What I did on the weekend …

Way back in December last year, as I was first wallowing in the delights of Canadian poetry and checking out the magazines that had published poems I particularly enjoyed, I came across something that sounded interesting: the Contemporary Verse 2 Two-Day Poem Competition. Very simple – you sign up, and at midnight on the first day of the contest you would be emailed a list of ten words which you must then use in a new poem. Everyone gets the same words, and you have to use them all, in the exact form provided (so no changing the tense, that sort of thing). And you had two days in which to do it.

One of the things that sold the competition to me was the way they choose winners – a First, Second and Third place (quite usual), plus an Editor’s Choice (ooh, bonus!) and a People’s Choice (double bonus!) and an Editor’s Dad’s Choice. At which point I fell hopelessly in love and decided that I had to give it a go. The fact that you could also get a heavily discounted subscription to the magazine along with your entry was the chocolate sprinkles on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake.

But that was back in December. I had completely forgotten about the competition, so it came as somethig of a surprise when I receieved the first email about it, counting down the last few days to go until it all kicked off. Crikey. A complicating factor was that we were looking at a fine weekend here, after yet another week of heavy rain. My garden needed me in ways that weren’t really easy to put off. Plus we’re in the middle of trying to replace our old logburner, so I was also sending emails off to tradesmen and suppliers and so on. Not an atmosphere entirely conducive to creativity. writingmugBut hey, my students manage to come up with poems in half an hour, and I was going to have two days. Previous years’ words had been really interesting and evocative – salt, becoming, furuncle, bearded, fortune, hinky, animate, fervent, prune, and emerald in 2016; satellite, ham, soaking, lapsed, stencil, mirrored, before, pyrite, faked, and appliances in 2015; and booster, timbres, cramp, unlocked, putative, wolf, barge, versions, probably and tag in 2014. So interesting mixtures of tense and form, with one tricky word thrown in to stretch you. But lots of possibility. (As was proven repeatedly by the quality of the winning poems.)

Yep. Like to guess the words we got, 5 pm Saturday afternoon, New Zealand time? They were:

  • bunk – ok, noun or verb, quite casual;
  • dank – again, interesting word, lots of possibility although likely to head down a slightly Gothic path;
  • stippled – nice adjective, just have to avoid pairing it with ‘shadow’ and miring myself in cliche;
  • begets – cool bananas, lots to do with this one;
  • unroofed – oooh, yes! this is starting to take shape;
  • foundling – hmm, definitely nudging me towards the Gothic (but lets be honest: it doesn’t take much);
  • bombastic – a bit of a challenge. But I can work with that;
  • daguerreotype – hmm, another tricky one,  but againI think I can work with it;
  • copacetic – what? Where did that come from? I don’t even know what it means. (whimper)
  • absquatulated – you’re making this up! WTF?! Abwhatsulated?!!

It was at this point that I started having a small panic attack.

Four stonklingly long, overly-complicatated words. I mean, I could manage bombastic and daguerreotype, but the other two how-the-hell-do-you-even-use-this-in-a-sentence words … no idea. (For those who are wondering, “copacetic” means ‘in excellent order’, and “absquatulated” means ‘buggered off’. Apparently. Although I may be paraphrasing the latter.)

So began two days of writing hell. And vast quantities of avoidance. On the other hand, I did make a new compost heap. And cleaned the toilet. Both toilets, actually. And got a fresh coat of paint on the cupboard doors.

I tried everything. Freewriting (you don’t want to know how many pages were just ARGH!!!!!! and a random assortment of swear words), defining parts of speech and doing a noun-to-noun verb-to-verb substitution into a handy poem by someone else, researching the etymology of the words, coming up with rhymes (good luck with that), trying to use a form of some sort … I just couldn’t find a way in. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, which turned into Sunday afternoon, which turned into Sunday night … the whole time my poor brain was doing a hamster-wheel thing, churning the words over and over – Dank! churn churn churn Bombastic! churn churn churn Copacetic! churn churn churn squeak churn Foundling! churn churn … Eventually Monday morning came, and I was facing something even worse than a blank page: a page with lots of scribble, but nothing even remotely resembling a poem.

I tried to comfort myself with the words of Thomas Edison – I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work – but that didn’t help much. Ultimately I just had to do the hardest thing of all – sit there, and write. And keep writing. And writing. And writing. Brute force and bloody-mindedness. To the accompaniment of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience (a really great piece of music: enjoy!):

Eventually it all did – sorta – work. I ended up needing to break into the Easter egg stash for fuel, but I got something done. Something that could, if you screwed your eyes up and squinted the right way, having first adopted an open, friendly and enthusiastic mood, have passed for a poem. So at 2pm I went outside for the first time since feeding the chooks, and pottered for half an hour. Then came back inside to try and edit some sense into the damn poem, and make copacestic and absquatulated less like the mutt’s nuts. By which I mean I hid them amongst other words of similar bombast, and hoped for the best.

All the time I’m doing this, the clock is ticking down. A fact that I suddenly realised with five minutes to the deadline.

They were not pretty minutes. I had to quickly bang it all into MS Word, check the contest rules for how exactly it was meant to be formatted (and I have a horrible feeling that I cocked at least one of the requirements up … argh), open an email, attach the document, add my contact details and title of the entry to the body of the email, and hit “send”.

I heard the swoosh sound of the email being sent as the clock on my computer ticked over to 5 pm. Immediately after which, my “you’ve got mail!” sound played, and a cheery email from the competition organisers appeared, announcing the competition closed for another year.

I have no idea if I managed to squeak in under the deadline by the narrowest of all possible margins, or if I did the face-palm opposite, and miss by the narrowest of possible margins. Either way, I thik we’re talking Planck units.

So there you have it. My crit groups will have the opportunity to see the carnage for themselves. I think there may be a worthwhile poem in there, somewhere.

But I suspect it won’t include the words “copacetic” or “absquatuated”.

Reasons not to go online – # 2,447: addendum

  1. On the way in to the class, I needed to fill up with petrol. (The car, not me.) First option: a queue. Ok, continue in to Lincoln. Get to Lincoln. All bowsers occupied. People towing boats, filling jerry cans. People from cars standing around talking. Pull in to a car park to wait. Get gazzumped by two other cars, who arrive just as Jerrycan Boat-man gets his shit together and drives away from the two spaces he’s occupying. Curse quietly, and decide that waiting in a park is not the best option, and resolve to instead to drive circuits of the forecourt until a space appears. A space appears; pull in, fill car, manage to avoid getting petrol over my clothes (ah ha!), double check the fuel tank cap is back on and everything is appropriately locked and secure, go in to pay for petrol and present fuel discount docket. It isn’t a discount docket. It’s a receipt from Bunnings. Whimper. Pay and leave.
  2. Get to Library, am greeted by usual librarian. The usual exchange: Good morning – Hello, good morning – Here’s your key – Thank you. The alarm’s been turned off? – Yes all done. – Thank you. Time to get a coffee! Arrive at room, open door. Set off alarm. Whimper.Falling Off a Cliff by Anne Koth
  3. Haul desk into place, so I can set up my projector and start setting up the room. Projector? Check. iPad? Check. iPad connector? Check. Long cable? Check. Extension cord? Check. Power cord? (silence) Power cord? Um … Houston, we have a problem. Whimper …

Reasons not to go online – # 2,447

ferris-wheel-by-mariana-figueroaSometimes the universe seems to line things up, so that it feels as though you are receiving a domino-chain of affirmation – random things, unrelated or only tangentially so, that fall into place with a sound like yes! Yes. Yes. See, we’re aligning for you! Yes. Yes. Yes. Synchronicity, in other words. I try not to be superstitious (or at least no more so than any other person who bases quite a big chunk of their personal happiness on creativity of some sort) (which doesn’t sound healthy, now I see it in type). But this is something I do believe in. That the universe does occasionally give nudges, hints, little shoves even. And it doesn’t have to be mystical – just a matter of circumstance and your perception of it making a particular goal or path seem more simple than usual. It is a Good Thing.

Aaaaaaaah!!!... 1 by ‘weatherbox’And then there’s the dark side. You know, when a perfectly ordinary activity suddenly, for no apparent reason, accumulates difficulty. So despite really really looking forward to teaching this new class, having a lot of the material ready to go, all good, I find myself feeling somewhat wary. Think long-tailed cat in a rocking-chair shop. This week Has Not Been Great. Not bad, but … Lots of little things. A (brief) power-cut when I was trying to pull class materials together. Phone calls from people trying to sell me something. Bread going mouldy. Losing a book I needed for four days. Thunder and lightning on two seperate days, meaning I have to unplug everything and wait for it to pass before I can get back into my work. Like I said, all very minor.Hands by Christer Rønning Austad

But then, while doing a bit of online research to finalise the first class, I came across this post on the Best American Poetry blog about Bad Workshops.