Wouldn’t it be great if, beavering away in the envelope of light from our laptop, we managed to turn out 30 ultra-original gems this April? It could happen – the muse might land on your shoulder and set up camp there, nibbling your earlobe in just the right way. In my case, it’s far more likely that much of this April will find me squinting at a blank document at 1am, mumbling, “Please … just let me sleep. Give me something, brain…”

Kirsten Irving, battling NaPoWriMo.

Kirsten Irving, battling NaPoWriMo.

Inspiration is the main stumbling block for me during NaPoWriMo. Once I’m away on an idea, sleep deprivation actually helps (you get some magical Gertrude Stein-esque prose poems in the small hours, especially if you zonk out on the keyboard). Some people plan ahead and map out their month with things they’ve been meaning to do, or with the ribs of an entire project. These people are, of course, total bastards who are not playing fair. It’s meant to be about suffering and spontaneity and spontaneous suffering, right? April is the cruellest month and all that? We’re supposed to suffer alone and magically come up with ideas from the hitherto-boarded-up cubbies of our brain, no?

If, like me, you’re not toting a 30-point plan, it’s a struggle not to believe this. My warped mind has a tendency to demand that every idea I have be ultra-original, plucked fresh from the growbag of my imagination; otherwise the resulting poem is not really mine. This has proved a particularly limiting myth. The artist Robert Rauschenberg said, “Having to be different is the same trap as having to be the same.” Focusing too much on breaking away from others and constructing an original style can be as vacuum-forming and restrictive as having to adhere to strict rules. Trailblazing artists and musicians can name their influences; they do not invent completely new forms – they evolve and mutate them. We’ve seen the variety of results that can emerge from centuries-old forms like the ghazal or sonnet. Should every sonnet written after Shakespeare or Petrarch be dubbed a pale copy? No, unless Shakespeare and Petrarch themselves are to be pilloried. Should we write off Chaucer for adapting old Breton lays for The Canterbury Tales, or should we enjoy the satire and manipulation in his use of these tropes? Read more…

I also drew whale-eating-jellyfish to keep myself sane in the dark days.

I also drew whale-eating-jellyfish to keep myself sane in the dark days.

It’s quite simple: Today is May 4th and I am on poem 28.

Assuming I write two more poems in the next few days, I will have done NaPoWriMo five times. By “done” I mean I’ll have written 30 poems, in quick succession, with no regard for their quality, around April-kind-of-time in five separate years. A NaPuritan might say this doesn’t count. They might decree I have to write exactly one poem, every day, thirty days running starting April 1st, or it isn’t NaPo. Someone a little less hardcore might say that I should, at least, wind up by April 30th. And if that floats their boat then I wish them a good voyage.

But I don’t think it matters. It would matter if, come May 1st, all the grist dropped out of my mill and I a stopped writing. It would matter if, among the wasted days of poetic incontinence, I failed to indulge in an occasional verse orgy. But I’m easygoing. And poetically libidinous. And I don’t mind dragging the affair out.

Embarrassment is part and parcel of the NaPoWriMo business. This year I indulged in love poetry and angst like I never did this as a teen. Obviously I was making up for lost time. For instance:


I don’t just want you to be here

Art by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings

I want to make you be here, tie you
to a string round my wrist and drag you,
not like a puppy,
but like an angry rabbit.


If you always head east, head west,
just drive. Turn up the hi-fi
and try not to think.

You’re thinking.
Don’t think, just keep breathing and blinking,
you’re thinking, you’re thinking, don’t think.

No, don’t blush for me, I’ll own my own inadequacies.

But that’s not all! No, this year I wrote about twitter, xkcd, dinosaur comics, Gotye covers and cat videos. I wrote lovingly of the arcane Gloucestershire tradition of cheese rolling, a sport so dangerous it was banned (but has that stopped the free cheese rolling spirits of Gloucester? NEVER).

These are natives of Gloucester chasing a cheese that is rolling down a hill.

These are natives of Gloucester chasing a cheese that is rolling down a hill.

This year I sat on the carpet with my mother at 1:38am watching a storm and discussing matricide, then wrote a poem about sitting on the carpet with my mother at 1:38am watching a storm and discussing matricide. This is how it starts:


I sat on the bedroom carpet
with my mother
discussing matricide.

It continues like this -

A mirth of matricides? she said,
a perpetuation of matricides
would that work?

A legacy of matricides, I remarked.

And concludes,

We were waiting for the lightning
to strike the church opposite,
for the cat to squeal and run for the towel basket,
for grandma to pass on.

So now you know.

(Actually I quite like that one. I guess I’m just lucky enough to have a mum who is insane.)

In all honesty I’ve written reams of total gibberish this month. But I’ve never been one to cling desperately to a dead poem in the hope that a wizard will come along with a spell to make it live. I don’t mind writing a bit of dross to get to the good stuff. Actually most of my best poems I’ve typed hurriedly in a moment of procrastination or in a lunch break, thinking they were awful. It’s only later, sometimes months later, I look back and realise they’ve got something worth redeeming. The poems I labour over always come out laboured.

I expect NaPoWriMo isn’t for everyone. I expect I am exactly the sort of person NaPoWriMo is for. The type of person who gets bored easily; who constantly wants to start the next project, and not worry about perfecting the last one; a goal-orientated workaholic; and the type of writer who only has two settings when it comes to editing, tweak and overhaul.

I will leave you with an inspired piece from day 3:

Pirates! Three of them
on the fo’castle
doing a jig:
knees up knees up
clink hi ho!
Not interested in a
whale like me.

By Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings

Geriatric Sex Garden

I sized up his pink apparatus
under the flood moon light.
He grinned like a diamond
and gave like a gift.
Though white hair cools wind
and I live like my mother,
I’m young in the lather of night.

Helen Harvey, 9th April 2006


Click here if you suck


April is to poets as November is to novelists. And while NaNoWriMo’s Office of Letters and Light urges writers everywhere to indulge in a so-called “Script Frenzy” this April, I’ve always preferred the mellower drug of poetry.

NaPoWriMo: 30 days, 30 poems. I first heard of NaPo on April 1st 2006, and naturally I assumed it was an April fool. The idea grabbed me though, and after several hours’ agonizing over the potential humiliation I eventually decided, fool or not, it was a cool idea. I threw caution to the wind, announced my intention to friends, threw a party, got drunk (it was a Saturday night) and at midnight I sat on the windowsill and wrote a poem about getting drunk and sitting on a windowsill.


Why should I?

Because it’s fun. Because everyone has a lot of clogged up unpoetic rubbish in them trying to wriggle free as poetry. At the very least you can think of NaPo as poetic colonic irrigation.

Because sometimes you write good stuff. You write things you didn’t think you had in you. You end up looking for inspiration in the unlikeliest of places: Didcot railway station frinstance, sick puddles, motorways, aunts, Woolworths, the smell of bacon when there is no bacon.

When you write so much poetry in such a short space of time you get a chance to let go of the fear of damaging that blank white page. Liberate yourself.

Chaucer prefers to travel the old fashioned way


An Accident

I’ve stalled on the wrong side of the motorway.
Chaucer is on my bonnet, bloody.
O bugger.

20th April 2007


Writing 30 good poems is not the point.

Of the 121 poems I have ever written for NaPoWriMo (I unwisely got carried away in 2008) this is what I have achieved:

  • 8 published or soon-to-be published
  • 2 prize-winning
  • 1 Daily Deviation on deviantArt.

7.4% is, it has to be admitted, not a high rate of efficiency. But it’s not nothing either. Most of the poems I produced have potential I’ve never bothered to chase; or have provided a phrase, a thought, an image I’ve reused elsewhere. A number are in the wings, biding their time, waiting to pounce.


Seamonster’s Lament

I met a seamonster looking sorry for himself
on the High Street, and I asked
what was up.

I wanted to buy a card,
he said, from Woolworths,
for my Valentine’s date. Looks like
the wires are down between here
and the deep sea. No one told me
it was over.

This is the way the world ends, said I.

23rd April, 2009


Don’t be ashamed.

Hone your poetic muscles till they bulge from your cheesecloth smock. When you walk down the street strangers will swoon at the size of your massive creativity.

I haven’t NaPo’ed for two years, but by May 1st 2012 I intend to be a poetic gladiatrix once more. Join me.