52I did it. I wrote a poem every week for an entire year.

(At least, at the time of this posting, I’m working on the penultimate poem of the year and, with one more week to go, I think it’s safe to say I’ll complete it.)

Why? Why the heck did I take on something like this? Why would anyone take on such a task?

Last year I spent the month of April writing a poem a day. That was 30 poems, most of which were quick reflections on what was happening in my life, the world around me or in my mind.

This was different. 52 poems. One per week. And at someone else’s bidding.

That someone else was poet Jo Bell. A year ago, Jo offered a challenge to some of her friends and followers: join a closed group on Facebook wherein poets would be given weekly prompts and asked to write and post their poem to the group. We were also asked to read, comment on, and critique each others work.

The idea was, as Jo herself put it, part of “a range of crowd-sourced projects to raise the standards of, and promote the pleasures of contemporary poetry…52 uses social media to connect writers and to raise their standard of writing through creative friction.”

Every week, Jo posted “a new exercise to help you write a new poem. You write it your way – to the very best of your ability. You improve, you expand, you develop.”

Along with over 540 other members, I took up that challenge. Each Thursday morning (UK time), we were given a new prompt and some examples of how other poets may have tackled the subject. (You can see all the prompts here: 52.)

The prompts were one word or a phrase or just an idea. Some of the challenges were excruciatingly hard, especially those that asked the poet to get out of his or her own skin, style or comfort zone. Others fit nicely into a familiar pattern, yet encouraged the poets take their own style to a new level.

The first observation I have about this group is what a wonderful collection of people Jo attracted. As the year went on, many of us grew close and supportive of each other’s work and struggles. Some of us have became friends outside the group.

The second is how gratifying to get almost instant feedback on a new poem or idea of a poem. 52 was like a private workshop that helped flag lazy writing, praise winning phrases, and challenge each other to improve our work.

The third observation is how HARD this challenge was to accomplish. Some weeks came easier than others — being on vacation, honeymoon, or holiday certainly helped — other times, when the week was particularly busy at work or something else was going on (my wedding!), it was more difficult.

But I did it. I wrote a poem every week. How many of the poems will actually survive is another issue. At least one, “Weather,” from the sixth week of the year, has been accepted for publication. Others I’ve read at readings to some applause.

One poem, “Blended Family,” written in response to the week eleven prompt, “Songs of Praise,” was read at our wedding by Samantha’s eldest daughter. (You can read it here.)

Writing a poem each week was certainly worth doing, but I don’t think I’ll try it again. I don’t write well this way, with the pressure of a looming deadline (poems had to be posted before the following week’s prompt), I prefer to let the poem come to me and steep, and work on it as I see fit.

And yet, this challenge has had a positive impact on my work. It has freed my work somewhat — many of the challenges were not the subject of my past poetry; some forced me to write about things I never thought to tackle in poetry.

I’m grateful to Jo for the challenge and to those who read my work and shared thoughtful comments on my posts — or called me out when I wasn’t hitting the mark.

There’s a handful of members with whom I’ll stay in touch and perhaps even continue to share poems. Most of them I would not have met were it not for Jo’s group and the platform of Facebook.

As for the poems, I plan to spend the next year going over them with a sharp pencil and a sharper eye, finding the gems, excising the fakes, and possibly building this group of 52 poems into something worthy of the group and this very special experience.

 

 

 

Red-winged Blackbird
Image via Wikipedia

Jim Behrle, who has to be one of the funniest most irascible poets on the Interwebz, had a recent post about Dead Bird Poems on his AmericanPoetry.biz blog:

“The Dead Bird Poem is one of the most honored of American forms. Take sappy pastoral, add a dead or dying bird and just watch the meaning drip from your canvas like grease off a slice of bacon. Someone had sent me a Facebook note about the 5 or 6 dead bird poems in whatever year’s that was Best American Poetry.”

I wrote a dead bird poem almost a decade ago, called “Dead Red Wing.”

At the time, I worked for The Nature Conservancy and gave a presentation to a birding group.  The group meeting started with typical group meeting business, then segued into a Quaker-meeting-style sharing of bird sightings and notations.  It was quite poetic.

Then they brought out the specimens.

The meeting turned into a kind of flea market or science fair.  Dead birds, bird parts, wings, feet, beaks; heads, whole birds, birds with missing wings; gashed birds, smashed birds.  It was quite a spectacle.

One woman removed a Ziploc bag from a portable cooler.  She opened the bag and unwrapped a beautiful, complete (and quite frozen) red-winged blackbird.  She handed it to me.  That was all I needed.

Here is my poem “Dead Red Wing,” which didn’t make it into Best American Poetry in 1995 the year it was published in a small journal called Blueline out of SUNY Potsdam:

“Dead Red Wing”
 

Come spring, you’d be up

in the low trees,

on telephone wires,

bowing foxtail in the marsh,

your song become vain:–

“Look-at-meeee…Look-at-meeee…”

Flash of red on black wing

poised to singe the eyes

trained on you,

a life-bird,

through field glasses.
 

In my hand you are stiff,

unrecognizable.

The woman

who brought you

to the birding group

kept you

in a Ziploc bag

in the freezer,

next to the roast

and last week’s red beans.

Every evening,

when she finished her vigil

at the window,

she took you out,

rubbed your cold breast,

ruffled feathers,

sang your song.
 

–Scott Edward Anderson, Blueline, Volume XVI
 

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