30/30 Poetry Projects: A New Era of Poetry Production?

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
January 30, 2013
Comments 13

There are times when I think I may be the slowest writer I know. When another writer-friend says to me, “Oh, I wrote a poem this morning,” I’ll think to myself: a whole poem?  In one sitting? How does that happen? Though I try to sit down and write most days of the week, the poems are often slow and difficult to arrive in full. I am beginning to feel like Sebastian Venable from Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer, who, according to Violet Venable, devoted his entire life to art, but only wrote one poem a year. I sometimes think that by the time I actually finish the poem I’m working on, the glaciers may be fully melted. All the houses I once knew will have fallen into the sea. And, at the very least, my clothing will be out of style.


(Pictured: Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable)

In the sudden rise of what is known as the “30/30” project—a pact in which poets promise to write a poem a day for thirty days in a row—I’ve been questioning my own slowness when it comes to writing, and wondering about the cultural conditions that might encourage people to write a poem every day. Tupelo Press recently launched a group-pledge 30/30 as a fundraiser. Their website refers to the 30/30 project as a “poetry marathon,” or a challenge meant to push poets to be more productive. Athletic metaphors aside, many of my friends, especially young writers, now swear by these kinds of projects; some have whole books that spring from these ambitious periods. In a world where most writers have a lot of work on their plates besides writing, it seems like the 30/30 project may be a way of making sure that one actually continues writing. I recently discussed the 30/30 project with the poet Rebecca Hazelton, who was generous enough to explain to me how the approach has aided her work:

Doing a poem-a-day project has been useful for me in that it made me investigate my process and realize that my habit of waiting for inspiration or a span of time I deemed sufficient to write in often meant that I wasn’t writing a lot. As I grow older and have more responsibilities, it’s just not feasible for me to wait for the muse to thump me on the forehead. I’m less likely to have several consecutive hours. Poem-a-day means I set myself an assignment, and I have to complete that assignment. I make poetry a necessity. […] I found through this that I could often write more than I thought I could.  I write when I thought I didn’t have time, and I can push past the false starts that previously would have stalled me out.

Hazelton makes a good point. How many times have we felt that we might quit writing altogether, simply because finishing things seem difficult? If we force ourselves to complete something every day, are we less likely to be mired inside these feelings? For those of us who struggle to finish what we have started, this poem-a-day approach might be useful.  And perhaps the 30/30 project further dismantles, as Hazelton suggests, the notion of The Divine Inspiration necessary for good writing.

On the other hand, there’s still the question of whether increased output—one of the goals of the 30/30 projects—actually results in “quality” writing, and later, perhaps, quality publishing. Hazelton admits that when she finishes a 30/30, “Not all the poems are good. Some of them I throw out.” If we can approach the project with the assumption that every day’s poem may not be of stellar quality, and also know that not very poem needs to be published, perhaps the 30/30 is a way of working through some of our “bad” writing to get to the more interesting writing. Or, if we’re willing to do major revisions to most of what we write, the 30/30 gives us a lot of raw material. As my (novelist) friend J. Robert Lennon has often said to me, “For my own work, I love the fast and sloppy first draft. But then the real work has to go towards the revisions.”  Certainly, for many poets, this has always been true.

But I wonder if there’s an underlying assumption behind the 30/30 project, one that says that writing a higher number of poems is our ultimate goal. And I’m wondering how this manner of working—“fast and dirty”—ultimately affects the kind of poem that is produced. In the times I’ve really tried to write a poem every day, the poems I write are shorter and denser than usual. They are often “flashier” on the surface than my usual poems, relying more on clever word-play, humor, and a sense of ironic haphazardness to ensure I hurtle myself from start to finish as quickly as possible.  But the kind of poem I write when I let myself take days, weeks, months to finish—sometimes even years, off and on—is longer, and more meditative. The ideas unfold slowly.  And there tends to be more white space, in addition to lines of text. If I’m lucky, these poems feel more ambitious then the ones I wrote in one sitting. (I don’t know if this is true for other writers or not.)

In regards to the 30/30 projects, one editor of a literary journal said to me, jokingly, “Velocity and abundance aren’t the secrets of good poetry, are they?”  I can’t help but think that the 30/30 might be a signal of a new era, one that some have said is characterized by an “over-production” of poetry. (For a detailed discussion of what this might mean for magazines, see Sean Bishop’s article for the Virginia Quarterly Review, “The Poetry Factory: On Mass-Submission Culture.”) There’s no denying that the poet who has done enough writing to publish a new book every year or two holds a certain cachet in the literary world. And for those of us who are hoping to make a living in academic institutions, the push to produce and to publish as much as possible is very real.

In the end, however, I suppose that a writer’s process is mostly private, and however she arrives at her best possible work is her own business, whether it is completing something every day, spending a long time on a few pieces, or doing furious bouts of writing only once in a blue moon. And how many of these poems she intends to publish is another question entirely.  I always think of Elizabeth Bishop—who published just over 100 poems in her lifetime—and how she once said that she wished she had “written more.”  Having a family inheritance, Bishop was not, of course, under the career pressure to publish for her livelihood. But if Bishop were alive, I guess she wouldn’t be the type to participate in a 30/30 project—even if it meant, at the rate of a poem a day, she’d be able to double her life’s work in poetry in just a few months.



13 thoughts on “30/30 Poetry Projects: A New Era of Poetry Production?

  1. words like “production” seem orthogonal to poetry. I’ve done 30/30 things, and the E Bishop/Pinter “slow food” approach, and they all seem to work, or not, in regard to the writing of “keeper” poems. If the goal is a process per se, like yoga or whatever, that’s fine too, or not, again, there are lots of ways to think about poetry, think about art. My fear, push back, has to do with MFA programs per se, their reality is not the same reality as poetry, there might be some overlap, but there is no rhyme or reason to what this overlap is, or how to systematize (shudder) this. One other thing, there is a hint of the “put nose to the grindstone” and “do it” Americana, which goes to my first point about productivity.

  2. I have been doing such a discipline now since 1 November, am entering the 92nd day. It is helpful to do this for several reasons:

    1. it makes me set aside time every day to write, a discipline of time
    2. it makes me sit down to discover what prompts to use for a month’s worth of writing
    3. it gives me drafts to revisit later
    4. it helps me to see what is going on in my writing, trends, avoidances of topics, interests
    5. it allows me to see my day as existing for other than the mundane “task-oriented” do-to list
    6. It gives me the chance to share my writing with a broad audience since I post them daily
    7. my daily poem drafts are often inspiration to others for their own writing

    BOTTOM LINE: it is a discipline and it feeds me

  3. For the past few years I have worked with a group of poets doing 30/30s about 5 months of the year. I do open ended prompts and we get a wonderful variety of poems. As for myself, I produced a lot of junk, but I also got three chapbooks out of the work and two of them found publishers.

    The thing I like about these marathon sessions is the raw material. Plus I think that toward the middle of a month my brain changes from logical/rational to random/intuitive. There is a certain letting go that happens that has been very good for my work.

    I don’t think 30/30s are for every one, but every once in a while I think they are a good stretching exercise. And if you only produce five good poems in a month, that is more than you had before you started, so I count that as a win.

  4. With true and all due respect for the muscular exercise described…and I do mean respect…and I will insert a favorite quote which I find pertinent… “We are adhering to life now with our last muscle – the heart.” {Djuna Barnes} …

    That said, I will add this, which I have kept close to my heart for many years since. I once performed in New York premiere of a Harold Pinter play. And I had the good fortune of maintaining contact with the the playwright over the following several seasons. At one point I received a brief card from him . It said: “I have had a very good year. I have written one good poem.” Now Pinter is remarkable far more- for his dramatic works than for his poems. But those words have stayed and stayed with me. The humility of having one good poem to show for a year’s effort or passage. (I offer this little anecdote, again, with all due respect for the Tupelo project and others which seek to exercise muscles (of the heart and of the muse.) But in all humility, I hope to know the difference between output and self knowledge. Output and product and gratification and treasure. And how difficult it is – always – to look at one’s own work and say, as after the Creation: yes, that is good. With hope, and, With care, margo

  5. As a Tupelo 30/30 participant, I agree with the above comments. And also, as a former MFA student, I look back on the “forced production” I had during my two years at Sarah Lawrence. Much like this poem a day project, I wrote every day. And more often than not, most of those poems were taken out of the private space–my room, the library–and shown in public–the classroom, conference room. It was helpful. I wrote as much as possible. Two years of work. Three manuscripts full of work. And guess what? MAYBE a handful of poems were good enough for publication. In fact, I’d say only one or two were good enough for publication. The rest have been sitting, evolving, for three years.

    I feel like this 30/30 project is much like that experience. The only difference is that it’s just a month long. And the “workshop / conference room” audience is much wider: fellow poets, maybe even a few non-poets out there. I see no shame in showing my drafts, my humanity as a poet, to all. It’s the elitist literary journals that may turn up their noses at such a process, but who cares?

    Finished projects take time, thought, care. This is not at all what we are trying to do here. We are writers willing to take off our masks and show our “first thought / best thought” to the wide world. I do not claim to say anything I wrote is a finished project. That kind of flash inspiration is rare and only happens after the inner mind has worked through a problem silently for a while (notice, there is work going on, regardless, as Fraud said, subconsciously).

    My point is this: at the end of the day, I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, “Watching you, SEEING you, write a poem a day has inspired my own work. I’m going to write MORE.” And what’s wrong with writing more? No one ever said PUBLISHING more.

    Poems as prayer yoga or good thought. Practice. A daily practice. Yes, mostly in private, but every once in a while, why not show the world our vulnerable bits? Our emerging? I like to imagine our studio, classroom, church, writing group, as just encompassing more people. And in the age of internet, this is inevitable.

    Now, time for coffee.

  6. For me, writing a daily poetry draft has always been the rule, not the exception, of my writing life. My life has included a near daily dip into language since high school.

    I’ve never understood the concern about writing too much poetry. For me, if I’m not working the language on a near daily basis I never improve as a writer. During those stretches where I did not put in my daily work I’ve felt the poems that were produced felt too precious, too rare and wondrous to be fixed in later drafts. The slow first draft, the one that stretches over a period of days or weeks, often lacks energy and life. And it often felt like too much of a gift to do the real work: careful revision and tinkering later.

    For me, daily writing allows for better writing. It’s allowed me experiment with techniques, attempt new ideas, and to be adventurous. It’s also led to some horrible writing at times. And for me that’s fine. If I’m not happy with the day’s poem I can be assured that I can try again tomorrow. Not every poem (or the majority of the poems!) written has to be publishable, or published. Far from it. But that daily writing has allowed the good poems I have written to appear.

    I participated in Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Challenge this January for a number of reasons. I’m a fan of this press. I think they publish important books. And participating in my own small way in a project to help funds the press felt very gratifying. But the daily writing would have happened regardless. It did make me more conscious of writing my best, most finished work for a month, which was daunting and humbling when it didn’t happen every day. But the work would have been done.

    This morning, I woke up before dawn. I put on the kettle, brewed a strong cup of black tea. I settled in the same chair I’ve settled in for hundred of mornings. I picked up the notebook and pen and spent my first hour or so fooling with words, doing the one thing that I’ll do today that is truly mine. I didn’t worry about grading or the transcripts I’d be puzzling over later or the dentist appointment this afternoon. I wrote my poem. And it made all the difference.

  7. Interesting discussion. For me, it hasn’t been a binary split between two ways of writing so much as an interest in forcing myself into hyperproductivity and then living off the leftovers. I don’t view the work I’ve posted as finished, but I do look forward to reviewing it in the coming months and expanding, scrapping, and mining. This process, as you mention, is usually private; in the case of the 30/30 project, it is public. I see the public nature of the project less as true “publication” than as a way of letting go of the compulsive notion that a piece needs to be “finished” before anyone else sees it and taking more risks than I would normally with format and subject matter.

    I’m fairly certain that this level of productivity is not sustainable for me over the long term, but it was an effective exercise. Working as a teacher outside the university setting has always made it challenging for me to write much during the school year. Like Hazelton, I wanted to show myself that I could write more on an ordinary day than I’d thought I could. That, most of all, has been empowering.

    Of course, in the case of Tupelo Press, there is also the cause of supporting, and fundraising for, the press. We’ve all been canvassing our social networks for donations; ultimately, those who can best appreciate the efforts behind the project are most likely other writers. The very fact that nine poets are undertaking the project is perhaps–like its cousins the marathon or walkathon–testament to its ephemerality. I’d be interested to know how the others view it and what impact, if any, the project has had on their own process.

    In any case, it’s been interesting–and particularly timely, on this last day of January–to reflect on the experience. Thanks for the discussion; I hope others will weigh in as well.

  8. Daily regimens or temporary things like 30/30 seem most useful as ways to generate a lot of raw material quickly that you can go back and revise, stitch together, assemble. I haven’t done one before, but it doesn’t seem like a way to write finished poems at all. Engendering the habit of writing anything, every day, seems like the real value. I’m in Bishop’s camp.

  9. As a Tupelo 30/30 participant, this challenge was an extension of my own practice. In 2012 I committed to drafting a poem a day. And I used the term “drafting” consciously. I did not have to finish a poem in a day. I just had to get a draft of a piece down on paper.

    At the end of the year, maybe a third of what I wrote ended up getting revised and completed. Most of what I wrote ended up not going very far. But the point wasn’t to produce finished drafts every day. The point was to sit down and do the words to see what arose from discipline. And what arose was more quality work than I’d produced before, when I’d waited for inspiration to happen.

    With the Tupelo 30/30, the goal intensified. For an entire month, I couldn’t have a bad day. Not once so far have I been able to say “Today’s words sucked, but oh well. I’ll leave them be and do better tomorrow.” Being able to have an off-day is a luxury. If a poem utterly failed, I had to start over until I got something worthwhile.

    People were going to be reading everything I put up–I couldn’t turn in awful work. My goal for the Tupelo project was to have something I would consider worthy of taking into my critique group. I don’t take rough drafts into that group; I take in poems that have potential, that will achieve fullness.

    Some of my Tupelo poems I do consider finished work. Most are still in-progress. A few have already been taken to critique group. I know that not all of my pieces will resonate with all of our audience members, but I’m proud of the work I did. I’m also humbled by the work of the eight other poets who took this challenge with me in January. I’m continually impressed with the quality of their work.

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