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Tell us more about this “project” of yours, Mr. Berryman.

By Kathleen Rooney

The chapbook-length essay “Poetry is Not a Project” by Dorothea Lasky was published in 2010, but I just got around to reading it this past weekend. (Hat tip to my Creative Writing student Cassandra Gillig for the rec.) While it only took me a few minutes to read, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards. Ben Fama, who edited the essay, explains that “Lasky’s theory pushes against the limits set out by conceptual writing, striding toward a more cosmic and otherwordly approach to artistic creation,” but the whole piece is available at the Ugly Duckling Presse website, and you should probably read it before reading anything else I have to say about it. It’s cool; I’ll wait.

Okay, so. The essay is from UDP’s Dossier Series, whose publications “don’t share a single genre or form—poetry, essay, criticism, interview, artist book, polemical text—but rather an investigative impulse.” The investigative impulse on display in Lasky’s thought-provoking pamphlet is one that makes me want to respond in all kinds of different ways, an urge that has made at least one writer before me, Jason Schneiderman in Coldfront, split himself in two—giving both “The Curmudgeon’s Review” (“Lasky kept reminding me of students who keep wanting to know why they can’t just enjoy the poems. Well, you can, but you didn’t need to come to class for that. And if the existence of secondary texts destroys your enjoyment of primary texts, it’s within your rights to ignore them; it’s not within your rights to call for their destruction or arrest.”) and “The Poet’s Review”(“After all, a curmudgeonly reader could spend weeks and weeks writing a ridiculously long essay trying to figure out what distresses him about an argument that ultimately tells him what everyone already knows: Poetry is not a project. Poetry is about pleasure. A poem is a poem… what else is there to say?”)—to critique Lasky’s argument.

Cassandra’s recommendation of the pamphlet said: “Just read this essay and have been thinking about it in the context of the many ‘project-oriented’ things I have read lately (esp. MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON […]); thought it may be of interest.” I should mention that she also loaned me CA Conrad’s latest book, the aforementioned A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon New (Soma) Tics, which she loved, and which I am reading now and also loving. Like Cassandra, I, too, have been reading a lot of poetry that could be considered “project-oriented” lately. Of course, I can’t speak for her, but I have been enjoying these books quite a bit. Here, for the sake of examples, it might be useful for me to name just a few that I’ve read, re-read, or published recently, and admired for their cohesiveness:

The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail by Gregory Sherl

Zong! By M. NourbeSe Philip

Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess

The Hounds of No by Lara Glenum

I Take Back the Sponge Cake: A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure by Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson

The Louisiana Purchase by Jim Goar

I would call these books “project-oriented,” but I would also call them “good” because, like most successful project books, they succeed because every aspect of them has something to say to and about every other aspect of them—what they are about seems to have something to do both with how they were composed and how the poems look on the page.

It sounds, at first, like Lasky is objecting to poetic projects in general, which I’m not sure she is. In fact, her objection might actually be to the over-valuation of poetic projects, which lures or coerces some poets into doing them when they might be better off doing something else, or writing on more of a poem-by-poem basis.

To put it another way, it sounds, ultimately, like what Lasky is opposing is simply mediocre-to-bad poetry, which: high five. Poetry that’s not especially inhabited does frequently disappoint. But much of the kind of arguably “intuitive” poetry that is appealing (because, as Lasky says, “the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal”) can also feel very thinky and disciplined. Like the poet did not just have his or her antenna up all the time listening for the poem in the breeze, but also worked hard at closely reading his or her own work as he or she was writing it, which—it seems—is one of the ways you can know if you’re doing a “project” or not: by asking, Is this stuff talking to other stuff I’ve written or that I plan to write? And by constantly making connections and asking What is this like? then making compositional and organizational decisions or setting parameters based on the answers to those questions.

Maybe a poem is not a project, but a bunch of them can be a project—whereas a bunch of meh poems is just a bunch of meh poems? When I showed him the essay, a friend of mine said, “Like anything else, I suppose: brilliant people make brilliance out of anything; dullards make dulliance out of everything.” Is he right, or are projects actually pernicious?

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by Kathleen Rooney.