The Tornado Is the World centers around an EF-4 tornado (a sentient, self-aware one) that hits a small town.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
I’d define a “project book” as one whose poems are linked by a unifying premise or formal constraint—a book of sonnets or ghazals or prose poems, a book where the poems revolve around one specific topic, a book that sets out to tell a particular story. It’s the second two that apply to The Tornado Is the World, but somewhat loosely—not all of the poems in the book revolve (no pun intended) around tornadoes, and the story itself comprises one of the book’s three sections. So the project aspect of this book is there, absolutely, but employed in a kind of flexible way.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
My tornado obsession runs deep and goes way back, and I’d been planning to write a short series from the perspective of a tornado. It was going to be speculative, maybe a little absurd—I was going to imagine this anthropomorphized tornado into various situations, explore its personality, etc. But following the 2011 tornado outbreak in the South and my own experience during that outbreak, I realized that a short series like I’d been imagining was much too small-scale. I wanted to explore the tornado, but I also needed to write about the people impacted by it.
Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?
Not entirely—I think it’s the tentative-sounding nature of the word “project.” To me, it suggests something that’s in process, or something one fiddles around with to occupy one’s time as opposed to for a larger purpose, or something done in an amateur-ish way (sitcom dads are always working on around-the-house projects, right? And then the toilet explodes?). So for that reason, I’m not entirely comfortable with what I perceive as the connotations of the word. I don’t have any other suggestions, I’m afraid (though I love the one Kirsten Kaschock jokingly made here, about calling it a “rectangular obsession repository,” and I might start lobbying for that). But I don’t have particularly strong feelings about the phrase—if someone wants to call my book a project book (as, ah, I’m doing in this interview), that’s fine by me!
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 did feel like this periodically, and I dealt with it by ramping up my editorial brutality and cutting, cutting, cutting. There are a few poems in the book that reference certain characters—a dentist, an old man, a couple killed by their loblolly pine—and I wrote poems about or from the perspective of each of these characters, feeling like I “owed” it to them, and feeling like the project required it in some way. But those poems weren’t that good. They felt a little forced, which of course they were, and I realized they were bogging the book down. So I cut them, along with a bunch of other poems that set scenes or filled in the blanks but weren’t compelling as individual poems. When I let myself trust the book as a book of poems that offered a narrative arc rather than a narrative comprised of poems, I felt much freer, and the book, I think, benefitted from that freedom.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
I did fully immerse myself in this book, but not always in the tornado-narrative of it—the other two sections certainly have some overlap in terms of thematic concerns and references, but the poems themselves range pretty widely. So I guess you could say I was immersing myself, but coming up for air.
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?
I tried to stay very attuned to my own interest in my subject—when that interest flagged, I took it as a warning worth heeding. The tornado poems required a sort of sustained acquaintance with terror, with the intensity of terror a tornado can prompt, and it was usually pretty easy for me to access that emotion, but there were times when I could feel myself kind of going through the motions of writing about the tornado-as-character without really hooking into that necessary intensity. When I felt that happening, I scrapped those poems and waited until I could enter into that particular part of the book effectively again. The two non-tornado sections that provided that option of coming up for air also helped with this—I toggled back and forth between subjects, which allowed me to maintain consistent energy across the poems.
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?
Don’t let yourself get bogged down by your project’s constraints, and don’t sacrifice the quality of the book or the individual poems in the service of the project. The phrase “guiding principle” above feels exactly right—let it be a guide, a path, a challenge, a corn maze, a Rubik’s cube, whatever sort of constraint feels most satisfying to you—but if it starts to feel like a straitjacket, a tiny room, a lightless tunnel, then scrap it, or let yourself transform it into something that helps rather than hinders. When it comes to our own work, we run the show—an obvious thing, but one that I think it’s useful to remind ourselves of every now and then.