The alarm blares into the still night, pulling me out of the dream world into the 2am stillness. Shuffling into my starlight-illuminated kitchen, I fill up the coffee grinder and shatter the late-night tranquility with a roar of crunching coffee beans, inspirational sustenance for the long ordeal ahead. Hit the switch on the electric kettle and head back inside while the water boils.
My supplies for the next day lay on the L-shaped desk before me. Half a dozen bags of Sour Patch Kids, a cup full of Zebra F203 pens, back issues of Adbusters, a dog-eared Allen Ginsberg compilation, various nootropic (cognitive enhancing) supplements, and approximately two to three dozen notebooks full of handwritten essays, notes, and poems. So many poems.
Poetry is the name of the game for the next 24 hours. The Poetry Marathon, to be precise. Twenty-four poems in 24 hours, one per hour, starting at 9am Eastern Time. Which is why I’m sitting outside in the dark sipping my first cup of coffee, waiting on the clock to strike 3, praying to the muses for poetic inspiration.
The Poetry Marathon was started in 2012 by Caitlin Jans and her husband Jacob. Both active in the New York City poetry community, Caitlin took inspiration from a writing exercise where she went to the Met and wrote a poem every day for a month, posting the results online. Eager for a new challenge to inspire her own poetry, she came up with the idea of writing a poem an hour for 24 straight hours, a writing “marathon” of sorts.
Initially just an exercise for her own writing, Caitlin’s partner Jacob encouraged her to bring in other writer friends to participate, and the Poetry Marathon was born. While the first marathon was maybe 10 people, only one other participant besides Caitlin and Jacob completed the event. But the word was out, and thanks to social media and their online platforms Writers Publish and Freedom With Writing, the next year had almost 100 writers sign up and participate.
Since then, the Poetry Marathon has grown to about 500 participants every year, with a 12-hour “half-marathon” option for those a little less inspired (or crazy, depending on your point of view). The writers range from 12 years old to 80, from professional authors to amateur hobbyists, located all across the globe. There is no cost involved, and a simple set of rules: Write and post one original poem an hour on the shared WordPress site.
While that may sound easy to the uninitiated, out of the 500+ attendees, approximately 100 participants completed the half marathon and another hundred slogged through the entire 24 hours. Optional prompts are posted at the top of every hour, ranging from different poetic forms to writing a poem based on a picture, or writing a poem using a group of random words, etc. The prompts are created mostly by Caitlin and Jacob, but recently, prompts suggested by past participants have made their way into the mix. While optional, in the later hours of the event, the prompts become incredibly beneficial, almost necessary at times.
This was my third Marathon, and after falling asleep early during my second attempt, I was ready for redemption. Coffee brewed, Sour Patch Kids at the ready, I sat down at my desk watching the clock tick down to 3am.
The moon rising over Haleakala casts a silver sheen over the landscape. Despite only catching four hours of sleep, I’m able to get into a good rhythm and complete the first poem with a solid half hour to spare. The year prior, I made the grave mistake of trying to just stay up until 3, with less than stellar results. I think I fell asleep about three or four hours in. The struggle of finding poetic inspiration is difficult enough, but adding sleep deprivation brings an additional challenge that increases exponentially as the hours go by.
The sky is a pale pink as the sun creeps up behind Haleakala. I’ve found a good groove, like a marathon runner settling into their stride, the words flowing easily, lines becoming stanzas, becoming full poems. Even though I’ve been up since 2, the cacophony of birds and morning sun streaming over the mountain imbues me with fresh inspiration. Well, that, and the three cups of coffee, half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, and a microdose of psychedelic mushrooms. Look, Lance Armstrong used EPO to win the Tour Du France and Barry Bonds used steroids to break the home run record – is taking a little caffeine, sugar and psilocybin really cheating?
Been flipping through some old notebooks and papers I have saved from my hardcore activist days during the 2004 election year. I used to write a lot of angry, slam-style political poetry to be performed on a crowded street corner, or to a crowd at an anti-war rally, or a group of anarchists squatting in a dilapidated inner city house. It’s a bit painful to go back at 37 and read the defiant rants of my early 20s, but there’s the occasional phrase or line that pops out, spurs a new train of thought, even a whole poem, as I finish the last line and hit the “publish” button.
A good poem is timeless, I think to myself, as I look at this dated drivel dealing with the War on Terror and the Cheney/Bush administration. Any great art – be it a poem, a song, a sculpture – is something that can withstand the test of time, something my younger self was painfully naive to, judging by the contents of those old handwritten notebooks. I close the tattered cover and lean back with a sigh. Six down, a quarter of the way through.
I’m sitting at my desk in boardshorts, back sticking to my leather office chair, begging the muses for just one more line, one more clever combination of words.
It’s friggin hot. I read somewhere that the brain functions better at lower temperatures, which makes sense because mine is feeling a little like an engine that’s been running at high RPMs for a little too long. Or, to quote the lines I just wrote, “Pretzeled into knots, not as complex as they seem, thought quality like a lingering lucid dream.”
Sleep deprivation is becoming a bit more of an issue now. I’m reminded of that line in Fight Club: “When you have insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is just a copy of a copy of a copy…” There’s a certain surrealism that comes with lack of sleep, enhanced by another microdose I took a couple hours ago. The half-marathoners are celebrating in the Facebook group, as I take a sip of coffee I can barely taste now, thanks to the two and a half bags of Sour Patch Kids that completely corroded my taste buds.
I’m sitting at my desk in boardshorts, back sticking to my leather office chair, begging the muses for just one more line, one more clever combination of words. Did I mention that it’s hot and the sun blasting through my south- and west-facing windows is driving me nuts?
The sun is finally setting. My eyes are bleary red, matching the clouds as the sun sinks into the sea behind Lana‘i. It’s been a long, hot afternoon, and exhaustion is setting in. Writing this way is a different kind of drain, as much an emotional undertaking as it is a mental and intellectual one. A cool breeze wafts up the mountain, inspiring a second wind of sorts, though I notice a certain deteriorating vocabulary and tendency to slip into Dr. Seuss-like rhyme schemes as the hours roll by.
At a certain point, coffee just stops working. Luckily, a friend of mine brought by a few more bags of Sour Patch Kids, which I munch half-heartedly, watching the sunset fade and the first few stars twinkle in the quickly darkening sky. Another hour, another poem. Eight hours to go.
In the words of a certain doctor of journalism, “The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real.”
I’ve switched coffee for Pau Hana Pilsner, an El-P instrumental album on the stereo with grimy hip-hop beats setting an eerie mood as I paw through notebooks and empty bags of Sour Patch Kids in search of some kind of motivation. I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve heard people say that after about mile 10 or so, it becomes more of an exercise in pain tolerance and a mental challenge as opposed to a physical one.
I’m tired to the point that I’m afraid to shut my eyes for fear of falling asleep. A little catnap between poems sounds like a great idea, but at this point it’s a dangerous proposition. Just a few more hours, then sleep. Sweet, blessed sleep. At least it cooled down; gotta love these Upcountry evenings. Maybe just write a haiku, sleep a half hour, and… no, bad idea. Onwards!
Even writing a haiku is difficult at this point, I keep messing up the syllables. Hard to count, hard to think, hard to keep my eyes open. But I’ve made it through, once again, if I can just mine that last little bit of inspiration for just a few more lines. I’m out of Sour Patch Kids, so no more help there. Ah well, here goes nothing:
Attention muses on 3rd shift,
My sanity is slipping
Inspiration fades into the mundane
In search of lost momentum
Meaning of the words are all the same
Sleep deprived and nonsensical
The reader must think I’m mental
Too tired to ressurect rationality’s remains
And I’m done, another Poetry Marathon in the bag. Twenty-four poems in 24 hours, 3am to 3am. It’s been a wild ride, a crazy journey into the depths of poetic inspiration, and one I’ll definitely be doing again. You can get involved read the insanity, or even sign up to participate at Thepoetrymarathon.com/blog. There’s also a 2019 Poetry Marathon Anthology coming out, featuring poems by the brave souls who made it through. And now to sleep, and dream up another poem or two.
Cover design by Albert Cortez
Images by Cody Darcy