I’ve spent this past month writing a poem a day for the 2009 November PAD Chapbook Challenge. The way it works is that Robert Lee Brewer posts a prompt on the Writer’s Digest blog every day i.e. “Pick a number, make that number the title of your poem, and write a poem” or “Write a poem filled with noise.” Some of the prompts give a phrase as a starting point; “Nobody Says” or “And then___.” For the most part, the prompts weren’t anything I would have given myself as a starting point for a poem. That was exactly what I needed.
I earned my MFA in poetry in December of 2002. Then I commuted between three teaching gigs, got married, ran a corporate learning center, and had a baby. The first year out of school, I submitted my thesis as a manuscript to a bunch of first book contests. I got some nice notes, encouragement, and even a couple of almosts, but my book wasn’t published. I knew all along that I needed to be sending out the individual poems, wracking up some more publishing credits, and doing the editing that comes with rejection (or publication, I find that once a poem is in print, I suddenly see revisions). But I sent out the book, not the poems. And then I just stopped making time to send out the work.
Next, I went back to the poetry slam. I stopped competing and performing while I was in grad school. It was enough to walk into just about every workshop and have the other poets ask if what I was putting up for discussion was a slam poem or a page poem. I had to debate whether poetry was written for an audience, if it should be, if slam poems were poems. I didn’t have the energy to slam. Once I got out of school, I was thrilled to be back at the slam. I wrote new poems, memorized, rehearsed, revised, and competed.
By the time I got pregnant in 2006, I had hadn’t been writing or performing much for two years. Though all the books talk about pregnancy brain, no one mentioned I would stop being able to write. As soon as I got pregnant, my brain wouldn’t work for poetry. I couldn’t even read it. I tried lyric, narrative, my favorite poets, reading out loud, typing other people’s poems. My brain refused to connect. It was the reverse of my experience as an English undergrad when I suddenly could understand Shakespeare. It was like I’d put on a Shakespeare decoder ring and everything made sense all of a sudden. Pregnancy was my anti-decoder ring for poetry. Nothing I did made me able to speak or read or write that language.
I’ve tried repeatedly, both during the pregnancy and since my now three-year-old son was born. Everything I wrote felt juvenile, forced, empty. I gave up. And then my friend Pamela told me about this challenge. She did the April Challenge and was gearing up for November. On November 2nd, I decided I would do it too. So what if I wrote a poem a day and it was horrible? I’d at least be writing again. Maybe I could use some of Natalie Goldberg’s advice and finally get the editor back out of the writing process.
Now, I’m on the last day of the challenge. I have more than 30 poems, some of them good, most of them in need of great revision, but I have something to work with. Over the course of the last month, I have begun to see line breaks, hear language, and create again. While some (I don’t have any idea what percentage) people participating in the challenge posted their poems in the comments section of the blog and/or on their own blogs, I was happy to keep to myself. I chose not to participate in the community of people communicating about the challenge and what they were doing as it happened. I didn’t want to read other people’s poems and start psyching myself out. I didn’t want to see my own poems in print outside of my notebook. I just wanted to write. It felt great. And after the challenge is over, I’ll start editing to see if I can put a chapbook together for the challenge deadline on January 2.
What did it take to get me writing poetry again? Just deciding to do it, committing to it, and separating the still small voice inside me from all the critics chiming in. What does it take for you to get yourself going after too long a break from your work?
Photo by After the Party