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Jason Labbe on First Books

Jason Labbe wrote a very generous review of Pigafetta that appears in the current Colorado Review.

The introduction gives a particularly lucid view of the first book landscape:

The past several years have brought us an abundance of style-conscious first poetry books consisting (primarily or completely) of poems connected either by subject or formal treatment–and a good number of these series, sequences, and serial poems are highly crafted and quite enjoyable. The surplus of poets competing for first book prizes perhaps precludes, to some degree, a collection of discrete poems where we witness a younger poet trying her hand at various approaches, even failing sometimes. As I recently heard a well established poet say, “we’re in the age of the project.”

Jason infers that this is a ” monotonous” situation. I could read a whole essay on this alone.  So how ’bout it? To what degree are gatekeeping first book contests (and what we perceive they want) inflecting how we write?

Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project at the very least affirms the idea that there is pressure for younger poets to have a project and that this emphasis on project is fundamentally wrongheaded–in that we are coming to value the project, the intellectual scaffolding, as much as the poem itself.

Or does the idea that a first book should be 60 MS pages turn all grand project ideas into little stones? Can we neatly wrap up in 60 pages writing about

the untimely death of our X

the photographs of y who mediates on z


It does seem like a project (as generated for a first book contest) can be a kind of self-imposed life-saver for poets. In that it keeps them above the water and gives them something concrete to hold onto while also drawing a tight circle around them and what they believe is fair game for their poetry to do. So what is the alternative? Forget first book contests run by academic presses? Start to value those presses whose vision is a bit more expansive–that take risks? I think so.

Either way, thanks to Jason. Check out his other review on Kate Greenstreet’s case sensitive and the others linked to on his blog. They’re worth your time.

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About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.

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