05 October 2009

Make mine miscellaneous!

I don't keep up to date on all the Serious Debates going around the poetry world, because I'd rather just read and write poems, but a link connected me to a link that connected me to a link that brought me to Zach Wells' always-interesting blog, and apparently a bunch of guys are talking about thematic books of poetry.

Hey! That's the subject of my latest column in sub-Terrain! I don't normally run my subby columns here on Bloggamooga, but I figured I should get in on the action. Meanwhile, subscribe to sub-Terrain today!



Make mine miscellaneous!

Earlier this year, I sat on a jury for the Canada Council for the Arts. We were giving out grants for poetry to “emerging writers.” Our little cabal of three could do this presumably because we were “emerged writers.” Anyway, sitting on a jury is often an eye-opening experience. There were the usual aesthetic disputes, the daydreamed throttling of one juror by another, the awarding of grants to people one wants to kill, and the occasional great moment of camaraderie. The food was pretty good too.

But the thing that struck me most was the nature of the manuscripts. Sometime over the past couple of decades, something really strange has happened to poetry in this country. And I wanna know why.

See, I did some statistical forensics of the two big boxes of submissions we had to go through. I sorted the 89 manuscripts into categories. I called the first category “Projects” — these were book-length poems, or collections that comprised a single project. Think Christian Bök’s Eunoia or angela rawlings’ Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. Think Herménégilde Chiasson’s beautiful Beatitudes and Tom Walmsley’s glorious Honeymoon in Berlin.

The second category was “Themes” — collections of poems all exploring a single theme or character. Like Paul Vermeersch’s The Fat Kid or Gary Barwin and Derek Beaulieu’s Frogments from the Frag Pool. Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio.

Next came what I called “Themes in Sections” — either a book divided into, say, three or four sections, each exploring one theme, or a book containing discrete projects. Alessandro Porco’s highly entertaining The Jill Kelly Poems and Sharon Harris’s Avatar. My own Dead Cars in Managua would just about fit into this file. Maybe Paul Dutton’s Aurealities.

The final category I labelled “Miscellaneous” — collections of poems whose greatest connection is that they are all written by the same author. In other words, this latter category is simply a collection of poems someone wrote. The best of what they have lying around, presumably.

Now, there are some good Project books, and some good Theme books, and some good books constructed as Themes in Sections. Great ones, even. But my favourite poetry books are the Miscellaneous breed: an eclectic grab bag of poems by a single author. Tulsa Kid, by Ron Padgett. The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight, by Charles North. Primitive, by Gil Adamson. I could go on.

In fact, I will go on, because you should read every goddamn one of these books. The Bone Broker, by Lillian Necakov. Capitalism, by Campbell McGrath. A Defense of Poetry, by Gabriel Gudding (OK, most of the poems in there invoke butts, asses, and rectums, but it’s not truly a Theme book). Rhymes of a Jerk, by Larry Fagin. Pearl, by Lynn Crosbie. The Romantic Dogs, by Roberto Bolaño. Flutter, by Alice Burdick. Shroud of the Gnome, by James Tate. Jen Currin’s The Sleep of Four Cities. Your Name Here, by John Ashbery.

Read them, you bastards! Buy them and read them! (You’ll never find a copy of Rhymes of a Jerk, but I’ll make you a pirate edition for $75, OK?)

But I ask: Why so many stinking Project and Theme books? And why are writers who describe themselves as “emerging” writing so many of ’em? Shouldn’t writers who are learning the trade be trying out everything they can, creating a tangle of eclectic experiments, writing about any stupid thing that pops into their churning skull?

Where did this all start? It’d be easy — and fun, too! — to blame it all on Christian Bök, whose book-length poem Eunoia sold 14,000 copies and made a lot of young poets think they could be superstars. Now, there’s a book that you can describe to someone and make it sound interesting: “Oh yeah, so each section uses only one vowel! It’s really cool. Yoko Ono!” But how do you make Shroud of the Gnome sound good? “There’s all these poems and they’re great and one of them’s called ‘Shut Up and Eat Your Toad’!” Just doesn’t grab in the same way.

I think, though, we can apportion the bulk of the blame three ways.

First, grant applications. Those “Project Description” requirements are evil fuckers, eating at the very fabric of our nation’s poetry. Does a focused Project or Theme make for a better book of poetry? Nope — more often than not it means oat-meal-like homogeneity. Or some interesting idea stretched beyond its natural limit to achieve “book length.” But it sure makes it easier to describe what you’re working on when you have to fill out a grant application. Maybe it even makes the book you’re applying for sound more important. Maybe it makes the writer feel more important.

Next, let’s string up those goddamn MFA programs. Lucky for us, we don’t have the kind of sausage-factory industry that’s eating away at the U.S., but I think that’s the hideous direction we’re headed in. Again, it’s easier to spend a couple of years working on something you can define in a concrete fashion, rather than something you can’t. Plus, again, a Project manuscript sounds important. It’s more tangible: you can talk about it with your thesis advisor and it’s like you actually have a topic for your discussion. I don’t know that it’s the way to write exciting poetry, though. So I hereby command all universities to shut down their MFA programs in creative writing.

Finally, there are the publishers. What the hell do they know? The “sales force” for their distributor has been whining to them: “We only have eight seconds to pitch a book to the buyers for Big Fucking Box Stores. It’s way better if we can say, ‘A marvellous collection of poems about gardening and suicide’ instead of, ‘Oh yeah, this is the new poetry book by L. Beau Noodles.’” A Project or Theme collection also makes it so much easier for publishers to write their catalogue copy. So there’s all this pressure on writers to come up with poetry books that can be described as if they were novels.

This new concept thing with poetry collections — it makes me sad. It limits us. It makes art convenient.

I’m heading to the mountains to start a guerrilla resistance. Join me. The food’s pretty good.

Over and out.


At October 05, 2009 10:52 pm , Blogger Paul Vermeersch said...

I am currently enrolled in an MFA program and writing about a particular theme, but I agree that books of awesome poems that are just books of awesome poems are awesome.

But I also like Ted Hughes's "Crow" a lot.

At October 06, 2009 11:14 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you! You've given me the courage to write, "This is a collection of poems about things that interest me," the next time I fill out one of those grant application project descriptions. Maybe I'll fare better.

At October 07, 2009 11:08 am , Blogger Chris said...

But what's the difference between a themed book and a miscellany? What sorts of differences go into play that make it even possible to prefer one over the other?

I agree with you about grant applications and some of the dangers of MFA programs, but I still find themed books more interesting, in general. But I'm particularly interested in the ways that pieces are connected to one another, and how things that are similar-but-different can be connected to one another -- I'm interested in the structures of themed collections, much more than I'm interested in, say, an individual poem. (Even my favorite individual poems often work as variations on a theme.) This is all a bit too reductive, but I think that a themed collection provides some sort of formal interest that the individual poems in a "greatest hits" anthology often don't have, and my interest in poetry is largely about issues of form.

At October 07, 2009 11:59 am , Blogger Razovsky said...

Chris, the difference between a themed book and a miscellany, as I see it:

A themed book was created as a themed book. The poems are consciously linked in some way.

In a miscellany, it's serendipity and authorial obsessions that link the poems, if indeed they are linked in any way.

At October 09, 2009 4:43 pm , Blogger Pearl said...

does something about the marketing of themes and projects work? I've heard of all of those titles and only a couple of the misc titles. I'll have to look those up.

deal breakers...what's on the menu of the revolution?

At January 18, 2010 6:47 pm , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

Stuart, I will ask (to play devil's advocate), why should a bunch of disassociated poems be published as a book? Why not publish them in an archive? Why is the codex form the proper form for collections of "stuff"?


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