The Rusted City, White Pine Press, 2014
Synopsis: The Rusted City is a narrative collection of linked prose poems and verse depicting the disintegration of a family in a surreal Rust Belt setting.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
I think the term “project book” can be applied broadly, but for my book, the project lies in its narrative progression. Each poem depends upon the previous poems in the collection, and the story unfolds through a series of character interactions. In this way, each poem functions as a mini-chapter in the book.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
I wanted to create an alternative history for the place where I grew up—a history based on individual lives and experiences. Thus, narrative seemed like an important tool. In order to understand decay, corruption, disillusionment, and even rebirth—of a city, a self, or a personal relationship—one has to have a sense of cause and effect. I also wanted to mythologize the Rust Belt because it is precisely the kind of place that is considered insignificant, lowly, or unworthy of the world’s attention. To this end, I made my characters into fairytale figures—the smallest sister, the favorite father, the quiet mother, and the oldest sister—and borrowed a lot from the fabulist tradition. This was another reason why an overarching narrative—a tale—was an important aspect of the project.
Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?
This is a term that’s been used against me in a derogatory manner more than once. In those instances, the term seemed to imply that project books are merely experiments—half-baked, forced into being, and probably not substantial. This rings false to me, since many of my favorite books—and many of the books considered important canonical works—are “project books.” I mean, the Iliad is a project book. It’s odd to me that a project approach is something taken for granted in novels, but met with skepticism in poetry collections. Why can’t poetry do what novels do?
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 didn’t really worry about individual poems standing on their own until I started sending them out to journals—that was difficult, since the poems depend upon the context of the book as a whole. I had better luck sending large excerpts. I think this is partly because many of the poems are not too narrative on an individual level—they are more lyrically concerned with music and metaphor—and yet they do refer back to the larger narrative of the book.
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 worry about this, and there were quite a few poems in the original manuscript that I cut or combined with others because I felt they didn’t offer enough on their own. One way I dealt with this risk during the writing process was to write several chunks of the story at a time, separating them out into poems with individual shapes later. In the same way that a scene in a play or a chapter in novel will often have its own arc, I tried to make sure each poem had its own arc—whether through a character’s actions, an extended metaphor, or some other rhetorical construct.
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?
I started the book before I caught wind of negative perceptions of project books. I just went ahead and wrote what I felt I needed to write, taking influence from other project books I loved. Once it was finished and accepted for publication, one of my editors suggested I use the subtitle “a novel in poems” to convey its structure to potential readers. By that time, I had become aware of some of the disdain for project books, and I shied away from the subtitle before ultimately agreeing to it—which I’m glad I did. While one could argue that, at 80 pages, The Rusted City is not actually a novel, I think the subtitle is just one formal aspect that tells readers: yes, it’s a project book, and they should read it as such. It’s important that people understand the structural goals of the book they’re reading.
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?
Absolutely. The idea of a project is exciting to me. Some of my favorites are Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies and Tsim Tsum, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine is Sleeping (categorized as fiction), Thylias’s Moss’s Slave Moth, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and Oliver de la Paz’s Names Above Houses. Aside from their project structures, all of these share elements I find particularly appealing: narrative progression; surreal, magical, or mythic imagery; and atypical (unheroic in a traditional sense) protagonists.
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?
I tend to write in series a lot. I usually don’t intend for series to become book-length, but The Rusted City did. Many smaller series of poems (5 to 20) are braided into my second book, In Which I Play the Runaway. That one is less of a project book in the sense that it doesn’t have a singular narrative or protagonist; it is, however, composed almost entirely of various series that share themes and motifs.
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?
Give in to your obsession—it’s better to end up with too much material that you can then cut down than to end up with a too-thin project. Yet it’s also helpful to step back from the obsession for a while and then return with a fresh perspective, so try taking a long break after you finish a draft and then revise once some time has passed. In terms of structure, I suggest looking to other genres (in addition to poetry) for guidance and inspiration—observe how novels and memoirs work, and translate some of that into your own project.