Now that I seem to have put down permanent roots over at www.awritersalchemy.wordpress.com for my Writers Alchemy blog, I have decided to turn this one over (or back) to One Bad Poem. To read my craft talk, which explains what I'm up to, go to http://awritersalchemy.blogspot.com/2010/05/one-bad-poem-essay-by-bethany-reid-if.html. And happy writing!
To see the announcement for my poetry book, Sparrow, selected by poet Dorianne Laux for the Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize at Writers & Books, go to http://www.wab.org/gell-poetry-prize/gell-prize-2012-winner/
You can find a review by Kathleen Kirk at EIL: http://www.escapeintolife.com/blog/review-of-sparrow-by-bethany-reid/
I posted the essay below so that my friend Esther Helfgott could pick it up already blog-formatted for her site. Visit her at the It's about Time reading series at the Ballard Public Library on the second Tuesday of every month, six p.m., or at this URL: http://itsaboutimewriters.homestead.com/
(I borrowed the image from http://schools.mukilteo.wednet.edu/ ma/library/images/poetry%20magnetic%20pieces.jpg)
To hop directly to the craft talk, "One Bad Poem," click here.
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” –G. K. Chesterton
On August 29, 2005, I decided that during the remainder of my summer break from teaching I would write one poem each day. My daughters would go back to school in a day or so (they were twelve, twelve, and six), leaving me some leisure in the month before classes began at my college. I had undertaken this practice before and called it “one bad poem” after something I once read in a self-help book, Wishcraft, by Bonnie Sher and Annie Gottlieb. In short, Sher and Gottlieb advise that if perfectionism keeps you from a goal, you must vow to do whatever it is you want to do--ballet, sailing, quilting, going to law school--badly. So my goal was not to write one splendid, brilliant poem per day, but simply to get up early every morning and write a draft of a very bad--terrible, if need be--poem.
My friend Glenda, who is also my massage therapist, had watched me go through this process before, and found the title “One Bad Poem” unnecessarily self-deprecating. She wanted me to call it, “One Rich Reflection on the Day.” Sometimes it does turn out to be a rich reflection. Sometimes it turns out to be splendid and brilliant. But the inelegant idea of a bad poem is what gets my notebook and pen out. How can I fail? When I saw Glenda the day before classes began, that fall of 2005, she asked me how I was feeling, and I told her I was sad because the next day I would be giving up writing my one bad poem. She said, “Don’t give it up! Keep writing!” Glenda is tall and willowy. She has dark eyes that crackle as often as they twinkle. I complained--I won’t have time, I’m so busy, 80 to 100 students, not to mention three daughters. She would have none of it. “You have all the time there is,” she said. “Write the poem. Everything else will be a snap.”
It wasn’t always a snap, but each day I wrote a poem and I typed it up; I put a date on it, and I put it in a notebook. I thought I’d keep up the practice for one more month, just until I saw Glenda again. Then I had a poetry reading scheduled for December third, and that became a target for when I could quit. December third came and went and I kept writing. From August 29 to the end of December I missed only two days. I wrote 123 new poems—bad poems, perhaps, but poems.
Like many writers, I have for a long, long time attempted to write every day. I write in a journal anywhere from a short entry of a few lines to three or four pages. The one-bad-poem practice did not replace journaling--what I usually call “scribbling”--and differs significantly. My journal is where I go to gripe about my kids and my husband, and sometimes to brag about them. I cry on my journal’s shoulder about the washing machine not agitating right and about the freezer going out. I list things to do and things accomplished. I write about my students and my friends and the weather and what my sister said yesterday. Some of my journal entries lead to poetry, but they are not poetry. The journal is a repository, a way I have of clearing my mind so that I can get on with the day. Poems, even bad poems, feel quite different to me.
So where do the poems come from? That first fall, when Hurricane Katrina swept her way through New Orleans, I wrote a number of poems about floods, real and metaphorical. I also worked themes of heaven, marriage, housecleaning, horses, Eden, teaching, and children. I worked each theme as if it were a vein of rich ore that I was trying to chip out of myself. Some days I felt stuck. On one particular morning that first fall I gave up and checked my email. Afterwards, I wrote the first draft of this poem:
MY MOTHER EMAILS ABOUT HER NEW DISHWASHER
“The dishwasher is plumed now.”
When the plumber opened its box, the dishwasher strutted out, eyes bright as glass beads, tail feathers of emerald
and turquoise fanning over pale linoleum. When it leapt shrieking to the china cabinet,
my mother and the plumber had to coax it down--Cheerios and Quaker Oats, a stalk of celery.
And so the dishwasher took its place, hunkering beside the sink. The stove stretched a striped paw
and growled. My mother paid the plumber. She tied her apron on and set to making supper.
Recently I’ve been “unwriting” poems--taking a first line or basic premise from someone else’s poem and then going in the opposite direction. Here is one starting place, lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone” (translated by Annamarie S. Kidder):
I want to unfold. Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent; for there I would be dishonest, untrue. I want my conscience to be true before you; want to describe myself like a picture I observed for a long time, one close up, like a new word I learned and embraced, like the everyday jug, like my mother’s face, like a ship that carried me along through the deadliest storm.
And the one-bad-poem I wrote in response:
Today I would like nothing better than to be folded, folded like a note slipped into a book to mark a page you don’t want to forget, or folded like a sheet tugged from the clothesline, in half and in half again. I want to be folded the way egg whites are folded into a meringue, like sheep into a fold, like an origami bird, like a dollar bill into a coin purse. Later you can take me out, unfold me, smooth my edges and spend me on something unexpected and delicious, a peach or a packet of art paper or a bar of dark chocolate folded into its envelope of foil.
Another fertile source for new poems is, of course, my own notebooks. Failed poems make great starts for new poems. Good poems do, too. I sometimes set myself the task of using the same opening image several days in a row, or, while leafing through the typed poems, I’ll stop and draft a new poem beside an old one.
Each year that I have been writing my one bad poem per day, I’ve been able to salvage about fifty poems, to see at least that many through to some form of completion that made it possible to put them in the mail to literary magazines and journals. The result has been, over four years, more than forty published poems, two awards, and four nominations for the (still elusive) Pushcart Prize. I don’t have a new book of poems forthcoming (how I wish) but I have started a poetry blog, which you can visit at www.awriters alchemy.blogspot.com. The writer’s alchemy address was a false start--of course it’s titled “One Bad Poem.”
As my daughters have grown older, finding time to write has become more complex. They go to bed later and later, and I find it more and more difficult to get up early. Nevertheless, my one-bad-poem practice has kept me writing. Somehow, despite having three kids and a husband and elderly parents and friends and a teaching career, every single day I pick up my notebook and I write one bad poem. So far, so good.
I’m keeping myself as compact as possible, a neat little house with the doors locked when the poem opens like a window and in comes all this stuff I hadn’t planned on-- light and birdsong and the sound of traffic. Or the poem isn’t the window; it's everything outside the window. The poem is a tree, a dogwood or maple or cedar. The poem is the breeze toying with the leaves of the dogwood and the maple and the cedar. The poem is the rattle of the smaller shrubs, the salal and Oregon grape, as the raccoons scurry through. The poem is the motion behind the raccoons, the mother who is large and a little scary, her kits who trundle after. But now I am no longer a house. I put on a jacket and shoes. I crawl through the window that the poem left open as it escaped.
NOTES: An earlier version of this essay was offered on June 11, 2009, as a craft talk for Esther Helfgott’s It’s about Time poetry series at Ballard Public Library.
I found the Rilke lines at www.poets.org. Other on-line sources I visit frequently are poems.com (Poetry Daily) and www.duotrope.com (Duotrope Digest), both good portals to lots and lots of journal and small magazine websites.
A revised version of my poem "Folded" was accepted for Phrasings IV (2010), a dance and poetry production sponsored by Chuckanut Sandstone Poets and the Bellingham Repertory Dance Company.
Bethany Reid teaches creative writing and American literature at Everett Community College. She is fully aware that she is not the only, the first, or the most interesting poet to embrace a daily writing habit, but she hopes she’ll inspire someone out there who is as busy as she is to give it a try.
Last night my friend Carla and I traveled to Seattle Arts and Lectures to hear poet Rita Dove (thank you Margaret and Lori for the tickets!). Here's a poem from her 1995 book Mother Love.
One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled, stooped to pull harder-- when, sprung out of the earth on his glittering terrible carriage, he claimed his due. It is finished. No one heard her. No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school. This is important, stop fooling around! don't answer to strangers. Stick with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.) This is how easily the pit opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
“Since analysis has to travel backward, the path it goes is an ever-narrowing one, whose goal is the vanishing point, beyond which only ‘influences’ lie. But the writer of the story, bound in the opposite direction, works into the open. The choices multiply, become more complicated and with more hanging on them, as with everything else that has a life and moves.” Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story (109-110)
Sixth week of the quarter -- and I can smell summer coming. One of my summer projects will be to pull out an old manuscript and try -- again -- to turn the story of my childhood obsession with horses into fiction. Here's an old poem that negotiates the same territory.
In morning bright of pasture days We untied metal steeds From creaking gates. Girls, We led our bicycles as if at halter,
Patting handlebars, a curve of nose and neck. It was summer all summer long those days We taught our bikes to barrel race, And brought them afterward to water.
Mary's horse and mind were blue, Kathy's gray--Lori's horse was purple-- Flashing spoke, gleaming hoof. And when evening called us home,
Two girls east and two girls west, We left our horses tied to nudge the grass Grown long against a summer gate And galloped to our supper.