Poem-a-Day as Practice

IMG_1646By Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

I am not a morning pages poet, nor am I a write everyday poet. To write every day, or close to every day, is something I have to work at, and by work I mean, it takes trickery. It takes a challenge like Poem-A-Day that happens every April for National Poetry Month. If you’ve never heard of this event, it’s similar to National Novel Writing Month—commonly known as NaNoWriMo—in September but without the cute name. For the month of April, in celebration of NPM, poets around the country and even the world, challenge themselves to write one new poem a day for 30 days. To help, many websites and journals give daily writing prompts. Many are free and some take a subscription. But here’s the thing, you don’t have to wait for April to challenge yourself, and to be honest, I have never successfully accomplished writing 30 poems in 30 days in April, and to be even more honest, I’ve only tried once, maybe twice.

In fact, the only times I’ve successfully written everyday for an extended amount of time have been when I’ve gone away for a writing residency. It’s actually incredibly easy to write everyday when you have vacated your home for 25 days and have no responsibilities to speak of beyond keeping yourself and your space tidy and writing. Being a writer in residence means you have been put up for 2-4 weeks in a beautiful local with a comfy bed to sleep in and a quiet desk to write at both most likely with views of a forest, or prairie, or ocean-side bluff. Your meals are taken care. Your email has been set with an automated response: “I am currently away on a writing retreat until ____. I will be checking and replying to emails periodically. Your patience is appreciated.” Your bills were paid and squared away before you left. All your deadlines were met. Children are being cared for (I don’t have children). Pets are being fed. And someone is enjoying your car while you’re gone. When you are a writer in residence, there is nothing to do but take long walks, sit in the bath, pick flowers, read, eat, and oh, yes, write.

The very first writing residency I attended was at Ragdale Foundation in North Shore Chicago. For 25 days my only responsibility was writing a first draft of a novel. I had a warm, quaint cottage room over looking a red brick courtyard and nothing but time. I thought, Well, shit. I better write something. And write I did. A novel written in letters, I gave myself the assignment to write at least three new letters a day. (This was another trick I gave myself, since letters aren’t much longer than a poem.) As days increased so did my output, and by the final day I had a complete first draft. It was magical.

Since then, there have been times when I think, Well, I’ll just make my own residency at home, but it’s not so simple. Jobs, friends, family, laundry, dishes, bills, oil changes, and all the other everyday obligations get in the way of regular pages, so what do you do?

One friend suggested I try “The Grind,” a by invitation email group that asks members to write a new piece of work a day for one month. A form of accountability, the administrator places poets and writers into email groups of about 10 people. The only expectation is members send one new piece a day to the group. No one is expected to read. No one is expected to comment. All members are expected to do is write and send. I know a couple of poets who have had major success with The Grind, which if you participated for 3 months, has the potential to help you produce at least 90 new pieces. These pieces are mostly likely raw, scraps even, and some may only be one sentence, but still, it’s material to play with.

I hated The Grind. I have come to realize that I don’t like joining any group or organization that increases the amount of emails flooding my inbox. Remember that instant reply message set in my email? I live for setting that instant reply! But I did like the idea of being beholden to another person, so what I did was invite one friend to join me in a 20-day challenge. For 20 days, we were to write new pages and send our new work to the other person with the same stipulations, no one was expected to read or comment. And that worked for a while, until I realized that the other person was only a crutch. I could do a 20-day challenge on my own.

Whenever I feel a need to start producing more material, I open a new document, title it “20 Day Challenge” with the date and begin. I mark the top of each page with the day and the date before writing a new poem: Day 5 February 14, 2018. The challenge can start whenever you like and doesn’t have to coincide with any day or date, but at first, you may consider beginning on the first of the month, the first day of the season, or if you are into the phases of moon, with a new moon. The new moon is a good time to set intentions such as to write everyday, and if that’s of interest to you, the next new moon is March 17, 2018.

Tips for writing a poem-a-day:

  1. Try writing at the same time everyday. I write after lunch once I’ve had some experiences in my day to reflect on. As I mentioned before, I’m not a morning pages writer because I find it difficult to write before I have fed my mind inspiration, but midday seems to work.
  2. Don’t expect the poem to be in fact a poem. At this point you are creating raw material. Be ok with building a shapeless mound of clay. Later, you can go back and see if you can sculpt it into art, but for now, let it be whatever it is that comes out of you.
  3. Try sitting for ten minutes, and see what comes out. 10 minutes is all you need!
  4. If you miss a day, still write the day and date on a blank page, and maybe make a note about what you did that day. For example, just the other day I wrote: “Day 9: February 18, 2018. Went to Brunch for T’s birthday.” Sometimes I will go back and write something for that day, but most of the time I don’t.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up for missing a day or two. It’s your challenge, make of it what you will.
  6. Get a buddy if you need a buddy, but also know you can do it alone.
  7. Inspiration for writing a poem-a-day:
    1. take a walk and see where your mind wonders. When you get back, write down all your random thoughts.
    2. Take time to read a new poem, a new chapter in a novel, or even a page in novel and write a response to what you read. Try stealing a favorite line by making it the title of your poem and see what happens.
    3. Visit an art exhibit and write a response to a piece in the exhibit
    4. Ask a friend to send you a photo from their own library of photos and write a poem from the photo. (It’s helpful if you know your friend is a good photographer.)
    5. Journal out all your feelings and thoughts. Spill on to the page, and then take pieces from your journal for a collage poem.
    6. Notice what you notice. I heard this advice from movie director, Miguel Arteta when he did a talk for junior high kids at 826LA. He said to be a writer, you only have to notice what you notice. As you go through your day, pay attention to what catches your eye: the way your coworker left out the creamer, a character in your favorite TV show that seems to be unfairly treated, a funny misspelling on a street sign, the misplaced baby shoe sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Whatever it is, write it at the top of your page, and see what comes.

After you’ve done a 20-day challenge, be sure to look back at what you’ve created. You will mostly likely be pleasantly surprised to find the beginnings of a poem or two.

Let Xochitl get you started in your practice with her class, Spanner, Slammer, Socket: Building a Poet’s Toolbox, or get a coaching package in poetry. which starts April 2nd, opening National Poetry Month




Passion in the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry


by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

When I walked into Francesca Lia Block’s Antioch University seminar, The Importance of Social Media for the Contemporary Writer, I had no idea my life would be changed and inspired. Francesca highlighted the growing trend of the most successful writers linking to their fans, followers and other writers by using social media as a tool to express their creative message. I know if it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the writers, poets and artists I now call my friends. Francesca reemphasized my belief that the point of a writer is to connect with an audience. She said it best, “Don’t just journal, you are here to write, get your voice out in the world.” Not only did she open my eyes specifically to the world wide web that was reverberating all around me, but she helped me focus and I realized how much the internet was the essential ingredient to all my creative writing endeavors.

Douglas Adams once said: “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” My whole life I’d been learning if you, as a writer, write down what you see, fear and love from your own universe, you will make the reader want to live inside your mind, your vision and your own creative voice. It was like a lightbulb exploded and I realized that if you’re a writer looking for ideas on what to write, go on Pinterest or Tumblr and write an ekphrastic poem, a poem reflecting what you see and feel from a photo or work of art. I discovered that my main source of inspiration was the internet footprint I was creating daily around me. We are unique and no one has the same online presence; harness that distinctive spark that inspiration is everywhere online for your creativity…that is your power as a writer.

The World Wide Web is much more than watching videos, spreading chatroom chisme, and surfing the internet. I follow the lead of poets like Nayyirah Waheed who’s Instagram and Tumblr posts shows how a poet can reflect an online presence creatively while inspiring their audiences. I have also discovered many poets like A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson who have published collections about their pop culture passions. Jordan’s book The Cineaste merges his love of cinema with his gift of verse and Jackson’s Missing You Metropolis combines Gary’s affection for graphic novels and comic books with his talented poetic voice.

Poets like Francesca Lia Block, Nayyirah Waheed, A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson have inspired me to connect with my love of vintage black and white photographs and classic film stills and create my own style of ekphrastic poetry. I wake up every morning and log into my Tumblr account and scroll through my dashboard and usually a photograph or film still will grab my creative intention and I stop, open up a word file and let the visual inspiration spark a new poem. Although I’ve written poems inspired by paintings, like one I’ve had published this year at Ekphrastic California inspired by The Blue Boy, (1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) oil on canvas on display at The Huntington Gallery in San Marino, California and often write poems inspired by color photographs found on Facebook and Instagram, there is something about trying to write a poem from a black and white photograph. As a poet, it’s more of a challenge. There are no colors, so we as poets, need to dig deep inside while trying to connect with the photograph and conjure up an interpretation that satisfies the creative curiosity of the reader.

I’ve written and had poems published inspired by photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I have to admit, one of my favorites poems, “Take Me to the Aquarium and Make Out with Me in the Jellyfish Room” was inspired by Dmitrijs Belokons black and white photo of an elderly couple kissing at an aquarium was published in a collection called Getting Old. It was only the silhouette of this couple, as I poet, I had to fill in the lines and create a portrait, bringing their ageless passion to life on the page. Most of the times, poems like this “Take Me to the Aquarium” flow out from my fingers and magically becomes verse.

But it takes dedication to search, scrolling through my dashboard and being open to every picture that appears in my feed. I have a philosophy that I follow when I am online:

When inspiration calls, you must accept the charges.

When I’m Tumblr, it’s to work and I have to be ready to write when the right photograph speaks to me. There’s a connection that wants to be made and most times the images connect with something I need to explore on the page. Bringing color to these images with my poems, is never easy but I love challenging myself, trying to expand my writing voice reflecting verses from these vintage photographs.

Bringing these images into focus with my poetry is a passion I’ve discovered online and one I am excited to share with other poets. I know I’m not the only writer who goes online to seek inspiration for their writing voice. As a poet, I always heed the words of Poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera who said, “Do not wait for a poem; a poem is too fast for you. Do not wait for the poem, run with the poem and then write the poem. And of course immerse yourself in a sea of books and poems. You want to be in that parade, that’s what you have to do.”

My course Your Voice Inside the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry is for writers are eager to explore the art of writing poetry by using Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr as your spark of visual inspiration. If you are visually inspired by photographs and artworks, then my class is for you. We will learn the craft of ekphrastic poetry, taking those images and reflecting our impressions on the page as poetry.

I wouldn’t be teaching Internet your Senses and Tumblr Towards Creativity without Francesca Lia Block’s inspiration. Thank You to Francesca for making me realize I needed to embrace technology, connect with my writing audience, harness my creative energies, and share my knowledge of using the internet to inspire poetry.

Adrian’s class Your Voice Inside the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry begins Monday, September 10. Sign up here!

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is the author of the forthcoming full-length poetry collection Flashbacks & Verses… Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press and the poetry chapbook So Many Flowers, So Little Time from Red Mare Press. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Frontier Poetry, poeticdiversity, The Wild Word, The Fem, Rigorous, and Lunch Ticket’s Special Issue: Celebrating 20 Years of Antioch University Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing.

To date, Adrian has over one hundred and twenty five poems published in over a hundred different publications.  One of his poems was named the winner of Subterranean Blue Poetry’s 2016 “The Children of Orpheus” Anthology Contest and two of his poems “Buzz Me” and “Estranged Fruit” were nominated for Best of the Net in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Adrian also had one of his poems “Longing for Our Airport Reconnections” featured in Shinpei Takeda’s Poems of Arrival for the Inscription Installation Exhibit at the New Americans Museum in San Diego, California.

Adrian is an LA Poet and graduate of MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. You can connect with Adrian on his website: http://www.adrianernestocepeda.com/