Dorothea Lasky is the author of AWE and the forthcoming Black Life. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, American Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, Fou, Columbia Poetry Review, A Public Space, and Absent, among other places. Currently, she studies creativity and education at the University of Pennsylvania. Videos of her reading her poems can be found on www.birdinsnow.com.
A line of poetry by Dorothea: “There is no poem that will bring back the dead”
The Poetic “Project” (And Other Poetry-Associated Terms I Hate)
It seems that many poets these days often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project.” I remember once hearing a poet friend of mine use the term “project” as he introduced another poet at a reading. He went on and on: “Her project echoes Dickinson’s project blah blah…” etc. The comparison seemed fine, but I wasn’t really sure the poet in question really had a “project” per se. I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and the mind and work from the ground up. That is to say, I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a “project.” I don’t know. That seems wrong, too. But I do think there is a distinction.
I really do hate this term, “project.” The crux of my problem with it comes from fundamental questions of creativity. Questions like, “Where does the creation of a poem come from: the outside of a person or the inside?” The line between the two is fuzzy, especially in a poem. I can say that I don’t think that Dickinson had a project, nor did the contemporary poet my friend was referring to. Emily Dickinson was a pretty tough woman who wrote poems because that’s what she was meant to do. I don’t think her reality included the idea of poems as fitting into a “project.” The word constricts the immense body of work that she has left us.
I get it. The term “project” comes from the visual art world. And other worlds too, like science, business, and education. But especially from the visual art world. And if there is one thing that poets would like to be today, it’s visual artists. Why? Because visual artists have all the money. But that’s another discussion for another post. Still, having a project (and naming it) is a powerful tool. A poet with a project (who can name his project and talk about it) shows that everything was all set before he even started. A poet with a nameable project seems wise, and better than other poets with an unnameable one. But this kind of thinking strikes me as BS, because I don’t believe that’s how poetry works. When I mentioned “intuit” above – that poets intuit poems – I really meant that to create something (like a poem) means that the outside world of a poet and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it, at every point of a poet’s career. I would argue that a poet who has a project that he can lucidly discuss is a pretty boring poet, at best. I would argue that a poet with a project might not be a poet at all. Or at least a baby poet, not a great one. (And yes, there are great poets alive today, David Orr. Sheesh.) I would argue that a poet who says he has a project probably has no sense of the idea of habitus and its intersection with the act of creation. Yeah. I think the term “project” has nothing to do with poetry.
The notion of a poetic “project” may actually be very toxic to poetry. The term seems to suggest to young poets that a poet can set about his life path knowing what he is doing at all times. And to tell a young poet that is to make him feel like he has to know how to create both a project and a poem. It’s hard enough to create a poem. If he is destined to be a great poet, he will never know what his project really was, no matter what he says it is, was, or what he might imagine it could be.
I am sure that many might argue with me about this idea, especially on a surface level. (And I know this very idea sits on a public website, so no doubt there will be at least a few people who will get all up in arms about some superficial slant to this idea.) But I have a project, you nimwit! some people might say. Oh, and the origin of the term “project” in the context of poetry happened around the time that DADA…[snooze]
But as poets, we need our own terms. New terms. How do we go about our business of writing? What is it like? Let’s write about that. A lot. Let’s pool our ideas together and figure out what consistencies there are among us in terms of practice. Maybe we will find a meta-act in creation that is much like a “project” in the way many of us use that term. But let it be a subtle distinction, one that is characteristic to the way we create, for real. Let’s be special for once. In the context of bankers, lawyers, scientists, painters, musicians, we’re poets. Let’s have a little pride. And let’s be gentle when describing our skills to the outside world, so that they can understand us better and we can give each other what we need.
This is probably not the place to say this, but I hate certain other words when used today in the discussion of poetry as well. Like “project,” I get kind of turned off when poets refer to groups of poets collaborating together as “communities.” In 2009, a “poetry community” usually means a bunch of people who hardly know each other communicating on a listserve or blog. That’s great, but that’s not a community. That’s some other term, yet to be determined. A community is a bunch of people living around each other, helping each other out with their living. As in actually helping each other out. A community is a family, a big regional, reciprocal one. And family, even in our internet age, really does mean more than g-chatting. It means cooking and loving and providing for, in real living ways.
I guess some might argue that the times when I hear the word community used in the context of poetry today, people are actually referring to a bunch of poets living near each other doing these things and so, the term community is actually the correct term. I guess that’s okay then. But then, isn’t that a “scene?” I hate the word “scene,” too, but less than I did in my youth. As I get older, I realize the value in that word. As I get older, and the practical realities of life set in, I want more and more to be with a group of people in a bookstore somewhere, acting cool. I long for those days. The sunglasses, the lunches, The Golden Book of Words. The ironic way we thought we knew we were better than everyone else in the whole world. We were poets after all. Now those are the days I long for.