Country of Ghost, Red Hen Press, 2015.
Synopsis: Country of Ghost is a sequence of poems written over a four-year span chronicling the titular character’s journey across Spain, France, and north into Finland.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
Well, a volume of poetry is a “project book” in two broad senses: first, the author writing a sufficient number of poems that can be organized into a cohesive manuscript; second, the latter process of working with a publisher—in this case, long-supportive Red Hen Press—to make that manuscript into an attractive book in the reader’s hand. So, no insight there.
A bit more specific to Country of Ghost, it’s a “project book,” I suppose, in terms of it being a “concept book” dealing entirely with a single character. The only other collection of poetry of mine nearly as cohesive would be Let Me Explain, which consists entirely of apologias.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter. With the apologias I just mentioned, I consciously wrote nothing else for nearly three years, during that commitment gradually filling out, discovering, and challenging the form. This new book, however, began when Ghost appeared to me across a bridge in a small town in Spain in 2009. He wouldn’t accept less than my full attention that summer and in two that followed. Our evolving relationship was fascinating, if sometimes nerve-wracking. Engaging with him, determining the schedule and method of his passage. Especially intriguing for me, since I don’t believe in ghosts.
Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?
I’m neither comfortable nor uncomfortable with the term “project book.” However, the phrase seems to have intended nuances that possibly I’m not comprehending. To me, “project book” suggests a visual component, a collaboration of art and text, where design and print technique would be integral and prominent.
Was your project defined before you started writing? To what degree did it develop organically as you added poems?
Ordinarily, I consider myself to have a new book when I’ve written enough poems that, say, 50-60 of them enjoy hanging out together and talking to each other in resonant ways. This may require 100 poems, maybe more. Country of Ghost was a different process. I felt along as I went—as we went—to figure out the parameters: where we were going; what was my role as chronicler, confidant, and sidekick. And over the course of the four years, I noticed changes: fewer anachronisms, probably even more dark humor, and Ghost speaking a lot more. He was a rather quiet fellow at the beginning—feeling me out, possibly. Anyway, if memory serves, every Ghost poem that I completed went into the book, which is kind of remarkable. I didn’t cut anything. And they were all written in Spain, Finland, and France, with the exception of the last poem in the book, which I ironed out in my head on the flight home and wrote down as soon as I’d gotten some sleep. The end.
I might just add to these notions of beginning, definition, and the organic that Ghost shocked me with his initial appearance, but I assumed that summer was an anomaly, a fluke. After all, as Lorca wrote, “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead in any other country in the world.” I published a chapbook simply titled Ghost and assumed that was that. So when he showed up in Finland two years later, staring at me almost nonchalantly across a lake during one of the White Nights, obviously heading north and again requiring my attendance, I gave up trying to guess or control what the hell was going on. I had some spectral tiger by the tail, demanding I hold on.
How important was it for you that each poem could “stand on its own” or that the poems should rely on other poems in the book, or on the premise of the project itself, to succeed? What challenges did this present for you when writing single poems or structuring the book overall?
I’ve already partly addressed these matters, but they do seem particularly germane to this book. I absolutely wanted the poems to stand alone, but it was clear that some sort of gestalt should happen when they were assembled, that they were necessary to one another and more forceful in their sum. As a sidebar: When I began submitting the Ghost poems to journals, when they were accepted an editor would often take several, which I found interesting. They gave each other context.
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?
I would prefer to think there are no “weak” poems in the book, but rather some that are smaller and quieter than the louder, flashier pieces. The mortar. The night whisper behind the wailing.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
All of the poems were written during three intensive residencies: at Can Sarrat, Arteles Arts Center, and the Camac Centre d’Art. During those periods I worked on nothing else and thought of little else. Full immersion, yes, with a dram of gin at night to alter the mood and divert the attention. The poems were conceived, composed, and fully revised during those months. Nothing was changed or added later.
Did you ever lose momentum, bore yourself, or worry that your project could not be sustained for a full-length book? How did you push through?
To be honest, I felt off-balance and excitedly lost most of the time. And, initially, I hardly dared to consider that I might belabor the conceit for an entire book. My concern was trying to pull off the idea daily, poem by poem, letting my haunted and haunting friend lead me where he would and trying to listen, be attentive, and either stay out of the way or jump right in the swirling waters, as seemed appropriate.
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?
Over the past, maybe, dozen years, and as I’ve crept into middle age, I’ve written more and more sequences, what I half-jokingly call “serial poems” because that makes them sound more dangerous. Ghost is the latest and most sustained and ambitious of these. The rambling answer to your question is that, yes, readers, editors, publishers, and reviewers seem to respond favorably to a unified series, if it works. And I believe this one does. Best of all, nobody has to listen to me talk about myself, or, good god, my “feelings.’’
Have you abandoned other project attempts? How did you know it was time to let go? What happens to project poems that never amass a full-length book?
Oh yes, many times: half-baked novels, illustrated children’s books always begun drunk at midnight, lots of poetry series that died on the vine. It’s pretty easy to know when something’s straining, ill-conceived, or just stupid. What happens then? Into the trash. Then go write something better. When I was younger and more flamboyant—melodramatic?—I liked to burn manuscripts on the grill, with a lot of lighter fluid, the ashes rising into the twilight air.
After completing a project, how did you transition into writing something new? What are you working on now? Another project?
2015 is an odd year for me in the sense that I had two books published this spring. Unusual, purely coincidental, and more than a little stressful. The Poet’s Guide to Food, Drink, & Desire just came out from Stephen F. Austin UP. We’re marketing it as a “cookbook-memoir.” The volume’s a cheeky hybrid of recipes, reminiscences, and snippets of food poetry from my own work, with lovely little illustrations by James Dankert. A “project book” indeed, one written entirely at my log house more or less concurrently with Country of Ghost. The next book of poetry is finished—by design and for better or worse radically different in style and sensibility than Country of Ghost—and I’ve a secret project I’m mulling over. I turned 50 in April, so there’s some urgency to getting a couple of more books written while I can still sit upright and type for myself, but I never talk about anything that I’m working on.
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?
I’ve always been wary of advice, either freely offered or reluctantly received. Write the work you’re compelled to write. Always be pushing toward something, as Hemingway said, “that is beyond attainment.” Embrace fear. Applaud failure. Ignore trends. Be impervious to rejection and wary of advice. And avoid writers’ conferences unless someone’s paying you.