Today an interview with Twitter poet Margaret Ingraham--@InPoetweet--who began the InPoetweet project in February, 2012.
Can you give us a brief synopsis of the InPoetweet project?
Absolutely. I am committed to composing and posting one poetweet each day for a year. Once I have completed poetweet number 366 – because I began the project in a leap year and feel duty bound to producing that additional tweet--- I will have come to the end of this first phase of my project. I say first phase, because I have found the project so positive, so brimming with possibilities, so conducive to exploration and experimentation, so exhilarating, that I do not know whether I will be able to bring it to its ultimate conclusion at the end of the year. As of this writing I have completed and posted 230 poetweets, so I am past the midpoint. In February when I began I was not certain if I would be able to sustain the project beyond the first month. But each day my allegiance grows and my belief in the importance of the project increases.
Do you think the experience of consistency in tweeting is a crucial element to understanding the range/repetition/reoccurring images that appear in your tweet poems? Does this allow us to see them both as individual poems and as an overall collection of poems that work together?
The short answer to your question is yes. Taken together, the poetweets provide a mother lode in terms of examining the connection between art and artist, life circumstances and subject matter and mode of expression, experience and point of view, etc. In tweets, as in longer poems, I return again and again to the same words, cadences, themes, images, turns of phrase. These are unique signatures, or fingerprints…I hope each new setting--which is what each and every poetweet is--enhances, enlarges or narrows, and nuances that which appears with frequency.
I believe that every poetweet stands alone as a viable individual poem. Certainly the quality of writing varies from tweet to tweet. But the same can be said of my other work as well, as is true for every poet. When I take time to read the entire corpus of my daily poetweets, I do perceive a wholeness (what you term a collection) emerging. Frankly, I would like to see this body of work as a print collection some day, and I spend a good deal of time contemplating how it would be best organized and arrayed.
My process is to focus primarily on that one day’s tweet and not on what has come before (and certainly not what will follow – because I don’t know that until the next day comes). There have been a couple of occasions when I have worked to produce a short related sequence, but that is the exception.
Can you share some of your thought process behind beginning the project? How did you initially perceive Twitter as a viable means for form poetry? Do you think it is a viable forum? Why or why not?
This is fun to answer, because I did not intend to begin a Twitter poems project at all. In fact, I had never tweeted, nor did I think I ever would. But I was at a friend’s birthday party one February night when a pair of strangers (seriously) suggested I tweet some poems. I responded as though I were interested in the idea but was saying to myself that it was a ridiculous notion. Or so I thought. But by the time I got home I was asking myself questions and I powered up the computer and began googling. By the next day I had found a definition of poetweet, searched out poets who were tweeting poems and established my Twitter account. I had also tweeted one poem, boldly announcing my intention to tweet one poem every day for a year. Now, mind you, no one was looking or listening then, but I was determined to be true to my word. If nothing else, I thought forcing myself into a daily routine of tweeting would be an excellent discipline and skill- honing exercise. I was right about that.
Before that night in February I had erroneously viewed twitter as a forum for what I ignorantly and arrogantly characterized as nonsense and narcissism. I wasn’t much interested then, nor am I now, in knowing people’s every movement, meal, thought--you know what I mean. At the same time, I was keenly aware of the reach, and the potential, of social media. I began almost instantly to think of it as a tool. What a marvelous way to engage folks with poetry who otherwise would steer clear of it. I was and am not the only person thinking that way and using the medium for posting poems. So far I have not been able to find anyone else committed to tweeting a poem everyday at the present time. If there are, I hope this blog will reveal them.
And, yes, I do think that Twitter is a viable and vibrant means for form poetry. Poetry, as the late Muriel Rukeyser knew so well, is different from other modes of communication. It demands unique things of the reader: full consciousness, complete and sustained attention, response. It asks that we plunge deeply into ourselves. At first blush, those requirements seemed inconsistent with the Twitter culture and mentality. With further contemplation, and maybe imagination, I began to see that as an opportunity and the tweet as a means to create incremental steps toward a broader appreciation of poetry with a social media audience.
But that was only part of my purpose. I want to emphasize at this point that my central objective in this project is not about the medium so much as it is about working in the form. The medium is simply a platform, defining the limits and enabling the transmission/publication/sharing of the poetweet. The work should stand within and without the platform. The poet should not serve the medium any more than the poet should serve the form. Media and form are tools to serve the poet.
How does your creative process differ with your poem tweets as compared to your usual writing process? Do you commit to composing a “new” tweet each day or do you create tweet poems from other longer work?
There are days I have a particular idea, image or purpose in mind, but more often than not I rely on a kind of inspiration I guess you could say, as hokey as that may seem. An image, a line, a cadence is given to me, or comes to me as I read, gaze, contemplate, listen or pray, and that is the departure point.
But to me the most interesting part of your question is the definition that you seem to assign to “new.” Every daily tweet is new, regardless of its origin. Most of them – and I think this is getting to the heart of your inquiry – do emerge entirely fresh. Sometimes I do have to go actively looking for ideas. My own work is one, but only one, of the sources I consult. When I do I might borrow an image, yet never have I lifted a 140 character sequence from an existing poem. In my opinion, the creative process is most often about the work of recreating, recasting, reviewing, renewing and revising. It’s my view, but the thought and the practice are certainly not original with or unique to me. Actually, I tweeted about it recently. Here is what I wrote:
I surmise it was from jealousy that Stravinsky said Vivaldi wrote but one concerto over 100 times I say the true work of genius is to revise
And here (ha, ha) is what that tweet looks like when it has been ever so slightly revised:
It was from jealousy I surmise That Stravinsky said Vivaldi wrote But one concerto Over 100 times I say The true work of genius Is to revise
I notice that each tweet poem seems to be close to or exactly 140 characters. Do you try to adhere to 140 characters per tweet? How do you find working within this character constraint?
My first tweeted poem--which represented my Ars Poetica of poetweeting I guess you could say--was by sheer luck and coincidence exactly 140 characters. The next several contained fewer characters. But by day ten, after I had done more research on the form itself and developed a clearer sense of my own purpose – that is, progressed from thinking of my daily poetweeting as a helpful personal exercise and discipline to understanding it to be a serious poetic project to which I was committing myself – I determined that each would be precisely 140 characters. Since that day each poetweet has been. There was one exception: I was the victim of a slip of the finger that caused me to hit the tweet button before I had finished composing. But I have the correct(ed) version of that particular poetweet in hard copy and will substitute it if the work ever appears in a traditional print format, which is my hope.
The reason for my strict adherence to 140 characters is twofold. First, the generally accepted definitions of poetweet that I can find out there in cyberspace, in places like the Urban Dictionary, all define it as conforming to that strict 140 character form. And the form itself, as well as my contributing in whatever small way I can to its ultimate and lasting acceptance and adoption as a serious poetic form-- both in and beyond the Twitter medium -- are largely what this project is about.
For me, as for many other poets, form can be extraordinarily liberating. So I find working within the character limit energizing. It demands my immediate attention to every word I consider, and it requires me to make an absolute and final decision about which is essential and which is not. In no place is Coleridge’s well known definition of poetry, “best words in the best order,” more strenuously tested than in the creation of a poetweet. Additionally, the character limit assists me in bringing the poem to closure. That is critical to the success of every poem, regardless of form. What I am doing on and learning from Twitter helps me generally perfect my skills as a poet and, therefore, influences all my work.
I have also noticed that your poem tweets seem to follow a general pattern. Unlike other Twitter poets, you seem to refrain from using abbreviation or symbol. Can you discuss the reason for this choice? How do you think we read or respond differently to a tweet poem that has symbol, abbreviation or technoabbreviation (as in LOL, OMG, etc.)?
The generally accepted definition of poetweet clearly states that such are not permitted in the poetweet (although standard abbreviations such as contractions are permissible). So I comply. But it is not simply a matter of observing someone else’s definition or standard. It has more to do with my voice. I write in my own vernacular, and that manner of expression is just not part of my lexicon. I don’t speak, text or think that way, and neither do many of my contemporaries. So, yes, absolutely some readers respond differently to a tweet that has symbol, abbreviation or technoabbreviation. In my case, I found those limiting in terms of audience. The importance and role of audience is something that poetweet has emphasized and clarified for me. Attention to audience may be a key difference in process between poetweeting and other writing.
Can you also discuss your use of the capital letter? In some tweet poems your use seems to denote a linebreak, in others not as much. Can you share your process and a few examples with us?
You have zeroed in on something I have been experimenting with and talking to myself about. From the outset I struggled with the issue/question of line breaks: Should I use them? If so, how would I indicate them? Insertion of a capital letter at the beginning of a new line does seem appropriate, and for the most part now I follow that formula. Sometimes things get confusing if the poetweet also contains proper nouns, as many of my tweets do.
Line breaks, as we poets know, are as essential to the success of a poem as image or metaphor. Or at least that is my belief; I am pretty obsessive about placing them with precision. The line moves the poem forward, and line breaks create the balance and/or tension between the static and dynamic.
What have been some of the results of this project that have surprised you? For example, have certain poems been retweeted more than others? What has your connection with other tweeps been like? Have others written you or messaged you about their reactions to your project? What has been your favorite story so far?
Results that have surprised me? That the project seems to resonate to the extent that it has. Maybe folks are just being polite when I tell them what I am doing, but so far my project has met with almost universal interest or curiosity from those with whom I have discussed the idea or with whom I share the poetweets.
Another delightful surprise: one of my friends from grammar school days, who now teaches high school English in Georgia, recently asked if she could share my project and tweets with her students who worked on the school’s literary magazine. Hooray! It was the hope of engaging young people in a new way with poetry that initially drew me to this project.
My friends who are poets are almost always intrigued and are a constant source of encouragement. Other unexpected gratification comes from Facebook, where my poetweets automatically publish each day. There has not been one day that I haven’t received at least one “like,” often from folks who have never expressed any interest in poetry and some who have told me outright that they don’t understand poetry. I love to review the “likes,” not just for the personal affirmation it brings but also to see which poetweets garner the most acceptance. That teaches me a lot about audience preference, and it invariably surprises me. Surprises are rife with instruction.
Here is perhaps the most enthusiastically embraced poetweet, and that did not surprise me:
I asked the wind Are you enemy or friend First you spread forest blaze Then you send rains Wind told me What I am few know What I do all see
Is there anything else that you would like to add or discuss?
Just this. That the brevity of the poetweet form should not be confused with a license to regard short prose or conversational speech as a substitute for poetry. I work to constrain this inclination by bringing every poetic tool and asset I use in longer work to bear in poetweets. That means that most of the literary devices and figures of speech that characteristically inform longer works should and must find their place in the poetweet. Or so I believe. That means not only strong images and compact diction but also simile, metaphor, rhythm (and sometimes rhyme), metonymy, allusion, assonance, consonance, alliteration and the music of the line – with music for me the most difficult to achieve artfully. These are the characteristic elements, the building blocks of poetry, regardless of form.
Thank you so much, Margaret!
MARGARET B. (Peggy) INGRAHAM is the is co-editor of the anthology Entering the Real World: VCCA Poets on the VCCA, patterned after the Best American Poet series. The volume was described by Poet Laureate of Virginia Kelly Cherry as a “splendid, intriguing anthology” whose contributors are “all important poets, all of them exciting and adept.”
Ingraham, who currently serves as Chair of the VCCA Fellows Council, is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Award and the 2006 Sam Ragan Award. Over 100 of her poems have recently appeared in national and international print and online journals. Her book, This Holy Alphabet, a series of lyric poems based on her original translation from the Hebrew of psalm 119 (Paraclete Press 2009), was critically acclaimed as “a jewel.” Her second chapbook, Proper Words for Birds (Finishing Line Press, 2009), was nominated for a 2010 Library of Virginia Award in poetry. Her collaborative work with composer Gary Davison, entitled “Shadows Tides” a choral symphony, was commissioned and performed by Choralis at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2011 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.
Margaret (Peggy) lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia, where she currently serves as Executive Vice President of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
To follow Margaret on Twitter: TraVersing Splendor@InPoetweet
To friend Margaret on Facebook: Margaret B. Ingraham
To learn more about Margaret and read some other poetry, visit her website: www.margaretbingraham.com
photo by Julie E. Bloemeke
Tomorrow an interview with Reb Livingston, curator of the Bibliomancy Oracle.
--Julie E. Bloemeke