By Nancy Jo Cullen
Remember February? It was a whole lifetime ago in this pandemic moment. In retrospect, it seems innocent to have hated on winter so hard, to have been holding out for March and the advent of spring when all things would begin to feel better. Usually, this is true so I hold no grudge against myself for thinking so. 2020, this difficult and surreal year, is punking us all.
But I’d like to tell you about my February because just mere weeks ago when I still hugged my friends in greeting and brushed past people on the sidewalk, I took part in a marathon of sorts with the poetry group I hang with. For the month of February, we wrote a poem a day and each day we emailed our poems to the group. It was an exercise in commitment and openness as we fired off our work to one another. It was tiresome and all consuming. It was a wacky idea and it seemed like it would be impossible – the way a diet is impossible – you think you should maybe do it but you know you really won’t. Only we really did it. For the month of February the five us sent each other a daily poem, some were great and some were so-so, but we thought about and prioritized poetry for a month and that was awesome. And, going forward, each of us has pieces to work on that were generated during our writing challenge.
I’m not sure any of us believed we would really do it but Sarah, who brings a spirited energy to our meetings, touted it as an entirely doable challenge. Now, I’ve always had the kind of writing life where I’ve had to fit writing into the nooks and crannies that open up around work/life obligations when (and if) they do. The only other time I’ve written daily was during a two-week stint at the Banff Centre in early 2008. So, not surprisingly, I was dubious.
But on February 1, I got up and wrote a poem, first thing. I was thinking of tanka when I wrote the poem and followed its form loosely. Rather than complying with the syllable count (which I think is a rule that must lose a great deal in the translation between Japanese and English) I thought of the shape of a tanka: short line, long line, short line, long line, long line. I tried to think of it as long sentence, short poem with a little third-line turn. And the next day I wrote a new poem.
Each day, our group of five wrote and attached a poem to our daily email thread. So, not only were we writing new poems, we were reading four new poems and commenting on each other’s work. It was an immersive and invigorating experience. It left no time for me to do much else than to write my daily poem and manage my paid work, but rather than worry about a next, more practical prose project I gave myself over to the challenge and pleasure of a new poem every day.
Of course, a month-long project to produce daily poetry ends up being more about process than product. We spent our month making poems the centre of our days and most definitely there were days when a haiku or even a limerick had to suffice, but over the course of the month each poet began to create work that turned around a theme or experience. Perhaps this is the natural outcome of meeting the obligation of writing a new poem each day, we found ourselves working through the material at the front of our minds. It was a vulnerable position for us to be in; we were sharing early drafts of work that, at times, felt intensely personal. The commitment to write a daily poem didn’t allow for distance or even much rewriting. This led to a heightened sense of sharing that felt a bit like a radical honesty workshop. Keep in mind, we were reading each other’s work and commenting but not workshopping the poems.
And there were deeper effects on how we each approached our own writing practice during this time. First, and perhaps most important, we found ways to carve out the time in our daily lives to write. We realized it was possible to come to the task every day. It is also true that most of us tend to wait for inspiration to strike but writing a poem every day required us to simply just start and discover we where we ended up. We couldn’t build toward our customary leaping points to begin a poem; we just leapt. We had to learn to trust ourselves, our ideas and most especially each other as we shared our early drafts with each other.
February’s poetry writing challenge created a process where we had to shed old habits in order to keep writing. Will we return to those old habits? I can only speak for myself and the answer is, for the most part, yes. But I’m also trying to write through the poem differently, to leave unfinished lines as place markers and to carry on, until I know the poem better and can return to the place that needs work. And, as difficult as it is to imagine anything but this global moment of isolation we are all living through, it seems likely that we will return next February to another immersive month of writing poems together apart.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.
Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.