Thursday, July 2, 2009

Guest in Progress: J.P. Dancing Bear

I “met” J.P. Dancing Bear on Facebook. Having come late to the Facebook game, I found myself friending and being friended by a number of writers, which, I must say, has been fun. Obviously a group of smart witers will excel at the writing cocktail party of chatter that Facebook is. Who could compose better, cleverer, funnier, more heart-wrenching status updates than a bunch of writers? (My problem was trying to get my material up to speed with the group, but that’s another story.)

I had noticed that J.P. Dancing Bear wrote and posted “birthday poems” every week or so, along with artwork. Yes, click-click, I “liked” his work--very much. And then it was my birthday…and there was a lovely birthday poem for ME! I had assumed the poems he wrote were for people he knew beyond the Facebook sense, but no…so I invited him to tell me more about these beautiful birthday poems of his:

I’ve been working on a poetry project for the better part of 7 months now. I’ve been blessed by having many friends, colleagues, and fans connect with me on Facebook, so on my birthday I received an overwhelming number Birthday greetings. I’d been a member on Facebook for roughly six months and had tried to send a birthday greeting to all the people who had befriended me leading up to that point. But sometimes I missed some, or they missed it. So originally, my plan was to use other people’s applications to send them a birthday poem. I had some 1000+ friends on Facebook and I wanted to give something I’d created in their honor to them. This is something I’ve done all my life, either a painting or a drawing and/or a poem.

I quickly found that Facebook applications have some limitations like no special formatting and no line breaks. So this left me to work with a prose poem format. I’d written a total of perhaps 10 prose poems up and unto this time. I was quickly using up the common applications. About 3 months in to writing the Birthday Notes I discovered an application that was most of Salvador Dali’s work. I’d always been a fan of Dali, and had read his the book about his life and was familiar with most of his paintings. This really opened my eyes to the potential of what I could do.

By this point I had some 1300 friends on Facebook. At times I was writing anywhere between 1 to 9 poems a day, with the average around 3 a day. Within about two months I had gone through most of Dali’s work. And then I discovered that I could post a painting on someone’s wall, and in doing so I could use line breaks—no bolds or italics, but I could at least use line breaks. But I also found I stick with prose poetry for this project anyway.

The most recent, predominant style I started using at about the same time as I started the using the Dali paintings is a prose style I found C.D. Wright had employed in a few of her poems which used colons as the main form of punctuation in her book Tremble.

With most projects I do, I had set up some rules/guidelines for myself:

The poems have to be written on the day they are to be presented. Sometimes, I will write a few after midnight, go to bed, and write a few more in the morning, and/or the afternoon. Almost everything is in second person. For ekphrastic* pieces, I usually try to occupy the world of the painting, use its rules whenever possible. And when I can, I try to move forward or backwards from the moment captured in the painting. But basically, I try to live inside the painting for that moment. This avoids some of what I think are the more awkward or clumsy moments in ekphrastic painting which are about the painter and/or the application of paint, etc. Obviously, with time being of the essence, what with so many poems to write in a day, I have to work “quick.” So I try to spend no more than twenty minutes on each. After everything is written, I spend a few minutes reading everything aloud, just to make sure it sounds right—so a very cursory editing process. And as I pick these up and submit them to magazines, I will do another reread/rewrite/editing at that point. The other thing I try to do is make references to other arts like film, music, novels... and/or science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc. etc) and/or sometimes (philosophy/theology/mythology). Like any ekphrastic poem, the art piece is nice to have accompanying the piece but it should not be an anchor or a necessity for the writing to live. And finally the piece has to be a minimum of five lines. Whenever possible, I try to zip through people’s walls and information and photos to see if there’s something I can use to make it more personal (again, I normally can’t spend a lot of time, so I usually pull something and run with it—that tends to be the survival rules for the project: pick something and run with it).

So far, I’ve written about 850 poems, which is far more than I had imagined when I started the project (because not everyone likes to publish their birthdays). I still have about 5 months left and the average has risen to about 4 or 5 poems a day.

What I’ve found is: the ekphrastic process along with the time constraints and the deadline helps avoid all the blockage-procrastination-over-thinking stuff that most writers can fall into. This process has also proven to me that you can write probably a lot more than you think you can. Last year, I wrote possibly twenty poems for the whole year. I was making excuses for why I couldn’t or wouldn’t write and I had overburdened my editing/writing process to slow down the process. So the project has been an eye-opener for me. ~~ J.P. Dancing Bear

*Ekphrastic poem = a poem that comments on another work of art, i.e. a painting

If you’re a member of Facebook, you should be able to view the poem and painting that J.P. wrote for my birthday right here. Note: The reference to bats in the poem is from my status update about a birthday card Steve gave me that said, “It’s when you can’t hear the bats, that’s when the bats are coming.” Inside the card said, “Other than that, I have no birthday advice,” and Steve wrote, “I’m not really sure what this means, but I thought it was funny.”

About: J. P. Dancing Bear is the author of Conflicted Light (SalmonPoetry, 2008), Gacela of Narcissus City (Main Street Rag, 2006), Billy Last Crow (Turning Point, 2004) and What Language (Slipstream, 2002). His poems have been published in Shenandoah, Poetry International, New Orleans Review, DIAGRAM, Mississippi Review, Natural Bridge, Verse Daily and many others. He is the editor of the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press, and the host of "Out of Our Minds" a weekly poetry program on public radio station KKUP. His next book, Inner Cities of Gulls, will be published by SalmonPoetry in 2010. Website: (with links there to the APJ and Dream Horse Press).


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.