Now Trending in the Poetry World, the Poetry Project Book (Is It #PoetryProjectBook Yet?)

Coming up with an idea for a Wednesday Post has eluded me today.  I don’t feel well (a lurking migraine I think), and so consequently, my brain is a little foggy.  What gems can I impart on writing when I mostly just want to be in bed with the covers pulled over my head?  Maybe I need to forget gems and just be happy with bits of flint and granite.

Anyway, I read an article on the AWP website, Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s “The Poetry Project Book:  a Marriage of Heart and Mind” which discusses a trend she’s noticed in poetry books lately to be “obsessed” with an idea to the point that all of the poems within the book focus on a single guiding image or kind of form.  She argues that poets are writing these books because it offers the beauty of constraint while allowing a kind of “arc” to appear in a book of poetry that doesn’t normally appear in books where poems are about all manner of subjects—where the poems are true “collections” that demonstrate a breadth of a poet’s writing across time.

This trend appears more frequent in MFA theses, she notes, which are then (not surprisingly) flooding the contest market.  I think this approach to writing poetry changes the expectations of a poetry book. We want a book to be “about” something–not just be a collection of poems.  Of course, there are plenty of books that are more traditional in their collection-ness—these aren’t going anywhere—but I’ve even noticed just in reading some journal guidelines lately that ask for poems on related subjects.

So it’s no wonder, if journals are looking for related poems, that writers are writing entire books focused on a single issue.  I’m trying to think of books I’ve read lately—one was entirely focused on Persephone, one was focused on birds, another was illness and cancer—if you write 50+ poems on the same topic, it does make it easier to understand a book, to see where the author is going with her words.  Just this morning, Benjamin Dodds sent me a packet of poems to read from the verse novel he’s working on (I won’t give the topic away, don’t worry, Benjamin), and when the poems are all related it does lend a kind of urgency to them that might be missing when they’re all focused on different subject matter. The connection makes them more compelling—and I think that’s what Hoffman was arguing.

She also mentions that these poetry project books can fail spectacularly.  Can you just imagine if you read a collection and each poem centered on something tedious… like a motorcycle?  Sure, there’s cohesion, but who gives a fuck?

So I guess in that “marriage of heart and mind” that Hoffman discusses, an author has to balance her obsession with a topic that can reach a wider audience. I have to admit, when Hoffman referenced Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game, which came out earlier this year from Carnegie Mellon, a book of poems that’s all about octopi, I thought, Oh, yeah, I would totally read that.  Who doesn’t like octopi? I like octopi.  I think they’re kind of cool.  I think a book full of octopus poems could totally work—Hoffman thinks Beer has plenty of relevant and urgent things to say in those poems.  I might actually buy that book from Amazon–in fact I’ve put it in my cart…  Whereas, if someone came out with a poetry project on motorcycles, I’d probably fall asleep before I could turn the first page.

This poetry project topic interests me in general because as I’ve said on a few occasions, I need a “hook” for my writing—something to get excited about.  Something to really go into detail with a kind of obsessive delight.  That focusing element that would at least help me get past that moment of inertia where I’m all, “I don’t know what to write about.  I have nothing to say.  Let me go look at cat pictures on tumblr.”

I feel as if I had a “obsession” like that, it might actually make writing easier.  It gives you something to rally around.  When I got back from Venice last year, I wrote seven poems about it.  I wish I could back to Venice because if ever a place was an inspiration, Venice is it.  I know I could write 50+ poems about Venice—but I need longer than a week to be there.  A month might do it.  Maybe two.  But that’s not happening any time soon.

So all of this is by way of saying that I like the poetry project approach to writing books.  It makes sense to me.  I’ve been thinking that it’s time I put together another chapbook.  But then I look at all my poems (particularly the published ones) and I don’t see any cohesive thread—I don’t see how they create an arc, how they work together.  And that is deadly when it comes to creating a collection—deadly because it’s hard to do, and deadly because potential publishers don’t know what to do with them lately, or so it seems.

Anyway, I know I’m a little all over the place today.  I’m sorry about that.  Go read Hoffman’s article–it’s interesting.  And if any of my five readers have a suggestion of topics for me to get excited about and write 50+ poems, please let me know.  That would be extremely cool of you.

2 thoughts on “Now Trending in the Poetry World, the Poetry Project Book (Is It #PoetryProjectBook Yet?)

  1. If only we didn’t “have” to publish all the poems before someone will take a chance on publishing a chapbook or a book. I’ve been obsessed with crazy saints (holy fools?) for over a year, but I’m not sure anyone would want to read a collection about them. And I’m not motivated these days to submit my poems. The motivation is in writing them and sharing them with others. I’m seriously considering self-publishing or making my own press…

  2. It seems to me that publishers don’t want to take a chance on a book unless you really have already published everything inside it. I understand that they are concerned with bottom lines, and if the poems have been thoroughly “vetted” in journals, well then, that somehow adds validity to them. But let’s face it, unless you’re Billy Collins, poetry doesn’t make any money. So why the push to make sure all the poems inside a book have appeared in journals? I guess it makes them feel better?

    For myself, I would say I’d be totally interested in a book with crazy saints. I’ve actually thought about writing some poems like that–I love saint stories–but then when I sit down and do them they come out wrong. I’d read yours though!

    As for self-publishing, lots of people do it and lead productive, happy lives. I don’t think there’s as much a stigma as there used to be…But aren’t you coming out with a book from FutureCycle? Or am I misremembering? That’s a real press! Maybe you’re not in a publishing mood lately, but it will come back, and journals would be so lucky to get your poems.

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