Uche Ogbuji on National Poetry Writing Month
Writer Uche Ogbuji blogs about why he is participating in National Poetry Writing Month.
From 1989 when I left my native Nigeria and a circle of friend poets until a couple of years ago, I’d barely been involved in the contemporary poetry scene. I started to meet fellow poets when Brad Listi of The Nervous Breakdown made me an editor at the site on the recommendation of a couple of mutual friends who happened to know of my work. The idea of poem-a-day marathons is new to me, but in the past two years I’ve participated in several, and April 2012 is my second NaPoWriMo.
I suppose that marks these eyes on the matter as fresh, and I’m certainly enjoying the experience. I’m most engaged in a private Facebook group of poets to which I was lucky enough to be invited. This group’s emphasis is less on the poem-a-day grind and more on consideration of craft. We offer each other close discussion and critique of whatever work we share, however often, during the course of the month.
A separate poet friend offers daily prompts during NaPoWriMo and other monthly marathons and seems to have a knack for stirring my creativity. I might work from her prompts, or from an interesting visual image, or music, or some other stimulus. If the resulting poem is suitable for the serious, intimate criticism of my craft group, I post it there. I’m on track to write at least 25 poems this month, a decent number of which, with some polish, will be likely candidates for publication.
The idea of producing more than a handful of poems in a month should certainly inspire suspicion. Some great poets don’t produce ten poems a year they deem worthy of sharing. This is of course a complex matter of the poet’s motivations, style, energy, available time, and self-criticism, but it’s fair to question whether anyone can expect quality output from a marathon. I do believe that quality is essential even when quantity calls the game. Sometimes crucial inspiration on Tuesday comes from looking back proudly on a poem written Monday, and even more so from engagement with other readers of the Monday poem.
Therein lies the value of the social aspect of NaPoWriMo, whether face to face or online. I seek out fellow poets who thrive on the interplay of shared poems and reactions, jamming similarly to musicians. There emerges a sense of shared, positive responsibility, which can elicit as much pressure to write one’s best as the toughest crit circle.
I also find it important to memorize classic poetry during NaPoWriMo. I take marathon months as an opportunity to sharpen recall of my favorite poems. This month, I’ve added a few new poems to my repertoire while touching up the details of some memorized years ago. As I do my morning chores every day I recite these poems and by the time I sit down to write I’ve been energized by such classic work as well as the recent contributions of my peers.
This situation brings some danger of derivative output. My protection lies in form. Most of my work is metrical, though I do occasionally write lyrical free verse. Form has a natural tendency to take the poet away from trampled paths of expression. It’s strange that so many moderns characterize form as restricting; for me it’s remarkably freeing. Form nudges me to wander, and guides me in telling it slant, so that I often find myself at a productive remove from the literal, original stimulus for the poem. Of course this is what works for me, and I’m not too doctrinaire about it. As it happens, most of the poets with whom I associate during NaPoWriMo are free-versers whose work I appreciate very much.
I hope I don’t get jaded from such activity any time soon because of the pleasure I derive not only as a poet, but also in life. I look forward to trying different approaches. Perhaps rather than writing thirty-odd short lyrics I’ll write thirty-odd sections of one long poem. I sense so much to explore still in pursuit of NaPoWriMo, and that is indeed exciting.
Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing native Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies including ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum, Corium Magazine, Soundzine, Lucid Rhythms, The Flea, IthacaLit, Unsplendid, String Poet, Mountain Gazette, The Raintown Review, and Verse Wisconsin. He is poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown.