For the past eleven days of April I have been writing a poem every day. It’s a challenge that I’ve heard called the grind or a 30/30. I am learning a lot about endings, and about how sometimes a poem you work on too hard gets all the love kicked out of it and just sits there on the page meaning nothing. I am learning that I have phrases like "a claw machine game full of live rabbits" lingering, for some reason, in my brain.
I wouldn't say these poems I'm writing are polished or ready for someone to read (although I have been emailing them to a group of some dozen-odd other poets who are taking the same April challenge to write a poem every day). But they are all complete as structures: they all have some core image or pattern or phrase that I could be pleased, eventually, to publish, after I've lived with them a little longer and verified that they still feel true.
You might know Lunch Poems. It’s one of my favorite titles, a straightforward one, for a book by Frank O’Hara that turned 50 last year. I am telling this from memory but how I recall it is Frank O'Hara had a day job in one of the big museums, the Met or MoMA, and on his lunch break he would take a walk and write a poem. And the poems are intimate and immediate and full of good cheer and little scraps of '60s New York that are so precise and evocative and sonically compelling. Like “A Step Away From Them,” a poem that starts out by naming that “It’s my lunch hour so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored /
cabs.” I love the synesthesia of “hum-colored” and then all the diaristic, musing details later:
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
In fact the first favorite poem I remember having was another O’Hara, the one about avocado salad. I liked how it went from something as concrete as breakfast in the sunlight to something as abstract as forgiveness. The objects and the emotions were both immediate. My teen brain could latch on to that.
I think American poets come out of Frank O'Hara's lunches like Russian novelists come out of Gogol's Overcoat (which is something Dostoevsky was supposed to have said). It’s impossible not to be influenced, whether first-hand or through other poets who read and loved him, by the immediacy, the clarity, that O’Hara’s poems project. But what I particularly love in Lunch Poems is that writing poetry comes down to earth from being this exalted, inspiration-driven activity. It’s just part of the day, among taxis and buildings being demolished and papaya juice.
Writing my first of the 30/30 poems on a break between meetings at work, I thought, Here I am, with my lunch poem inheritance! Having this timebound routine, 30 minutes to write a draft of something, forced me to be a lot less precious. And it forced me to get what Nick calls “the despair period,” where you think about the project from every angle and worry about how you’ll approach it, out of the way before April started. I allow myself about five minutes of micro-despair each day, but then it’s just generating ideas and shaping them into some semblance of a form.
Maybe I won’t go back to these poems and refine them. Maybe they’ll languish on my hard drive until the end of time. I’m feeling encouraged about moving past despair back into the world of real things, making the clackity noise every day for as long as I can keep it up.
When I took my Collected Frank O'Hara off the shelf to revisit these poems, I caused an avalanche of chapbooks to fall irretrievably down the back of the bookcase, then discovered my boarding pass from the flight where I moved to Chicago shoved in the front of the book. That feels like the germ of a poem. Maybe for tomorrow.
PS: I still have a few copies of Nickels for a cool dollar. I also have readings coming up at Story Club South Side on May 19 and at Tuesday Funk on July 7. Hooray!