Why I Swapped Postcard Poetry with Strangers This Summer

This past spring, I read a provocative interview about postcard poems with Paul Nelson from the Seattle Poetics LAB (SPLAB). Every August, SPLAB organizes a Poetry Postcard Fest that empowers strangers across the country (and globe) to write, create, and send postcard poems to each other. The capturing of a moment for just one other person, in the small space of a postcard, is one crucial goal of the festival. “The postcard fest is a really interesting practice in learning how to trust your gut and how to tap into energies greater than yourself,” Nelson explains in the interview with the poetry journal Rattle. In response to a question about the artist’s role in a community, Nelson proclaims,

speaking truth to power and also that prophetic impulse, that’s what we need more than anything else right now. We don’t need rhetorical poetry…we’re drowning in rhetoric…it’s numbing to the soul…So…how do you get in touch with a prophetic voice? You have an inner life, and you’re connected to something larger than yourself, and that’s easier said than done.

These words hummed with my own mission to connect poetry with contemplation, prayer, and social justice. The interview goes on to explore sterling topics such as the difference between art and propaganda, Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere (i.e. the mysterious ways we are all connected to others), and poetry as the language of crisis. While the actual interview is only available in print, this reflection nonetheless offers a helpful overview about the Poetry Postcard Fest.

I was converted–I immediately signed up to send postcards to strangers this summer.

Soon after I registered, I received a list of 30 names and addresses of fellow poets across the country (as well as one in England). I took stock of what postcards I already had, and ordered a few blank ones (as well as some postcard stamps) from the US Postal Service. By Labor Day, I had sent 30 postcard poems to geographically scattered strangers. I received 20 in return. Here are three reasons why it was all worth it:

  1. Sending postcards served as a practice of remembrance. The Poetry Postcard Fest gave me a reason to engage postcards that had languished in a box, forgotten, for years. I had bought several postcards when I lived in China, of various styles and images, unsure at the time what I’d do with them. Now, in some cases almost 10 years later, I had a reason to put those missives into action. The first ones I sent this summer, with images from West Lake in Hangzhou, as well as graphics of Chinese New Year lanterns and summer dragon boats, brought back a menagerie of memories.
Postcard I bought in Hangzhou, China, where I lived as a Mandarin language student from 2011-2012.
Postcard text: Dear ____, 3 renminbi admission fee to crowded courtyards, pristine ponds, and bonsai trees all gussied up with nowhere to go. Stringed music croons out of artificial rocks, and incense drifts through latticed window panes. The faintest whiff of six hundred year old intrigue still hangs in the air, enclosed curiosity piqued for fifty cents. –Melanie
Postcard of Chinese New Year lanterns. This postcard was originally one month’s image from a 2015 calendar, with the goal that the monthly images could be cropped and sent as a postcard. Five years later, I finally had a reason to send this!
Postcard text: Lantern lights a cold winter’s night, faint red glow pointing to the equinox, to a time when everything will be equal, to evenings where everyone, no matter their genetic lottery draw, can be free in the dark. –Melanie

2. Through postcard poems, I discovered the joy of ekphrastic poetry. In addition to the Chinese postcards, I also had several postcards from a fanciful “Enchanted Forest” collection I had bought on a lark a few years ago. Deciding which card to send, and when, became a surprising exercise in ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrastic poetry, from the Greek word for “description,” is poetry written in response to a visual work of art. My “works of art” muses became those Enchanted Forest postcards.

Postcard text: Honestly, owl, you kind of creep me out, with your big, bulbous eyes and persicope neck surveilling me (censoring me?), the Alexa of the animal kingdom. Here’s my question you can take back to the avian HQ: who gave you permission to oversee me? –Melanie
Postcards I received from the Poetry Postcard Festival

3. The exchange of postcards led to sparks of beauty with kindred spirits. Swapping postcard poems with dispersed strangers, especially this summer under lock down, expanded my universe in the best possible way. Each postcard reflected something of the character of its sender. Some had homemade images–quick citrus marker sketches, or intricate decoupage collages. Some flexed their philatelic muscles with collector’s stamps, such as five cent postage for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. And some had verse that made my heart swoon, as I encountered poets who gorgeously chronicled the beauty, pain, memories, and absurdities of their own lock down worlds. I feel enriched, and my own poetry feels strengthened, because of this meaningful swap of words and wonder.

In his book Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter, J.P. Newell prays by saying, “rekindle in us the sparks of your beauty / that we may be part of the blazing splendor / that burns from the heart of this moment.” As I prepare for the long, dark days of a pandemic winter, I recently joined some friends for our first s’mores of the season around their outdoor fire pit. Watching the log slowly glow from the gentle flames within it brought me comfort after an otherwise difficult day. I’m likewise grateful for the gentle flames and slow glow I received from this summer’s postcard poems.

Postcard Poetry Prompt: in the comments, I invite you try your own hand at a postcard poem! Here’s a postcard I created from some old magazine pictures. What poem would you write in response to it? Keep the verse postcard-sized, which should be said aloud in two breaths or less. I look forward to seeing what you may come up with! 🙂

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