Hundred-Year Wave, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016
Synopsis: Hundred-Year Wave borrows Ahab’s grand quest for the white whale to tell a contemporary story about the wilderness of suburban motherhood.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
The only unifying quality I find in project books is their authors’ willingness to dive into their obsessions rather than avoid or try to diversify them. I have always had a one-track mind, so this way of working seems to suit me.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
In my book, and in my life at the time I wrote it, I felt I had no choice but to embrace my subject if I wanted to write at all: I was immersed in the all-encompassing experience of new motherhood, so anything I wrote was going to be infused with it. I tried briefly to avoid the subject because of self-consciousness about how it might limit my readership (“don’t write Mommy poems!”), but realized fairly immediately that there was no way out. The dual obsession with the mythical white whale and this all-male seafaring history was a lucky, if odd, other angle that allowed me a reprieve from time to time from my own body, and let me see my experience through a more foreign lens. Whaling history is also my family’s history, with our stories passed down through women (6 generations of them) and the adventures at sea all had by men. There seemed something significant there in the gendered work of family and of recorded history.
Was your project defined before you started writing? To what degree did it develop organically as you added poems?
I had no idea why I was writing about the sea, except that I lived inland, in a suburb, and was about as bound to the earth as I’ve ever been: most of the time, I had a small human physically attached to my body in some way (on the interior or exterior), so I felt weighted, needed, physically grounded. Even to go out for a drink with friends I had to keep track of the time, work around a feeding schedule, ask permission to go out at all. Not that my partner kept me under lock and key, but suddenly my decisions weren’t mine to make alone. The idea of those men who left their families for three years at a time to roam the largely uncharted “watery part of the world” was the antithesis of my life—both a brutal hardship I’d never have to face, and a fantasy I wished for.
I had been drafting poems and lines (not finishing anything) that must have been loosely about motherhood. One day, in the Little Free Library that I had installed in our front yard, a neighbor left a boxed set of audiobook CDs—the book was Moby-Dick. I had read it years before and loved its rapture and energy, but had forgotten much of it. Since I never seemed to have time to read at home anymore, and since I commuted an hour each way to my teaching job in Chapel Hill, I stashed this set in my car and, the next day, popped in Disc 1. From that point on, I was immersed in 1850s New Bedford every time I left my house. The first poem I wrote that brought these two subjects together was called “Canticle in the Fish’s Belly,” which is a line from Father Mapple’s sermon to the sailors in which he tells them of Jonah’s repentance in the belly of the whale. I loved the line and assigned myself the task of writing a poem with this title. What I didn’t realize until I started was that I would immediately begin writing about my wedding, where I wore an ancestor’s wedding dress passed down through my family. The dress was made in New Bedford and had whalebone stays in the corset—so I literally got married inside the mouth of a whale. Writing it, making the connection as I wrote each line, I felt I had found my metaphor and finally walked into my story.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
I wish I could have written other things! I was quite unsure this book was going to come together, or that anyone would want to read poems made of the strange unifications of my sleep-deprived mind. But it was all I could write whenever I sat down to the page.
As you were writing, were you influenced by your experience or perception of how project books are received by readers and editors (either positively or negatively)? Do you feel differently about your book being defined as a “project book” now that it has been published than you did when you were writing it?
This is the second book I’ve written that has been called a project book. I was nervous about that classification the first time around, thinking it could suggest to some readers that craft was less important to me than subject. But why should that be? Any kind of book can be done well or badly. In a way, the intense narrowing of subject matter allows for more focus on craft elements, in that the author understands they very clearly need to be done well and be varied, in order to keep the poems from getting repetitive.
Do you have a sense of whether the fact that this is a project book helped position it to find publication more easily? Has it helped you find readers?
It’s nice to be able to tell people your book is “about” something, since those are the terms that most non-poets use to ask about what we do. It’s a simplified way to describe a poetry book, obviously, but I can say it’s about new motherhood, about my obsession with Moby-Dick, and about my family’s own history in the whaling industry. Has it helped me find readers? Maybe. I think there’s a large audience hungry for books that write from the wild edge of new motherhood right now, so having that element front and center in my book has placed me among a certain group of writers, which perhaps brings my book to a larger audience. And I’m finding a surprising number of Melville devotees, too. And that’s kind of fun, to find those people with whom you share affinities, but I also love to think of my book falling into the hands of less obviously-affiliated readers, and I’ve especially been grateful for their responses to it, just because it seems like they don’t need it for anything.
As a reader, are you drawn to project books? What project books have influenced you or have you enjoyed, and what do you think makes those books successful?
I love C. D. Wright’s explorations into the documentary method in so many of her books. The one I most swoon over is probably One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which had a big impact on me as I worked on my first book. I love Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Louise Glück’s Vita Nova, Toi Derricotte’s Natural Birth, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, and (not poetry) Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
All of these books are at least a decade old—these are the ones I think of that shaped me and my own sense of what a project book could do when I was first imagining what I might write. There are dozens of fantastic new books I’m also reveling in right now: Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana, Carrie Fountain’s Instant Winner, Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics, Jessica Fisher’s Inmost, Saeed Jones’s Prelude To Bruise. And I’ve only just begun it, but Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK promises to be jaw-dropping.
What advice can you offer other writers, particularly emerging writers or poetry students who may be using the project book as a guiding principle for their own work?
The work still has to move. The thing I like best about project books is how they can take us somewhere—the momentum they build is intense because the subject matter and lyric tensions can build together as we read through. It’s clear that the author is surprising herself with where she ends up in the process. But some projects seem to have fixed parameters, with the subject limiting the author’s sense of exploration. If that’s where you find yourself with your project plan, it’s time to change direction—not for your future audience’s sake, but for your own! It should always be an uncharted course, revealing itself only as you go.