The Poetry Project Book: A Marriage of Heart and Mind
Cynthia Marie Hoffman | July 2015
Though poetry project books have a long history, they currently enjoy unprecedented popularity in the MFA thesis classroom and on the publication circuit. But what makes a book of poetry a project book? Friend and fellow poet Nick Lantz and I began an online interview site to talk to authors about their own definitions of project books and to explore multiple perspectives on this phenomenon. Nick and I are both authors of project books ourselves, so the topic is close to our hearts in more ways than one. But we wanted to look beyond ourselves toward contemporary poetry as a whole and to think about what the proliferation of project books signifies for our genre.
A poetry project book is easily identified by its often strikingly singular focus or its relentless adherence to a formal constraint. Simply speaking, a project book is, as Caki Wilkinson, author of The Wynona Stone Poems, calls it, “a book with a hook.” The interviews we have solicited so far for The Cloudy House include authors of books about octopuses, silent film, slavery, and the lives of Kanye West, Jack Johnson, and Sarah Winchester, and include formal constraints such as prose poems, epistolary poems, sonnets, and a book in 100 sections. They are memoirs and constructed realities. Letters to an imagined editor. Letters to an imagined Empire.
Twenty interviews later, I’m starting to feel as if poetry project books are everywhere. When we reach out to small poetry presses, editors often respond with as many as a half dozen new or recent titles that fit the category of “project book.” Why do we write this way? And why are poetry project books more popular (or, at least more common) than ever?
In fact, one of the first questions we ask of every author is “Why?” And the answer is, essentially, “I was obsessed.” As Jessica Piazza, author of Interrobang, writes, “obsession is my favorite writing partner.” Some authors just become enamored with building a character or researching history and settle naturally on the form of the project book. And in turn, the form of the project book continually asserts pressure to obsess. A project book, in the words of Susannah Nevison, author of Teratology, “demands… a certain obsessive return to the poet’s specific investment.”
It’s an interesting word—obsession. It’s very different from what we think of when we think of a project. Obsession tends to align itself with the muse, with inevitability, with a power greater than ourselves. The subject has sunk its talons deep into the poet and won’t let go—not for one poem or two poems, but for a whole book. I wrote this book, the authors say, because I couldn’t have written any other. Shane McCrae says of writing Blood that he “couldn’t go on writing books if [he] didn’t write this book.”
Project, on the other hand, tends to align itself with the mathematical, intellectual, planning part of ourselves. The subject has instead been meticulously devised by the author’s teacher self. She writes the book because she has given herself an assignment to do so and then followed that commitment, come hell or high water, through to the end. In this sense, at their worst, the idea of writing a project book can seem a dry contrivance, without heart.
If there is anything polarizing about poetry project books, it is this. The criticism, which I have experienced as a sort of grumbling from readers, poets, teachers, and editors seems to be a criticism of too much governance of the intellectual or deliberate part of our creative minds. I think some of us still cling to the notion that poetry comes not from intentionality but from inspiration, from the muse. A project book author, by contrast, is not spilling her soul on the page but rather playing an intellectual game.
Our Cloudy House interviewees sometimes express resistance to the term “project” for this very reason, highlighting a sensitivity to how their work may be perceived in light of this label. Oliver de la Paz, author of the collection of prose poems Post Subject: A Fable, steers us back to his preferred term, “obsession”: “Though you could also argue for this to be called an ‘obsession’ rather than a ‘project’,” he says. “Project sounds a little less romantic and more workmanlike. And while, at times, it did feel like the prose poems were being hewn, rather than bursting forth, there was a romance in the discovery of new possibilities.”
This sensitivity is common, and the “project” label can seem inescapable. Project books, more than collections of poems with no common theme or governing formal constraint, announce their premeditated constructions outright. A project book carries a billboard of sorts advertising the poet’s intellect as governance. But, does this perception (that the mind rules over emotion) ring true?
What we really mean when we identify poetry as having come from the soul or the muse is that there is evident in the poem a sense of urgency. The poet must have something to say. Otherwise, why write a poem? Why write fifty poems? In other words, do you really have X# of (urgent) things to say about octopuses? (Ask Nicky Beer, she does.) At their best, project books merely use a particular subject matter as a vehicle for their true goal, which is arguably the goal of all of the best poetry—an exploration of the human condition. Even when you’re writing about octopuses.
The only time a project book warrants this criticism of being too predetermined is when the poems lack urgency. When a book starts to read like an assignment, then all we are left with is the gimmick itself. And readers can see right through it.
The formula for embarking on a project book is in so many ways familiar, even comforting. As poets, we have historically been bound by formal constraints, and as fewer of us are writing sonnets and villanelles and the like, more of us are in turn seeking out thematic constraints and nonce forms. And it’s a nice feeling, when one is challenged with churning out a thesis by springtime, to know what you’ll write about even before you sit down in the chair.
But it is just as often a recipe for disaster. Even this nice feeling can be something to be “suspicious of,” as Shane McCrae points out. “Go in fear of routines!” he urges emerging writers. And this influx of poetry projects has its impact in the classroom, too, where professors are confronted with students who have committed to a subject or constraint that isn’t living up to its promise, but the poet still clings to it desperately because she must complete (her own) assignment. Editors are often faced with a slush pile of project manuscripts that might get points for cohesiveness but lose it all for lack of soul.
But why this impulse of poets to be steadfast even in the face of (let’s just call it what it is) boredom? Why must we drag things out? In short, there is an increasing pressure on authors (new and established) to create a cohesive collection of poems. The easiest way to do it? Write a project book.
In my work sourcing books for possible Cloudy House interviews, I’ve noticed something—browsing the descriptions of poetry books on presses’ websites and reading blurbs, it would seem that almost everything is a project book. Unless a description is expressly praising a book for its wide-ranging leaps of subject matter, it’s highlighting (even, at extreme times, fabricating) cohesiveness. I have bought and read what I thought were obviously project books that turned out not to be. And as readers, more than ever we’re approaching a book of poetry as we would approach a novel, asking what is it about? This idea of a dominant aboutness makes a book easy to position with readers. Books are sold (or, at least advertised) by their cohesiveness.
Adrian Matejka, author of Smoke (finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize) a collection of poems that examine the life and mythology of boxer Jack Johnson, humbly suggests that “the positive response to this book is the result of Jack Johnson—his charisma, his infamy, his mythology.… Because of him, the book is easy to summarize and has a kind of narrative arc that traditional poetry collections can’t have.” Of course the accolades the book has earned are really due to Matejka’s masterful poetry, but he makes a strong point in acknowledging the value of leveraging a particular subject to find an audience.
In thinking more about why audiences are drawn to project books, Brian Russell, author of The Year of What Now, goes so far as to say, “the random-assortment-of-poem approach to bookmaking is completely obsolete. As more and more poems are published on the worldwide web and freely available for me to read whenever I’d like, a book, as a self-contained object that I have to pay for and exert effort to acquire, must do something more, must be more than the sum of its parts.” I think Russell not only has his finger on the pulse of the internet publishing trend, but his assertion about its affect on the popularity of project books really highlights poets’ awareness of our readers’ changing needs. Viewed this way, the influx of poetry project books can be attributed, at least in part, to this adaptation. Whether or not we’re fully aware of it as we write.
But even before a book is published, marketed, or finding readers, it’s being selected for publication by editors sorting through the slush pile or—more often than not—contest readers plucking the top few manuscripts from their stack. I have to imagine that this pressure on poets to write foremost for cohesion (and second-most for urgency) is rooted in the way we select books for publication. Project books aren’t getting published just because they’re project books. But, in short, it helps.
That is, when a book succeeds both intellectually and emotionally, it helps that the poems cling together in some way. Project books encourage us to think about the endgame—all of our poems pressed together between the cover pages. At their best, project books test our ability to take constraints to the maximum; they challenge our ability to find, and find again, the urgency in our topic.
Some of the Cloudy House interviewees have had a surprising (or maybe not-so-surprising) response to the final question, in which we ask for advice on behalf of young writers setting out to write a project book. Their advice? “Don’t.” There are too many risks. Many project manuscripts fail. At their worst, projects can strip writers of a sense of freedom. As Joshua Marie Wilkinson, author of The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal, argues, “Don’t do it. Let yourself fail at it.… Cannibalize it for the scraps it might yield.”
But prevailingly, our Cloudy House interviewees have offered encouraging advice centered on one critical element: freedom. They point out how important it is to stay open to surprise and experimentation as you write, even within the bounds of constraint, and even if it means breaking your own rules. Alexandra Teague, author of The Wise and Foolish Builders, sees her students “recognizing that they’re actually more creative when they give themselves (or someone gives them) certain strictures. I think a project is just one means of exploring how we can surprise ourselves.”
And, as Lisa Ciccarello, author of At Night, recently said in her interview, “as a writer you should never struggle. Things can be challenging or complex or daunting, but beneath all of that should be a feeling of compulsion, of energy, of desire.”
In other words, a successful project book is the perfect marriage of obsession and predetermination. Heart and mind.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of Paper Doll Fetus and Sightseer (winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry), as well as the chapbook Her Human Costume. Hoffman is a former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She co-edits the online interview series on poetry project books, The Cloudy House (www.thecloudyhouse.com). Visit Cynthia online at www.cynthiamariehoffman.com.