Why Postcards? Why Poetry?

July 1, 2014

Paul Nelson at Burke Museum
This is a guest post by Paul E. Nelson (pictured above at the Burke Museum).

Each August for many years now I have had the good fortune to be consumed with the ritual activity of reading and writing poems in a community of poets. When Danika Dinsmore moved from Boulder, Colorado, to Seattle in 1995, she brought with her the 3:15 Experiment in which poets would wake up at 3:15AM every day in August and write spontaneously.

Bernadette Mayer was one of the more well-known participants in the project and it was in part an homage to her writing experiments, like Midwinter Day. In that project Mayer, on (Winter Solstice) December 22, 1978, attempted to record all of her thoughts and experiences of a single day in poetry and prose. Alice Notley called it: “…an epic poem about a daily routine.” The notion of waking up (or staying up) and writing in the middle of the night was to engage the state between waking and sleeping.

I had participated in the 3:15 Experiment for several years with a wide range of successes and failures. (Mostly failures. They call it “experimental poetry” for a reason.) I did enjoy the notion that I was part of a community even if I did not see other members, or their work, until well after the act. Knowing these other poets were at a desk by a window wondering what the hell to write at the same time as me was oddly reassuring. (This was before Facebook.)

The postcard project began, in part, to recreate the essence of a ritual poetry experiment in August with a community that was there, but in a tangential way. I asked Lana Ayers, then part of the Striped Water Poets community in Auburn, to help create a project that involved postcards. Lana agreed immediately without knowing what it was going to be, and helped shape the project that came to be known as the August Poetry Postcard Fest.

In the first year there were nearly 100 participants. I remember giddily adding folks to the master list and giving Lana regular updates. Many of us were so excited about the project that we continued to write poetry postcards as a weekly effort for a year.

In Year One I wrote three postcards a day, so I was getting a lot of experience with “the form.” That Jack Kerouac had as a constraint the size of the pocket journals in which he’d compose poems like Mexico City Blues and Ted Berrigan and Robin Blaser understood and utilized the postcard as a form were both inspirations.

The notion of writing spontaneously was also part of the idea from the beginning and remains at the core of the project. Some people have to learn to trust that they can fail now and then, since any card has an audience of one. David Sherwin’s piece, “Creativity, First Class,” about how he cheated at first and then had a transformation about writing ONTO THE CARD is something I think every potential participant should read.

I think of the Japanese art of calligraphy and the concentration, trust and discipline required to create in such a way, and that’s a soul-building effort.

I have been very good about saving the poems I receive and documenting my own poems. Here is one from 2007, the first year:
Paul Nelson to Marjorie Rommel

And one from last year, in which we had 302 participants from Alabama, Alberta, Arizona, Australia, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, France, Georgia, Germany, Hawaii, Illinois, India, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Mumbai, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Ontario, Oregon, Pakistan, Pennsylvania, Quebec, Singapore, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, United Kingdom, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin:
Paul Nelson to Aaron Kokorowski

I love that there are folks all over the world writing spontaneously, developing threads, sharing colloquialisms and dedicating their Augusts to a ritual poetry experiment that has the potential to deepen their own experience as human beings. What is more noble than a human being creative, reaching deeply into their own experience and sharing a little of their own soul with a person in another postal code? In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it seems so subversive to pick out a weird, profound or cool image, actually write something in ink and send it across the continent or world. How long can this go on?

Poetry is part of the gift economy, is a peace-building activity, exercises the imagination (when done right) and postcards are an art form unto themselves. Do it right and you and your Augusts will have been transformed.

To participate in the August Poetry Postcard Fest:

  • Visit paulenelson.com and sign up for the newsletter.
  • A call for participants will go out around July 6, 2014. Respond to the call to get on the list.
  • Get (or make) at least 31 postcards.
  • Purchase postcard stamps. Some of the people on “your” list may live in a different country, so buy some international postcard stamps, too.
  • Read the instructions. The official August Poetry Postcard blog is a good place to start.
  • The list of participants will be distributed later in July.
  • Each day in August, write an original poem directly onto a postcard; no editing. Mail them, in order, to the 30 people below your name on the list. Some postcarders start sending cards in late July so they will begin arriving on August 1.
  • Enjoy your mail!
  • If you Facebook, you might want to join the Postcard Poetry Fest group.

. . . . .
Paul Nelson founded SPLAB in Seattle and the Cascadia Poetry Festival. He is author of Organic Poetry (essays), a serial poem re-enacting history, A Time Before Slaughter (shortlisted for a 2010 Genius Award by The Stranger) and Organic in Cascadia: A Sequence of Energies. He has interviewed Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Sam Hamill, Robin Blaser, Nate Mackey, Joanne Kyger, Brenda Hillman, presented poetry/poetics in London, Brussels, Nanaimo, Qinghai & Beijing, China, has had work translated into Spanish, Chinese & Portuguese and writes an American Sentence every day. He was awarded a residency at The Lake, from the Morris Graves Foundation in Loleta, CA, and published work in Golden Handcuffs Review, Zen Monster, Hambone, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2014 Robin Blaser Award from The Capilano Review, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Meredith, and youngest daughter, Ella Roque.

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2 Responses to “Why Postcards? Why Poetry?”

  1. seingraham Says:

    Stellar post! Thanks for putting it here…I’m so looking forward to doing this again this year.


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