How NaPoWriMo Inspired The Grind

It’s April now, which some people know as the cruelest month, and others know as National Poetry Month, and handful of others know as NaPoWriMo.  Back in maybe 2003– the very infancy of the Interwebs!– poet Maureen Thorson adapted National Novel Writing Month to be an exercise worthy of us poets.  Instead of taking a month to finish one thing, we had to finish one thing a day!

Inspired by our sublime dinner at an Atlanta-area Steak & Ale, poet Emma Bolden and I undertook our first NaPoWriMo in 2007 using the aliases Steak and Ale.  We used aliases so we could deny to anyone that the poems being thrown up on the blog were ours.  We took the poems down after a day or two, leaving just the titles and a couple of lines, because we didn’t want them to be considered previously published and figured that if Google’s bots didn’t have a chance to pick them up, we’d be in pretty good shape.

It was an exhilarating month.  Emma and I routinely wrote poems which answered a thought that had shown up in the other’s poem that day, or the day before, and we had one of the most productive creative exchanges I’d ever been part of.  We veered in surprising directions.  We had days where the poems flowed freely, and days where we each professed that the exercise had been akin to prying meat from the jaws of a wolverine.  We went multimedia, posting photos and silly links along with the day’s poem, and created in Steak and Ale a set of characters that were sloppily hedonistic famous poets.  Steak would write about visiting her chalet or being featured in the National Enquirer, Ale would write about writing poems in the sauna or receiving a $10,000 haircut.  The personae became as much fun as the poems themselves some days.

But the poems… wow. My initial recollection was that I didn’t get many decent poems out of the month.  But that was entirely wrong; when I reviewed the blog this week, I counted three that have been published and another three that I saw through to completion and began sending out eventually.

I tried the exercise again in June 2007 with Ruba Ahmed, only instead of posting the poems in a blog, we simply traded by e-mail.  And we didn’t do lavish explanations, we simply sent a poem a day, every day, for a month.  The idea was that we each wanted to feel accountable to the other to produce new work.  We didn’t make comments on the work, though at our July residency at Warren Wilson, we each picked a handful of poems and sat down and discussed them with each other.  But the point was to be relentless about producing something every day, and we did, and it felt good.

So in October 2007, I was ready to try it again, and this time, Ruba, Matthew Olzmann, Zena Cardman and I made a small group out of it.  Knowing from our previous experiences with the exercise how brutal it could feel at times, Ruba and I described it to Matthew and Zena as “a grind.”

On October 1, 2007, I sent an e-mail to that group, with short bios that I had written by Googling my friends, and here were the “rules” that I outlined then:

  • Write one poem every day. No skipping a day and making it up later. Zena has called the one exemption — for her birthday on the 26th.
  • Poems must be sent to all participants by midnight.
  • No restrictions on form and no minimum line length. A one-line poem will suffice just as nicely as a 28-page masterpiece.
  • Some days will be rotten, and so will some poems; no excuses. Write something– anything– every day or suffer the mockery, derision, and eternal scorn of the other three poets.
  • Feedback isn’t part of the equation– if we get all self-congratulatory for good first drafts, the silence surrounding the bad stuff will start to sting. So, if you really love a poem, feel free to say something, but don’t feel like you need to (or should) comment on poems daily. We’re not sending to each other to congratulate, but to feel (and be) accountable to the process and try something we might not have otherwise tried.
  • Poems about Desperate Housewives are strictly forbidden, unless written by Matthew. Otherwise, no content restrictions apply.

And we were off.  If writing with one other person was exhilarating, writing with three was an incredible shock to the system.  I’ve read about the Polar Bear Club, where people race into the frigid Atlantic waters at Coney Island on New Year’s Day, and how participants say that getting into ice-cold water makes you feel more alive than you have ever felt.  I suppose October 2007 was like my poetic Polar Bear Club.  I loved it. Imagine how delighted I was when Matthew announced he’d be doing it again in November with his wife, Vievee Francis, and we recruited Megan Levad, Carly Harschlip, and Rosalynde Vas Dias along for the ride.

The Grind Daily Writing Series has been running without interruption for four and a half years.  The “rules” have evolved a little bit, but they’re still basically the same: write a poem a day.   It’s expanded to include fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and even notes on craft and structure. The Grind has had over 200 participants (sometimes more than 40 at a time), has gone international, and poems drafted in the Grind have showed up in the best journals in the country, in books from amazing publishers, and in anthologies recognizing some of the best poetry in the country.  In June, we’ll publish Another and Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series, an anthology that captures the first two years of the Grind and showcases some of the best poems drafted using this process.

In the next few weeks– hopefully before NaPoWriMo is over– I’ll add a few more thoughts on the genesis of the Grind and where it’s taken us.

Comments welcome, especially from you Grinders.