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Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading Projects vs. Poems

So what should appear in my inbox the morning after I post about poems vs. projects from the writing perspective but a thoughtful discussion of the topic from a reader's perspective (and by this I mean not only a reader of poetry but also a reader of manuscripts for a contests) by the talented Erika Meitner over at

Meitner has been reading manuscripts for an unnamed book contest, and mentioned her preference this way: "...a poet-friend...posited that as an initial screener dealing with sheer volume, I would be influenced by the apparent coherence of ‘project books’—that I would gravitate toward sequences of poems because they seemed automatically like books...though both of us agreed that we...prefer books that offer the reader a variance in sensibility and approach. Which leads to my first (potentially false) dualism in here: there are ‘project’ books, and there are ‘mix-tape’ books." (She then sites a  post by Katrina Vandenberg at Poets & Writers where she got this musical metaphor originally, and where Vanderberg eventually offers the following advice: “Don’t get wrapped up in a book’s concept at the expense of its poems. We’ve all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album.”)

Meitner says of her own work, "I am not a project-book poet. Part of this has to do with my own peripatetic sensibilities—I want to write about what feels most compelling to me at any given moment....And while my poems often hash over recurring themes (women’s bodies, consumerism, sex, loss, Judaism, etc.), they do it via constantly shifting subject material and landscapes."

This is, I think, inevitable for most writers, and I cannot find the quote I wanted to put in here, so if anyone recognizes it from my bad paraphrasing please let me know. Basically it was something like "Lucky is the writer who has an obsession. He has his life's work cut out for him." We write precisely because we are obsessive; it's difficult to find a poetry book that doesn't have recurring themes, so the question isn't whether a book has some cohesiveness but how much of it is there by design and how much of it is there by temperment, I suppose, and whether that split is obvious or carefully crafted enough not to be glaring.

And in that design lies the strength or the weakness. Or as Meitner says, "While having a project can certainly make a manuscript easier to grasp and remember from the start (“Oh, the villanelles about the life of Joe Namath—I remember that one!”)....More varied books can withstand a few weaker poems without the entire concept of the book being called into question. With more loosely structured books, there was always the possibility that I might turn the page, and find something totally different, shocking, or compelling."

Which doesn't mean the shocking and compelling poems are completely divorced from the previous ones; they are just not so tightly bound by the form of the book to be there only to serve the book, and not on their own merit.

If you are interested in this topic, Meitner cites an interesting post by Joel Brower over at Harriet the Blog, in which a long list of published books with themes is provided, with Brower concluding  finally (after a long and interesting discussion that would be well worth your time to read), "My question is this: Which comes first, the poems or the project? Do you write poems, and then try to figure out how/whether those poems are talking to each other in such a way that it might make sense to collect them all under one book’s roof? Or do you think of a project you’d like to do...and then write the poems to fulfill the promise of the project? Because the poems on that list up there could have come about, I suppose, either way."

And he talks about receiving the following advice from editor Stuart Frieberg when he told him about his project to write a book of poems with 100 words each, "Write 500 of them and then send me the best five to consider for FIELD.”

Which is, I think, the right answer. Yes, obsess. Yes, redo and redo as long as you are compelled to, and then winnow only the best out of the pile for publication. And if the book structure falls apart because there aren't enough poems to support it, then that's how it goes. You might not really be done with the manuscript yet.Or you might need a new structure (don't despair--Meitner cites the following two articles below that show you a myriad of different ways to organize a manuscript.)

1) Natasha Saje at Numero Cinq, where she states, "Asking contemporary poets how they begin the process of ordering their books produces a surprisingly uniform group of answers. Some principles of structure are balance and contrast; dynamic energy; surprise; breathing space/white space; a dialogue between intent and serendipity, or in Annie Finch’s words, between “tension and inevitability” (Heginbotham 113)." And she also cites Elaine Terranova as saying, "For me putting a manuscript together is a reductive process, somewhat the way I write a poem. I’m always flinging poems aside, once I’m convinced that they ‘do not get along well with the others.’"

2) Albert Rios at his own website has 19 ways to organize a maunscript, including schemes he calls Mosaic, Convergent Narrative, Last-line-First-line Dialogue.

Writing related poems as a strategy doesn't mean publishing related poems is the best strategy. Publishing only the best poems, related or not, is the strategy, while writing poems however you can to get the best poems is the strategy. And if writing related poems is what it takes to do that, great. But that doesn't necessarily mean publishing related poems, and it doesn't mean not doing it. Process is about creativity; publishing is about marketing. It would be naive to think they are not related in the long term, but counterproductive to think that they have to be, at least from the get-go.

Or anyway, that's what I take from this discussion.


Shawnte said...

It was great to hear this. I tend to like collections that cover a lot of varied ground. I often suffocate reading collections that are so tightly wound around a narrow theme.

So trying to put together a manuscript of my own became disheartening, when I felt like no one else shared my appreciation (or tolerance) for books that easily get sidetracked by tangents.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Be very cheered, Shawnte; you seem to be in the majority of readers who want poems that each work individually more than a themed manuscript that only works part of the time!

Erika M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erika M. said...

Jessica, I loved the way you expounded and expanded in here on some of the things I touched on and moved through over at aboutaword! (and thanks 'google alerts' for sending me here!)

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Thank, Erika, for dropping by. Your article sent me in lots of productive directions and was fun to read as well. Love aboutaword, and your work especially.