Foreword to BAD POETRY NIGHT
E. Christopher Clark
Back in my undergraduate days, “Bad Poetry Night” was an event put on by The Bradford ReView. The idea was to challenge the gathered masses to write the worst poems they could in just a few minutes time. And the only requirement was that they incorporate into their poems the 3-5 ridiculous words we pulled out of a hat at the start of each round.
The aim of the event, as best I can recall, was stress relief. We typically held these near mid-term or just before finals, and our crowds were made up of many of the same folks whose work we were considering for publication in the ReView office upstairs. These were people for whom writing had once been an escape, in those days before they’d decided upon the art form as a major. Now here we were, with our jokey premise, trying to make it a refuge for them once again.
The trouble was, despite the mandate to write “bad” poetry, many of the writers each night couldn’t manage it. Perhaps they tried to write something horrible. But, in the process, they nearly always came up with something compelling.
I think that speaks to the power of constraints. Novice writers often yearn for the days when teachers and books of advice will stop telling them what to do. They long to be able to write “whatever they want.” But I think the truth of the matter is that an artist’s most interesting work always comes out of the rules set upon them, or the rules they set upon themselves.
A few years ago, when I was teaching many more freshman literature courses than I am now, I (traditionally a writer of prose) would hide the poetry unit away at the end of the semester and preface those classes with the disclaimer that I was a shitty poet. I got sick of saying that and decided to learn more about the form the only way I knew how: by writing it.
Sometimes the poems were limited by the vocabulary of a Magnetic Poetry Kit, sometimes by a deck of cards, and sometimes simply by the five minutes I had before midnight during the months of my Draft a Day writing project. One of these poems came out of an exercise a colleague had me do with the prospective students attending a workshop that I ran, somewhat last minute, in that colleague’s place. But always—always—my mandate to myself was just give it a shot. I told myself to let the poems be shit if that’s what they were going to be. Let them suck.
And that was just as freeing for me as I imagine it was for those poets at Ye Olde Bradford back in the day.
What follows are a few of the best poems I’ve written these last couple of years, or at least the most entertainingly bad.
E. Christopher Clark
April 15, 2018