I was chatting to poet, author and magma-arteried destroyer of worlds John Osborne this weekend, when he mentioned discovering that a poet we both knew had never heard of speed poems.
Well, here’s a pathetically small potential controversy to rock my friends and the poetry world at large – up until a few minutes ago, I believed that I had invented speed poetry. When, back in uni, me and about a dozen other members of the UEA Creative Writing Society headed off to Herefordshire for a week long writing retreat, we wanted an exercise to do as a group. (I know, I know – my uni days were fookin mental) As a nerd I have had many incarnations – all of which, if I’m candid, I only feign shame over – one of which was a tabletop gaming nerd, and I remembered how, at the annual Games Workshop convention Golden Demon, the organisers tried to really get pulses racing by having a screamin’ hot SPEED PAINTING COMPETITION, where contestants had to paint a lead model in an hour, and the best won. An hour seemed a bit long for a writing exercise, so I suggested we pick a word, all write a poem in ten minutes using that word, then read them out. That was my understanding of how speed poetry was born.
Two qualifiers: one, I may have misremembered. I’m pretty sure several of my friends would say that it just sort of bubbled up out of the memepool as a communal idea that we all sort of cottoned onto at the same time. Two, having Googled ‘speed poetry’, I’ve discovered – without, to be honest, much surprise – that many people have been writing various species of speed poetry for years. To be clear, I’m not claiming to have invented the concept – just that I was there when it appeared in my friendship group. It’s not a particularly outlandish concept after all – bordering on obvious, in fact – so I’m more surprised when I encounter poets who’ve never heard of it.
In the years since then, me and a whole bunch of my writing friends have regularly got together for tea and speed poetry sessions. I reckon it works best with a group of four, although you can do it on your own if you like, or even with a dozen writers. Similarly, you can impose any arbitrary time limit, but we almost always go for ten minutes.
The way it works is: one person flicks through a book, a magazine, an instruction manual – anything with text – and picks out a few words or a phrase. Everyone writes it down as their title, the clock starts, and they have ten minutes to write a corresponding poem. At the end of the ten minutes, everybody reads out the poem they’ve written. Then you someone picks another phrase, and you start again. Ideally, you do a run of five poems, which comprises a good hour or so of reading and writing.
It’s the reading out part that makes a lot of people squeamish. They imagine – for the most part, correctly – that the poems they produce will be crap. What’s the point in doing a writing exercise that produces bad poetry almost by design? And why would you want to share that with others?
For me, writing speed poetry does a bunch of things. When I started out, I found the first few poems I wrote tended heavily towards parody. They were these mock highbrow pieces, usually closing with a line about someone farting, to break the mood. I quickly realised I was using (not terribly funny) humour as a defence – a way of letting my fellow writers know that I hadn’t taken the exercise seriously or really tried my fullest, so they couldn’t judge me on the quality of the poem. At the same time, I got to hear several of my peers faced with the same title, mostly producing poor poetry, but occasionally coming up with a great turn of phrase, or a strange, arresting opening, or a sudden vivid image amongst a load of turgid waffle. Hearing a range of interpretations of the same spur material, but also realising that they were writing bad poetry and the world hadn’t ended, encouraged me to move away from piss-take poems, and to actually try to be good.
My first few poems after this shift were much worse. I had no idea what I was doing. With the sense of urgency created by the timer, I tried to bluff my way through, picking words I thought sounded like they belonged in a poem, constructing these vague, obfuscatory word parades that I hoped might seem artsy in that whole impressively recondite, emperor’s new clothesish way. I’d always struggled to enjoy poetry, and had assumed that this pointed to a failure of intellect on my part, rather than any defect in the pieces I’d read.
But it never mattered that my poems were shit. Nobody cared. We’d read our attempts out, then move on to the next round. Each speed poetry session, I might hear between three and twenty new poems read out to me by their authors. Each one gave me hints on different ways of approaching the same subject matter or interpreting the same phrase – oh yes, I’d think, a poem can sound like found dialogue, or it can be like a little third-person short story with line breaks, or it can have a chorus like a song, or repeated lines, or take all its similes from a particular lexical field, or be presented as instructions, or just be a list of stuff, or be an open letter to somebody, or be in praise of something, or adopt the style of another type of text like a newspaper report. Slowly, I was building up a repetoire of options for when I got the next title. Often, I’d find myself semi-consciously plagiarising poems from the previous rounds, bastardising metaphors or techniques in an attempt to expand my range.
Doing speed poetry regularly helps abolish a fear of blank pages. You learn to just roll your fucking sleeves up and have a bash. You experiment, you try out lines, you muck about, you learn by doing. Weeks later, it’s sometimes worthwhile to go through old sessions and see if there are any lines worth saving. If so, you can underline them, or even transfer them to a fresh page, ready to be used in worthy (i.e. non-crap) poems later on. Old speed poems certainly work great as sources of inspiration when you’re stuck with writers’ block – a sort of scrapheap of battered ends and odds you can traipse through, looking for promising salvage.
Another useful side-effect of speed poetry is that it gives you hints about poems you want to write, but don’t realise yet. Sometimes, looking back over a session, you see a theme over several poems, despite their different titles, or you notice a stanza that doesn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Often, this is a result of your butting your head against the arbitrary constraints imposed by the task, and these little bids for creative freedom can give you great pointers on what sort of pieces you might want to attempt ‘properly’ – that is, with more than ten minutes to spare.
One final positive thing about writing speed poetry is that it’s fun. I know it’s a gut-clasping cliché, but writing can be a lonely business, and having friends by your side as you claw ineffectually at the literary coalface makes the whole process slightly more bearable.
In any case, all of that is just a preface to what I wanted to say, which is that I’ve become a bit prissy about my writing of late, working on these big, unwieldy performance poems that sit around as ideas for months and months, then take me days to write, and weeks to learn, before I finally take them to an audience. I haven’t kept a notebook for ages, and I never do writing exercises anymore. I find myself thinking that if I can’t do a project perfectly, I’m better off abandoning it.
So I want to put that right. I accept I can’t necessarily change my habits forever, but I’d like to go back to doing a bit of the old donkey work, you know, punching in, churning out crap, putting the creative machinery through its paces and limbering up so when an idea next strikes, I’ll be firing on all cylinders and will be a
ble to exploit it to its fullest advantage.
Anyway, I was thinking about speed poems, and I was wondering about doing a really long session, then I wondered about how long you could keep it going for, then I thought: a hundred? Could you really do a hundred in a day?
Well, the maths supports me. You don’t have to spend 10 minutes on a speed poem. We’ve done 5 minute sessions, even a series of 1 minute speed poem sessions (which are kind of thrilling and terrifying, as far as writing poems goes – you’ve got no choice but to just stream text unedited from your brain to the pen). If someone started at 9am and kept going until 11pm, some 14 hours later, that gives a good 840 minutes for writing speed poems. Now, granted, if you took 10 minutes for each, that’d only be 84 (assuming no wee or food breaks, or technical malfunctions), but notch the time frame down to 8 minutes and you get 100 poems, plus a whole 5 minutes for pissing! By my reckoning, if you were to chuck in a few 1 minute poems and a few 5 minute ones, writing 100 poems in a day would be doable.
So, I’m going to.
I’m sure it’s been done before. I’m not doing it out of any claim of it being an amazing technical feat or anything, just for the reasons above. It’ll only take a day, it’ll be an interesting writing experiment, and it’ll force me to try to write 100 discrete creative pieces on the trot.
But I need titles.
So what I thought is this: readers of the Cone O’ Tragedy, could you help a poet out and suggest some titles for poems I could write over my 100 Poem Day? As many as you like. Go nuts. They can be facetious or deadly serious, found text or quotations or even titles from your own work. I just need lots. You can post them as a comment on this blog, or email me at the address in the sidebar, or message me on Facebook. Whatever, I don’t mind.
What I’m thinking is that, on the day (which might even be next week, depending on workload), I’ll have all the titles in a Word file, and I’ll work through them one at a time, writing a speed poem, then posting it online once I’m done, either up on this blog, or at a special 100 Poems In A Day Project blog that I’ll link to from here.
And since one of my favourite things about speed poetry is the group aspect of it, I thought that I’d post each of the titles up on Twitter (yes, I’ve cracked… I’m officially an uncool late-adopter) as I’m about to write it, so anyone who wants to join in with a couple themselves can write along with me. You never know, it might get the old creative juices sluicing from your nostrils once more, and I daresay I’ll post any alternate versions of poems written by other participants up on the blog afterwards.
Uh, one rule I’ve set myself though. Despite the involvement of Twitter, these won’t be Twitter poems. Although some may be very short, all of them must be longer than 140 characters to qualify! Otherwise I’m basically setting myself the challenge of writing 100 text messages in a day, which seems rather less worthwhile.
Probably every poem I write will be total crap. I am sure the majority will be. But there may be some nice flourishes in there. Who knows? Maybe the range of titles will trigger an unexpected gem. Unlikely. However, I think it may be an interesting adventure into the grimy nuts and bolts of how a person goes about writing a poem. It may also play out like a slow exploded breakdown conducted over the internet. If everyone suggests titles relating to dog penises, maybe it will be the rather sad spectacle of someone writing 100 dreadful poems about canine genitalia. We can only speculate and pray to our respective gods for guidance.
So what do you think? Good idea? Bollocks idea? And if you’d like to see me take a run at it, please start suggesting titles! A whole bunch of titles each would be good! Hopefully some of you will even have a go at writing a few poems with me on the fateful day. Hmm. Is this wise? Oh psshaw! I toss it to the winds of fate. Start the fans please!