Metal, rust cars, packed in parking
spots like chipped paint sardines
ice scrapes glass, plastic –
all snow’s softness lost.
Good morning, friends! It’s a Monday morning in January after two weeks of record-breaking or -tying cold temps here in the northeast, and two snowstorms. I started the new year with a record-breaking migraine, in the hospital having an MRI and seeing neurologists just to make sure it wasn’t something more. It wasn’t — I’m okay, though a little bit frayed around the edges, and about as pale as my white car buried in snow in the picture above.
So I didn’t get the chance to do any vision castings or resolutions for the new year, though ironically it was a trip to the gym that triggered the migraine. But I did have an idea for a project that I thought I’d get going and do the planning along the way.
A couple of months ago, in a move that was strongly opposed by many of its users, Twitter expanded its character limit from 140 to 280. I was disappointed in the change, myself, because it felt like the 140 char tweet, and the “thread” of tweets used to express longer thoughts, had become an art form and a challenge that made me a better writer. When you only have 140 characters to use, you have to really think about each word, whether it’s necessary, and whether the same idea could be said more concisely. It was like each tweet was a tiny writing assignment, like I had an editor pushing me to write my best. The thread — stringing several tweets together — expanded on this challenge. I observed other writers mastering it, copied their methods, developed my own, and came to feel I was getting pretty good at it. I had a handful of tweets that were shared a couple hundred times, and one that went genuinely viral with 147,000 retweets. I even hosted a really fun, long conversation on the Enneagram with some writers, activists, and others.
When Twitter announced that it was changing to 280 characters, it felt like a genuine loss. I expected to miss the challenge of the 140, and in fact I do. The longer tweets feel sloppy and unedited. I thought Josh Groban had the best observation:
The year is 2035. Twitter has slowly, almost unnoticeably, increased the tweet limit to 5,000 characters thus fulfilling the original goal of turning its users into the finest essayists of a generation.
— josh groban (@joshgroban) November 19, 2017
I know he was joking, but I thought that would actually be a brilliant way to teach essay writing. If you can learn to say what you want to say in 140 characters, then 280, then 560, et cetera, et cetera, by the time you are allowed 5,000 you will know how to choose the exact right 5,000 words to express your thoughts. Instead of prose, though, I found the 280 characters lending themselves to poetic thoughts:
I was going to write a think piece
about whether I’m an Evangelical
but instead I wrote a story
about the sparrows that gather
in the winterberry bush
next to where I park
& sing one word -“together”-
through the scarcity of winter
that sweet clear chirp
their only doctrine.
— Jessica Kantrowitz (@jfkantrowitz) December 18, 2017
You have spent your whole life fighting
to loose the chains,
Just to realize: They were never
Stand up straight
And see how they fall right off.
The prison door is open.
You are already free.
— Jessica Kantrowitz (@jfkantrowitz) December 20, 2017
The 280 characters gives you enough room to get an idea going, but cuts you off right when you might want to get carried away. There is also something both infuriating and intriguing to me about the lack of an edit feature on Twitter. You can always delete and rewrite if you make a mistake, but because Twitter is such an immediate experience, several people may have already read and reacted to your tweet. I find deleting and retweeting cuts down on interaction, and so I usually let small mistakes go. Writing poetry directly into a tweet ends up creating an interesting artistic environment that is a cross between plain writing and live improv. You are also making a commitment to the unique online venue — of course you can copy and paste the poem into a word document or anywhere else, to save it, edit it, expand on it if you want, but for the moment you are casting it out into the interwebs, fully formed in itself at that moment. And the interwebs being what they are, you never know what will happen. Your poem may float away into obscurity, or it may go viral like Maggie Smith’s amazing 2016 poem, Good Bones. No one may read it, or many people may read it. My poem on Evangelicalism and the birds above was read several hundred times.
So I thought I’d start a poetry challenge for 2018. I’ve given it a name, Poetry 280, and a hashtag, #poetry280. (If you don’t know, hashtags are the way to loop people in to a Twitter discussion.) I’ll figure out the details as I go, but I plan on posting challenges and prompts regularly, and maybe having some contests with guest-judges and real prizes! We’ll have some haikus, of course, a limerick, and some lesser known short forms, as well as free-form and subject prompts. And I will be retweeting my favorite poems.
This is primarily a Twitter project, so the best way to follow along is on Twitter: Follow the hashtag #poetry280 and follow me at @jfkantrowitz. If you’re not on Twitter, I will also be posting the prompts (though not always in real time) on my Facebook writer page, where you can also post your poems.
The first challenge is a nod to Twitter of old. Write a four line poem, rhyming or non-rhyming, of no more than 140 characters. A title is optional but counts toward the 140 if you use it. Don’t forget to add the hashtag
#poetry280! so I can read and retweet your poem! And since Twitter doesn’t tell you when you reach 140 characters anymore, here is an online tool to help you with the 140 challenge.
Here’s one of my attempts at the first challenge (the poem about cars and snow at the beginning of this post is another).
— Jessica Kantrowitz (@jfkantrowitz) January 7, 2018
Poetry 280 is open to everyone, whether you’re a professional poet or have never attempted a poem. Have fun with it! Or be deep and broody with it! Whatever you like! Think of it as the karaoke of the poetry world — everyone can get up on stage and take a turn! Let’s see what we can create in 2018!