The alarm screams, shrill as a school bell, but this is no recess. It’s 3:15 a.m., quarter past the dead of night and time to get to work. You’d lie there and stare at the ceiling if you could see it. Instead, you fumble with the light switch, grab a sheet of paper and what you think might be a pencil or pen — but, in your state of sleepy half-awake-ness, it may as well be a wet noodle or a dog’s leash.
Welcome, test subject, to the 3:15 experiment.
Born in 1993 to poet Danika Dinsmore at Naropa University, the experiment was derived from a suggestion made to her by renowned experimental poet Bernadette Mayer, on whom Dinsmore wrote her masters thesis. Dinsmore describes the experiment as “an exercise exploring hypnagogic and hypnopompic states between sleeping and waking.”
In English, that means Dinsmore wanted to see what would happen if a bunch of poets “scattered across the globe” jarred themselves out of deep sleep at 3:15 a.m. every night for the month of August, wrote a poem while half-asleep, then went back to bed and didn’t look at the poems again until the experiment was over. The poets were allowed a little editing, but only each night between 3:15 a.m. and when they crawled back to bed — and only on the poem they had just written. One poem per night for a month — period. Sounds simple enough, but the results were mysterious, complex, infectious and surprising.
Thirteen years later, Dinsmore, a Vancouver resident, is co-editor of between sleeps: the 3:15 experiment 1993-2005: a collection of writing from the middle of the night, a book of poems spawned by the experiment. Gwendolyn Alley, a poet and instructor at Ventura College, is the other half of the editing duo.
“You have no idea the things that you write because you aren’t really awake and not really asleep,” says Alley. “You’re surprised. It’s unexpected because part of it isn’t just that it’s an experiment, but that there’s discipline to it.”
Alley, like Dinsmore and several other poets featured in the new book, will appear at a series of events for the 3:15 Fiesta, April 20-26, a celebration of National Poetry Month and the release of between sleeps.
A longtime poet with plenty of writing experience prior to her participation in the experiment, Alley believes that it can be easier to tap into the creative process when the editor inside us is off duty. “The editor’s asleep and the creator is awake enough to keep your hand moving across the page without judging,” she says. “That creative state is easier to access at 3:15. You’re not at a stoplight; you don’t have to teach a yoga class; you don’t have a baby waking up from a nap.”
Alley was pregnant the third summer of her participation in the experiment, but she forged on belly and all. She has long suffered from terrifying night terrors, many of which she described in her poems. Dead rodents and rat feces were the topics of a couple of her pieces, pieces she says she would never have written were it not for the 3:15 experiment.
Eight poets featured in the book will travel to Ventura for the fiesta, including Dinsmore; Tod McCoy, a publisher from Seattle’s en theos press, which published between sleeps; Jen Hofer of Los Angeles, who participated in the experiment from 1993 to 2005; Antoinette Claypoole, Wild Embers press editor; Liz Collins of Big Sur; Amalio Madueno of Taos, N.M.; Paul Nelson of Global Voices Radio and Dawn-Marie Oliver, both from Washington state.
With so many contributors in such distant locales, Dinsmore and Alley compiled poems for the book via e-mail and over the phone. “The first thing I printed out was the final cover and we sent the book to the printer,” Alley says.
Alley suspects there could be a late-night poet in all of us, but admits that it takes a great deal of discipline to drag yourself out of bed at 3:15 a.m. every night for a full month. “I believe all people are poets,” she says. “They just don’t know it. They haven’t been empowered.”