Poems : Books :: Trees : Forests?

Jake Adam York
January 24, 2012
Comments 2

Mary McNamara, the LA Times television critic, ends a recent article about “The side effects of binge television”—that is, the increasingly popular trend of watching an episodic show for hours in a row—with this concern:

The danger is that television writers will adjust accordingly, creating series built to be viewed as a continuous whole. No doubt, shows good and bad would emerge from such a model, but it would be a terrible thing if TV lost sight of all its fabulous oddly shaped and unpruned trees while worrying over much about the final shape of the forest.

Having, over the last few weeks, watched the first three seasons of The Wire (for the first time, yes) between long sessions in which I’ve been hammering out the shape of my next book of poems, McNamara’s concern reminds me of similar cautions in several recent (and not so recent) pieces about poetry books (or books of poems).

Most recently, Erika Meitner wrote a piece on the trends she, as a screener for a national contest, was able to identify in recent poetry manuscripts. The piece proposes a (“potentially false”) distinction between “project books”—those that have a central theme or method—and “mix tape books.” Meitner noted:

When I told a poet-friend I was screening approximately a zillion manuscripts, she posited that as an initial screener dealing with sheer volume, I would be influenced by the apparent coherence of ‘project books’—that I would gravitate toward sequences of poems because they seemed automatically like books and it would be easier to trust them somehow, though both of us agreed that we, in general, as readers of poetry, prefer books that offer the reader a variance in sensibility and approach.  Which leads to my first (potentially false) dualism in here:  there are ‘project’ books, and there are ‘mix-tape’ books.

The friend’s concern seems to be founded on the question Beth Ann Fennelly—in her piece “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style” in the October/November 2003 issue of the AWP Writer’s Chronicle—raised about whether the need for a manuscript to stand out was encouraging more and more poets to conceive of “project books.”

Joel Brouwer, writing for Poetry, summarizes, or remembers, Fennelly’s article:

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.

Within this is an implicit argument against the project book, which is made, independently, by Katrina Vandenberg in a Poets & Writers article (in which the mix tape is balanced by the art-rock project album), also quoted by Meitner:

Don’t get wrapped up in a book’s concept at the expense of its poems. We’ve all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album. For what it’s worth, the Rolling Stone album guide calls Sgt. Pepper’s not a triumph of songwriting, but of production.

Having been a screener and a final judge for book contests, I read these articles with some sympathy. I’ve found a lot of project books in the stacks, and I’ve remembered their loglines long after the contests, though many of them, if graspable, wanted more vigor. So, maybe the project book, being warned against, is a product of this system; maybe it’s a regrettable creature of the time.

As the author of a project book (or two, or even three depending on who’s counting), it pains me to agree with this, especially since there are so many great books that could be considered project books. Brouwer’s piece lists 41 such books.

So, I think back as well to the other manuscripts I’ve read that didn’t make it into the final judge’s hands, or the manuscripts I’ve had in my final hands that didn’t win—and, truth be told, there are just as many of these “mix-tape” books that didn’t hold together: the impression they left (or failed to leave) is just more diffuse, less taggable, I guess you could say.

All this to wonder if the concern in McNamara’s piece, that the larger shape will somehow winnow the wildness from television’s form, or the consonant concern in these essays about the poetry book—I wonder if these aren’t, as Meitner allows, predicated on a “potentially false” distinction.

There is, for example, a remarkable degree of formal and tonal coherence in Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch or David Bottoms’s We Almost Disappear—these books won’t be confused with these poets’ others, or with the work of anyone else—and yet I can still remember my first reading of “Blackbirding on the Hudson” or “Walking a Battlefield: A Love Story”: the poems within these books don’t disappear into the book.

2 thoughts on “Poems : Books :: Trees : Forests?

  1. Or one may simply write a lot of poems, filing some in one file and others in another, and when a manuscript appears, it looks like a “project” manuscript when it is not.

  2. Pre-creating a book of poems before the book of poems has been written seems like an elaborate and tricky solution to the relatively simple project of putting a selection of poems in some kind of order. It is possible to discover such an order ex post facto by examining the relationships between the poems once they’ve been written. And the bonus is, you can free up your process to better encompass the immediate, rather than writing that 43rd poem about DARKNESS, or whatever.

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