The Spokes of Venus, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016
Synopsis: Through exploring the acts and lives of magicians, painters, sculptors, perfumers, choreographers, and composers, The Spokes of Venus explores the tensions between the act of making and the art of observing.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
My first book felt very much like a collection, a gathering of poems that reflect a certain period of my writing life, and I have a manuscript in progress that is very clearly a project book–it is based on historical research and shaped so that the poems directly build on one another in terms of larger narratives. The Spokes of Venus feels a bit like it falls in between these two books, but more on the side of a project book: I focus on the writings, process, and lives of artists in various fields. I suppose I began to identify it as a project book when I began to realize that it clearly excluded the other poems I was writing.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
For six years I taught an Artist Writing course in the low-residency MFA program MassArt has at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I worked with working artists, reading both their writing and the published artists’ writing that I assigned, and I began to be interested in the varied voices and approaches of visual artists. Because of my background as a serious ballet dancer when I was a girl and my current collaborations with composers, the focus began to expand to other art forms as I became interested in the way makers of other kinds of art articulate their experiences.
Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?
I know that some people think of this as a negative term, as if it implies some sort of impure (or even career-driven) mission for a book, but I think the project book could also be called an extended obsession, or sometimes even the more familiar term of poetic sequence. I think we’re grappling for a term for that alternative to collection, in which the poems are each separate projects that don’t necessarily speak directly to one another. A “project” reflects a commitment, an attention from which you allow yourself to explore something through many angles, to stick with an interest, to create a cohesive longer work. In some ways it is akin to the long poem–consider how long poems and sequences are often taught together in courses. Maybe the project book can sometimes even be a sort of long poem with separate titles. I wonder if the interest in project books stems in part from a hesitancy to write or publish long poems at this point in contemporary poetry, particularly in literary journals; a “project” allows us a way to stay with something and to explore things the frame of a single page or two can’t make room for.
Was your project defined before you started writing? To what degree did it develop organically as you added poems?
I had been reading Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writing with my graduate students, and I had the idea to write some poems in response to some of the artists’ statements. This began as a fun prompt for me as I tried to generate new poems while teaching, reading for my doctoral comprehensive exams, and working on my dissertation, which was the historical poetry project book I mentioned above. The first poems for The Spokes of Venus were all connected to visual artists; I was inspired by the way they spoke about making in their writings.
Part of what drove these poems in the beginning was that I also wanted to emulate visual artists’ sense of play and imagination after being bogged down by real lives and history in my other poetry project. New directions came out of that exploration, and this carried me into other kinds of art, such as with the Installation series, in which I began to allow myself to play the role of choreographer through words, shaping impossible site-specific dance performances. I kept going with the artist poems, and then one summer in a residency at VCCA I began to see that these poems were becoming their own book. Because I was at the residency to work on a digital music and poetry collaboration with composer Aaron Stepp, I began writing poems about music and composers as well, and the book continued to expand its scope.
At any point did you feel you were including (or were tempted to include) weaker poems in service of the project’s overall needs? This is a risk, and a common critique, of many project books. How did you deal with this?
This is a great question that I am not sure I can answer for myself. There are a few poems I would cut if I were shaping the book now, but I am not sure that is unique to the project book: poems sometimes take a while to reveal their vulnerabilities. This is also a particularly short book–I cut pretty ruthlessly as I was compiling it.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
This project book emerged as I was “cheating” on my historical project book, which I had begun back in 2003 with a few poems in my last MFA workshops. And because both of these projects were so focused, I also was writing poems in response to the world around me—I had taken an academic job in Mississippi—and those poems will be my next collection with Carnegie Mellon, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country. I find it helps me to have a variety of projects—both poetry and prose—so that I can take breaks from any one project when I get stuck. I always need something new to be working on!
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?
Some early favorite books of mine might be called project books, such as Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris—these are some of the books that encouraged me to think beyond a collection. When I first started seeking out what we are calling project books, in anticipation of my historical project, I was sent toward some great examples, such as Ellen Bryant Voight’s Kyrie, Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah. I later discovered Angela Ball’s Quartet, which is a wonderful book with a focus that is so interesting to me: it’s written in the voices of four women in literary Paris in the 20s and 30s: Sylvia Beach, Nora Joyce, Nancy Cunard, and Jean Rhys. And of course Jake Adam York’s wonderful books were really all project books, and they have influenced me greatly.
My absolute favorite project book is Kevin Young’s Ardency—it is the book that keeps me believing that difficult history can be told through lyric poems. I taught it in a graduate contemporary poetry course I called Covers and Conversations, which looked at a particular kind of project book—poetry books in conversation with particular texts, from literature to historical documents. That syllabus is made up of a list of project books I really find interesting and wonderful, so I’ll include some of the other books here: Louise Glück’s Meadowlands, Christopher Logue’s unbelievable War Music, Nick Flynn’s The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Antigonik, Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [saina], and C.D. Wright’s One With Others. And there have been so many more great project books coming out over the last few years! But I’ll stop here.
As a teacher, how do you see the prevalence of project books and other poetic constraints affecting your students’ writing?
I think project books offer risks and opportunities to poetry students. I think staying with something can mean the chance to write better poems, almost as if the project allows for continual revision around a particular subject. But I have also seen students get too stuck, either formally or in terms of subject or both. It starts to feel like we are seeing the same poem over and over again. The answer to this, I think, is to keep expanding the parameters of the project, allowing in new approaches as well as new subjects.
As an editor, how do you see the prevalence of project books and other poetic constraints affecting your submission pile and how you select work for publication?
As an editor, I enjoy seeing a variety of poems from a single poet so that I can have more opportunities to see what fits a particular issue and our magazine in general. If a project is too focused, without a lot of variety, it becomes either hit or miss for the whole batch. I have also seen some poems that just don’t stand on their own, although they look like they might be part of an interesting book project.
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?
One of the things that fascinated me about teaching writing to visual artists was seeing how they have been trained to break rules while still technically adhering to them; they have learned to stretch prompts and strictures to their limits. I think sometimes those of us who are more on the “English major” side of things can see restrictions as larger and more unmoving walls than they are. The advice I would give is to discover that those walls are expandable, even transformable. Crack the project open and see what else it might have room for.