Today marks the fifth anniversary of Luisa Igloria’s very first poem on Via Negativa—a poem that proved to be the starting point of an amazing poem-a-day exercise that has never let up, not even for holidays or conferences. That first poem was sparked by a post on my daily microblog The Morning Porch:
Dawn. In absolute silence, a pileated woodpecker hitches its way up a locust trunk, silhouette pivoting like a pawl on an invisible ratchet.
On Facebook, Luisa posted this response:
Dawn: in absolute silence,
a pileated woodpecker
hitches its way up
a locust trunk, silhouette
pivoting like a pawl
on an invisible ratchet—
consider this early
summons, this parking
before the hubbub
Luisa continued to use The Morning Porch for daily writing prompts—something I’ve always encouraged by applying a permissive Creative Commons license to all my work. When I learned a few weeks later that she was continuing the series, I invited her to become first a regular guest writer and then, as I slowly adjusted to the idea, a co-blogger. After the first year, Luisa broadened her pool of places to get writing prompts from (while still regularly using my porchisms), and when I began my own daily poetry exercise with the inception of the Pepys Diary erasure project in 2013, Luisa’s example was my biggest inspiration. Thanks to her, Via Negativa has evolved from one writer’s miscellany into a uniquely collaborative and improvisational poetry zine.
It’s natural for poetry fans to regard print books as the ultimate repository of the art, and by that measure, Luisa’s exercise has succeeded spectacularly. Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser won the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Award, chosen by Mark Doty, and two other books—Night Willow and The Saints of Streets—also consist mainly of poems that came out of her daily writing exercise. There’s also an e-book, Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass, in connection with which Luisa answered a question about her practice and linked back to a 2011 interview with Marly Youmans where she went into quite a bit more detail. This was early on, when the memory of how it started was still fresh:
In a lull just before Thanksgiving last year, I read Dave’s November 20 observation of a pileated woodpecker inching up the trunk of a locust tree “like a pawl on an invisible ratchet” and I thought: what a cool image, what a cool word—pawl—and immediately I wanted to turn it into a poem. […] I really didn’t intend for it to turn out into the daily “devotional” that it seems to have become, but now I’m thoroughly hooked.
What I’m happiest about is how I’ve incorporated it into my daily writing practice, and that the simple rules I’ve set for myself seem to work well in terms of getting me to that place of focus and attention where there is the potential for making poetry happen. My rules are: I don’t have a fixed time for visiting The Morning Porch to read the latest line Dave’s written. But when I do, I try to respond immediately, without premeditation, composing as I go. I try not to belabor what I find in the starting “trigger”—because I don’t see myself obligated to respond via a form of poetic reportage. What happens instead is that the bit of image or language that first catches my eye or ear, meets what I bring to that moment (a combination of many things—what I may have been reading or remembering recently, what kinds of questions I might be asking that particular day). Finally, I try to do all of this in thirty minutes, forty max; I feel that if I go over this time limit I set for myself, I will be belaboring the whole enterprise too much.
Do read the rest.
I texted Luisa an hour ago, just as she was settling in to write today’s poem at her neighborhood coffee shop, escaping some chaos at home. I asked her if she’d ever expected to be able to keep it up this long, and she admitted she hadn’t. I asked her whether it’s gotten easier over time, and what advice she might give to other poets who’d like to write more often, but feel overworked and overwhelmed. She told me,
Some things have gotten easier with time—those “throat clearing parts” for instance. I think knowing that I will write every day and that I’ll make my way to that time of writing every day has freed up some of the anxiety about starting (or starting from scratch, from nothing, every time one approaches the page). It does really seem like there’s something to be said about the aspect of athleticism involved in doing any kind of practice daily: people run to prepare for marathons, swim laps, warm up, etc. Having written daily for this long I do feel I have gotten more limber in some ways: in the ability to filter out extraneous noise, and more importantly the ability to relax about some of the process. The latter as I’m sure you know is one of the hardest things to do.
And she added:
What I’ve come to understand of my own needs (they may not necessarily be the same for others) from my daily writing practice: it’s the space I can look forward to every day where whatever existential or other question in the fore- or background of my awareness is where I can go to meet it/wrestle with it/knead it—in poetry—for a little while.
A huge congratulations to Luisa on reaching this milestone, and here’s hoping that her poems can continue to grace these virtual pages for many years to come.