30 Poems in 30 Days: Thoughts on Process

April, once uncomfortably known as National Poetry Month, has been re-branded, much more comfortably, as National Poetry Writing Month.  This makes us feel less passive in our minority.  The challenge is to write 30 poems in 30 days.

For the past two years I have attempted to write 30 poems in 30 days without “success” (“as such”). I don’t remember how many I wrote the first year. I suspect none. Last year I wrote 11. I was particularly inspired and these poems are short and narrative, the kind of poems I write when inspired (generally 1pg with a narrative arc, left-aligned with some use of tabs but no textboxes (textboxes are how I get the “half-line drop”)). Writing 11 poems in a month is a lot for me because I don’t write narrative, inspired, left-aligned poetry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: some people do it very well. But I think it is easier to write those poems than to make poems like the ones in Organic Furniture Cellar. It is easier for me, at least, and I do not value ease. Growing up in a world of handmade clothes and now living, for many years, in a world adjacent to the Roycrofters and heavily marked by the Arts and Crafts movement has made me value “craft.”  I want things to take time. I want the maker to consider his or her work more closely than any magazine editor ever could.  (Quality, not quantity, of publication should be the goal.)

This  year, instead of trying to write 30 poems in 30 days and ending up with 11 that don’t accurately reflect my poetics, I’m planning to write something every day, which is more than the nothing I usually write (I journal a lot, but rarely get over the intimidating hump of turning ideas into poems), and which is more in keeping with my poetic process.

I see poetry as a “craft” rather than a “flow,” and I differentiate these in terms of control and construction. Although like almost all poets I tend to be more productive when “inspired,” I have long gestation periods where elements come together– more like writing a novel from the pickings of every day life that suddenly reach a critical mass.  When I do put pen to paper (literally — sketchbooks, not computers, are still the birthplace of my poems), I rarely erase.  However, I do superimpose.  For instance, I’ll write two or three fragments that are not enough in themselves to substantiate the content or visual bulk of the poem on the page, and then I’ll combine them, keeping their original placement largely intact except where words would overlap (I dislike illegibility — I am still writing to be understood).  Thus my editing process is more about generation, placement, and superimposition than about generation, erasure and rephrasing (except on the rare occasion that I am writing a narrative poem, in which case rephrasing to decrease ambiguity is my major editorial hurdle; in visual poetry, I use placement to increase or decrease ambiguity).

I can’t think of a good example of this in other arts.  Maybe it is most like music (often mythologized as a “flow” but so often, in the process of writing, more of a “construction”) or sculpture or even quilting/appliqué.  “Superimposition” is a term from film, but it’s rare that a filmmaker would superimpose discrete elements in this way (superimposition is usually planned in advance).

“Moving stuff around” — poetic phrases like transparent building blocks — doesn’t jive with the “30 poems in 30 days” marathon of getting “a whole poem” down on paper each day, as what this collage method requires is time and familiarity: I see only in retrospect, after they have sat around for awhile, how the pieces come together.  I imagine this is similar to how poets who primarily write “inspired narrative poetry” work, too, although it might not look the same on the page, as the process might happen mentally instead (“how do I use this story about x”).


About Jessica Smith

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7 Responses to 30 Poems in 30 Days: Thoughts on Process

  1. Bronwen says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jessica. My process is much more along these lines too. The project I’m working on at the moment involves a document with 28 small pages, and the work involves transcribing from a handwritten notebook, adding, moving around, etc. I’d thought about trying to add a 30 day something as well, but I think it makes more sense to just commit to spending time on this or a different project each day. Even as little as half an hour.

  2. Reen says:

    Yay for NaPoWriMo. I definitely hear you on the lack of craft inherent in writing 30 poems in 30 days, but as you surmise, it can be valuable when you otherwise have trouble just getting something down on the page. I am a big poetry procrastinator, and NaPoWriMo takes the pressure of “doing well” off. The poems I write during this month are rarely good — there have been years where I knocked off thirty really awful poems. Most of the time, however, it’s a mixed bag of poems that are just what they ought to be — first drafts that can be revised, remixed, or trashed later, as need be.

    The public aspects of NaPoWriMo keep me from cheating on my output. I suspect that without the announcements, and the blog dedicated to my NaPoems, it would be all too easy to just not write at all for a good portion of the month — which puts me back at the Square One position. NaPoWriMo also gets me genuinely engaged with poetry — and with the idea of producing it, which reinvigorates my dedication to poetry in general, even if it doesn’t necessarily produce good work.

  3. I’m up for the challenge. I’ve come close to writing a poem every day, last month… I do have an advantage that I like to write in two languages and feed from different sources of inspiration for each language. Yet, I’ll try… to write a poem a day this month, although I never actually push myself to write unless I feel like it. We’ll see how it goes. Good luck to you!

  4. Reen, O yes, I think it’s an interesting challenge for getting words down on pages, regardless of quality. I guess, more in line with what Bronwen expresses, my question is how to participate in that challenge without letting it crush me (I can’t write 30 poems in 30 days so I necessarily fail) or producing work I ultimately don’t feel is representative of my aesthetic (that is, it’s easier for me to write page-long narrative poems and I could perhaps even crank out 30 of them by why would I want to? Is that success?). … What kind of success can I have with the project? What does it mean for me to successfully complete the project? That’s what I want to figure out– how to make the time useful. I think ultimately it may be, in fact, more about “time,” as Bronwen gestures– making poetry a daily habit, or carving out 30 minutes a day to do something poetic even if it’s not “successful” (a whole poem, a good poem, an aesthetically viable poem, etc.).

  5. Pingback: 30 days – Bookworm Pharm: Chronicles of Self-meducation

  6. Reen says:

    I hear you…the NaPoWriMo challenge definitely reflects my own writing style…which leans toward traditional left-flush narrative/lyrical poems (although I have tried to shake that up). But my understanding has always leaned more toward just getting something down.. whatever you produce doesn’t actually have to be a poem, much less a good one. It just has to be written with poetry in mind — a fragment that is later incorporated into a poem, or even thoughts that never end up in a poem, but which inform an eventual poem. Success is far less important than practice in this regard, and the format of NaPoWriMo is almost meant NOT to generate success. Even if write very traditional lyric poems, it’s pretty much impossible to write 30 good ones in 30 days. By making failure inevitable, you reduce its power. If you can’t succeed, you also can’t fail. As the kind of kid who had a major crisis of conscience if I got less than a gold star A++++ on everyday homework, popping the ole failure balloon is priceless.

  7. I read that Roethke, of all poets, wrote one line at a time, kept them in a notebook, and then eventually constructed his poems out of these lines. So even a traditionally narrative poet can use that kind of “construction” technique.
    I’ve never been a “poem a day” poet – I don’t know why, but I usually don’t write anything for a while, then write a “bunch” of related poems, say four or five, then nothing again. I worry that this makes those poems too similar. If I try to write a poem a day, they usually come out to be extremely boring.

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