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.