Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Otter Poem: Today’s the Day

My deadline for writing a wildlife poem about sea otters has arrived. Writing group meets tonight. I’m running a little late in my planned revision process, but I shall press on! News of results and a revised excerpt to come. . . .

ICYMI: The process began following this post and continued with this one.


Follow this verse writing process and poem from start to finish:

  1. Raw Poetic Materials: Sources and Destinations
  2. Wildlife Poem: Sea Otter in Progress
  3. Otter Poem: Today’s the Day
  4. Sea Otter Poem: Revised Draft
  5. Sea Otter Poem, 4th Draft: Reaching Revision Goals

Classic Learning

I’m still looking for that trick or key technique to make quick reading a habit. In my library–which is really a jumble of cheap, over-stuffed book cases scattered about the place–sits a copy of an old book called Rapid Reading in 5 Days designed to help me with this very goal. A book I never finished.

This is not to say I fail to finish most books I pick up; maybe about 35 percent? Okay, 40. I think I may be a strong candidate for needing a formerly sci-fi, soon-to-be true science neurotech implant capable of uploading and instantaneously processing those Matrix-style digital files. A raging inferno of super, bionic brain activity for Kindles, Nooks, and USB drives to feed.

There’s just so much to be read, so much that seems to need reading. Says the die-hard idealist buried in the back of this East Coast-educated brain who believes that learning these important things will somehow lead to doing something that “makes a difference,” an impact for the good. And why? For my glory? For the good’s own sake? Out of love for humanity? Poppycock. (Well, maybe a bit of all three, actually.)

   So many windmills, so little time.

Don Quixote, current reading status: page 436 of 1050. Due Feb. 4. Hey, I’ve made better progress this week than any time since early December! Despite having had double the amount of time in which to read (a full two months), I guess I want credit for small victories.

I need that. Because it’s looking very much as though I’m not going to finish Don Quixote by the time my classics book club meets. Is that so bad? In and of itself, no. Not every member finishes every book every month anyway, and I’m sure I won’t be alone this month. It is a 1,000-pager, after all.

Unfortunately, though, the existence of a deadline I know I probably won’t make signals yet another unfinished reading of the classics, of a novel, of a long-form piece of fiction. Another finish line uncrossed. Another incident imprinting on me a sense of personal and professional failure. Failure to fulfill my promise as a scholar, writer, teacher, and citizen.

Then again, I could just need a new eyeglasses prescription and to focus more squarely on whatever makes me happiest. The truth is often a complicated mixture. And that is, oh, so classic.