By Shelley Widhalm
Writing a poem a day is like marriage—it’s a commitment that takes loyalty, honesty, and authenticity.
Saying “I will,” I undertook the Poem a Day Challenge in September 2017 and have written nearly 1,600 poems since. I missed a few days in winter 2020 during surgery recovery and at the end of 2021 when my schedule got overwhelmingly busy.
I got the idea from Placerville, Colorado, poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (see Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer – Word Woman – Poet, Teacher, Storyteller). I attended one of her poetry workshops in August 2017. She began her own challenge 10 years earlier to write and share a poem a day for one month, but she loved it so much she extended it to a lifelong daily practice.
Available to Poetry
To write daily, Wahtola Trommer became available to poems all day long. Her poems didn’t have to be good but had to be true, both to the poem and the writing. She saw her poetry as practice, lowering her standards to produce a large volume of work. Thinking each poem had to be good was a block, so she let some go.
I’ve done the same thing with my daily slots. I had a plentitude of excuses: too busy, not inspired, not motivated, and I just didn’t want to turn my laptop back on.
But then I learned daily writing doesn’t actually have to be daily. I could backfill the slots if I skipped, never getting too far behind to avoid playing catchup. This year I bounded ahead since I have extra time from the lag between quitting my part-time job and revamping my writing and editing business.
I wrote dozens of haikus (see Haiku | Academy of American Poets) since they’re short, following the 5-7-5 form with any subject, not just nature and seasons. I told a fellow poet it was my cheat method. She disagreed, congratulating me for still writing—I also gained a better grasp of syllable counts and concise language.
I wrote a few poems with similar titles and subjects, including waterfowl, seasonal stuff, and lights. Though it felt repetitive, I explored the topics from several angles and at a deeper level.
This “cheating” generated several decent lines or the start of a poem with an idea or image that could be used later.
Lessons of Poetry
I’ve learned a few things about the world, writing, and myself from the daily poetry challenge.
- Causes more presence in life. As I go on walks, visit places, or even sit in a coffee shop, I look for poems, more alert to my surroundings. I take mental notes of details and sensory impressions I can use later, creating an initial visual picture or a remembered line.
- Helps improve journaling. I learn about myself as I dig down, uncovering layers of my inner landscape and thoughts about things. Some moments don’t go in my journal (too much detail). But they do become a poem, like one I called “Pizza Mouse” —he jumped out when I opened the lid and hopped down the stairs out into the parking lot, me screaming behind him.
- Leads to inspiration. Waiting for inspiration is unreliable. Sometimes if I start writing, I lose the chore-ness of what I’m doing and let the poem take over. I lose the words I type and get absorbed in allowing the poem to tell itself, as I wonder, “What’s next?”
- Encourages trying new forms. For me, habitual structures are free verse, and haiku gets old. New forms widen my ability to use words and my understanding of poetry’s conciseness, rhythm, and ways of expression.
- Expands with prompts. If I don’t have anything to write about, I Google poetry and writing prompts (see April PAD Challenge – Writer’s Digest (writersdigest.com)). And let them inspire me. I also use the Word of the Day as the poem’s subject or line.
Takeaways of Poetry
Daily writing also gives me some great end products—it’s not just process and practice.
- Good comes out of bad. I have to wade through some sloppy bad poems to find a few good ones—they add up over time. Or I might find a line or two worth using as a prompt or in a new poem. And quality improves from wanting the effort to be worth something and not just a slot filler.
- Good generates more. I’ve written many poems I can compile into poetry chapbooks, each with a different theme. One such collection, “Crossing Stars: A Memoir of a Love Excavation in Poetic Form,” I plan to pitch to small publishers, then self-publish if no one bites. Next year, I plan to launch it for the Valentine’s Day season, since the subject is … well, love.
- Good spills into other things. Some of my poems feel like flash fiction—even my poetry group agrees. I’ve blurred the lines between the two forms while practicing and improving how I approach the second form.
The ultimate benefit of the daily poetry challenge is I’m writing more. My monthly output increased from a half dozen poems to 28 to 31 verses. Writing poetry has turned from a want/chore to a need/habit, just like my one hour of daily exercise to get my day going. Poetry does just that!