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By Joel Brouwer

oskar-youdontknow

Quick: What do these books have in common?

The Venus Hottentot, Elizabeth Alexander
Louise in Love, Mary Jo Bang
Controvertibles, Quan Barry
Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop
Installations, Joe Bonomo
I Remember, Joe Brainard
Centuries, Joel Brouwer
Asphalt Georgics, Hayden Carruth
The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
Blue Front, Martha Collins
The Whole Truth, James Cummins
Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove
Brutal Imagination, Cornelius Eady
Blind Huber, Nick Flynn
Meadowlands, Louise Gluck
Overlord, Jorie Graham
The Quick of It, Eamon Grennan
A Defense of Poetry, Gabriel Gudding
Thaumatrope, Brent Hendricks
Death Tractates, Brenda Hillman
Translating Mo’um, Cathy Park Hong
Macnolia, A. Van Jordan
Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky
Dick of the Dead, Rachel Loden
All Day Permanent Red, Christopher Logue
A Companion for Owls, Maurice Manning
Ultima Thule, Davis McCombs
The Descent of Alette, Alice Notley
Plot, Claudia Rankine
Sonnets to Orpheus, R. M. Rilke
The Return Message, Tessa Rumsey
The Cosmos Trilogy, Frederick Seidel
Dime-Store Alchemy, Charles Simic
Songs for Two Voices, Bruce Smith
Bellocq’s Ophelia, Natasha Trethewey
Late for Work, David Tucker
Here, Bullet, Brian Turner
The Bounty, Derek Walcott
Sestets, Charles Wright
An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang
Black Maria, Kevin Young

Ready your guess before you click.

Answer: They all have hooks, that’s what! In one way or another, formal or thematic, each of the above books can be described with an accurate and memorable logline, e.g.:

“Poems describing hypothetical art installations.” (Bonomo)
“Poems of 100 words apiece.” (Brouwer)
“Poems concerning the author’s interest in the D-Day landings.” (Graham)
“A poem for (almost) every card in the deck.” (Hendricks)
“Poems in the voice of Daniel Boone.” (Manning)
“Poems comprised entirely of phrases set in quotation marks.” (Notley)
“Poems in the voice of an ‘octaroon’ prostitute photographed by E. J. Bellocq in early-20th century New Orleans.” (Trethewey)

Etc.

This list is merely meant to be suggestive and illustrative of a larger point I’d like to discuss here, so please let’s not get bogged down in quarreling over the individual examples. If you believe one or more of the above books doesn’t belong on the list, I proleptically concede, OK? You’re right and I was wrong.

The larger point I’m interested in is the question of the book of poems, as opposed to the poetry book. I’m interested in this question because it comes up a lot in my conversations with poets — especially younger poets — about the book publishing market. I am not arguing against “poetry books” that seem all of a piece in one way or another. Nor am I advocating for “books of poems,” which would be more like miscellanies. There are examples of bad books and good books on both sides of that divide. I’m simply interested in the phenomenon and its potential effects. I think poets more and more these days conceive of writing projects and then write poems to fulfill those projects, as opposed to writing poems and later attempting to discern what projects, if any, the poems have made manifest. Am I right about that? If I am, what are the potential pleasures and perils of this trend? I offer these random thoughts and request yours in return.

Say you write 18 pantoums about various subjects, 18 poems in various forms about your mom, and a single 18-page poem about that Greek temple in the rocky valley Heidegger goes on and on about. All of these are awesome poems. You publish a bunch of them individually in All The Best Magazines. (Not that long one, though, of course; no one dares to touch that monster.) Now what? Chapbook contests, perhaps. OK, you win one: “MY MOM,” a chapbook. But you know that the coin of the realm in the poetry world is the book, and books are supposed to be three times as long as your chapbook. So what to do. You could write another forty pantoums, another forty poems about your mom, and add parts II, III, IV, and V to your Heidegger poem. But you don’t really want to do these things — you’re tired, and also the idea of having THREE unpublished manuscripts makes you feel even tireder — and, what’s more, you don’t think you should do those things, because you consider these three projects finished, and you know that you’ll just dilute them or wreck them if you yammer any further with any of them.

So another idea: combine the three disparate projects into a single book, and write some additional poems which strain to connect the groups. You spend a weekend trying to figure out what your mom and Heidegger have in common, and how you can write a pantoum about it. You can’t face yourself in the mirror without laughing or crying.

Another idea: just put all three into one book without trying to connect them. Make them separate sections. Tell yourself it’s like getting three mini-books in one book. Look around for published precedents for such books. Discover there are none.

The problem here is the tryanny of the technology of the book, which seems to want to be 48-64 pages long. Why? Because Yale says so? Why can’t we have 18 page books when those are necessary, and 150 pagers when called for? Is this a hardware problem (money or distribution issues) or a software problem (received notions about book length as it relates to “seriousness”) or both or other?

Beth Ann Fennelly had an article in the AWP magazine a few years ago called “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style.” I can’t find it on line. (Fennelly, by the way, should also be on that list up there, for Tender Hooks. “Poems about parenthood.”) Fennelly’s argument, if I remember right, is that since so many first books get published through the medium of contests these days, young poets feel pressure to stand out from the crowd, and one way to do that is to have a hook, a logline, so that after the judge has read 300 mss., she’ll remember “that one about tin mines in Bolivia.” Your tin poems might not be the greatest poems — especially since you only enjoyed writing twenty of them, and the thirty after that were a choreful slog — but they might well stick in the mind more forcefully than better poems in diverse styles on diverse subjects, simply by dint of repetition.

That, clearly, is a bad thing, if that’s what’s happening. But we should also consider the other side of the question. Maybe if you’re going to write a book of pantoums or a book about the tin mines, you ought to be able to write 48-64 good pages along those lines, and if you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing the project in the first place. Maybe you thought you were done writing about Mom after those 18 poems, but if that’s really all you have to say, then you really don’t have very much of any use to say at all, and you should either pick another subject or drop poetry entirely and learn the banjo. When I started writing the 100 word poems that became my book CENTURIES, I sent some to my editorial hero/nemesis Stuart Friebert, who wrote me back to say, “Write 500 of them and then send me the best five to consider for FIELD.” This seemed hyperbolic. I had thought I’d write a hundred of them for the book manuscript. But in the end I wrote maybe 250, and the book only has 50, and I’m embarrassed by at least half of them. Friebert wasn’t so far off after all. As per maddening usual.

And it must be said too that these categories of “poetry book” and “book of poems” I’ve proposed are way more fluid than I’m making them out to be. Bishop’s Questions of Travel is not about travel the way Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy is about Joseph Cornell. And books that I might place in the “book of poems” category, like, I don’t know, I’m just picking these up off my desk, Alison Stine’s Ohio Violence or Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents, do not, it’s true, have the same degree of book-as-book identity as those listed above, yet they do, it’s also true, certainly have threads (midwest winter and motherhood respectively) which run their lengths.

I made a distinction a little earlier I want to return to and end with, though. Because I’m realizing now after spending most of the morning here that I’ve come at this all wrong. I shouldn’t be looking at books and trying to put them on one side of this fence or the other. My question isn’t about products and results, it’s about processes and approaches. 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 — mom, tin, frogs, Heidegger, pantoums, 100 word poems, Daniel Boone, colonialism, trimeter — 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.

My question, it’s taken me 1500 words and all morning to discover, is about whether folks out there are writing inductive or deductive poetry books. And whether that’s a good or bad thing.

Comments (29)

  • On September 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Joel,

    To your question (“Which comes first, the poems or the project?”), and to the thinking leading up to your question, I can safely say that after teaching in 25 or so of the manuscript conferences I run, and after reading manuscript submissions for a press for several years, there’s no question in my mind that the project is nothing without the poems. The order, the overarching theme (“narrative arc”), the research type, extent or depth, the boundaries constructed (100 word poems, e.g.)–none of it makes any difference if every poem doesn’t earn its place. Any discussion of how a book comes to be a book, must of necessity start with the poem (and the poem, with its smallest part, the line). A collection wherein every poem is brilliant will naturally trump any type of book “project” if every poem in that project isn’t also brilliant. The concept of taste is one that many poets fall back on (it’s not my writing, it’s that someone doesn’t like the kind of poems I write) when, in fact, that’s a very small consideration next to the one of accomplished writing vs. not. I suspect this is also true with the book project vs. collection idea (mine isn’t a project and that’s what’s fashionable now). I know this isn’t a direct answer to your question, but I think it’s related to why you needed to write so many 100 word poems. It’s why we all need to write so many poems and revise so many poems in general–it’s about the writing. The idea of the “hook” you refer to here seems utterly wrong in my experience. What stands out is not what the manuscript is about, but the writing. Anybody can come up with themes, ideas, things to “pitch”, but brilliant, accomplished, memorable writing is rare.

    As for my own viewpoint as the writer (which is, I know, how the question is really directed), I would say the inductive vs deductive book is an interesting way to make a distinction, but really, it’s inductive, at least for me, even if I end up doing research or developing a concept that leads to other poems. There’s no creative movement in trying to deliver poems into a pre-conceived concept. Everything in the outside world can be fodder, or even rudder, and a blueprint can exist, but never all of it at once. The poems build the blueprint more than they build from a blueprint.

    Thanks for this entry, it’s really thoughtful.

    (Btw, you can add my book, The Us, out this month from Tupelo, to your list of books with “hooks.” ;-)

    • On September 8, 2009 at 1:31 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

      ugh–sorry about that little smiley face. I’m used to the quieter emoticon showing up.

  • On September 8, 2009 at 1:49 pm Robert Thomas wrote:

    Great question. I would make a couple of distinctions. One is that you can write “some poems in the voice of Daniel Boone” without planning to write a book’s worth, or you can plan to write a book but then realize the sequence is complete at 10 pages. More importantly, you can write a book of poems in the voice of Daniel Boone WITHOUT knowing what the poems are about or what holds them together until you’re either in the middle of writing them or have finished writing them. In other words, even a project as controlled as a Daniel Boone book may be inductive, and probably needs to be. Otherwise you’d end up with nothing but a prose biography of Boone broken up with line breaks, which is more or less the bad rap that “projects” often get even though it’s only deserved some of the time. I think it’s a matter of personal taste, but I like long projects, more or less for the same reason that I like John Coltrane’s 15-minute version of “My Favorite Things” more than his 3-minute version. Of course that wouldn’t be true if he had run out of inspiration after 5 minutes!

  • On September 8, 2009 at 1:49 pm Bobby wrote:

    I think poets more and more these days conceive of writing projects and then write poems to fulfill those projects, as opposed to writing poems and later attempting to discern what projects, if any, the poems have made manifest. Am I right about that? If I am, what are the potential pleasures and perils of this trend?

    One man’s hook is another man’s form, no? And isn’t an engagement with form—however it manifests—a kind of basic definition of the poetic art? I guess I’m having a hard time seeing why you think this a recent phenomenon. The Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, The Prelude, the Four Quartets, and The Maximus Poems were all, in their way, “writing projects,” right?

    Those questions aside, I’d add a basic point–which, having written Centuries, you surely know, but which doesn’t come out much in what you’ve written above: that the choice to stick to a form/hook can be actually be generative of more and better work, and not just a way to (sigh) brand oneself in the mind of a chapbook judge. For me the question is not whether a writer uses a gimmick to get attention—most of those I admire do, somehow or other—but what they do with that attention once they’ve got it.

    And now I’m off to find that person who’s writing about the Bolivian tin mines, so I can kill him. (Or her.)

  • On September 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Great post, Joel!

    I just finished shepherding a 16-year-old student through what will end up as her first chapbook. I named it: “you’re writing a cycle.” This is a bilingual kid who’s won a national grand prize in River of Words. Her grandfather died. She was translating Neruda and writing odes, short lines cascading very precisely down the page. Some of the poems were specifically about her grandpa, some weren’t, but they were all echoing from within the same space. And she would also come out with poems that didn’t partake of the same form/ feeling, and she got to be very clear about what belonged in the cycle and what didn’t. She finished the cycle at 28 pages before going off on a year’s student exchange in Zaragoza, Spain. Whatever she’ll write next will be in Spanish, and about something else.

  • On September 8, 2009 at 2:27 pm Wyn Cooper wrote:

    Great question and topic, Joel, and right up my alley. My last book, Postcards from the Interior, was 52 “postcard” poems written over several years. I was asked to write the first one by a magazine editor, and couldn’t stop after that. I wrote about 200 of them, then found the best 52 for the book. When I was done with that, I started writing sonnets, for no apparent reason. I wrote about 300 of those, narrowed them down to the best 50, and that book comes out next year, Chaos is the New Calm.

    I found that in those years of writing postcards and sonnets I felt alternately on a roll and in a rut. The poems kept coming, but obviously many of them were bad. Many were published in magazines, but many more were poems I wouldn’t read to my dog, if I had a dog (no offense to the dogs reading this). It wasn’t that I was hellbent on writing an entire book in either case, it was more that those were the poems showing up on my screen. It was if I had no control over them! Scary poetry movie, anyone?

    Joan is absolutely right that the quality of every poem matters more than the originality of the project.

  • On September 8, 2009 at 3:04 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    In Spanish, the term for a book of poems which isn’t a project, which doesn’t have a hook, is “un cajón de sastre,” a tailor’s toolbox, which would presumably carry all kinds of miscellaneous implements. There’s a wordplay right to hand in that one, de sastre = desastre = disaster.

  • On September 8, 2009 at 5:21 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    My thanks to everyone for their quick and useful comments. They get me thinking of yet another question. OK, so you’re writing postcard poems or sonnets or poems in the voice of Millard Fillmore or poems about your Grandpa or Gloucester. You’re neither forcing these nor are they coming in bursts of Rilkean angel dictation. They’re just the poems that are “showing up on the screen,” to use Wyn’s phrase. (Hi Wyn!) Sometimes you notice, as Bobby suggests, that all this practicing is leading you to discover new things as you go, and resulting in better poems. Other times you’re feeling so bored with yourself you could cry.

    Here’s the question: Is there ever a point where you should consciously decide to change what you’re doing?

    If you don’t, and you keep doing the same thing, and you’re good enough at it that people like it, and it’s sufficiently distinct from what others around you and before you have done, and it stays the same but somehow also continues to evolve and doesn’t calcify, you’ll have earned what’s often called “a voice.”

    But it’s hard sometimes, isn’t it, to tell a voice (e.g., ____________) from a crutch (e.g., ____________). So hard, in fact, that my assessments one way or the other vary wildly, which makes filling in those blanks impossible.

    This comment’s off the topic of books-as-books and more about oeuvres, probably.

    The painter John Currin said something interesting in a (ridiculously fawning) New Yorker profile: “You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.”

    But how do you know when you’ve come to the end?

    • On September 9, 2009 at 1:08 pm Todd Heldt wrote:

      “Is there ever a point where you should consciously decide to change what you’re doing?”

      When I write, I think of myself as interacting with a perceivable moment. Since each moment is different, it seems that I am always changing what I do. I rarely know where a poem is going to end up when I start writing it, and in those cases when I do, I always feel like the poem has to justify getting to the ending it gets to. Sometiems that takes so long that by the time I get there I realize that the ending is no longer the ending, that time and circumstance has made me understand that the poem is not what I first thought it to be. How much of that change stems from the “conscious desire to change what I am doing” and how much comes from a new understanding of an old moment is hard for me to say. But then, since I see no extrinsic value in changing what I am doing–like, hey, I would sell so many more books if I wrote in Southern dialect!!!–I am only interested in intrinsic motivation, which I guess means that if there is ever a time when I consciously decide I need to change things, then there will be a time when I consciously decide to change things. Sorry if that seems like a flip answer; it is the best I can come up with right now. Still, thanks for providing an interesting question and forum!

  • On September 8, 2009 at 5:47 pm Robert Thomas wrote:

    If you’ve written 100 poems about Grandpa and are “so bored with yourself you could cry,” I’d think there’s a difference between boredom that comes from having “succeeded” in writing the same “good poem” 100 times, and crying that comes from having failed in 100 different ways to do what you wanted to do. Maybe if it’s the latter, one should write that 101st poem about Grandpa. The question seems related to Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on “Late Bloomers,” where he contrasts the ever-changing Picasso with the obsessively repetitive Cezanne.

  • On September 8, 2009 at 10:49 pm john wrote:

    Books with hooks hopefully hook readers. Example: Christian Bök’s “Eunoia,” which Kenneth Goldsmith reported hereabouts was a poetry bestseller. The book-with-a-hook provides a fundamentally different reading experience than a miscellany.

    Old tradition: Yes. Petrarch’s poems to Laura. No individual lyrics by Shakespeare survive, if he even wrote any. That gives me pause. The consensus greatest poet ever — never wrote a short stand-alone poem!

    In music, the album is dead. I wonder how the poetry book survives. They’re both lyric forms — and, in fact, the music-album etymologically derives from older album forms, including albums of writing. I don’t know whether the internet has made a dent in the poem-book market. I’m curious to know.

    Related topic: linked haiku. Another question: Were they originally conceived as books?

  • On September 9, 2009 at 7:46 am Margo berdeshevsky wrote:

    Being a collagist by inclination,I’m often attracted to bringing together the disparate–but the real work is twofold. Always. Yes, the pieces must be fine,in themselves, poems, stories, lines, images, words, & as Joan says, those may be rare as hen’s teeth.

    And/but then–they demand to make a whole, to be satisfying–and until a whole is achieved, harmonious or not–& that’s not the goal, necessarily–let there be room for hard edges & chaos–but depending on the “what” is being said–or trying to be said–until the whole fits, and shows itself, it’s all shards & fractures. Interesting in themselves. Details. But not yet a book or an “oeuvre.”

    I think it’s the same with any thing that aspires to an art. It wants to find wholeness, even when its goal is to offer the breaking–

    And for me, the vision of the whole may come at the middle or even late in the work–but I know that I need such a vision to feel complete, to put away the tools. After days, or years.

    But the question you pose, Joel, of inductive or deductive–”should” remain unanswerable, imho. If the creative process were bound by orders from anywhere but the belly of the muse–would we not soon hang up our pens & dancing shoes?

    margo

  • On September 9, 2009 at 11:25 am Richard Jeffrey Newman wrote:

    I did not think of The Silence Of Men, my first book, as a book with a hook until after I’d put the poems together and read the entire manuscript through. At that point, the through-line (masculinity, sexuality, breaking male silences) became crystal clear to me. What surprised me was that readers saw not only a thematic coherence to the book, but also a narrative one that I still have a hard time seeing. Certainly, I had no narrative intention when I ordered the poems.

    My experience notwithstanding, the question of which comes first, the poem or the hook, seems to me irrelevant if what you’re asking is whether one method or the other is a good or bad thing for poetry (as opposed to whether it is a good or bad thing in any given writer’s individual practice). Methods are methods and can be, in and of themselves, neither good nor bad, and so I think the original way you framed your question is in some ways more interesting. (Though I am of course also interested in hearing about and learning from other people’s experiences with inductive or deductive poetry.) To what degree is the “book with a hook” a function of the (increasing?) pressure not merely to treat a book of poems as a commodity (which, after all, is what a published book is), but for poets and publishers to be more efficiently business-like in their approach(es) to publishing and getting published. The connection between how poets and poetry publishers deal with “the hook” and the ways in which corporations brand and position themselves and their products in the marketplace is one worth exploring I think.

    I had more to say about this. Unfortunately, I am off to teach. I will try to come back later.

  • On September 9, 2009 at 11:29 am Krista Elliot wrote:

    Coming at this from a reader’s perspective, I always feel a bit conned by “poetry books.” Like I have to read the thing in one sitting, or else! And so I trudge on through, bored about three fourths of the way, but soldiering through so I can at least (petty me) say I’ve read the thing. Or, worse, I feel that the poet has some trump card he’s waiting to drop, waiting at the end of the book to greet my “meh” with “couldn’t you see that this book is all about Barthes’ Lover’s Discourse? You fool! The third word in every fifth line is taken DIRECTLY from the third word of the fifth page of each copy of Barthes in the Tampa Public Library! I dismiss you out of hand!” (Dismissed).

    Or whatever.

    I prefer, as I believe Bill Knott does, to dip in, read a great poem, dip out, think, ruminate, etc., come back, read another, rinse, repeat. I don’t prefer getting sucked through some tiny tube of conceptual rinky dink by some tinky poety boo in order for said poety boo to get to bore people to death at an AWP panel on the “first book” or “Barthes and the Rinky Dink: An Etude.” That said, I like Kamau Brathwaite. Or at least I think I do. All of which is to say, respectfully, I’m confused. Thanks for the post, Joel.

    • On September 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

      No, thank YOU, for “rinky poety boo,” which I intend to use in conversation as soon as possible.

      I’ve had students who have also expressed the sense of having been “conned” by thickly themed books, especially historical-based ones. The responses going along the lines of, if I want to learn about Christopher Columbus I’ll read a biography, thanks.

  • On September 9, 2009 at 12:21 pm lydia wrote:

    This question haunts my work. Or rather it aggravates and instigates it into feeling inadequate because it is not conceived of “as book” in the process. I am not someone who tends toward thematics. In fact, I deeply distrust them. When I’m writing my attention is singular and dedicated to what’s at hand. This feels to me like an honest reaction to the world. To force myself to consider a larger project feels false, distracting, and misguiding.

    The only time it occurs me to do this is when I consider the publication of my manuscript and notice that a vast majority of work coming out today is explicitly thematicized. Others have written of this, but the first book as miscellani is dead which is to suggest that our singular perspectives and voices are not enough connective tissue to hold together a book, that it is necessary to wrap it in further “projecthood”.

    I’m not suggesting this is necessarily the case, and would love to hear others’ views on this, but I fear that this is just another success for market forces, that the pressure I feel to thematize my work post-writing has something to do with theme parks and theme kitchens and all that is precisely pop because it always has in mind its target audience.

    • On September 9, 2009 at 3:08 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

      Lydia, That may well have been yet another way to frame this discussion. Do you think about the audience before composition, during composition, after composition, never, or some combination of these.

      The romanticists among us — namely, nearly all of us — will likely rush to say, “Perhaps — perhaps! — after, but never ever before or during.” But let me respectfully suggest that though that may be an ideal many of us cling to, it is perhaps not entirely or consistently our practice as poets. And perhaps it ought not to be?

      You raise another important point I’m grateful for: The notion that every collection is automatically and organically “thematicized” by virtue of the fact that one person wrote it. Even the most miscellaneous of miscellanies is bound together by that fact. And why shouldn’t that, as you say, suffice?

  • On September 9, 2009 at 3:28 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    A brief tangent, but not unrelated. Doesn’t it seem like books have a lot more scaffolding around the poems these days than they once did? Section breaks, titles for the section breaks, epigraphs, etc.? Can someone with more learnin’ than me tell me how recent this phenomenon is? Strikes me it’s related to this anxiety over whether one’s bunch of poems “hangs together” as a single work. If you’re anxious that you’ve written a miscellany that doesn’t cohere, you divide it into three sections (perhaps based on clear distinctions, but perhaps based simply on misty intuitions), give each section a suggestive epigraph and perhaps even its own title, ensuring that the titles and/or epigraphs call to one another in some way (e.g., I. Current; II. Waves in Plasma; III. Tesla’s Testimony), and then suddenly your book-as-book is One Thing rather than many, and it’s not YOUR problem to describe any more the nature of that One Thing, it’s the READER’s problem, because the infrastructure suggests to her/him that it’s her/his job to figure out what the heck your poems have to do with electricity etc. Nifty trick. I should know; I did it in my first book. Not the titles, at least, but the sections and the epigraphs, yes. I’ll say in my defense I did it more out of panic than craven pandering. Assuming the difference is discernible.

    • On September 10, 2009 at 3:01 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

      No more “learnin” than you re: when it began, Joel… though the book of 64 changes, or chapters, or line breaks,or stanzas, or rooms, all come to mind. But I’d argue agin’ your casting aspersions on the use of sections, epigraphs, et al.

      To me, it’s a function of letting elements in a book be in conversation with one another, and with a wider context, too. Like being a good curator in a museum, and using rooms of works that speak to one another from their places in the defined spaces. And epigraphs, if not used gratuitously, may engage the reader and the poem, in a cross converstion, — each with its reference. That’s my own justification, at least, and I don’t at all consider it a trick; nor do I section, title, &/or reference out of panic.

      Rather,I love the possibility of literature being in conversation with its other sisters and brothers, even ancestors. And creating sections in a book allows for needed breathing room, thinking room, different doors in a home of the book – rooms of one’s own, so to speak. With a knowing that there “is” a house, a roof, that covers, and perhaps blesses, too.(As I mentioned in a post above, though, I think it’s fine to not know what the roof will be until the end, or the middle. Tar-paper? Tin? Thatch? Plank? And maybe even the sky is roof enough.If it fits the rooms beneath, eventually.

      I too like to read randomly; eat dessert first, canapes at midnight. But appreciate the author’s design, even if she perceives it after the dust settles. Good to consider such differences and tastes.

      margo

    • On September 11, 2009 at 10:49 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

      It’s an interesting question.

      I tend to think, when reading a poem, or book of poems, that if the scaffolding seems too obvious, too visible, too blatant, too “applied” after the fact, that the poem, or book, was a little too made, and not enough lived.

      I recently heard a musician opine that the difference between the two great conductors Herbert van Karajan and Leonard Bernstein was that Karajan MADE music while Bernstein WAS music. Both approaches have their merits as working methods, to be sure, and both approaches can achieve powerful results.

      Nonetheless, I find I generally prefer the book of poems that appears to be less deliberately MADE. I don’t want to see the scaffolding. I want to be surprised by the music. I admit this may be nothing more than my personal preference; however, I have made the comment in many reviews of poems that if I can see the scaffolding it’s usually not the poet’s best work, and sometimes even the poet has agreed.

      I agree with the comments about creating resonance between sections—to use the musical analogy, the return of themes and their variations—and that can synergize a book to become something greater than its parts. I am all for resonance that emerges from within, that is discovered.

      In some ways this really gets at your question about the book-of-poems vs. the poetry-book: does the form seem to emerge from within the contents, or does it seem imposed from the outside? Whenever we talk about presentation, I don’t think we can avoid talking about intent, or motivation. Presentation, like marketing, usually needs to be intentional: there are choices involved, structural choices as well as tactical choices.

      Many publishers might prefer that a book have a hook, simply because it gives them a clear marketing campaign idea. Regardless of what we may wish, those days of books of poems simply being presented and discovering their audience via word-of-mouth are largely gone; if only because publishing a book is an investment in time and resources. Publishers such as James Laughlin and Lawrence Ferlenghetti have always been the exception, not the norm.

      Honestly, I find a poet’s insistence that their body of work be read as a whole, superseding the individual parts—which is a tactic a few of the LangPoets favor—as a dodge. A way of avoiding criticism, since asking a reviewer to read ALL a poet’s books before commenting on any one of them creates an impposble ask few reviewers are likely to take up. Perhaps it’s even a way of trying to conceal the scaffolding.

  • On September 9, 2009 at 9:27 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    My current project is hendecasyllabic poems addressed to my now year-and-a-half-old granddaughter Tesla Rose. I won’t call it Tesla’s Testimony. The one before that was poems written in the middle of the night with “this poem” as protagonist. A couple of them are all right. The one before that was nine-elevens, nine-line hendecasyllabics. I told Gary Snyder I was going to write 99 of them and he looked at me like I was an idiot. Quite a few of them have been published hither and yon, but nobody seems to want to publish them as a book. The one before that was a science-fiction novel, which taught me more about why I am not a novelist. The one before that was eight-line poems written while travelling way down Latin America across the course of a year. That was published, each poem with a prose-poem commentary, and many people have liked it, but the press promptly went bankrupt. The one before that was a series of poems around the dying of my friend the poet Donald Schenker. The one before that was pretty miscellaneous, but most of the poems were written in and around Latin America.

    I like having a project because it helps to have some idea of where the next poem is probably coming from.

  • On September 10, 2009 at 11:05 am Arlene Weiner wrote:

    It seems to me that many first books are MFA projects, and that this encourages the “hook” book. And that fellowships and grants may come to poets who propose an interesting project.

    I’d like to hear from PUBLISHERS and judges of contests about this question. I did hear from one person that as he plowed through mss in a first sort, he put a book about nuclear physics (or some such–let’s say Bolivia and tin) in the Keep pile, and when he came back to it realized it wasn’t good–it had just stood out from the general run of poems about love and family.

  • On September 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm Robert Thomas wrote:

    In an ideal world I suppose all books of poetry would be masterpieces of organization, but in the real world I don’t think it works that way. If you tossed Emily Dickinson’s collected poems up in the air and picked 50 at random to put in a book in random order, the book would probably not be organized coherently and it would contain many poems that are less than her best. Still, it would be one of the handful of greatest books of the century. The question is whether contemporary publishers would notice it.

  • On September 10, 2009 at 3:15 pm Jessie Carty wrote:

    This is a great topic and a great discussion!

    When I first came back to writing after a 5 year absence, I was mainly revising and writing new poems whenever a new thought occurred to me. Putting those poems together in a “collection” was difficult and when it was accepted for publication, the editor wanted me to create more content. It was difficult to go back but eventually I did get back into the voice, a voice I thought I was done with. Maybe we never completely are? We just, at some point out of boredom or other reasons, abandon it perhaps? I never intended my first collection as a project but now that it is coming to fruition I see the connections.

    But speaking of the poem versus the project.

    1 – I had no project going but i wrote a poem and titled it 7pm and suddenly I started looking for poems and realized I could make poems for each hour of the day so I created a chapbook that was published called “At the A & P Meridiem”

    2 – I wrote a poem called “Oxygen is Obvious” and then decided I’d try to write a poem based on each of the elements in the periodic table, I was so tired of the elements by then end of 110 poems that it shouldn’t be surprising that only 25 survived. Sad, but true!

    But onward with the poems project or no :) !!

  • On September 10, 2009 at 10:36 pm edward mycue wrote:

    my publisher jo-ann rosen of wordrunner press in petaluma, california took an armful of my poems written over many years and selected 25, grouped them into 3 parts, and titled it (after a poem of recent years) I AM A FACT NOT A FICTION.
    then she asked if i approved. the result is the echapbook, my first. her announcement follows:

    A few hundred years ago, chapbooks were pamphlets of popular tales or ballads, hawked in the streets for pennies.

    21st century electronic chapbooks are the contemporary equivalent and have the potential for reaching many more readers than do limited print editions.

    Wordrunner Press will publish between three to four collections of fiction, poetry or memoir each year on this site.
    Published e-chapbooks may be read HERE.

    Art by Richard Steger

    About Edward Mycue

    echapbook.com

    Selected Poetry by Edward Mycue

    “Ed Mycue’s poetry is a lifetime of surprises. He was born
    surprised, grew up on wonder, and now surely lives under
    the ever crashing waterfalls of amazement. His language is
    pure chirp, flip and rouse. It never ever sleeps. Savor his
    lines — like memory — for as long as you dare”
    — Hiram Larew, author of More Than Anything and Part Of

    echapbook.com | September 2009

    War / Peace
    After Time Is Ripe It Is Banished
    Snowblood
    Blood Enemy
    A Century Is a Skull Factory
    White Noise
    Tale of Outlaws in the Commons
    Do I Need a New Story, Victoria

    Life / Time / Memory
    Cell Damage
    Translucence
    Slap My Eyes
    Valleys of Departure
    The Great Wave
    mood is
    Knowledge of a Single Rose
    We Remember Magnolia
    Yesterdreams—Starlight
    Everything Is Bending
    We Leave Nothing Behind

    Histories
    My Policeman
    Because You’re Not Me
    Come Up and Touch Me
    Sometimes I think I’ll Never Learn Spelling
    Driving and Passengering
    Islands in Middle of Lives
    I Am a Fact Not a Fiction

    The featured e-chap 2009 is I Am a Fact Not a Fiction, a selection of poetry by Edward Mycue.

    I Am a Fact Not a Fiction (Home)

  • On September 11, 2009 at 10:28 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

    The poems come first.

    The project emerges when looking at a pile of poems later, and realizing there was an underlying web of coherence, or theme, or linkage, or style.

    To reply to your first statement of the question: “I think poets more and more these days conceive of writing projects and then write poems to fulfill those projects, as opposed to writing poems and later attempting to discern what projects, if any, the poems have made manifest. Am I right about that? If I am, what are the potential pleasures and perils of this trend?”

    I think you’re right about that, in general. I also think that putting the project first, rather than letting poems emerge as they will—organically, to use an unfashionable but accurate way of describing the process—tends to make the poems within the project become uneven, in terms of each individual poem being as strong as the next. I think it tends to make the poet a little too self-conscious, and try to drive the poems more from the head than from the soma. I think it can be a rewarding intellectual experiment, but it rarely leads to poems that linger with me, or that I want to re-read later on.

    Once you figure out the hook—let’s be honest, and call it the gimmick, which it all too often is—what’s left to do? Once you figure out the puzzle in a puzzle-poem, once you’ve penetrated the arcana to discover the trick, or reveal the man behind the curtain, so what? Who cares? One is not likely to find a poem for the ages within such a contraption. It’s all the fashion right now, all the rage, all the controversy too; but while people are still reading “Sonnets to Orpheus” almost a century after their writing, one doubts many of these contemporary project-books will prove to be as durable.

    You’re also right that there are exceptions to all of these points, mine as well as yours. However, one might also point out that the exceptions were made by poets writing at their peak of intensity, the peak of their powers. And that lesser poets, which is most of us, when we start out with the project rather than the poems, are far less likely to make something as memorable.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm Howard Partch wrote:

    Every leaf lays
    dead on the deck,
    their words have
    been spoken.
    Look to the trees
    for the unspoken poems.
    You can see them
    living still, shining
    in the afternoon sun.

  • On September 14, 2009 at 9:12 am Krista Elliot wrote:

    Poetry Boox cannot abide mystery. Not to sound like some behennaed earth mother with my crystal staff festooned with birth stones, but poetry, by nature, is mysterious. Poetry Boox and project poets would like this not to be so, would like to put in their shift at the cannery and collect their wages, but poetry does not (necessarily) reward hard work. It rewards nothing, sloth, and depravity if anything at all. Bully for the booxmakers.

  • On September 15, 2009 at 1:17 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Maybe in the old days, the “hook” was the occasion. Weddings, funerals, political events & people… particular forms were invented for specific situations & times… elegy, pastoral, epitaph, epithalamion… High & low style, light & serious moods, were filtered, determined by the occasion, the topic (Pindar, Horace & the Alexandrians set the pattern).

    But this was hook-by-single-poem.

    Poetry was considered the most refined & intelligible, the most memorable speech.

    Maybe now we have more “thematics” because we have fewer occasions, employ fewer modes of formal celebration in verse. Certain tools have grown rusty, perhaps.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.