When I first set foot on my Project-Based Poetics class, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this craft seminar. There were six of us in the class, and the professor was young and bearded and enthusiastic. As my first class in a new school, I took a seat around the circular table in our classroom and just looked at everyone.
We talked about the definition of project poetry. One of the other professors at my school had written a project/book about Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera that aired in the 1960s. He wrote a haiku for each episode, and then crafted them all into a snarky, interesting, personality-filled book. (I always used his book to explain project poetry to my parents, well-intentioned non-poets that they are.)
Before this first class, I probably couldn’t have given you a succinct definition of what project poetics entailed; I am pretty inexperienced with poetry written in this day and age, actually. I could tell you more about medieval poetry, complete with esoteric texts like The Nibelunglied and The Poetic Edda. On that first day, our professor posed a question to the class: “Who hasn’t read Bluets? Raise your hand!” Me and one other kid raised our hands shamefully. (For those of you that haven’t encountered it—as I hadn’t—Bluets is a skillful color-based project by Maggie Nelson.) I thought to myself, this class is going to be a mess.
Our reading list was a group of projects that fit in everywhere on the landscape of poetry. We read books that were clearly projects, focusing on the life and mythology of a historical character; we read other anthologies with one theme, like violence; we even read a book where the poet was clearly preoccupied with the death of his brother. We talked about if obsessions could be labeled as projects. We talked about themes versus projects. We talked about Dorothea Lasky’s distaste for projects (which I still read as a distaste for bad poetry). And, in addition to this, we talked about our own projects, which we were building as the semester progressed.
My project was about colors and homelessness, which are two things that I probably think about too much. My classmates all had different projects of their own, and we all submitted three 10-page packets of our project and workshopped them, along with writing end-notes for each classmate’s packet. I found this to be extremely helpful and extremely different from other workshops I’d had. Each of my peers and my professor would look at my project as a whole, and voice concerns or compliments that they’d seen crop up through the course of the packet and the course of the semester. My enthusiastic young professor–Josh Young, an energetic, fast-speaking cross-genre poet–could pinpoint the weaknesses in my packets quite easily. He could instantly identify strengths, what was working, and what wasn’t.
Grad school is hard, and drama in my cohort began to ramp up, and I grew kind of uncertain with my own experiments with lyric poetry (why did I keep writing about animals?). I sometimes got a little skeptical of the idea of me in grad school. It was difficult being back in school, being physically older than I was in undergrad, wondering if I could get all my work done and still have time to write my own things. Was I a good fit for this MFA endeavor? I couldn’t tell.
But my craft seminar was fulfilling enough to assuage my doubts. My enthusiastic professor (I guess I should start actually using his name, Josh) met with me after class to discuss my project plans, my hopes of studying abroad, my poetry in general, my experimenting with prose blocks (I had never written a prose block before I began my project, which is comprised half of prose blocks).
Josh took us all to Columbia College’s Book and Paper-Making Studio, where we talked about paper and layout and how to use metal type to create our own broadside. We practiced with the old printing presses in the print studio. I sliced up the paper I’d carefully picked out for my broadside, and spent hours laboring over laying out my metal type (I kept cursing my decision to print one of my prose blocks instead of a shorter poem; I even ran out of my font), and printed out 47 broadsides. Our class had a reading at the Chicago Book Expo, and we all exchanged broadsides with each other.
At the end of the class, after I handed in the manuscript of papers that made up my project, I felt like I’d accomplished something, like my writing had grown, like my writer-self had grown. I kept thinking, even if the rest of my semester was a total waste (which, I would like to note, it was not, by any means), this class would have made everything worth it. I know that classes in general can be hit or miss—students don’t always connect with professors or with the subject matter at hand—but this class, for me, was exactly the reason why I’d gone to grad school. I’d written so much, I’d learned so much, and I felt some warm coil of fulfillment in my stomach. I don’t mean to gush—but, you know, maybe I do. This class was awesome.