100 days: an idea worth spreading

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When I speak to school students about poetry, I often tell them about an exercise or challenge I’ve used to help me write. The idea of 30 or 100-day projects began for me with a TEDx Auckland talk, called Inspiration Wherever You Are, The 100 Days Project, by New Zealand graphic designer Emma Rogan:

As Emma Rogan explains in her talk, it’s an idea she’s adapted from Michael Beirut, a graphic designer and design critic at the Yale School of Art. Each year he asks his students to undertake a project where they repeat one simple creative exercise of their choice every day for 100 days.

I’ve used the practice for periods of 100 days, or 30 days, and it’s the latter I usually recommend to students. For example, in the past, my daily exercise was as simple as writing a 12 line draft of a poem, perhaps about something that made an impression on me that day.

As I explain to students, the results are very imperfect, but the practice helps you develop creative discipline, encourages you to be attentive to ideas that arise in your day-to-day life, and generates creative work you can return to later to edit or rework.

I emphasise that it’s not an idea designed by or for poets, and can work just as well for aspiring novelists, short story writers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, songwriters, game designers, choreographers, actors, and so on. It’s a great idea, and one worth spreading.

Reading: January 2019

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A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:

  • Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
  • Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
  • Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
  • Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
  • Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start

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If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.

What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).

Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.

Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.

Poetry is a very old technology

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[From an address to high-school students and their families, September 2018.]

Poetry is a very old technology. In all likelihood, it has been part of the human experience almost as long as fire and stone, and just as long as many activities that scientists look to to set us apart as a species: cave painting, making bone tools, using pigments and jewellery, building hearths, and burying the dead.

Poetry has always touched lightly on the world. As a spoken artform to begin with, it has left us no definite traces of its earliest origins, though in all probability it is older than pottery, and older than the wheel. It has a place with fire, stone, ochre, song, music, story, ritual and mythology as an element of what it means to be human, as an essential part of who we are.

Poetry is an ancient technology, but it is also a relentlessly new one. And so we find it flourishing still in an age of popular songs, poetry slams, podcasts, e-books, YouTube clips, Twitter feeds, and Instagram posts – all of which have exponentially increased its ability to reach into our lives, and the capacity of young writers to find an audience for their work.

Interview: Nathanael O’Reilly

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Over recent months, I’ve enjoyed reading the regular interviews with poets published by Paul Brookes at The Wombwell Rainbow. This week Paul published an interview with poet Nathanael O’Reilly, born and raised in Australia, but currently living and teaching in the United States.

In the interview, Nathanael speaks of the influence of Keats, Yeats and Heaney, his “holy trinity”, as well as his advice for young writers: “Every serious writer knows that it takes years and years of practice to become a decent writer, let alone a great one […] Young writers are often impatient and in a rush to get published, and many of them don’t understand that writing requires a really long apprenticeship […] Having the desire to write is just the first step.”

Nathanael’s interview can be read in full here, and is highly recommended, along with his most recent book of poems, Preparations for Departure (UWA Publishing, 2017).

We can live without poetry

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The truth is we can live without poetry.

Many or most people live perfectly fulfilling and contented lives without much exposure to poetry, day to day, month to month, or year to year. Yet I’m convinced that a good life, even the best life, is better with poetry. And, of course, many people still turn to poetry during the profoundest moments of their lives, so we still often hear poems being read at weddings and funerals.

But, by and large, we can live without poetry.

I would say though, to the many people who live without much poetry in their lives, if you find yourself in a world in which talk is cheap, in which words have become a devalued currency, in which politicians, shysters and hucksters have eroded the substance of truth and meaning, and in which a person’s word can be all but worthless – and if this aggrieves you, then maybe look again to poetry for what it can offer.

Poetry – through its careful trust and distrust of words, and its determined pursuit of meaning – is one of the antidotes to that world.