On Thursday 26th November, 2009, I sat hunched over a laptop and knocked out 100 poems in a single day (which you can read here). I only just squeaked in before the deadline, and was left feeling dizzy, anxious and exhausted. This year, I decided to try again.
On Friday 26th November, 2010, I sat hunched over a laptop and knocked out 101 poems in a single day (which you can read here). As with 2009, all the titles were suggested by friends and people of the internet, some just seconds before I wrote the poem itself.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. The reason I did it last year is the same reason I did it again – I just wanted to write something, anything, so I could feel a bit less of a fraud. I am a chronic procrastinator, particularly when it comes to creative endeavours (‘endeavours’? Rereading this, my register seems to have suddenly jumped into the pretentious highfalutin tones of a preening poetaster. I considered replacing it with ‘stuff’, but that seemed glibly offhand and vague. So endeavours it is. Sorry). I suspect part of this stems from a fear of failure, plus the clamorous declamations of my internal editor (see previous sentence) who has become a vast, slavering hulk after years spent building his muscles through weekly critiques of other people’s manuscripts.
Don’t get me wrong – editing is good. Essential, even. Most (perhaps all) of the bad performance poetry I see shows little evidence of the writer casting a critical eye over their work, then returning for a second pass. You see this especially in poets who habitually employ a quasi-Skeltonic tumbling rhyme scheme, so their work becomes a stream-of-consciousness brainspew of rather banal sentiments strung together with a few awkward rhymes. Better to label a work a noble failure then consign it to the basket labelled ‘spare parts’ than to sign off on a subpar poem and inflict it on paying audiences who look back, glum-faced and judgemental, their worst prejudices about performance poetry getting confirmed before their very eyes.
But the reason I started writing poetry in the first place was because I liked the possibility of a fast turnaround. I’d been stuck beavering away at a novel for ages, pouring my heart and soul into it – at the expense of my relationships and sanity – and to everyone outside of me, it seemed like I was doing nothing. You can spend years trying to write a novel, editing it, touting it round editors, and unless it gets accepted by the system and becomes a proper book, you’ve failed. It hasn’t found an audience, it’s died before it could be born, and though you can console yourself with comforting canards about how elucidating the process was, and how you’ll probably end up using all those ideas in your next novel, the fact is, you’ve invested an inordinate amount of time for precious little reward.
So when I find myself in a situation like my current one, where I haven’t written a new, solid performance poem that’s found a permanent place in my set for over a year (I did write one that was over half an hour long, but that quickly proved too long to fit properly in a set) I get itchy. I usually find writing very hard, and adding the pressure of trying to write multiple excellent pieces of verse which I can then use to make strangers approve of me only makes it harder. In that sort of mental climate, the 101 poems project felt like a welcome escape – hammer out 101 poems in a day, regardless of quality, regardless of whether you feel inspired, regardless of what other people think. Just do it, have a go, and see if you can.
In the end, I think I really enjoyed it. I’m not convinced that any of the poems are what I’d call ‘good’ – they’re more like 101 odd little cartoons than poems, per se. My main strategy, after picking a title, was to try to start with an interesting sentence or image, then run with it a short distance, to see where it went. Usually, by then, my 8 minutes were up, and it was time to post the next poem. As with the previous year, this generally meant that the endings suffered the most, as I had no idea where each poem was going, and was forced to bail as soon as I realised I was out of time, regardless of whether I’d worked out a good exit strategy.
As you might expect, the process made me reflect on what a poem actually is, and the similar but (I think) quite distinct question of what I believe a poem should be – in other words, what do I want a poem of mine to achieve? Trying to write 101 in a day, my ambitions were much smaller than normally. Usually, for me, a really good, set-worthy poem should entertain, inform and (attempt to) persuade, in that order. Some novelty pieces just do the first one on that list, jokey autobiographical ones generally do one and two, and story ones with a strong ‘moment of reflection’ (as Ira Glass would have it) do all three. For the 101 poems, I thought of them more in terms of the webcomics I read daily. I was just going for something quirky, or arresting – an image, a surprising collision of two ideas, anything, really, that the person reading it hadn’t encountered before. The purpose of these poems, then, was to pass on a little fragment of originality, however slight – an interesting new thought that might spark other interesting new thoughts in readers’ brains. In this sense, I guess my sort of models for this were comics like A Softer World, and Nedroid.
In fact, I rather suspect my original attempt to write 100 poems in a day was inspired by the ‘200 Bad Comics’ challenge on Nedroid. It’s worth reading to see various permutations and subversions of the 3-panel comic format getting played out, with lots of meta-jokes and callbacks creeping in. I actually think most of them are hilarious. Obviously none of my poems was anywhere near as good as either of those webcomics, but you get the general idea. I suspect repetition can be good at revealing the underlying mechanics of a thing, and encouraging reflection.
Anyway, I just want to say thank you to all the people who suggested titles. Once I dropped them all into a single Word file, it ran to over 1500 words. Pretty awesome. Also thank you to everybody who supported me on Twitter, or sent me morale-boosting emails or texts. They really helped me every time I felt like quitting, crawling under a desk and shivering in the foetal position. Very well judged! Finally, thanks to Writers Centre Norwich, who were awesome, generous hosts, plying me with coffee and sticky buns. They really went above and beyond the call of duty by allowing me to squat in their meeting room like an ‘orrible poetry-spewing troll until late at night. That was very kind, and real decent of them. Cheers.
When my cold has passed, I fully intend to record an album – uke songs, mostly, plus the best of my poems over the last few years. I’m also working on a first collection, all new poems. I expect it will take longer than a day to complete, and I am very happy with that.