Too much poetry, not enough time: Benjamin Zephaniah, NaPoWriMo, and the poetry-industrial complex

I have a review of To Do Wid Me by Benjamin Zephaniah, a poetry DVD-book, up at Moving Poems. Check it out.

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A few people have expressed disappointment that I’m not reading and reviewing a book a day for National Poetry Month this year, as I’ve done the last couple of years. Well, what can I say? My days aren’t as long as they used to be. Plus, I’m not convinced that that was really the best way to demonstrate appreciation for poetry. I just did it as a response to NaPoWriMo, which I continue to have mixed feelings about — even as I now find myself writing (at least) one poem a day as well as sharing this blog with a seemingly indefatigable poem-a-day virtuoso, Luisa Igloria. Writing a poem a day can become as necessary and natural as a daily physical exercise regime, and Luisa has stated that, as an already over-worked person,

I get very grumpy and whiny when I cannot get to my writing, or when I cannot get to do any of those things that feed the deep inner parts related to writing. And then it becomes a struggle to write, which in turn puts a serious crimp on writing process, which should be spontaneous and generative and more like… play.

And in a feature for the Solace in a Book blog, she added:

What I’ve come to do in this daily poem ‘discipline’ is actually a lot of playing. One of the most important lessons I learn from doing this may sound over-simple but I find oftentimes it’s the hardest thing to do: letting go.

I think I’m a far less disciplined person than Luisa, and I don’t believe my poetry practice is as healthy as hers — often I write because I am procrastinating on something else. But I couldn’t agree more about the importance of being playful and letting go, something I’ve learned from blogging in general. Before I took up blogging, I was a compulsive polisher, believe it or not, acutely embarrassed if someone read a poem of mine that I didn’t feel was absolutely perfect, or as close as I could get to perfect. Letting it all hang out here has been a great exercise in writerly humility — although it must be said that one has to be a bit of an egotist to inflict one’s poems on the world in the first place.

So how can I possibly have a quibble with NaPoWriMo? Well, to the extent that it gives serious poets a good workout and leads them to take risks or break out of a dry spell, I’m all for it. But for not-so-serious poets — by which I mean, simply, those who love the idea of being poets but not necessarily the idea of reading other poets — I am not sure it’s the best way to spend a month dedicated to poetry. I’ve heard it said that if everyone who writes poetry (which is a lot of people, actually) were each to purchase one new book of poems a year, poetry publishing in America would be in fine shape.

More than that, I worry that those of us publicly writing a poem a day are bolstering the capitalist, industrial mindset that puts a premium on productivity at the expense of living and playfulness. As I said to someone on Twitter the other day, the system and the culture pressure artists in so many ways to brand ourselves, to self-commodify. And even in such economically marginal arts as poetry, we’re made to feel we must keep producing at an industrial rate or risk obscurity and irrelevance. Thus, many major American poets get in one groove and stay there for book after book, with rarely more than three or four years passing between books (which are almost always the same length and almost never include illustrations, admixtures of prose, accompanying DVDs, or other enlivening features).

Then again, by arguing against this tendency, it’s possible I’m just making excuses for my own inability to stick to one predominant style and mood, which to be honest I sometimes wish I could do. Ah, well.

5 Comments


  1. You raise some interesting stuff here. I like Luisa’s articulation that daily poetry, and that creativity in general, need to be playful. And I relate to your point about sharing poetry online and the ways in which it requires ego while still inculcating a certain humility.

    I haven’t tried writing daily poems in years and years. I’m having a good time with NaPoWriMo, maybe because this discipline is (re)new(ed) for me — I spent a few years writing weekly poems (Torah poems, then mother poems) but that’s different from writing daily ones. I don’t think I could do it every day for years as Luisa has so brilliantly done, but trying to write a poem a day is an interesting spur to creativity, and an interesting reminder to me of how important it is to make space for creativity in my life.

    That said: I also think you’re right that our culture fetishizes productivity. “Producing at an industrial rate” — oy. Yeah. So that’s food for thought.

    Reply

    1. Your weekly practice has really paid off for readers, though, I think — and for a blog like Velveteen Rabbi where poetry isn’t the whole focus, it’s definitely a good fit. As a promoter of poetry, I’m always most excited to see it appear in sites that aren’t exclusively literary (such as Via Negativa has now become). Which is not to say that doing the 30-poems-in-30-days thing is a bad idea, either. Glad it’s proving useful for you.

      Reply

  2. Oh, good grief. How on earth could I limit myself to one book of poetry a year? LOL! But you are right. To feed the poetry community and the survival of poetry, read poetry. Lots of it. I find NaPoWriMo takes me away from reading poetry because I lack the time. So busy writing poetry, that I don’t read it. But the span of the entire year tends to balance that out, and I need the discipline of the month of practice in April.

    Reply

      1. You’re very kind. :) April has become the one time of year I devote significant time to poetry, carving time out from everything else I try to do. I try to write other times of year, but my good intentions never seem to really get very far. I don’t know how you do it!

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