I got back into writing poetry during 2020 because I was starved of a creative outlet in my PhD program, and I was losing my mind. The idea was that it would be unmonetizeable, and just for me, and about the act of creation. The way I got over my own perfectionist expectations of myself enough to stick with it was that I was going to write bad poems on purpose.

This is a strategy I've employed a few times, when I'm trying to learn a new skill or pick up an old one and I feel self-conscious about the growth process. I decide that the goal is to just do it, and be bad, and revel in the powerful rebellion of being joyously bad.

And now it's been nearly four years since I started writing "bad poems on purpose (TM)", and I just realized that my poetry blog which I have been attaching to some of my now actually-published poetry has the subheading "Bad Poems! Wow!"


This is something that I definitely do partially because I'm irrationally deathly afraid of other people judging me for my earnest attempts at things, too. It's not purely about the inner critic, but the fear of the even-harsher imagined outer critic (who also only really exists in my head). If I claim my stuff as bad, and bad on purpose, I'm being rebellious. And now I'm realizing that the whole time I've been making connections with other poets and trying to build up co-writing and mentoring and editing relationships with people and make an example, even though I'm proud of the work I'm doing, most of the time, my blog still proclaims that my poems are bad[1].

I'm wondering if it's worth it, to have to demean my work like that to get started. I haven't been writing as much recently, because I got out of the habit when I moved, and now I can feel the weight of expectations again. I know it's normal to go through cycles of improving to the point where you feel like you can no longer live up to your own expectations all the time, that inspiration comes and goes and you need some more practical ways of motivating yourself to keep with it. But, like... I guess I'm wondering if there's a healthier shortcut.

I'm also realizing, honestly, that I was never really writing truly bad-on-purpose poems. There are people out there really intentionally breaking art forms, turning the rules on their heads, playing with the grotesque, and that was never actually my goal. It's a powerful trick, to say your work is bad on purpose while you're actually trying quite hard, but it is just a trick. It's a sleight of hand. Doesn't it kind of suck that the mantra which worked wasn't "I'm doing this for fun" or "I'm getting better every day" or "I'm making this for me and it may not be for you" or even "I don't care what other people think", but that something I was pouring my heart into is bad. On purpose. So no one could judge me for it.

I also think a useful comparison is the podcast that felt like the most direct inspiration to me getting back into poetry, at the time: season one of the podcast Hot and Bothered, in which participants were asked to spend 3 months writing a romance novel and each episode featured a different post-mortem interview. The idea was that romance novels were a genre that was already not taken seriously, and so you could use that space, the freedom that not being taken seriously affords, to try and do whatever you want rather than trying to aim for respectability. Unlike the various bad at art clubs and bad art movements, which are glib and pithy and even cool, Hot and Bothered's mission was raw and serious and self-indulgent and earnest. It is, generally, everything I think one has to be to live the life they truly want to live.

Several of the participants in season one of Hot and Bothered never even started writing. I don't know that anyone stuck with it after. The podcast itself switched over to being about closely reading romance novels after that. It was, all in all, more of a spiritually-motivated pursuit than an artistic one.

So where does that leave me? Is it just too hard to believe, every time, that it's worth making art independent of quality and that we owe it to ourselves to keep trying? Is "bad on purpose" really the only way out of the bottom of the pit, so I can strive for earnest once I'm on my feet again?

If I have any counterexample, here, for the way I want to approach overcoming-the-critic instead, it's musician and youtuber CJ the X. They've made themself a bit of a crusader for high-quality art, arguing that it's a sort of moral imperative to make the best art you can and release it into the world, while also decrying beating yourself up or aiming for mass appeal or being a perfectionist or any of the other things that might immediately come to a self-conscious mind when thinking about how to accomplish that. I wonder what they would say about my disrespect to the art I'm making.

In some ways, "badness" is probably simply too semantically overloaded. Is "bad art" about a gut reaction? About being anathema to current cultural values? Is it about morally objectionable content? Is it about ignoring good technique? About violating rules on purpose? About the amount of effort that goes in? Is it simply art that some specific person dislikes, or could dislike? I think it's very possible to say you're making "bad art" as a way to say you're valuing something else above the quality or mass appeal of each individual, specific draft, and for someone else (potentially someone who admires you, and is also trying to battle their own not-good-enough creative demons) to hear that the finished products of that process which you have chosen to release to the public are still not good enough.

I'm glad I got to use the Bad On Purpose trick to get over the hurdle of starting, still, looking at all the poems I've written and all the deep connections I've made with other people and poets as a result. It's had a net positive impact on my life, and when I first started saying it to my friends, they were in on the joke. But I worry about how easy it still is for me to lose sight of my self-deprecation about my words and my thoughts and my ability to communicate them. I know very well how much it sucks to see other people put self-negativity out into the world, and I try so hard to gently redirect that when I see it coming from others. And yet I'm still always catching myself at it.

Maybe I can baby-step my way to "writing imperfect poems", next. It's got a pretty good mouthfeel, at any rate.

  1. In addition to a lot of other branding that I probably need to update, although tumblr's interface makes that harder and harder every day. ↩︎