National Poetry Month: Dorothea Lasky

April 24, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 11 5 min read

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.

More National Poetry Month at The Millions

is the author of Black Life and AWE, both out from Wave Books. Currently she lives in New York City. She can be found online at www.birdinsnow.com.

11 comments:

  1. This is terrific, and I heartily agree. As for the word "project" as it applies to poetry, might it be an unfortunate byproduct of academia, where it is expected that one is always working toward some specific goal, i.e. a dissertation, a scholarly paper, a lecture, etc. Just another example of our culture's over-identification with masculine ethos. What you're describing – intuiting a poem – brings in the feminine (for both men AND women), the unnameable, mysterious forces within that work together with the conscious self to write the poem into being.

    Having a "project" isn't bad, necessarily, but it isn't how poems happen.

    I, too, chafe at the word "community" and find that it really does not apply to the world of poetry and poets, in the way that you've defined it. "Special-interest group" might be more accurate.

    Thanks for this – it's made my day.

    Mari L'Esperance

  2. Hey Dottie, this is a wonderfully lucid articulation of thinking about poetry, cooked the intuitive way. It makes me long to hear more of your thoughts on the nature of creativity and its mysteries. I know I can find out more by reading your poems, but I also like what you've written here. It has your verve. I think it's great that you speak so energetically about what you're doing, and it's wonderful that you accurately use terms from Husserl's phenomenology in making your vibrant case. Why shouldn't poets attempt to define their own work, or, if they don't want to, explain why not they're keeping mum? There's no obligation to spill the beans, of course, but why not? I totally agree with everything you're saying. But what about when somebody sincerely asks a poet, "What kind of poetry do you write?" Well, when that happens, it annoys me when poets answer: it's just poetry, it is what it is, you either get it or you don't. Talking around and about poetry doesn't hurt poetry. Quite the contrary. Thanks for doing it so well!

  3. intersting post, dottie. i myself am sort of intrigued by the idea that we poets may well be no different than bankers, lawyers, scientists, painters, musicians, and that, for once, we AREN'T special.

    in some sort of counter-intuitive leap in my mind, i feel like this could help poetry. like, if we acted a little less special maybe people at large would take more of an interest. maybe they wouldn't be so imtimidated. because, in reality,, the majority of people don't see themselves as specil, i don't think.

    anyway, just my two cents.

    best,
    j

  4. I always thought of a "project" as an obligation, or series of tasks, which are quite determined. This is much different from the creative act, which ideally (for me) is something that begins on a lark and bends up and turns and goes on until you are bored…then you do something else!

  5. Amen. I think if you're actually a poet, you should be living it, not working on projects. Audiences outside the poetry world (of which there are none, unless you bring free copies of your book to everyone you work with, and then there are twenty) don't relate to projects, they relate to life. Plus, poetry is about *poetry* and not projects.

  6. I suspect this is academia gone wrong, again. A poet's project sounds decent when you write a dissertation on themes running through a poet's body of work, but not as a description of it. You do it after the fact. It makes me imagine a corck-board with a post-it attached, denoting the project. 'Now, how to incorporate it into this poem?'

    Like those half-witted creative writing classes, where they teach you to always write a disposition, and begin with a theme. Then you must find out what message you want to give your readers. Choose a point of view, a setting and protagonist.

  7. I am so glad that people agree with me here. I feel some need to clarify even further, especially in light of a couple of the comments and responses I have seen both on and offline. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, by the way!

    When I set out to critique the term project used in the context of poetry, I was less concerned with policing a particular word than demoting the linear thinking the word connotes and promoting the transformative thinking a new discourse might encourage.
    My problem is less with the word project or community than with the linear way we, poets, have of describing our field.

    I do think poets are special, but more so I think all artists are special. Or more so even, I think the thinking of artists is special for its nonlinearity. I truly believe that if this kind of metaphorical (versus linear) thinking––that artists either naturally do or have been taught to do through a variety of factors––was promoted more in all people we would have a new and better world. The first step, I think, is poets taking enough pride in their work to not borrow terms to describe it. But instead to take this time in history to describe our process better, so as to inspire young poets everywhere. And yes, this notion being unearthed is a call to arms.

    What does this have to do with the term project? We poets should take some ownership to use words that we can truly stand behind. If we decide that a term that works for us is project, then so be it. But there needs to be less of a disconnect between how the world sees our field, how we talk about our field, and what our field truly thinks. I, for one, think a lot of the language of our field is outdated and/or ordained in some fashion that is not representative of many of our important processes and ideas. The way we create, for instance, is not understood well and many of us still revert to thinking of inspiration as a spiritual versus cognitive process. (And whatever your religious beliefs, this is just lazy thinking on all ends.) We have a lot of words that are distinctly our own (take “stanza” for instance, or the word “poem” for another). Why not make a whole contemporary discourse that is all our own?

    I understand that poets are humans like members of every other profession. We need to eat, time to sleep, and the chance to have a meaningful life. We are also people who, on some level, deal purely as novel language creators. That is our real role in a society, however much the world these days seems to malign or not respect our efforts. That is a big charge and we must respect ourselves if we expect the rest of the society to respect us. I, for one, am beyond sick of feeling the quiet shame that goes with telling people I am a poet. Being a poet means I am a novel language creator. It does not (necessarily) mean I am an academic, a liberal, a snappy dresser, a socially awkward person, an intellectual snob, a really cool person, an alcoholic, an untrustworthy person, a smoker, a free spirit, etc. (Or it could and that’s ok, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all that.) It means simply that I am an expert in creating new forms of language and I should be judged and respected as such by those who value language and the world new language creates. Because language is what makes the world. Because all action is born out of an idea, however embodied that idea may be.

    Being a poet can mean a whole host of infinite things other than being a novel language creator, true. But nowhere in the idea of being a poet does it mean I am (you are) conducting a project when I (we) write poems. Conceding to a linear tag is a seemingly small concession down a long road of being frightfully misunderstood.

    Thanks again for reading my post and for reading this comment!

  8. Yes! I work in IT by day and writes poems, well at other times. IT projects pretty much kill creativity in IT so why bring that language into the arts?

    The act of writing a new poem, for me anyway, is the act of destroying any kind of project that might be happening, even if just a little bit. Every poem is figuring out what a poem is, or more often than not, what it’s not.

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