Recently, I set myself a challenge: to write 100 poems in only 30 days. I had previous seen on Facebook a few other people set themselves writing rencounters, and wanted to give it a go – setting myself a real challenge. Last year, I did the National Novel Writing Month, in which you had to write the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That was hard going, but I did it. In comparison, this should be a lot easier…
Admittedly, at first, it sounded like quite an undertaking. Having tallied up how many poems I had written so far this year, between January and September, I counted 95 poems. This means in order to pass the challenge, I had to do the work of nine normal months with the space of 30 days. The numbers can be manageable or overwhelming, depending on how you divide them.
Previously, I challenged myself to write a poem a day for a month. I’ve done this twice, and was flagging near the end; now I needed to triple my output. To be on target, I need to write an average of 3.33 poems a day. At the start, most of the poems more or less came organically, either first thing in the morning, or late at night. Usually, the first and last thing I would do each day would be to switch on the laptop and lie with my thoughts, waiting for some words or an image to form. Looking back, I think it’s clear upon reading some of the poems where I was clearly straining against the vastness of the blank page.
To be able to complete a challenge like this, it’s a bit like improvisational comedy. A successful improv act will say yes to anything, and just go with the flow, bouncing off whatever ideas are in the room. A poet needs to be open to those ideas, and actively look for them. Inspiration is everywhere if you are in the right mindset. Don’t say no: go with whatever comes to the fore and run with it. Be prepared to write some terrible poetry too! No artist creates a masterpiece every time, but by sifting through the weak stuff, you get to the gold.
I try to give myself at least an hour (sometimes more) every day to devote myself solely to writing. You really need to force yourself to be disciplined and take time to be alone with your thoughts. I live on my own, I don’t have internet in the house, and I rarely watch TV, so fortunately I am free from most distractions.
The hardest part so far in the challenge is being able to write on the move. Being so use to the quietude of my own house, it’s very different to transfer your mood for writing into other environments. I was away in Letterkenny for the WordArt Festival for a few days, and having to write on buses, in libraries and cafés, places I normally wouldn’t consider productive settings.
Fortunately at this stage, I was about seventy poems into the challenge, and had become used to often crafting something out of nothing. I’ve found that the more you force yourself to write, the more you are open to inspiration: overheard conversations present themselves as verses, lyrics in songs become starting points, a trip through the countryside is a Mecca for stimulation
Saying that, there certainly have been times where I left staring at the page or the screen, and nothing comes. As I said in one of the poems, “Often, we do not know what / we are going to say / until the words come: / lips encircling nothingness”. Don’t be daunted by this if it happens to you; I recommend getting some other form of mental stimulation to stir the grey matter: a crossword, a game of chess, read twenty to thirty pages of a good book. Go for a walk, or just chat to someone. When the mind is open, its longs for input, and so you must constantly need it to get the desired output of poetry.
I found inspiration can come from anywhere. I surprised myself in finding that a number of the poems developed from Bible passages, often when the genesis of the poem was something completely different. Some of the longer, sustained pieces evolved due to issue of faith, and I feel this ended up being my favourites, particular the poem that ends the challenge, the 100 piece haikai. Time and again, as I was writing daily, the subject would fall to a certain image or conversation I had experienced on that day, and magnified it under the microscope of deliberation.
I would be reluctant to say that the exercise has improved the quality of my poetry: for that, you need plenty of time and deliberation. However, it has certainly boosted my ability to think in poetical terms; to craft a poem in my head and edit along the way, before even putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. The ability to create under pressure and to meet deadlines is vital for any writer, and this venture has definitely honed this skill.
The next stage now is of course to go back and pick out the poems that work best, play about with them and edit to a point where I feel happy to submit them for publication. Although I might afford myself a breather before attempting that, and get to the rest of my life that I’ve been neglecting over the last 30 days…
You can view all the poems in the challenge at: