Icarus Cannonballed: A Poem-a-Day with Yvonne Garrett and Mary Ellen Sanger

This summer, NYWC leaders Yvonne Garrett and Mary Ellen Sanger completed and published a collection of their poems, Icarus Cannonballed: Lessons in Cave Diving in the Bahamas. These friends and writers have been writing a poem-a-day together for over two years, and they aren’t stopping any time soon. I spoke with them about the book, and what it’s like to write a poem every single day.

Yvonne’s introduction to your book explains that this collection of poetry was born of a poem-a-day project, inspired by the Poem-a-Day Challenge of National Poetry Month. How did you decide to keep writing beyond the month of April? Was it a conscious decision, or did it just happen?

YG: It was a conscious decision of course, but also I think we both realized that we need this daily “event” in our lives.

MES: There was really no reason to stop! We were having so much fun with it!

One of the most common complaints of those of us trying to write is the challenge of making time for our writing. It’s amazing that you’ve been able to stay with this project, despite full-time jobs and the general chaos of daily life. How did you go about making this part of your every day?

YG: You just have to make a conscious decision to do it. If you’ve got time for lunch – do it then. If you’ve got time to meet a friend for a movie – go 20 minutes early.  Don’t be precious about where you write or when you write.  I treat writing like reading – it’s something I do everywhere, whenever I can.  I always carry my notebook & at least two pens (in case one runs out!).  And if you miss a day? Do two the next day.

MES: Yvonne was much better than I at this – and I think we took inspiration from each other when there were inevitable lag times. The buddy system helps to keep us honest.

In your introduction, you list some of the places you wrote these poems each day. Did you end up with favorite writing spots?

YG: there’s a tiny community garden not far from where I work. I love to write there but often, I end up writing in the lobby of the building where I work. Sometimes, it’s on my couch at home. Sometimes, on a train or a plane or sitting somewhere waiting on a friend. Mostly though, of necessity – the lobby in my building at work.

MES: I have two favorite places: On the train coming home from whatever my daily evening activity is (I write with my thumbs on an iPod) or stuffed into bed amidst pillows. Do different poems come from these different settings? I think so!

Yvonne, you mention that during the Poem-a-Day Challenge, many writers post their work to blogs and websites for public consumption. The two of you opted to share work privately using a Wiggio site. Did you provide feedback on your poetry as it was shared, or was this more of a way of holding each other accountable?

YG:  We write feedback/encouragement. Whatever we’re moved to write and whatever response we have time for.  I can’t speak for Mary Ellen, but her responses are part of what keeps me writing. Otherwise you’re just writing into a void and that can be tough.

MES: The sharing aspect also helped to keep close to where we were with our writing. And I don’t think Yvonne and I have ever talked about this – but we had this very respectful rhythm going: neither of us would post a new poem until we had commented on the poem left by the other poet. The feedback was as important as the new work, and it was a way of nurturing our respect for the project.

How long have you two been writing together, or sharing your work with each other? Can you talk a bit about how your writing relationship began?

YG: We met at a NYWC training weekend.  I don’t remember what year.  We’ve kept in touch and started writing together a couple of years ago.

MES: I think it was Fall of 2007 when we met. Yvonne and I have tried to find times to write together outside of the project as well. Though they are few and far between, writing with a friend is an exercise we are both creatively buoyed by.

How have your friends, family and fellow writers responded to these collections?

YG:  Some have been excited to get the book(s) but then zero response (which is pretty normal I think) but for the most part, there have been some really positive conversations coming out of this. I think especially for non-writers, they need to see a tangible object for them to understand what writing is about.  I’ve had some responses which were really, really moving and I’ve found that people are inspired to tell me about their own creative work or their own struggles to write – something I find really rewarding.

MES: Family is predictably excited. Especially after the second year, some people, as Yvonne notes, are spurred to consider similar projects of their own.

In the book, your poems alternate by author. When I started reading, I was very conscious of who wrote each poem at first, but as I continued I stopped thinking about who wrote what. Your poems seemed to be in a kind of conversation with each other, and complement each other stylistically so well that it is easy to move between them. Did you edit your work so that it would “fit” together, or was this a happy accident?

YG:  For the first book, we worked a little to lay the poems out so they sort of “fit” together, but we’re such very different writers that often that just wasn’t possible.  For this collection, I did the layout and (mostly) just did it in the order they were written.  Some decisions were based on size and how the poems looked on the page.  And to be clear, we don’t edit the poems themselves except to fix obvious typos.  What you get is exactly the way the poem came out when it was first written down.

MES: Though our styles are very different, we do touch on some similar themes. And I think we have the most fun picking up “statistically improbable phrases” for the titles! But yeah, mostly “happy accident” in terms of any real fit.

What was the most unexpected outcome of taking on this project?

YG:  Aside from the responses from other people I mentioned, the way it’s changed my fiction writing.  Writing a poem or prose-poem or just a string of words every day has made it so much easier for me to write when I sit down to write anything – whether fiction or non-fiction or even academic work.  No more writer’s block. It’s just gone. I’ve also developed a strong desire to visit Mexico – after reading so many of Mary Ellen’s poems where Mexico is such a huge presence.

MES: I have typically had trouble making time for things in the NYC pace (after living for 17 years in a much slower Mexico!) This project has helped me see that I can be consistent (sometimes!) and as Yvonne says, it is just a matter of making that conscious decision and commitment to DO this. Any another unexpected outcome – it is FUN! You can end up writing poems on all kinds of strange themes when you have to come up with one a day!

Do you have any advice for your fellow writers, based on your experience with this project?

YG: Stop saying you’re a writer but that you don’t have time to write.  Make the time. Get up earlier in the morning. Bring a lunch from home and write while you eat. Always bring paper and a pen with you. Write everywhere. Write every day. Don’t stop. Not even when you’re on a plane. Or on a line. Or sitting in a lobby at your day job.  Do not edit your work as you write it. Just write. Turn off your phone. Your TV. Your laptop. Write by hand so you won’t check your email instead. Stay away from YouTube. Talk less. Write more.

MES: What she said! And let any small random theme carry you away. Go ahead.

What did you learn from the poem-a-day project? How has your work grown or changed because of the one-a-day practice?

YG:  I think I’ve pretty much answered this one but again, the daily commitment is really important. And the lack of self-editing.  Some poems are going to be crap. A lot of them will be bad. But some will be okay and others will be really really good. Too many people talk about how they want to write but they just don’t have the time.  We make time for the things that are important to us. The poem-a-day has been easier because it’s a short amount of time and it’s a short page to fill.  Doing this helped me do the last two National Novel Writing Months, and I completed the drafts of two novels. I couldn’t have done that without the discipline and freedom of Poem-a-Day.

MES: As Yvonne noted above that her poetry has informed her fiction writing, I have also morphed some poems into a non-fiction book I am writing. I have learned that the lines are not rigid between genres. And I have ever-increasing respect for the creative process. You can write about a discarded bottle cap. Or a man with no socks. You can write.

I understand the project is still going. How is 2012-2013’s poem-a-day challenge treating you so far?

YG:  This one’s been a bit rough since we’ve both had major travel and too many commitments.  It’s made it hard to stick with it but I have faith that we’ll both stay on track and have a third book out this time next year.

MES: YES! I wouldn’t want to change the title of our project to the “Poem-a-Day, sometimes” project – because we have both weathered major time challenges over the past two and half years. I have this funny feeling we will be doing this for a few decades, anyway.

You can purchase Mary Ellen and Yvonne’s book here.