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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)
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.