Writer Jacques Rancourt blogs about why he is participating in National Poetry Writing Month.
Writing may be a solitary act, but the way I approach NaPoWriMo is not. A few poet friends and I hold each other accountable by copying the drafts of our daily poem to an e-mail and sending it to each other, which has worked really well. As a former Catholic, operating under suffocating guilt is really my preferred mode. In the past, I’ve done a more traditional, solo NaPoWriMo with weak results. Because I wasn’t accountable to anyone, it didn’t matter if I wrote a lunch break sonnet about the sun in the windows because no one was ever going to read that crap, which was exactly the attitude I had. This is the third time this academic year that I’ve done a poem-a-day challenge with a group of people, and the difference has been staggering.
I take many issues with the workshop model, but one thing I miss about it is the sense of deadline and audience that really helped fuel the poems I wanted to be writing. What sucked about workshop was getting feedback on a poem that was only a few days old when it was too soon to be examined as a thing to be perfected by a committee. The way I approach NaPoWriMo is the best of both worlds. I feel some sort of obligation to spend a few hours each day working on poems but without the debilitating criticism that can happen when a poem is shared too soon.
There have been times when I sit at my desk and it feels as if there’s no way a new poem will come that day. Although sometimes what I end up writing is mostly banter or cheap imitations, just as often I surprise myself by writing a draft I feel excited about. On my own during days like these, I would have surely quit and missed an opportunity for a poem. With NaPoWriMo and its obligation of submitting my daily offering to my peers, I don’t let myself. This month, I’m mostly working on a sequence of poems that lightly touch on the same topic, and that daily, feverish return to a blank Word document mirrors the obsessive nature that spurs my best poetry, particularly a sustained project such as a sequence. And though what I submit each day is pretty rough, at the end of the month I have a pile of poems that I can spend the next few weeks mulching through.
As much as I get out of writing a poem a day, I find the time off to be just as valuable. I’m a slow writer by default, and writing a new draft each day is very much outside my nature, as I feel I do my best and most important work when revising. However, my discomfort with writing daily is a big draw for me. As a good masochist, I love how much I hate it, and it has been beneficial because even if I toss out all but a handful of poems from this month, it’s still more than I would have typically written on my own.
Jacques J. Rancourt is the 2011-2012 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A founding editor of the literary journal Devil’s Lake, his work has appeared in New England Review, Colorado Review and Beloit Poetry Journal among others. In the fall, he will move to the Bay area as a Stegner fellow at Stanford. He blogs at http://americanshrapnel.blogspot.com/.