By Lynnell Edwards, Associate Program Director, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing
The first time I tried a “poem-a-day” challenge in April for National Poetry Month I had already blown it before I even started. From my journal that year, I see the first entry is Monday, April 3. But I had given myself a few rules to make the whole endeavor slightly more humane and if maybe I actually didn’t remember it was April until the 3rd, then okay. Monday is still kind of like a first day so I went forward.
I note in this first entry that I am going to try writing in bed at night before I go to sleep. The whole entry is a rambling mess. I’m trying to be poetic, I can tell, but I’m not writing in lines and it shows. At the end I’ve starred something (more on starred entries later): “Spring like that – explosion on the horizon, thunder, to ground lightning, everything distant then suddenly upon you.” I guess it was raining, but good god. Is the whole month going to be this bad?
By Tuesday, April 4, I’ve jettisoned the writing-in-bed notion and my entry actually has something like poetic traction in it. There’s repetition and stuff. An unexpected but spot-on word. I’m recounting a conversation I had that day with my college-aged son about a difficult text he had gotten from a friend and the writing has a kind of movement to it, the sum of the words seems to suggest this everyday exchange is headed toward something else. It gets a star too.
The starred entry for April 6 is the first entry to launch into something like a full-on poem once the writing spills onto the second page. A prose poem. I had just started to explore the possibilities for non-lineated verse and the nature of the content (endlessly waiting in a doctor’s waiting room) seemed to fit that form.
About the stars: One of my rules was that I didn’t have to commit myself to actually writing and FULLY REVISING a poem each day. Instead I would write until I felt like I had gotten to the end of the energy or that there was an essential shape in place. Later, my plan was to go back and put a star next to entries that I thought merited more attention. And this would be the work of May. (So she said.)
Most of the entries for April are either about the weather or my college-aged son’s emerging mental illness. Entries about his struggle, my struggle, the décor of the bipolar clinic. And storms. The tulip poplar outside my bedroom window. I periodically try to link the two themes with the idea of “spring fever.” It never works.
There are a couple of one-sentence entries. I gave myself permission to do this, too. So determined was I that this would be a habit, a practice, a discipline that would carry me through fallow times that even a cryptic mark on a page would count. Something, by God, to show for April. There is only a 0 with a line drawn through it for April 12. I am afraid something bad might have happened that day but I can’t remember now.
A couple more starred entries: April 16, a poem that ultimately makes it into a manuscript I’m finishing now; April 18, an ekphrastic poem about a painting of a mother watching over her sleeping child from the cover of The Journal of Sleep. I wanted so bad for this one to be good but it just wouldn’t lift its sleepy head. A super pretentious entry on April 22 about military jets overhead and spring flowers that is trying to avoid what it’s really about: Thunder over Louisville, the air show and fireworks display that kicks off the Kentucky Derby Festival. At least I didn’t try to write about horses.
And then, holy smokes, April 26! The draft of a poem that would get a Pushcart nomination the following year: “We were talking about guns”. Another prose poem.
The remaining few days of April poems are anticlimactic, but not bad. April 30 gets a star for an entry that begins with an overheard epigraph about the amount of junk in our lives: “Fuck you if you give my kid a water bottle.” A humorous lament followed about needless consumption and the disposable logo crap our kids got every time they attended a camp/tournament/contest. The absurdity of first-world problems. The entry mostly transcribes a conversation among friends at an outdoor festival with many, many people standing very close to one another and drinking beer. Might be worth revisiting now, this one.
By the time you read this I may already have a few starred entries or I may have given up on the whole project. That’s what happened the next year. It will be April and we will be having weather of all sorts in Kentucky. My son will still be struggling with mental illness and I will still be looking for metaphors to explain it. We will not be standing close to one another in large groups laughing, but we will still have poetry and it will carry us forward in the fallow periods.
March 31, 2020
Lynnell Edwards is Professor of English and Associate Programs Director for Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her fifth collection of poetry, This Great Green Valley, is forthcoming from Broadstone Books in May 2020.