Welcome, all, to this Poetry Friday Round-Up poised on the brink of Poetry Month 2018!
Today we are celebrating an annual tradition begun by Irene Latham of Live Your Poem in 2012—the Progressive Poem. If you are new to Poetry Friday, let me explain: the Progressive Poem is a 30-line poem authored step-by-step and line-by-line by 30 different poets over the 30 days of April. It’s live collaboration with suspense, surprise and always an interesting outcome!
It’s the seventh year of this project, and my own sixth year of participating, so I thought it would be fun to talk a bit with Irene about her baby, now roughly a 2nd-grader. We’re also including Liz Steinglass in the conversation, since she’s kicking us off on Sunday, April 1 with Line 1 this year—as I did last year.
So here’s my interview with Irene and Liz, conducted over the phone and through email on Monday after I woke up on Sunday thinking about hosting. J Also, 2018 Progressive Poem participants, stay tuned for an exciting new twist on the process at the bottom of the post!!!
Heidi: So here we are in Year 7, Irene! I did a little informal reckoning of Progressive Poem statistics, and over the last 6 years, 63 poets in total have participated. There have been six, including you, who have joined in every single year, and 11 members of the community, including me, who have participated in five out of the six years.
Irene: Yes! There’s always been people interested. I always thought, some March is going to come along and I’m going to post the sign-up and nobody’s going to sign up and we’ll let it die a natural death. But that hasn't happened.
Heidi: I have NOT been surprised about that—it has always seemed to me to be a thing to look forward to. So how did the whole idea start?
Heidi: That is really interesting—it’s the flip of what we said a moment ago. The amazing thing, Irene, is not really that everybody keeps coming back year after year; it’s that ANYbody signed up the first year!
So do you have a favorite one of the poems?
Irene: Of course, like anyone, I prefer some poems over the others. It did seem repetitive to me a few years in a row—it was us talking about being writers, which is what we have in common! It seemed to be a theme, and I loved it when you, Heidi, wrote in a comment at some point about remembering that we write for kids, so we tried more to gear it for kids. You also suggested having more of a structure to it. But I’ve always been kind of opposed to trying to script it any more than it already is, and wanting to just keep it really simple: one line, you’re in and you’re out! But I am always interested in other options, how we can shake it up in the future… [See fun new option for shaking it up at the bottom of the post!]
Heidi: I think some people would be open to it--possibly especially people (you know, like me) who want there to be a little more consistency and integrity of form—they’d really dig that! It would require people to pay a little bit more careful attention to what has come before and what could come after, perhaps.
But why do you think it works, and is it successful in the same way each year?
Irene: In my mind it’s successful because everybody shows up to do it! There’s always some message the poem gives that I like. There’s always been a beginning, a middle and an end, some sort of narrative; it’s got fresh language—it’s got a lot of the things that I’m looking for just as a person who loves poetry. So I definitely think it’s a success and there’s value in it. I don’t know if I have a personal favorite...though I do really love the one with the really long title: "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome for Writers." I love a hardworking title!
Heidi: You began and ended the first year, but since then you’ve participated in a random middle spot in the poem. Why is that, and do you ever have any editorial urges?
Irene: Honestly, I always sign up first just according the convenience of my schedule! And actually, no, I don’t feel any ownership. I see myself more as a facilitator. Part of the fun and the challenge is that you have to let go of control: you only have control of one line and you never know what’s going to come next. I love that element of surprise.
Heidi: Liz, you answered similarly when I asked what was the most challenging and most fun for you as a contributor in the past.
Liz: Yes, as a contributor, and a follower, I enjoy the surprising twists and turns. You can’t guess where the poem is going to go from the first line to the end, or even where it’s going to in the next few lines. When a poem has only one writer, there’s more consistency; I enjoy following the many different drivers who take the poem in different directions.
Irene: That’s hard for some people though—there have been a few “disgruntled poets” who didn’t care for what the poet who followed them did with their line! Later, I did begin inviting a particular person to do the first line—somebody I really trust to set the tone.
Heidi: I had Line 1 last year—thank you for the compliment--and readers can go see how I approached the task here. This year that Line 1 poet is Elizabeth Steinglass, my neighbor in DC and author of the forthcoming Soccer Nonsense from Boyds Mills Press. Liz, what considerations are uppermost in your mind as you craft our kick-off line?
Liz: My goal is to write a first line that is poetic—that uses poetic language and the tools of poetry—and is also open-ended. I want everyone who comes after to feel free to put their spin on things and take the poem in a different direction. I don’t want other writers to feel stuck with a particular image or theme or rhythm. I also wanted to do something a little different than other years.
Heidi: Can’t wait to see it, Liz!
Here are a few more informal Progressive Poem statistics:
I looked to see what words kept showing up, and it did not surprise me that there were ELEVEN uses of the word “dream,” because I do think that we largely middle-aged-white-ladies-who-are-teachers are attracted by certain tropes. So the “hearts” and the “hands” and the “breath,” the “dream” and the “dance”—the dancing dreams!—were not so surprising to me, but they’re also the reason that the poems began to sound a little the same, and maybe not necessarily the kind of poem that a 9-year-old boy would really love.
Irene: I think you’re absolutely right, and I notice that you show “word” as being the most frequently used word of all! Again, we all kept writing about writing.
Heidi: I know there were also a couple of poems with crowd scenes in them, but I was also struck that out of a total 887 words in all six poems, “crowd” came up five times—because of course what this is, is a crowd-sourced poem! And we’re all trying to bring some surprise, but we’re all trying not to go too far into the deep end, because we know it’s a collaboration! Liz, would you agree?
Liz: Yes, the flip side of the twists and turns I mentioned, for me as a writer, was feeling like I didn’t want to disappoint my fellow writers. I hoped the other writers would like my addition to our group endeavor and find a way to work with it.
Irene: Yeah, I love it when people post their line and they talk about how they arrived at what they did, what the thought process was. I LOVE reading the process, because I think you learn as much from that as from actually reading the poem. As a working poet, I am fascinated and inspired by how the other poets interpret and engage with what they’ve been given and where you’re going to go with it—those posts are fascinating to me. People may come with some idea of where they would like to take it, but also an understanding that it may not go there at all.
Heidi: I always enjoy those posts as well, and what you learn is that, while we know on a surface level that everybody interprets poems differently, and despite the fact that we are demographically very similar—teacher and former teachers and writers and white women “of a certain age”—it becomes apparent, when you read people’s blog posts, how differently they’re interpreting what they’re adding to, how different our personal and individual interpretations are.
Liz: And I think this exercise can be a reminder to let go, relinquish control, and see where things go. It’s tempting when writing to have a vision and then write a poem that completes that vision. When we let go of the need to follow a plan, writing can be a process of discovery. We can discover new concerns, new ideas, new metaphors.
Heidi: So we’ve talked a lot about what this exercise offers the participants, but---say we had an audience of young people who were actually reading this poem as it went along! In that way it would be similar to what’s happening over at the March Madness Poetry tournament where kids are voting. What could kids gain from watching THIS game?
Irene: It reminds me of something I used to do in a classroom. On the first day I’d write the first line of a poem; on the 2nd day I’d write the 2nd line of the poem, and so on. It gives readers a chance to be involved, to really engage, to think about THE line, the lines as parts, and not see the poem developed as a whole—that’s something it offers the audience. You’re watching it unfold, not being complete—and again, one of my favorite things about being a reader is being surprised. What we want readers to do is pay close attention, and this gives you that opportunity, when you only get part of the poem each day. You’re slowing down, you’re really looking at language, noticing what the writer did—you can really piece it out a little more and see it as less intimidating and as fun—that’s the main thing, it’s fun!
This makes me wonder how we could get an audience for our poem—I’ve never put any effort toward that. It’s really just been by us, for us.
Heidi: It’s a situation of “trust without danger,” isn’t it, and the reason I think that most of us (even though many of us who want to write tend to write by ourselves and it IS hard to give up ownership), can do it in this case because there’s really no stakes. It’s just for fun, it’s to play, and if things don’t go quite the way we expected, we just step back and say, “Oooh, that’s so interesting!”
Irene: I will tell you that some people take it very seriously, talk about how they couldn’t sleep the night before their line, and I think people really want to bring their best and that they really love the positive feedback. That’s a good thing in our community, being encouragers and cheerleaders of each other’s efforts, and you know you’re going to get that, but you also want to be the person who brings some really cool word to the poem, turns it in a new direction, but that’s why we’re here: to encourage each other! That’s why people invest in it, because they want that—being pushed by the community to bring their best to it.
And to help with that for 2018, HERE COMES THE TWIST, the fun new challenge! Participants, read on, and to Irene and Liz--thanks so much for this fascinating, surprising, encouraging conversation!
New for Progressive Poem 2018: Participants, when Liz posts her Line 1 on Sunday, April 1, please take a minute to record your first impressions of how the line strikes your imagination and what you think the poem might become. A few lines should do it, and that's Step One.
Step Two is to hide this reaction/prediction from yourself until your day to add your line arrives. : )
Step Three is to bring it back out and include it in your post that day, with a little commentary about how your initial expectations have to be adjusted now that each person has altered the trajectory of the poem.
Liz, Irene and I think this will bring a little extra richness to the process, and while there won't be much for our Line 2 poet Jane to reconsider, by Day 3 when Laura adds her line, just about everything could already be different than she imagined! By Day 14 when I take my turn, there will be lots of surprises to contend with, and by Days 24-30 who knows where we'll be! We hope you like this little twist and will want to take the extra moment on April 1st to jot down your impressions.
And now, without further navel-gazing: the Round-Up! Please use the button below to add your link starting at 8pm , and I look forward to getting around to everyone's post by Sunday. Happy springtime holidays to all!