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Write-up: FREE POEM Days

September 14, 2010

FREE POEMS ON DEMAND was a success at the Decatur Book Festival.  We collectively wrote more than 100 poems over two days on topics as diverse as: “neon broken arm”, “cannibalism”, “how to tell your grandmother you’re pregnant”, and “wow!”


Participants included: me, Jeff Dahlgren, Zac Denton, John Selvidge, Mary Richardson, Michele Rozga, Allison & Ping Pong, and a random stranger who wanted to try her hand at it (she wrote a good poem about “corners”).

I got out there around 3PM and wrote nonstop until 8PM.  Various people joined me in the task throughout the day.  I found these sales slips at Wal-mart that let you write things on the top sheet and it will transfer to the carbon copy on the bottom.  We used these sometimes to get an instant copy of the poems we wrote for people.  The pad had 50 sheets, but we ran out of sheets about half-way through.


Some people asked for silly topics like Hippopotamus.  But some people, you can really tell they needed a poem to get through whatever they were going through.  You got to learn a lot about people sometimes, like the woman who asked for a poem about “the end of an affair”.  Or the older man who asked very genuinely for a poem about “hope”.

Those vague words are the hardest to write, (we got “hope”, “true love”, “life”, “determination”, “perseverance”).  There’s an impulse to undercut the subject with cleverness, but if the person looks like they really meant it, then you don’t want to do that.  You want to write a genuine sincere poem about hope.  Now, all you ironic poets out there can smirk all you want, but that is fucking hard.

Overall, though, writing instant poems is fun and easy.  It’s much easier than writing a real poem simply because nobody expects a good poem to be written in 5 minutes.  So if you write a bad poem, that’s par for the course.  If you write a mediocre poem, that’s considered wonderful, fantastic!  This way of thinking about it really freed me up to write whatever crap came into my head.

I got so many encouraging responses.  One woman even said she will frame it on the wall, and some just said thanks over and over again.  One boy said “thanks, i really like it”  then later “It’s really a good poem”.  He was so sweet.

Some people had special requirements for their poem.  Like this following one, in which I was instructed to include the words turquoise, sun, detritus, monkey, fresh-cocoonut, chanting, hand-spun, and moon:

Turquoise and blue, natural colors
filling up the stream.  Nearby
detritus ends up in Detroit
where the monkeys wear suits,
teleconferencing.  But here, only
the din of traffic reaches me
as I crack fresh coconuts,
drinking its contents, its
flesh regards me, chanting.
The clouds look hand-spun,
custom made for the moon.

Many people asked for personalized poems, dedicated to someone.  Like this one for Elsa, who just turned 2½:

Ode to Elsa and fingers
and O’s where Elsa steps
and sunshine swings Elsa’s mom
to Elmo here and Elsa there
does hops with Elsa’s hair
here there and everywhere Elsa.

And this one for Grant who his father claims never listens to anyone.  His father gave me a $10 tip for this poem!

A book of poems
for Grant who doesn’t listen.
Nobody listens, though, right?
Grant is listening now
just because.  He likes
to talk the big talk.
Talking is when words
come out of your mouth.
Grant is a big boy
so big words come out of
his big mouth.  Everything
is quiet now.  Silent night.
Perfect opportunity.

It is hard to resist the urge to revise these now.  A tweak here or there could make it so much less cringe-worthy, but then again I have to remember it is not about the poems, but the process.

I thought writing poems for 5 hours straight would exhaust me but it just kind of put me in this weird state of mind.  At the end of the first day, I was a little bit ecstatic.  The second day was less busy, but my mind was also less fresh.

There were many people who wanted to know who we were.  “Are you poets?”.  A lot of interest in Eyedrum was generated from these encounters as well.  I thought above all that it was really good for cloistered experimental poets to do this as a way to get out of our own headspace a little.  We complain that nobody reads our poems, but I’ve been surprised by the amount of receptiveness that most people have shown.

There was also someone who asked, unbelievingly, “do you use some kind of template, or formula”.  No, we don’t.  That would defeat the whole purpose.  If the purpose was to always safely hand the audience a pretty good poem, then that would be a good strategy.  But the purpose was to challenge ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones, to risk writing that bad poem, writing 50 bad poems.  No, we didn’t have a formula or a strategy, and that can be why it’s such an awful project or an awesome project, depending on which end of the lens you’re looking through

We’re thinking about doing it again sometime soon.  We need to find a place with a lot of foot traffic in Atlanta, maybe L5P or East Atlanta Village… or Piedmont Park.  It would be nice to get a totally different crowd, to see how different the experience is.

Much thanks to Eyedrum Lit Committee for being open to this idea, and to Bill and Amy and the Seen Gallery for opening up their space for us.