14 July 2008

Too much of a good thing, or never enough?

I've been thinking about books of poems that have (for the most part) one central focus. It's something that had never occurred to me until my MFA students started writing fully-realized thesis projects that focused on a particular theme. As in: all of these poems are about Abraham Lincoln. That's just an example, not an actual citation, but you get the idea.

Reading manuscripts for several book contests, I've realized that the singular focus, and the extended persona series, are quite popular. The subject has been on my mind because I have been working on a series of poems about a character that I invented (not just a slightly sexier and much more adventurous version of myself in grad school), Saint Monica.

My ultimate decision was to create a ms that juxtaposes the Saint Monica poems with other poems that have thematic links, but different dramatis personae. My fear was that the persona poems would get tedious, and that if a reader didn't dig the character, then the whole book would be a no-go.

In my reading of other people's manuscripts, it comes down to the same thing as always. If the poems themselves are good, then the book is good, whether it is a treatment of the picaresque adventures of Samantha Squirrelkins, or a lyric biography of Gary Glitter.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on both sides of the issue. Do you like reading poetry books with a particular focus? Have you taken on a project like this yourself? What makes a single-focus book successful, or unsuccessful?

PS--The above photo of blue skies this morning is my first effort with the new camera. So far, so good.


Adam Deutsch said...

I haven't really been a fan of this movement towards theme-based books. That is, historical or whatever--any book will have themes that are recognizable from poem to poem. It seems to me that whatever source material that's the base is usually more interesting than the book of poems derived from it.

I kinda wonder what's lost by sitting down and saying "I'm gonna write a full-length book about ______." Does every poem that comes have to be tailored to the project? What happens to inspiration when the research and intellect start steering the process?

Nin Andrews said...

Hmm. I'm a fan of series poems, but I have read some that do exactly what Adam suggests. I think a Saint Monica series would be interesting because it is actually pretty wide open (I suspect). After all, you are inventing the saint, so you aren't limited in any obvious way, and she-or the poems about her- can become a process of discovery. And she might offer/inspire a lot of humor and possibilities . . . But I've read poets who suddenly latch onto a subject that is completely boring to me. And the sooner the series stops, the better.

Justin Evans said...

I have never been shy about my thoughts on the chapbook, that there should be a narrative arc inside of a chapbook---seen or unseen by the reader.

For full length books I am split. Some of the greatest books I have read are so-called themed books, but I am not convinced of that as a necessity. I know I like books to be 'about' something, but I am not sure if a book of poems has to be about a specific topic. I think a sustained voice or tone in the poms is enough to do the job under a lot of circumstances.

I will say that I have been disappointed by collections which seem to be trying too hard to be about something specific or make some kind of connection.

My first full length collection is about 'something' by default because I was writing about one place for so long, but I don't think my second collection (if that day ever arrives)could manage to be so focused. I just don't know if I have it in me to do that time after time.

Penultimatina said...

Adam, I totally hear you. At least in my own writing, inspiration is #1. I like figuring out the connections after the poems are written. When I started writing the persona series I thought it would help me create a distinction between my own self and the character. Of course, then the character ended up being more of me than the non-character poems.

If we filter our poems through the lens of history or persona, how much do we keep out? What are we hiding from? Where does what's left out end up?

I've found myself enjoying (and I can't believe I'm saying this) poems that are obviously autobiographical and overtly emotional lately, maybe because so many poems have so much distance these days.

Nin--I think your Dick and Jane poems are the perfect example of a persona series done right. Maybe it's because of the variation between the poems, and because they address serious topics with moments of irony and levity throughout. I really feel that book. It's funny, though, because I had to tell many of my students who Dick and Jane were. It was fun doing research and showing excerpts.

Diane Lockward said...

I think a collection should ideally have some controlling idea at its heart. This idea can be very subtle and have numerous sub-threads. I think there should be a reason why these 40-50 poems have been put together, something more than just they are good or I like them or they're the ones I have ready to go. I like single theme collections if the poetry is at the forefront and the story does not overwhelm. I just read, and am finishing up a review of, Paula Bohince's Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods. There's a story, a mystery about the murder of the speaker's father, but what intrigues me is how lovely the poetry is, how very subtle. Each poem stands on its own two feet; collectively they weave a gripping story.

Karen J. Weyant said...

This is an interesting discussion -- especially when I am trying (slowly) to put my first book of poems together. I am reading many books that are so tightly put together around a single theme or, in some cases, event that I wonder: did the poet sit down and say "I am going to write about such-and-such event?" I'm not sure I could do that, although I do see a theme in my own works.

Oh -- and I wrote about this book on my blog. I agree with Diane -- I just read Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, and I thought it was a great book and a very strong example of how a collection of poetry should work.

John Gallaher said...

A few years ago I really started seeing the idea of a THEME-based manuscript getting pushed. I think at one point Alice James Books even mentioned it on their guidelines? Well, they mentioned it somewhere.

Anyway, I have no thougts on the matter, I just felt like sharing. That said, my new manuscript that I've started putting together is called Glitter & Squirrelkins. Now THAT is a title!

newzoopoet said...

I'm with Adam. And furthermore, theme-based books bore me. If I like the poet's voice, I want a smorgasbord of what they can do, not poem on replay (glutton that I am)!

Anne said...

It depends, for me. I've read single-theme books that hung together and felt like they *had* to exist as an entity. (I can't think of one off the top of my head, but I know I've read some.) I've read some that felt forced, like the poet said "ooh, I have a dozen poems about football, if I write some more then I can make it into a book."

And I've read some that just felt like too much -- like maybe the poet truly was that obsessed with the subject, but I didn't want to have to think about it as much as they did. (Much as I like Sharon Olds, her book The Father struck me this way on first reading -- like "God! Sharon! Enough already!" -- though that may also have been a function of where I was in my life at the time I read the book... but I digress.)

The kind of book I like best, I think, is the one where as you read through it you keep having these little glimmers of recognition. You're not hit over the head with repetition, but maybe a few pages after the Abraham Lincoln poem there's a poem that uses the word "stovepipe" and you think back to Lincoln and his hat and it makes you smile, and see the second poem a little differently than you would have otherwise. I just read Cleopatra Mathis' White Sea the other day and it had just the right amount of water/ocean in it -- I wouldn't say the book was *about* the ocean, but you keep getting glimpses of it all the way through.

Oliver de la Paz said...

As someone who's written a thematic book/poem series, I realize that such a thing has its benefits and its problems.

When I was writing my first book, I was reading a lot of thematic manuscripts, and there are a lot of 'em out there. Many of them were winning book contests. One of my thesis directors suggested ways to make my thesis more thematically cohesive, hinting that some poems don't necessarily need to serve the reader as an individual poem, but rather as glue for the thematic manuscript (this is the same thesis director who would later told me that my tone is too consistent).

Anyway, so I wrote that book over a course of three years and I got bored of my own poems after awhile. Really bored. I suppose such a thing happens if you've worked on an obsession/subject for such a long time. On the other-hand, those moments can be opportunities for invention, especially since you're creating some fictions with Saint Monica, I'm sure.

As a reader--while I'm interested in seeing what subjects are obsessing other writers, I'm finding that I'm gravitating towards books with less overt connections between poems. Perhaps that's just my tastes evolving.

Here's a question for you, Mary--do you see your Saint Monica (I keep wanting to type Santa Monica) as a long poem or a sequence of poems unified by a singular subject?

Penultimatina said...

That is a great question, Oliver (and I love your response, btw).

I think of the poems sort of like chapters in her history. My version of her is a reinvention of the saint as an everyday girl coming of age in the 1980's rust belt. I don't rely a lot on hagiography, but she does have a number of Catholic references and allusions throughout. So yeah, to me they are separate poems, especially when they jump around in time.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Now I'm curious 'bout this collection of yours. Do you have different POV's that enter into the manuscript?

Penultimatina said...

Yes--the book alternates between third-person Monica poems (she's the patron saint of wives in bad marriages, though for much of the book she's a child and adolescent) and first person poems (for the most part) that share themes with the Monica poems, and may be filtered through Monica's consciousness, if the reader chooses to take it that way. There are common threads of place and time throughout, etc. Thanks for asking! :)

Valerie Loveland said...

There are some exceptions, but I like themed books as long as they're not too long.

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