I knew I wanted to try another daily writing challenge in April, but I didn’t commit to National Poetry Writing Month until probably March 31. I write poetry sporadically during March, but only when a slice idea wants to become a poem. I never set out to write poetry intentionally. I wasn’t sure what would happen when I did, but I knew writing poetry would challenge me as a writer in a way that a daily notebook or even daily Slicing challenge can’t. Here’s what I think I learned from a month of writing and publishing a poem every day on my blog.
Poetry is hard work. Really hard. A lot harder than prose. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But I was surprised by just how mentally exhausting it was. Not just the writing but also the commenting. I didn’t comment nearly as much during Poetry Month as I did during the Slice Challenge because by the time I finished my poem each day, I was mentally spent. I could still read poetry, but I simply couldn’t find words to formulate a comment. Poetry is so intense and requires such distillation and condensation and focus. It is a much more demanding kind of writing and thinking than prose.
Poetry takes me out of my writing comfort zone. After the first few days of writing poetry, I reflected on just how comfortable I am in my little world of prose pieces about reading, writing, teaching, and learning. Even though I wouldn’t call any of my poems confessional or even very personally revealing, they still felt like much riskier writing. They pushed me as a writer and thinker much more than writing prose pushes me.
Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is right: poems really are the best writing teachers. I learned so much about structure, form, the musicality of language, image, metaphor, and revision during April. After just a week of the challenge, I noticed that the quality of writing in my notebook was changing, improving, becoming more focused, more intentional, concerned more with language, words, syntax, not just with getting an idea on the page.
Forms are your friends. I didn’t tackle anything too challenging (no sonnets or pantoums here!), but I did find that I enjoyed playing with form and especially writing in different syllable count forms. I don’t think I would have been able to complete the challenge if I hadn’t had a long list of forms I wanted to try.
And a related insight: everything sounds better when you write it as a haiku. Or a tanka. Or a sijo. An idea that didn’t seem to have much promise miraculously became something I wanted to work on when I imposed a syllable count and form.
I mostly want to write poems about poetry, the prairie, and cats. Given that I am not a poet and don’t know that much about poetry, it was perhaps ridiculous to write so very many poems about poetry during April. But it was a way to distill my wonderings and questions and struggles. The prairie is an endless inspiration for me: I marvel daily at what I see on my drive, how different this landscape is from any other landscape I have known. And I believe cats are basically walking poems anyway, so they’re a natural subject for poetry. I started to feel like I was overdoing it with the poems about poetry, the prairie, and cats, so I tried to make myself write about other things, but I think I would have been happiest just focusing on those three topics for the entire month. (And I am quite proud that my final poem for the month managed to combine all three!)
Poetry requires a tremendous amount of work–and there is no guarantee of a satisfying final product. When I work really hard at a piece of prose, I feel confident that I can eventually get to a final product that will satisfy me. This doesn’t mean that I’ve produced a brilliant piece of writing–only that I have produced a piece of writing that communicates what I am trying to communicate effectively and as well as I can. I have strategies to use when a piece of prose isn’t working. I have a toolbox of prose skills. I don’t have a poetry toolbox yet. When a poem wasn’t working, I couldn’t always figure out what the problem was, and even if I could identify the problem, I usually didn’t have the skills to make it better.
And a related insight: I don’t know how to judge the quality of a poem. For the first week, I really struggled with this. How to know when it’s done? How to know if it works? I’m still not sure of the answers to these questions, even after a month of writing a daily poem. I finally decided that I would simply go with what pleased me and what more or less satisfied my readerly ear and eye.
Even more than encouragement or feedback on my own work, I value walking beside others who are on the same journey. The best part of the Slice Challenge for me is seeing what my fellow writers are up to, and that was true for the Poetry Writing Challenge too. I was eager each day to check out Carol’s and Glenda’s and Margaret’s poetry (and many others too). It was especially comforting to connect with Glenda, since she was also on the poetry writing journey for the first time. I like getting comments and feedback, of course, but mostly I just liked knowing that other writers were engaged in the same work each day. Community is more important for me as a writer than I realized.
Will I do another poetry writing challenge next year? It’s hard to say. It’s much more demanding than I expected it to be. But I did appreciate being challenged and pushed to think and struggle with my writing. I don’t know that I truly became a better poet after finishing 30 poems in 30 days, but I do know that I became a more humble writer and a better reader of poetry.