heart. Louis Cyphre indeed. Brewer’s prompt was more of a concept – write a magical poem and a realism poem, or a magical realism poem. I think I got a decent draft including both. 

This is the reason I love April. There are hundreds, thousands of poets at all stages of their craft participating in writing and stepping outside of themselves. When these poets post their drafts each day to sites like Brewer’s, to twitter with hashtags like #amwriting and #NaPoWriMo14, or to other social media sites, poetry becomes a shared community. Where else would I have been able to read the sestina “Tricked into a Pet” posted by cindikenn on day 13 at 8:46am with lines that really work like this “With three babies / born in three years and a furry bundle / of peeing wonder bound to be a dog, / lines often blurred between kid and pet”?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I don’t want to write in a vacuum. I don’t want my work to sit on a flashdrive in a drawer. No, I probably won’t be able to publish any of these poems because, to many, they have already been published. But wait! Thanks to NaPoWriMo’s day 28 “featured journal,” I found out about CSHS QuarterlyAnd they just published two of my NaPoWriMo poems. 

Look, this post is not meant to be a yay me! It is meant to show that community is a good thing. We should share our work. We should critique each other, applaud each others’ successes, share journals we find that we enjoy. It’s fun, and it’s part of what being a good literary citizen is all about. 

This is a shout out to Maureen Thorson, Robert Lee Brewer, and all you poets out there who attempted the poem-a-day challenge of this past April. Thanks for participating in the poetry community, and thanks for the inspiration. Write on!

Should I post it? Thoughts on poetry, publishing, and sidewalk chalk.

April is National Poetry Month. The idea is to raise public consciousness of poetry. Poets.org has posted a list of 30 things you can do to celebrate poetry, including “Poem in your Pocket” which is exactly what it sounds like, except then you have to share the poem, with another person, and my personal favorite, “Put a Poem on the Pavement” which is, again, exactly what it sounds like. Sidewalk chalk and all that. Then there are the many, many sites where poets are posting daily prompts for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) for anyone to use. Most of these sites allow viewers to post their drafts from that day’s prompt. Everyone can read the drafts, comment, and learn. It is a wonderful opportunity to share your poetry with the (cyber) world. And there’s the problem. You’ve shared it. It’s out there. It has been (wait for it) published.

Say what?

I am following two of these sites: NaPoWriMo run by DC poet Maureen Thorson and Writer’s Digest 2013 PAD (Poem a Day) Challenge with prompts by Robert Brewer. Every day, I go to the sites, get the daily prompts, and choose which one I’m going to write on, or I go a little crazy and sometimes combine the two. That’s me: rule breaker, or at least bender. Anyway, The point is that, every day of NaPoWriMo, a month set aside for poetry appreciation and publicity, hundreds if not thousands of people write poems and post them to the Internet. If most submission policies of most literary magazines, both print and digital, are to be believed, none of these poems can ever be published, unless it is in a chapbook or full-length book of poetry. While I understand the principal behind these guidelines, I question whether or not this policy is in the best interest of spreading the news, as it were, about poetry.

Just about every day, I read a new article, tweet, or post about the rapidly changing publishing industry. E-books, self-publishing, small presses; there are more options out there than ever before, but it’s hard to tell which ones can kill or damage a career before it starts. Poetry is most interesting because its place in the capital I Industry is next to non-existent anyway. All I know is, there has got to be something in-between posting poems on the Internet or making your own chapbooks and keeping your poems closely guarded on a flash drive, possibly to die a horrible death of never, ever being read by anyone except you and your cat because you followed the rules and waited, sometimes for six to eight months, to hear back about possible publication. 

The stereotype of the writer, of the poet, is someone holed up by him or her self, scratching out words, usually with a quill pen. Why we are thought of as living before the ball-point, much less the tablet, is beyond me. But truthfully, many writers are solitary. I imagine a huge ball of tangled up words like yarn hovering out in space somewhere, never to be read, never to be shared. And I’m sure some of it probably shouldn’t be. But some of it should, and that’s a shame. Me? I have chosen two paths. One is my series of Facebook poems which I began with the understanding that I’d have to try to publish them as a whole because they exist online. The second path is NaPoWriMo. I’m keeping these to myself, until I send them out to some online submission system for some (possibly online) journal, of course. 

Poetry’s reputation as something that only certain people can understand and enjoy, as something that you had to do in school and thank goodness when that unit was over, as something holed up and antiquated; that reputation will not be changed by ignoring the power of the Internet and social media. I’m not suggesting that journals abandon the “no previously published” requirement. I am suggesting that we need to take a look at the definition of previously published, and we need to acknowledge that poetry needs a profile update if we want it to become part of our, all of our, everyday lives.

Either way, write on, friends. And do me a favor, share your work with someone! Put your own poem in your pocket, write it on the sidewalk, put it on a postcard and send it to someone. It will be read, and it will be celebrated.