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3030

by Louise Robertson

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There’s this thing poets do, called a 30/30. Here are the basic Ingredients:

  • A month in which there are 30 days, usually April (National Poetry Month, FYI)
  • The intention of writing 30 poems
  • The intention of writing a poem every day
  • The hope of getting 30 great poems — woo hoo!

If everything goes as planned, poets produce one kick ass poem every day for the whole month, then collapse in a glow of tired happiness, knowing they’ve got plenty of open mic fodder and a poem or twelve which are engaging enough to slam with or submit to journals.

If everything goes as planned, they’ve pushed themselves and learned craft like you wouldn’t believe. And they’ve come to know themselves in a way that allows them to shift the artistic drive into artistic overdrive whenever needed.

That’s not usually what happens.

It turns out that, with jobs and kids and class and a good computer game (or a Candy Crush fixation), this great plan doesn’t often happen. People fall behind, try to write three kick ass poems to catch up for the weekend with that wedding thing. They fall behind again, this time because sleep, because out of ideas, because TV episode. Then poets get depressed and engage in a buffet of self-recrimination and insecurity.

It doesn’t have to be that way. First, I’m going to tell you what you won’t get and some of the problems with the whole thing. Then, I’m going to tell you what you will get out of the whole thing (because ultimately 30/30s are valuable, just not for what you thought they were for). And then? Then I’m going to give you the trick — a trick that will let even the least motivated of us get through it, actually create 30 pieces of art, learn something profound about ourselves as a writer, and self-congratulatingly vow never to do THAT again, at least not till next year.

Problems

  • It’s hard. I for one tend to want to create a whole new vision for every poem (unless it’s commissioned, in which case I have been know to rip myself off). Each poem feels like it has its own engine. So creating 30 poems like that is inventing 30 crazy good never-been-used devices every day. Some poems take 10 years of thinking before I even start to write anything. How am I going to do that every day and get to work on time? Gosh, that’s hard to do and feed the kids their oatmeal every day.
  • You really do need to sleep. When you leave for work/festival/school/marathon training in the morning, and don’t get home time after dinner/midnight/when the bars close, you can carve out time from sleeping for a while, but then, because couch, because pillow, because hot lover waiting in your bed, you don’t carve out the time. Then the cycle of falling behind and catching up starts.
  • Quality suffers. So maybe the first one was great, but there was no time to edit. Or maybe you’re not pushing yourself because you know you have do this every fracking day. Or you wrote the poem after 18 hours at the gym and it’s not like you were expecting yourself to do something decent. This is probably the worst part. Doing this every day means the results are going to be hit or miss — and more often miss than hit. And you are probably used to more hits than misses. Who wants that ratio flip flopped?
  • You start to feel bad in the middle of the whole thing. Sometimes falling behind, low quality, and generally wanting to watch old episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix instead of writing can take a toll on your emotional resilience.

So now you’re a depressed puddle of self-doubt and negative energy. What the heck? This was supposed to be a good process. You were supposed to try hard and learn something cosmic about art and stuff.

What 30/30 Are Really Good For

  • Process. It turns out that sitting down every day to write won’t necessarily get you great poems, but it will teach you what you need to get going. I heard Truman Capote said he was a “horizontal” writer (wrote lying down on a bed). Steven King goes on long walks. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz said once she opens a new document as soon as the last book is finished. In other words, we all have the things we like to do, the things that make our gears start meshing. Doing a 30/30, if you pay attention, will teach you about your own gears. If they need to be fed coffee and music. Or if you have to shut everything out and use the biggest piece of paper you can find. And I don’t want anyone sneezing at this kind of insight. It can be critical to treating yourself seriously. (And you should treat yourself seriously because, poet, cough, cough, no one else will.)
  • Discipline. I’ve suggested that no one can do this all the way through, as planned. Not true. In fact, many, many people do successfully complete their mission. And even those who don’t got used to THINKING about it every day or pulling out the old college-ruled notebook or sitting at the dining room table while the laundry spins dry. 30/30s are great for establishing discipline. If you ask yourself for something, something do-able anyway, you can have it. That is the second great insight and habit 30/30s bestow upon the participants. It’s been said before, the hardest part about writing is applying the butt to the seat.
  • Getting out of a rut. They can jump start a dry spell. I don’t use them for that. But I hear it works.
  • Community. Ever been part of something bigger than yourself? Well, here’s your chance. Every April (and sometimes during the fiction writers’ month (aka NaNoWriMo, aka November)), so many poets engage in a 30/30 and post the results on the social-medium-of-the-day, that participating in it feels like a party. And folks are reading your stuff. And you’re reading theirs. It is a veritable feast! I love it! Waaaah!

You might think I’m all down on 30/30s. But in fact I think everyone should do one. You won’t get 30 great poems, you might even get fewer great poems than if you did nothing differently, but you will learn so much about yourself as an artist that it will be worth the sacrifice.

The Trick.

Here’s the trick. Before you start, pick a theme, device, or form. Then do that every day. One year, I wrote 30 persona poems — but they had to be from a non-human point of view. The one from the point of view of my then-recently-smashed-up-by-a-distracted-driver Honda Civic? That one still gets pulled out sometimes. The trick was focusing my energy not on creating something new from scratch, but giving myself an outlet. (I am also proud of the one from the point of view of the stain on my shirt.)

Scott Woods wrote 30 poems in one day to prove he could do it, but he chose to write 30 form poems. In that case he didn’t have to invent the wheel each time, but could rely on forms to provide the poem engines. All’s he had to do was add good writing. ‘Cause that is so easy. 😉

So pick a sonnet. Or a cartoon. Or famous poets you’d like to spoof and use the month to explore just that. It makes it super easy to get started every day and takes all the pressure off. Plus you’ll still learn about your craft, your process, discipline and get to play on the playground with all the other poets.

Postscript

If you really want to get in shape, be poetically fit, get out of a dry spell, learn some freaking discipline, AND write good stuff, I suggest a schedule of writing 5 days a week, for an hour a day. (Yes, I did learn this from someone else and it totally works.) You don’t have to force poems. You might write the next great American novel for Christ’s sake. It’s lonelier. It’s still hard. But you eventually get 30 amazing works of art out of it. Probably more. And a reputation for being prolific.

Then you can have the weekends to clean house, start a revolution, mow the lawn, catch up on your favorite YouTube-er, too.

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