My grandpa was a chemist and spent much of his career testing ink’s staying power when paired with something like a soap wrapper or package of gum. When he died, we saved some of his technical books, thinking they might be worth something. Turns out, they were worth a lot but not in the form of cash from e-bay. I discovered the books on a trip to my parents’ house in early August, where my mom had them sitting out, trying to figure out what she was going to do with them after deciding it wasn’t really worth it to sell them. I was already ensconced in the fest at this point and was hungry for texts that I could use for collage or found poetry/erasure and so started flipping through the books. I was surprised at how much of what I read seemed like metaphor (“Is the friction between two bearing surfaces proportional to the pressure?”) and how much possibility I found in such unexpected sources.
“Unexpected” is a good word to describe much of what I experienced as a first-time participant. From reading other people’s debriefs of their experiences, I gather that it’s not only first-timers who find unexpected things along the way. I suspect that’s part of what keeps most folks coming back year after year (people’s desire to write about their experiences with the fest after it’s over is something I find lovely as well. After all that spontaneous poetry, it seems there’s a need to write something that’s thought-out and that tries to describe what it’s been like over the last month). I feel like people discover things during the fest. And what is poetry if not about discovery? What is art if not about discovery?
My interest in the fest began with linking to Paul Nelson’s essay in an e-mail from Rattle magazine—an e-mail I’m so glad I gave more than a passing glance. I get a lot of e-mail about poetry-related topics and pass many of them by. This one struck me and I knew I wanted to sign up, which I did and was immediately barraged with questions of self-doubt and logistics in equal measure: What if something happens and I can’t finish my cards and I let everyone on my list down? What if I don’t have enough ideas? What if everyone is a better poet than me? Do I sign the cards? Number them? Return address them? Poetry is always a vulnerable experience, but putting it there, unedited, on that card for anyone to see as it makes its way to its destination is terrifying at first. Then, incredibly freeing: Look at this postcard. I made it. Or bought it. I wrote this small poem on the spot and here it is right out in the open. Go ahead. Read it. No apologies.
Our family vacation was still in front of me when I signed up, and I was excited to look for cards at the stops along the way. There were some good finds, but I was disappointed at the selection in some places, which was limited to 3-D cards that I found less than inspiring. I was also taking photos on my phone with an eye toward views that I might make into postcards. After vacation, when I returned to work at the library, we were discarding some jackets from a selection of Japanese books, and I saw some inspiration for making my own cards. That led me to cut-out word collages and my daughter’s washi tape stash. That led me to the basement to hunt down old books I could cut up or use to make erasure poems. That led me to beautiful paper scraps and rubber stamps and ink I forgot I had. That led me to some old card catalog cards, and when some of the cards seemed to match up perfectly with images I had previously cut out, it was like magic. Citrus and devils were involved. The IKEA catalog made a contribution.
As soon as I signed up for the fest, I also joined the Facebook group and found a community of people so supportive, so open about their own experiences, and so glad to be part of this small piece of time making poems, that all my earlier insecurities were no longer important. If poetry is about discovery, it’s also about connection, and there’s something about knowing you’re doing this with a lot of other people all around the world that makes me say (at the risk of sounding overly dramatic) that this is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learned a little bit about some strangers either from the cards I received or from bits and pieces on the Facebook group and was often able to use that for the poems I sent. One woman in my group likes birds and Paris. I featured some crows in the poem I sent her. I used the stamp from a card I got from New Zealand in a collage on the card I sent back to New Zealand. One woman had expressed her sadness at her mother’s death. She wasn’t in my group, but I had written a card with a poem about grief and decided to send it to her as a bonus card. In looking over the list of the entire group, I saw a name I knew from another poetry circle and sent a bonus card. I saw people from my home state and the state where I live now and sent some more bonus cards. I loved that most people included my name and signed it as though they knew me. Connections. Commonalities. Serendipity.
I found myself thinking about mail carriers the world over at this time of year. Do they read any poems and feel a connection? I hope so. I sure appreciated them taking and delivering all the cards. I looked forward to checking the mail each day and getting to experience a little of someone else’s part of the world.
As I was writing, more often than not, the poems related somehow to the image on the card. But not always. I didn’t want to put that limit on myself. I tried to keep to the spirit of the fest by writing directly to the card, but I did think about the level to which I could be completely spontaneous in the act. If you write, you’ve always got tid bits floating around your head or your notebooks, waiting for a place to call home. Hard to tell how much has already been formed before you get to the paper. Not much in life fits neatly, certainly not where poetry is concerned, so I stopped worrying about it and just enjoyed the process.
Among the last cards I created this year were the ones using pictures and words from my grandpa’s old technical books. The ones about paint and ink and how you make it stick to the surface you want it to. Among the last things I did for the fest this year was to find some old postcards in an antique store (some from as early as 1913) to use for next year. The ones with writing on them were most interesting to me. Words on a card, connecting people all those years ago. Paper and ink. Maybe some cards from the fest will be found by some searcher of antique stores in the future. There they’ll sit. A created thing. A written thing. Indelible. Steadfast. Go ahead. Read it. No apologies.