NaPoWriMo, Week 1: Just Write The Fucking Poems

April is National Poetry Writing Month, wherein participants attempt the daunting task of writing a poem a day from April 1-30. The problem? Anyone who is serious about writing poetry has already been given the advice that they should always be attempting to write a poem a day. Designating just one month out of the year to do so is counter intuitive to idea of constantly growing as an artist.

So a few years ago, I stopped looking at NaPoWriMo as a “poem-a-day” challenge, and more of a time to check in on myself as a poet. It’s good to try to switch up your process as a writer (you will pretty much always produce something that feels significant if you do this). It’s also good as a period of self-reflection, to make sure you’re developing healthy habits as an artist; most importantly, setting and achieving goals feels empowering–all too often poets are negative about the impossibility of their own art form, if not themselves.

So cut the bullshit! Here’s some ideas, based on my own NaPoWriMo goals from this year and past,  that will help you feel good about National Poetry Writing Month.

1. This Is Not About The Numbers!

Shortly after I wrapped up my undergrad degree in Poetry, I had a conversation with the poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz that really helped to shape my ideas of how to be a poet outside of the classroom setting. Among other things, she admonished the idea of the April 30/30 — “If you want to really push yourself, try doing a 180/180.” I was floored and speechless by this suggestion.

Okay, so, you don’t REALLY have to do that–my advice here will certainly not be trying to equate numbers with accomplishment–but the idea behind what she is saying should strike a chord.

Artistic success is not something you measure in numbers. Yes, intense productivity is not usually seen as a bad thing (I’m guessing if you have the ability to sit and write 100 pages straight through, you’ll keep brushing your teeth and remembering to eat). But even Cristin admitted that if you write 180 poems in 180 days, you’ll be lucky if only 30 of them are worth seeing daylight.

Instead, remember that the feeling of writing even one poem that you personally love is satisfying enough to inspire you for a lifetime. So strive for that, rather than just fulfilling a quota.

2. Set A Goal That Excites You

So, now we know the criticism of NaPoWriMo’s “poem-a-day” challenge is that it is just a little counter intuitive, since you’re supposed to always be writing a poem a day. What I’m saying is not to forego the poem-a-day challenge–by all means, write “BULLSHIT” on a napkin 30 times, call it a poem, and throw it in the trash–but to make it actually challenging in a way that also feels gratifying.

Let me exemplify. Last year, I decided that instead of doing a regular 30/30, I would attempt 30 pages in 30 days. What I ended up with was a manuscript of a book-length poem. I enjoyed this immensely, because the focus became more about setting time aside each day for “work.” Sometimes I’d write several pages, sometimes just a line or two, sometimes I was really doing editing moreso than writing. But instead of a daily goal, it was a cohesive action. It informed my process tremendously and taught me a lot about the type of poet I am.

So while it’s great to set a productivity goal in terms of writing, you can really reconcile the idea that you should be constantly writing if you modify the month-long goal to be more personalized to what YOU want to accomplish within a month. You can set several goals. And remember that poems do not have to be page-long, delineated stanzas–there is a tremendous amount of freedom in this artistic form. Get in touch with what you want to accomplish as an artist, and make that your priority for a whole month. That way you’ll be developing good habits to carry you through the rest of the year.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable 

I feel like people who post their shitty rough drafts of the poems on their blogs or facebooks every day are missing the point. First off, almost no one wants to read your rough drafts, especially if they are SHITTY (and it’s a fair bet to say that if you’re writing a poem a day, the majority of them will be shitty).

Okay, sorry, I’m being a dick. Sharing your stuff online as you go is a totally fine way to go about it–and I really do enjoy reading some rough drafts, and feeling like I can be part of the poem’s journey as an audience–but I feel like the public sharing aspect that’s become synonymous with the 30/30 is what turns a lot of people off from it, and diverts attention away from what’s really important–meeting your personal goals–turning NaPoWriMo into a popularity contest.

There are other disadvantages to this practice that are more tangible than my personal opinion. Posting your poems publicly hurts their chance at later being published. The act of posting something publicly in an early form contributes to a mentality of “finishedness.” Worst of all, NaPoWriMo becomes about filling the Daily Quota of Facebook notes–band-wagonism at its least productive.

I don’t want to completely admonish the FaceBookers, because it’d be hypocritical of me. I’m talking to you on social media RIGHT NOW. I’m always saying shit on the internet, and divulging my accomplishments is integral to my own process of holding myself accountable 365 days a year.

However, this is not everyone! You can do a 30/30 without ever going on the internet (what are you doing here?!). The act of writing can be an intensely private thing. If you want the public accountability, that doesn’t necessarily mean a rough draft a day–maybe you’re not proud of what you wrote (by all means, keep that shit to yourself).

Since I dislike posting my poetry in favor of attempting legit publication instead, but crave public record, I’m doing a twist on the old 30/30 wherein I’m handwriting all my rough drafts and Instagramming them as soon as they’re done. This is incredibly fun, and a cool way to simultaneously experiment with a different artistic medium.

If you do want to post your rough drafts, I would highly suggest doing this in the most secure way possible if you have any intention of attempting to publish your work later–remember Google caches!

4. Your NaPoWriMo Doesn’t Have To Start On April 1st, Or End on April 30th

Whatever your goals may be, success or failure does not have to occur in the month of April. It is April 4th and you can definitely start participating today. You might be reading this on November 21, 2015–who gives a fuck? Your NaPoWriMo starts here and now!

If you’re trying to do the traditional 30/30 and don’t finish by April 30, you still have the rest of your life to finish it. Remember: that sense of urgency as a driving force has to do with your desire to be a good artist and not because the stars align and for just one month, you’re able to accomplish things!

The idea of a month-long challenge reinforces a concept of there being potential success and failure within the act of attempt. However, any attempt is a success when it comes to art. Even if you succeed and produce work you hate, or even if you fall short and only produce a few things. To attempt is to develop your artistic process, no matter what the pace of your development.  The idea behind the pressure to produce, produce, produce sustainable work in a short period is that it will benefit you more than producing a small amount of work over a substantial duration.

5. Read Poetry & Engage in Community 

I’m definitely of the camp that writing in a vacuum is not helpful. Reading and being a part of a community are necessary to artistic growth. This outlook is agitated by my dual-careerism as a bookseller and high school educator. So, I’m biased, but hey, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably putting stock into what I’m saying anyway (thanks, bub!).

This year, I decided one of my NaPoWriMo goals would be an inverse of the traditional challenge: to read a new poem a day. It’s a simple and definitely achievable goal–poetry is small dose literature, after all, and websites like The Poetry Foundation have endlessly explorable labyrinths of great poems–but, as we know it’s important to write every day and rarely do, reading every day is an equally important but easily negligible habit. So why not devote the month of April to developing healthy reading habits, in addition to healthy writing habits?

The idea behind reading a lot is that it will inform you as a writer and give you material to bounce off of. Equally important is the aspect of being a part of a community. If you live at the center of a bustling literary scene, take advantage of it! Seek out workshops and seminars–they’ll be helpful in producing work that’s out of your comfort zone. If you’re more isolated, I’m willing to bet there will be a reading at a college or other learned institution near you during National Poetry Month. Google it! Or feel free to organize your own reading–why the hell not? Curating is an art form, too.

6. Just Write The Fucking Poems

Seriously. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile. Likewise, all the words you waste complaining about how hard or impossible it is to write 30 poems in 30 days could be easily transported into a poetic context. Don’t wait for inspiration. The point is not inspiration. If you hate your products, no one has to know they exist. But it’s National Poetry Writing Month. Just write the fucking poems already.

I’d discourage you from viewing NaPoWriMo as a “poem-a-day” challenge. If you’re trying to produce a high volume of work, you’ll find yourself in ebbs and flows of productivity. So go ahead and write three poems a day. I mean, why not write 30 in a week? You have a line in your head? Dear god, write it the fuck down! Write a couple down! Remember, you can scrawl “BULLSHIT” on a napkin and call it a poem. This isn’t rocket science.

One of the best things you can attempt during NaPoWriMo is working writing into your routine. It’s funny how people excuse bad habits by saying they don’t have the time to write, yet when you’re looking for it, it’s surprisingly easy. Wake up five minutes earlier and write a poem with your morning coffee. Jot stuff down during your lunch break. While you’re laying in bed at night, record just a couple of your thoughts before drifting off to sleep. I promise even the busiest professionals have enough flexibility in their day-to-day events to multitask poem writing into their schedule.  The more you write, the better the odds you’ll create something that’s meaningful to you. So write constantly.

In concluding this sprawling introduction–and I’ll be back to write more about the poetry and the writing process each week this month–remember that if the goal is to hone your process and check up on yourself as an artist, it needs to feel gratifying. It will be scary at times, but it should also come somewhat naturally. And to contradict myself completely here: remember you don’t need to take anyone else’s advice when it comes to how you write poetry. Achieving your goals will not do anything great for poetry as an art form–it will be great for you.

There are no absolutes or rules in art or how you go about making it. Don’t worry about sticking to conventions or how everyone else is doing it. Be honest with yourself. Concern yourself only what will service your writing the most. Haters to the left.

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