When Poetry Is a Project

May 20, 2010 — 1 Comment

This is a case of reading (an excerpt of) something, thrusting up my fist in solidarity, and then thinking, but wait, what about…

Ugly Duckling Presse has published a chapbook of an essay by the poet Dorothea Lasky titled, “Poetry Is Not a Project.” She says that too many people are referring to books and bodies of work as “projects,” when a poem is more of an organic thing:

I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain.

Based on this excerpt at The The Poetry Blog, the essay seems like it may be a collage piece, a series of small anecdotes and big statements. One anecdote tells of an encounter with a poet friend, who said he was “working on a project where his goal was to go to the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day.”

Lasky was interested because she’s interested in the museum’s art and in poetry, but when she later got to hear him read his work, she found it was all about the project:

Then he read his poems. I did not like them. After the reading, people talked to him about his project and in general, most people liked the idea behind it, as did I. No one talked to him about his poems. His poems were not important to his project. His project was important to his project.

Yes! (This is where my fist tightened and thrust into the air.)

Ironically, as I continued to browse around UDP’s catalog, I found a book called Ten Walks/Two Talks, which I remembered seeing at AWP last month. I was at UDP’s table to admire the sheer beauty of their books (these people are serious about the pleasures of paper and design), and there was an author signing his book. I asked him which book, and he pointed to Ten Walks/Two Talks, and I suppose he described something like this (taken from the back cover):

The book combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan and a pair of dialogues about walking—one of which takes place during a late-night “philosophical” ramble through Central Park.

I picked up the book to be polite and because it was pretty, but all I could think was that the book sounded like it got off on being a project–a dull project, no less.

At the time I didn’t know about Lasky’s book–though it was probably on the table in front of me–but I definitely have a strong reaction against poetry and prose that is merely a project, especially a dull project. (I haven’t read the Two Walks book, so I may be totally wrong here. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.)

But now, as always, I’m going to take another stance. Because I don’t think projects are a bad thing. I don’t think they’re necessarily inorganic.Think Picasso’s Blue Period, Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, Michelangelo’s Prigioni. Think Joyce’s Ulysses. (Think anything by Joyce.) Think Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. Hell, think Miranda July.

I agree with Lasky that the work needs to be organic, to move “from earth to brain,” but I think that projects can work that way too. These are my first thoughts. I’ll do her the honor of buying her book and reading it before saying anything else, all of which I plan to do.

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  1. Prague, Beyond Kafka « ph.d. in creative writing - July 13, 2010

    […] of Ten Walks, Two Talks, a book I sort of dismissed out of hand a while ago, as it sounded like a dull project, but which has gotten all sorts of good press. Which means I was probably wrong, as […]

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