Friday, 29 March 2019

NaPoWriMo: 15 tips for writing a poem a day


After years of eyeing up NaPoWriMo when April was the busiest time of the year for me, I finally got the chance to try it last year - and it was transformative. No amount of study or trying could ever teach me as much as the simple practice of writing a poem every single day, regardless. At the end of the month, I couldn't bear to stop, so I mentally signed up for another month. Then another. Then another. After seven months, I realised it may as well be a year - but then I'd be stopping just as the next NaPoWriMo started, so let's make it a year and a month. After a full year of writing a poem a day, and agog with excitement for the fresh NaPoWriMo, here are the 15 best tips I've learnt:

1. A poem a day doesn’t mean a great poem a day

It’s a chance to try out new forms with doggerel, experiment with technique, explore new ideas in free verse. If you try to write a great poem a day, you'll be trying to make it "good", which means sticking to what you know and not taking risks, which means you're not learning anything, just repeating your existing skills. Drop your standards! Write a rubbish poem practising a particular technique, trusting the results will show up in future poems. Write doggerel when you try out a new form, because you can only understand what the form does by taking it for a spin, and next time you use it, you'll have a feel for it. This is the strongest lesson I've learnt from writing a poem every day for a year - and every time I've tried to make them good, I've started stagnating. Every time I relax again, I improve. Permission to write rubbish granted.

2. Don't save a prompt or content idea to write a good one – have a go

It's so tempting to save an especially enticing prompt - but it'll do you and the prompt no good if you build it up in your mind as a Special Prompt, worthy of a Good Poem. That'll stymie every line, when you finally work yourself up to try it. Write it now. You can always have another go at it as another poem-a-day. You can use the same prompt every day for a week, if you want. Like the special soap, special cheese, special notebook: just use it.

3. Feel free to cannibalise your poems

Yesterday's poems aren't sacred or engraved in stone: you can remix and mash-up however you want. If yesterday's strict form stopped you from exploring the idea in the way you wanted, rewrite it as free verse. Or if today you're trying a form, cherry-pick the best bits from yesterday's free verse. Nab six lines from a previous poem to start you off on your first sestina. Nothing is sacred.

4. Try new forms

Writing a poem a day is a fantastic chance to learn heaps of new forms, each of which teach you something and challenge you in a different way. Tiny forms will teach you economy of language. Sestinas will teach you to go with the flow and let go of control. Rhyme-and-metre forms will teach you musicality of language. Even if you remain a free-verse poet afterwards, you'll learn heaps.

5. Switch between rhyme-and-metre forms and free verse

Writing with rhyme and metre is brilliant for your musicality; free verse is brilliant for poetic language and devices. Switching between the two regularly allows them to feed off each other, so you can bring more of that poetic density into your rhymed poems, more of that assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and rhythm into your free verse.

6. Some poems are just exercises – the results show up later

Again, you're not writing a great poem a day: but the other poems are valuable too. In my first NaPoWriMo, I spent one day writing doggerel around the idea of "one sound": heavy syllables only, so all one-syllable nouns, verbs, adjectives; as much rhyme, assonance, and alliteration as possible. It was fun to try and it produced a rubbish poem. A couple days later, the results turned up in Aphrodite II, dense with heavy syllables which was exactly what the subject matter needed. I only made the connection when I typed them up at the end of the month. But if you don't let yourself write the "rubbish" poems as exercises, you don't reap the results.

7. Some poems are just to keep the habit

Some poems have no particular value except that you're keeping going. Yes, that was a boring mile of concrete highway you just drove down, but there are other interesting places to come, and if you'd stopped, you wouldn't get to those. Keeping momentum has its own value.

8. Find out what kind of poem you write when you’re knackered, fluey, tipsy, light-headed, stressed, hormonal…

All the usual conditons when you'd dismiss the idea of trying to write a poem? Now's your chance to try them out. Sometimes the poem will just be about how tired you are or fluey you are; that's fine, and it falls into one of the categories above. Sometimes, you'll be stunned that despite your state, you can still step through the magic door into poetry land, and come back with something that pleases and surprises you.

9. It’s fine to write a quickie

Some days you just don't have much time. That's fine. There are heaps of quickie forms and they have plenty to teach you. If you only have 5 or 10 minutes, dash down a haiku, an elevenie, a nonet, a cinquain... Here's a selection of eight lovely quickie forms, for when you need them.

10. It’s fine to crowdsource a poem from a group

If you're at a barbecue, a wedding reception, a family do, a pub night, and suddenly yelp "WAH! I haven't written my poem!" you can always crowdsource it. Get everyone joining in to help you. Pick a form they might know or which is easy to explain - limericks, haiku, and elevenies are all great for that. It still counts as a poem a day.

11. It’s fine to use a fresh double-page spread in your notebook

You don't have to decide in advance if this poem will be Worthy of a full clean double-spread. Let it have one. I often use one side for brainstorming rhymes and jotting phrases, if it doesn't run over two pages. And it's okay to leave a page empty: you can use empty pages to rewrite clean copies of poems you’ve reworked heavily.

12. Type up your poems at intervals, not immediately, not too rarely

It's useful to have a time-lapse before you type up your poems, as you get a fresh perspective on them. Often ones you felt were rubbish turn out stronger than expected, or problems you were wrestling with are suddenly easier to resolve. Typing up a whole month or more of poems can be overwhelming though: the task becomes a bit too big, but it can also be too much emotionally. About once a fortnight works well for me, which is also a chance to select which ones to show my fortnightly writers' group.

13. Write down & collect new forms, new prompt types, and ideas for poems

Often writing a poem will give you a bunch of fresh ideas or lines for the next day's poem, or things crop up during the day, and you think you'll remember... I never can. Jot ideas in the back of your notebook, and when you find prompts or ideas on websites or social media, save them. You can screengrab them, bookmark things on Twitter, and save things to a collection on Facebook.

14. Don’t share your poems with your friends / family as a matter of routine

If you have a willing audience, it's so exciting and tempting to read them every fresh poem hot off the press - but that quickly becomes an expectation, for you as much as for them, and each poem has that audience in mind. Not sharing a poem also becomes very marked. Leave yourself the freedom to write poems you might not want to share.

15. Have fun with it!

It's a challenge, not a chore. Have fun with it, take it seriously enough that you wrest the time from each day, don't take it so seriously that it stresses you. This is play, and you're in for a mad exhilirating delight.

If you want to join in with NaPoWriMo this year, one of the best sites for prompts is NaPoWriMo.net (open site), which always gives a quality example and features a participant each day. You can also get daily NaPoWriMo prompts from Writers' Digest (written by Robert Lee Brewer), and Poetry Potion offers daily prompts year round. Also look out for the #NaPoWriMo hashtag on Twitter. I'll be sharing my progress on my personal Twitter account, @m_d_kerr and also retweeting some prompts on my Writers' Greenhouse Twitter account, @writersgreenhse.


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