Monday, July 5, 2010

Poetry In The Moment

When it come to writing poetry, I am a heavy reviser. I spend hours and days with a poem before anyone sees it, and at least months before I ever consider sending it out for publication. This is my method, and it has proved to be successful, but I'm intrigued by immediate poetry. There are poets who write a poem, work on it for an hour or two, and send it out into the world. There is something to respect about that method and a time and place for that kind of work.

To be truly successful, I would argue that you need to revise and spend days, weeks, months, and years on poetry, but in some cases an immediate, in the moment, poem can have a great impact. I've spent the last few days reading Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days. This is a great anthology edited by Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greensberg. It started as a blog in January of 2009. One-hundred poets were asked to participate and were all assigned one day of Obama's first 100 days in office. Each day a poem was published on the blog. The poets were encourage to write the poem the day of, or right before, and to incorporate the events of that moment and day.

I heard about this project shortly after it started, and I read many of the poems as they were first published. I thought the idea was clever, insightful, and a great use of a blog. The blog then turned into the book, which is a copy of all 100 poems with a foreword by Rita Dove. It was great to read them all back to back and in one or two sittings. The poems vary in style, approach, and subject matter. The poets included are some of the best writing today including Mark Doty, Mark Bibbins, Major Jackson, Erin Belieu, David Lehman, and Matthew Zapruder.

These poets did not have much time to revise or prepare and yet these poems have something striking in them. Yes, some, over a year later, already feel a tad outdated and some of the references have faded, but others are still vibrant and work as time capsules of those first days of the administration. This book captures the excitement, hope, and then the reality of Obama's presidency. Yes, it is liberal leaning (it is poets writing about Obama, what else would you expect?), but it is also challenging, and there is a nervous energy in many of these poems that ask, will Obama succeed? Will he do everything he promised? These are questions some are still asking.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is Mark Bibbins's "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" for day 35. I admire this poem for its amazing collection of events, thoughts, and references, and for the fact that is was written in the moment and is almost four full pages long. In the poem, Bibbins is able to discuss Joaquin Phoenix freaking out on Letterman, his idea for renaming the perineum "boyband," and what he would do if he met Obama. This is a perfect example of how to make the political personal and how to use pop culture and humor in your poems.

Other stand out poems include: Erin Belieu's "H. Res. 23-1: Proposing the Ban of Push-Up Bras, Etc.," Elizabeth Hughey's "The I Love You Bridge," Tony Trigilio's "I Picked Up That Strange Light Again," and Craig Arnold's "Dear Steve." Overall, this is a great collection that shows there is a time and place for a quick poem, and these poets are talented enough to pull it off with ease. Many of these poems will not hold up forever, but maybe not all poetry has to accomplish that. These poems instead remind us that poetry is alive, current, and important.

In honor of this book, I wrote my own Obama inspired poem and published it on Ink Node today. I've spent only a few hours on it. This is my attempt at breaking my own method and rules. It is called "If I Wrote a Poem for Obama on the 4th of July, 2010," and you can read it here:

-Stephen (Right Now)


  1. I really like your poem! I think it captures what a lot of us feel. I remember the optimism was so high when Obama took office, but that momentum is so hard to maintain. Especially now, none of us could have ever thought the country would have so many issues in such a short amount of time.

  2. I like your poem a lot.

    What you talk about in this post, the immediate poem and the need to revise, is one big reason why I'm doing the poem a day thing. I am trying to break myself of the habit of being afraid to show something to the world until it's perfect, because I am like you. I will revise something for years before it sees the light of day. I didn't send my manuscript out once during the five years I was writing it. And I didn't send any of those poems out, either.

    I think it can be a good exercise, the immediate poem. Funny, too, is that I always see my work in print and want to revise it, or errors I didn't notice before become clear. Fixed in the the manuscript version, hopefully.

    I love Ink Node for its ability to showcase poems like yours, very of-the-moment things. Great stuff.

  3. Very thought provoking poem...makes you really give serious thought to some issues. I was excited about "change" too, but there doesn't seem to be much happening. Disappointing on many different levels. Love your blog! :)

  4. I liked the poem too, especially the "launching thousands of dollars into the air" line. It works beautifully.

  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    V: I completely agree. We should push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Ink Node is a great resource for that. Revision is great, but sometimes we have to let go.

    Lesley: Glad you connected with the post and that you enjoy my blog. Thanks for reading!

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