City Lights: Making poetry a priority

Ever since I became a journalist, I have had one burning desire: to work the phrases "National Poetry Month" and "The Human Centipede" into the same column. With the following piece, my career will be vindicated.

I'll get to the second phrase later. But first, National Poetry Month, which will begin early next week. According to the Academy of American Poets' website, the April holiday was created in 1996 to encourage schools, libraries, publishers and others to celebrate the craft.

Why April? The website claims it was to complement Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March, although I always suspected it had to do with T.S. Eliot's declaration that "April is the cruellest month."

As a published poet, I'm pretty blase about National Poetry Month. I think of an interview Morgan Freeman gave years ago on "60 Minutes" in which Mike Wallace asked him for his thoughts on Black History Month. Freeman called it "ridiculous" and asked, "Which month is White History Month?" Moments later, he clarified: "I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history."

Likewise, for those devoted to the craft, every month is Poetry Month. But it's an unshakable truth that, the occasional Eliot aside, most poets don't become household names. So if any groups try some of the "30 Ways to Celebrate" the academy lists on its website — which include "Attend a poetry reading," "Take a poem out to lunch" and my favorite, "Put poetry in an unexpected place" — I can't help but cheer the recognition. (Locally, the Mesa Verde Library has announced plans to set up a display and poetry-themed drawing at the circulation desk, while the Newport Beach Public Library is encouraging readers to create "book spine poetry" by arranging books so the titles on their spines create a phrase.)

In fact, looking over that list of 30 things, I've done most of them in April and beyond. Memorize a poem? You should hear me recite "Fire and Ice." Organize a poetry reading? Dozens of times. Watch a poetry movie? My 11th-grade English teacher regaled us with "Dead Poets Society."

But there's one endeavor the academy doesn't list, and it's one many of my poet friends have done to commemorate April: the hair-raising 30/30 challenge. That's where you write a poem each day from April 1 to 30, and I've never even thought about doing it.

Maybe that's because I already write on deadline five days a week, and I can only handle so much structure. It may also be because I'm a savage self-editor and often revise a poem a dozen or more times before it sees the light of day.

Still, when a poet gets into a groove, the first thought (or at least the second thought, a moment or so later) can be pretty dazzling. So with National Poetry Month looming, I touched base with a couple of poet friends to see how they handled the 30/30 challenge.

Our case studies are Raundi K. Moore-Kondo, a poet and activist who recently co-organized the Mammary Chronicles: Bearing Breasts Tour to raise funds to fight cancer, and Eric Morago, who runs the reading at Vinatero Wine Shop in Whittier and serves as poet-in-residence for the California Workforce Assn. Both Raundi and Eric told me that when they set out to write a poem a day, they used a unified theme to keep the inspiration coming — not unlike being a beat reporter, I suppose.

In Raundi's case, after "winging it" the first year, she chose a theme for year two: fortune cookies. Every day during April, she broke open a cookie and wrote a poem inspired by the message. When one sweet treat advised, "Don't stop dreaming, sleep will get awfully boring," Raundi coaxed out a poem about how her parents reacted to her talking in her sleep as a child. The opening verses read:

My dreams woke my parents

from their deep, hopeless sleep.

They didn't recognize

any of the words coming

from my crib.

This was not my mother's tongue

This was the language of our Father

They tried to understand

the prophesy that spilled effortlessly

from my 3 year old lips.

The year after, Raundi used for her theme "epigraphs based on the 100 greatest songs and books of the 20th century." Among her inspirations were E.M. Forster, Vladimir Nabokov and even the Rolling Stones. This year's theme? As of the other day, she hadn't decided yet.

Now, Eric: Last year, he tried the 30/30 challenge for the first time and came up a little short, writing about 20 poems. That's still better than I've done in the course of a month. At the time, he was at work on a series about mythical creatures, and his efforts produced poems about the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot.

In October, though, Eric scheduled a National Poetry Month of his own — and tied it into Halloween. Every night that month, he watched a horror movie and then wrote a haiku about it, and he made it to 31 poems in 31 days.

So that leads us to the "Human Centipede" films, which probably haven't inspired much poetry since they came out in 2010 and 2011. If you haven't heard of them, they're about ... to be honest, I really don't have the stomach to tell you. Google them if you're unaware, and please make sure you haven't eaten in the last hour or so.

OK, back now? Eric, brave soul, endured both films and churned out a haiku about each one. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen them, and will probably undergo the 30/30 challenge a hundred times before I do.) Our status as a family newspaper prevents me from quoting Eric's first poem, but he wrote about the second:

Sequels, like science,

are sometimes better left to

theory, not practice.

It's an elegant poem about a difficult subject matter, and that, of course, is the key to so much brilliant poetry. Often, the greatest writers are the ones who brave the most traumatic experiences and muster the strength to put them on paper. So years from now, if Eric ever edges me out for the Pulitzer Prize, I know I'll have "The Human Centipede" to blame.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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