On Reviewing: Ben Friedlander

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

BF: A lot of my reviewing was done pre-internet for a small community of readers who, truth be told, knew a lot more about the books than I did. Reviews in that context were statements of poetics, a form of self-assertion in which someone else’s writing took precedence over your own. And for me in particular, being younger than the others, it was also a public form of self-education. Later, in the early years of the internet, when I was in grad school–writing long essays for the first time–reviews became exercises in judgment, very much inspired by mouthy critics like Poe, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, Robert Christgau, and that was fun; stirred up a lot of shit. But wasn’t, ultimately, what I wanted to do. After that I wrote a few, I guess you’d call them pedagogical exercises: a lot of summary, a lot of context, a lot of dot-connecting. Useful, time-consuming work, a little boring, which is probably why I’ve done so little of it. For the last decade, I’ve mostly worked in other genres. But I do love the compression of a review, the chance it offers to figure out what you think, the discipline of particularity, the freedom of ephemerality. That’s why I like contributing to Steve Evans’s Attention Span.

Blogging is new to me. I took it up at least in part to force myself out of the habit of endless revision. But so far, no luck–change comes slowly.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

BF: I like it when a reviewer is working something out, and doing it well, so I tend to focus on those places where thinking, if there is any, is in evidence. That’s pretty vague, I know. Of course, I also appreciate good craft: even a set piece that says nothing can be enjoyable, when it’s beautifully written, or the critic is having some fun. Pop critics are better at that. I guess it’s because books take so long to read–that tends to drain the fun out of it.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

BF: I’m greedy; I want something I can use. Information, an idea, a direction, a reawakened desire to write. Stupidity, showing off, ass-kissing, boilerplate, those things exasperate me.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

BF: I focus on the book at hand. Length determines the amount of detail, the amount of context. I tend to mistrust generalization, and reviews are the least trustworthy place to find them, so I take it as a bad sign when the focus widens. And cherish the exceptions.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

BF: Night and day, allowing for twilight at regular intervals.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

BF: For me, the problem doesn’t fall along that line. I can like a book and have nothing to say, and dislike a book and be actively engaged. It’s my own work as a reader, finally, that interests me. I do think a good review should find something meaningful in its subject, whatever the judgment. So the problems occur when I’ve got nothing to say, nothing that pushes the discourse forward. On such occasions, the critic is forced to rely on his or her wit, which isn’t my strong suit.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

BF: I take hints gratefully from all comers. Colm Tóibín’s recent essay on Thom Gunn (in the New York Review of Books) has a reference to Thomas Wyatt I’ll be looking up. I ordered the journal Hot Gun! because of a mention on Juliana Spahr’s blog. Paul Muldoon sent me back to Carl Sandburg, briefly. A footnote sent me to an old essay by Karen Swann, which sent me to Wordsworth, a poet I’ve never quite gotten. Slowly, over time, the critics are eroding my incomprehension.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

BF: Yeah, I’d like to find an entirely new standard of value, or at least a hint of one–basically, a revolution in poetry, expressed as an act of attention.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

BF: A few jobs aside, I’ve never been a paid critic, so it really makes no difference to me, apart from the broader effect on intellectual life. In the nineties, a wave of poets entered the academy–I was part of that–and for a while it drained the poetry world of energy; then the balance righted itself. If the economic changes you mention put new emphasis on communities and scenes, so much the better. If it drives another class of intellectuals into the academy, so much the worse.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

BF: I do believe that, absolutely. At present, I’m working on nineteenth-century American poetry–still trying to figure out how to write about it, how to bring its poetic cultures back to life. In literature, there’s nothing so deadly as a settled opinion. What I’d like to accomplish, I guess, is a little un-settling. Victorian America provides a lot of dust that I can work with!
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Recent critical writing in Wild Orchids, PMLA, and Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture. Squibs on the 19th century at http://ampoarchive.wordpress.com/. (photo Mel Nichols)

On Reviewing: Emily Warn

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

EW: To begin or engage in a conversation about a book by arguing for or against its merit. Given the sheer volume of poetry titles—anywhere between 500-1,000 per year–a review also calls attention to a book worthy of such a conversation. Blogs and other Web 2.0 functionality have accentuated the conversational nature of reviews because commenters, bloggers, and other reviews can respond more quickly and entertainingly (with acerbic wit, despair, shout outs or up-in-arms anger). Being the first to review a major book, for example Frederick Seidel’s recent COLLECTED POEMS, can mean one defines the tone and substance of the conversation.

One other role of the critic in reviewing is to trace how an author’s work develops.

Blogging about books can be a shortcut to reviewing– shout outs, responses to reviews that let you join in the larger conversation, or it can provide more substantive analysis of a book than a print review, which generally run from 250 to 500 words for quick looks and about 1,000 for longer ones. Bloggers can place a book within its literary context, or loiter awhile with a single poem.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

EW: I look for books that for any number of reasons deserve attention. If it’s a paid review, I follow the template that most book editors seem to agree on. In about the space typically devoted to obituaries or wedding announcement: 1) Identify the author. Why we should care about reading this review. Generally this means pointing out an author’s rank in the literary reputation hierarchy–whether they’ve a backpack full of published books, or author of a first book, or someone long out of the limelight. 2) Summarize subject matter—as briefly as possible so you can get to… 3) State your opinion of its merit. 4) Prove it. For longer reviews, or on the Internet, I review a book contextually (biographically, within an oeuvre, within literary history). Comparisons to similar or strikingly dissimilar work are generally thought provoking.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

EW: Well written. A chance to learn about a subject matter, or even an entire field of study—for example in last week’s NYTBR, I learned about historians devoted to the history of murder. Strong opinions—see what so and so thinks about so and so. Highly opinionated pieces always motivate me to read the book to see what I think.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

EW: I focus primarily on the book in hand but, space permitting, include a significant quotation from a poem so readers can judge my position and the poem for themselves. But placing a book in the context of earlier work deserves mention in a short review, and is essential in a long review where a more a more critical appraisal is possible. Such appraisals tip book reviewing into literary criticism and so lets a book critic participate in a larger and longer critical debate.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

EW: Very different. My poetry and non-fiction rely on imagery and associative logic to make their points or meanings, though my non-fiction retains a logical framework.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

EW:Yes. By reviewing it on its own terms thereby relying more heavily on placing it in the context of the author’s work.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

EW: I thought Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book on the treatment of animals was excellent. She built her own case about whether to go vegan by summarizing Foer’s argument with Michael Pollan’s in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, transforming a book review into ethics.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

EW: A more collaborative tone between reviewer and author. Could reviews function more like poets and painters working together, meaning could we privilege the experiment, a way to say “nice move” so as to encourage further work as opposed to valuing the work as good or bad? Also, with so many poets writing and publishing, there is a need for a referral or recommendation service for readers, similar to lists for other medium. Such a service could recommend books for people looking for an alternative to Mary Oliver, or for those looking for poetry similar to Ashbery, etc.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

EW: This trend will increase unless the number of people seeking MFAs tapers off in this economy. In the AWP’s 2009 survey of creative writing academic jobs, it stated that about 10,000 new degrees in literature and creative writing are conferred annually. (These join all other previous graduates looking for work.) I believe about 1,000 of those degrees are in creative writing. A good portion of the latter will publish books and turn to blogger friends to write reviews if online reviewers or the shrinking number of print reviews don’t. Plus, it’s relatively painless and free to get your friends to review your book on amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, pump it up on Good Reads, etc. Book reviews are increasingly becoming comparable to reviews of electronic gadgets or cold weather gear.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

EW: Writing about writing is the best way I know to discover what I think about a book and what I think about what other people think about it. Sometimes reviews bring new readers and sometimes they don’t. Tony Hoaglund’s book Donkey Gospel published by Graywolf didn’t receive one review yet became widely read. A positive or opinionated review in the NYTBR can bring many readers, but reviews in smaller magazines do not have much effect.
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Emily Warn’s newest collection of poetry is Shadow Architect (Copper Canyon Press 2008). Her previous books include The Leaf Path and The Novice Insomniac.

On Reviewing: Michael Robbins

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MR: A review should be something more than an appreciation or an attack—it can appreciate, or attack, but it should do so in order to clear the mind of cant. Too much poetry criticism is a repackaging of idées reçues that disguises the reviewer’s analytical incompetence by genuflecting towards “interest” and “sonic charge” or some such empty marker. I try in my reviews to understand the cognitive work the poems are doing. I’m not interested in pointing out how the t’s in a given line mimic the trees the line describes (not making this example up).

Blogging at Digital Emunction, on the other hand, allows me to say whatever I want about a book—it’s informal, the initiation of a conversation. For instance, I recently wrote a post proposing that the fourth section of Ashbery’s Flow Chart  is a parody of Dorn’s Slinger. In a blog post, you don’t have to provide an argument, you can just throw something out there to get discussion going.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MR: I don’t think the approaches you mention are mutually exclusive. I’m interested when a reviewer sees  something about a poem or a poet that no one else has seen that strikes me as incontestably right. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but ideally it will combine stylistic brio with analytical insight into the work’s cognitive dimensions. Christopher Ricks is the most consistently astonishing reviewer in this respect.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

MR:  Ricks says in a review of Empson that “a philosopher needs not only to mount a right argument but to explain how unstupid people have mounted wrong ones.” We aren’t philosophers, but that seems to me not only a useful summary of Ricks’s own method, but a line that all reviewers should pin on the wall above their keyboards. For what I mean by “cant” above is something like “the wrong arguments mounted by unstupid people.” The wrong arguments of stupid people—people still hung up on undermining the hierarchies of grammar by highlighting the materiality of the signifier, say—are, or should be, beneath notice.

But this goes nowhere without style, an element I can define only by example. Ange Mlinko has it, Michael Hofmann, William Logan. Reviews should be at least as well written as Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

MR: I try to focus on each of these. I do look for close readings in reviews—that’s where you find out if dude can read. Some can’t.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

MR: Well, I get assigned books to review. If someone hired me to write a poem on a deadline with a certain number of words, they would receive something like a beat-up stuffed bunny wearing an Iron Maiden jersey with a duckbill stapled on it.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

MR:  Oh, sure. It’s difficult—you want to try to read it as objectively as possible, to try to understand where the work is “coming from.” But the cliché of origin there belies my own pretense to objectivity.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

MR:
a) Marilynne Robinson’s essays on Jean Cauvin.
b) Don Share’s blog post on Robert Palmer’s Blues & Chaos.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

MR: I like cats.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

MR:  What! My own career has trended in the other direction, and I pray to the gods of the pharmaceutical industry that this continues.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MR:  I know they can, as a new reader who has been brought to texts by reviews. I hope to achieve all sorts of things by writing about writing, such as fame and romance and carpal tunnel syndrome. I also hope to say something that a few people, somewhere, will find useful and true.
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Michael Robbins writes reviews for Poetry magazine and the London Review of Books. He has poems coming out in The New Yorker and Fence.

On Reviewing: Eileen Myles

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is?

EM: No single purpose. A book Im advocating for – a book I’ve been invited to write about that I have my own reasons to write about even if diff from the editor who invited me. A book to hinge some other argument on publicly..

LH: If you also write about books on a blog, why?

EM: Because there are more outlets for reviewing/writing on blogs. I write about what I care about where I can.

LH: What does blogging let you do differently?

EM: To do it period. And I suppose less editing. Less conventional approach. Generally in the blog world I’m an outsider – the world isn’t foregrounding poetry so you can say often more opinionated things because they don’t know what you’re talking about.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method?

EM: Contextual. I try to give the world of the review, or the book, or the world the argument will land in forseeably.

LH: Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings?

EM: Sure.

LH: If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

EM: In poetry the new frontier is mainstream vs. language. The armies have lined up, are both at war and are in the midst of doing a corporate handshake. It began at Barnard. See Iowa. See Hybrid.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review?

EM: courage and passion. intelligence. familiarity.

LH: Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

EM: Awareness. Familiarity. It’s amazing how often uniformed people write say about poetry or lesbianism or any of the things I care about. Rank amateurs are underqualified over entitled, unjustly armed.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work?

EM: all of the above.

LH: Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

EM: well yeah. Space is the final consideration. one nips according to how much area they get to cover.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

EM: I don’t research so much for my own writing. I tend to know where I am and the act is buttressed by research that has apparently been performed without my knowing.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level?

EM: I’ve stupidly aired my criticism when I would have been better off not writing the piece. Sometimes I’ve Tried to be fair but there’s nothing more insulting. We’re all readers. everything is transparent.

LH: How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

EM: People seem to think others want to know what they think. They really don’t.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

EM: There was a book in the times about reindeer that I became very excited about. I bought a copy for myself and a friend and I bet neither of us have read it. I read a review of a book called the some thing avacado, the dud avacado? by Elinor Dundy. I read it and liked it a lot. Minor books get in best for me through reviews. I usually know about the other books.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

EM: Where the writer is sitting. Literally and in their world of thought. People often exempt themselves from scrutiny which I think is frightening.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

EM: I like a mix and that is my experience. yeah sure I’d do it for free and do and if it was only that it should have another name, I think.

EM: Yeah I think it’s going that way.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

EM: Finding audience for important books. It’s political work and is the most important work in the world next to your own writing. It is your own writing. duh.
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Eileen Myles is a poet who lives in New York. Her novel The Inferno will be out by the end of the year. She is teaching this spring in Missoula, MT.

On Reviewing: Mitchell Parry

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MP: In my opinion, the purpose of a review is to present to the reader the act of engagement.  Evaluation, proselytizing, are secondary to my experience of reviewing.  Rather, I believe that the review should engage with the text, on the page, so that the reader can witness that.  S/he might decide to read the book or might not, based on the review, but s/he really does deserve to know that the reviewer made the effort to come to terms with the text.

I don’t write a blog & don’t want to.  When I was a teenager, one of my favourite music reviews was in an issue of NME or Melody Maker.  The critic (it might have been Nick Kent) had been asked to review the new single by Foreigner, & his review was a single line:  “Utter bloody bullshit.”  I loved the indignation behind that, the cockiness.  And the song was dreadful.  But looking back at it now, I realize that the review reflected a kind of juvenile laziness.  Maybe that was why it appealed at the time?

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MP: I guess the best way to describe my own approach would be to suggest that it’s a kind of bricolage.  I tend to approach each review as a sort of cautious but curious reader, trying to get a sense of what it is that the book is attempting to do & then poking at the text to see how well it holds up against that ambition.  There’s some degree of evaluation involved, clearly—if I don’t think that the poems are living up to what they’re attempting, I’m bound to say so—but I actually prefer to let the reader decide for herself, based on the comments I have to offer.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

MP: It’s crucial that we remember that a review is, in many ways, an invitation.  So for me the single most important aspect of a successful review is that it retains an awareness that it’s engaged in a conversation.  Or, rather, in several conversations.  I expect the ideal reviewer to be open to a kind of dialogue with the text, & expect the review to reflect the results of that dialogue—uncertainty & all—in a voice that isn’t hectoring or badgering.  I don’t like reviews that lecture to me.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

MP: I try to balance the review so that I’m conscious of (& acknowledge) the author’s body of work while also keeping my focus on the book at hand.  I can’t imagine going into a review without some awareness of what the author has done before, & if I’m reviewing a first book that’s also something to be aware of.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

MP: I’ve run into this situation quite often, really, but I’m not entirely sure I’m the best person to address the issue.  My own approach has always been to look at the book on its own terms.  The review isn’t only going to be read by people who might share my biases, & so it really needs to be able to (at least) attempt some kind of stance apart from the purely subjective.  By which I mean, the reviewer should try to be able to respond to the poetry under consideration as poetry—not as an opponent to be knocked down, nor as a flag to prop up.  Again, the notion of invitation appeals here:  you’re asking the reader to come in & listen to your considered opinion about something.  Readers are pretty smart people, I believe; they know if you’ve simply got an axe to grind.  And not many people want to be the grindstone.

The real benefit to this stance is that I actually get to expand my own library of poetry I like.  So something experimental can occupy a shelf next to something more conventionally formal, & there’s no inconsistency there.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

MP: I don’t think that the trend is reversing.  In fact, I suspect that the predominance of on-line reviews means that payment for reviews will be a rare thing.  I’m of two minds about this:  on the one hand, I worry that this will encourage shoddy reviewing, or reviews that are throwaways.  Why bother getting tangled in a close reading of a collection of poems if you’re not going to receive any compensation for the work you’ve put in?  On the other hand, it’s not as though poetry reviewing has ever been a rich vein to tap.  We’re not talking about millions of dollars here.  So I suspect that the lack of payment won’t prevent me from writing reviews.

And maybe this change will encourage more amateur reviews, in the best sense of the word.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MP: I really do.  I really believe that readers are eager to find books worth reading, & that means that the reviewer’s job is pretty important.  Or can be.  Not as a marketing device, although I know that that’s one way that reviews have been seen.  Think about film reviews:  how many times have we gone to see a film simply because a reviewer suggested we take a chance on it?  A small gem like Joe Gould’s Secret or Rushmore comes to the theatres & disappears quickly, & we might never know about it unless a reviewer tells us it’s worth checking out.  I think a similar thing happens when we write about writing:  some of my favourite books of the past couple of years have been books I wouldn’t have heard of had some reviewer not invited me to read them.

And that’s exactly what I want to achieve with my own reviews.  I’m not going to like everything I write about, & I’m not going to praise everything I review, but I do want to be able to introduce readers to new texts.  That seems an honourable occupation, really.

Mitchell Parry is the author of a novella (Vacant Rooms, from Anvil Press) & two books of poetry (Tacoma Narrows & Imperfect Penance, both published by Goose Lane Editions).  He is a frequent contributor to the reviews section of The Malahat Review.  He teaches Film Studies at the University of Victoria.

On Reviewing: Ron Silliman

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?
RS: I don’t think that there is a single purpose. Rather, there are many, dozens if not hundreds of reasons to respond to something – a book, a poem, a film, some music, dance – in a written, public form. When I started my blog I was looking for a form that enabled me to communicate directly with other poets. I was looking for a forum that combined the virtues of the talk, especially as given outside the academy, the little magazine & the conversation one has between poets after a reading. Blogging, as it happens, has most of these virtues, plus some others – one is that it reach people over a broad geography very quickly, another is that I can target it to my readers, as such. It’s much more efficient in this than magazines, for example.
LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?
RS: Sometimes I’m reviewing a book, but more often what interests me is what the book reveals about the nature (or history) of poetry, or of the universe. I sometimes write reviews that focus in on a single poem in a larger volume, or even a single literary device or detail.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
RS: A successful review is one that tells me something about a book, perhaps giving it a context that I did not already have. Of the several hundred reviews my own poetry has received, I’ve learned something about my poetry from exactly two of them, one by Michael Davidson, and one recently by Bill Mohr. Reviews that can teach the poet something about his/her own work always strike me as the most illuminating.
LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?
RS: Most often I focus on something specific. This helps me to make more concrete statements about the writing.
LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?
RS: Totally. They are different practices. It’s like playing chess versus playing soccer.
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?
RS: Mostly I avoid these type of reviews. Life is too short and there are too many good books to worry about the bad ones. But on occasion I will point to something as being exemplary of something I think of as problematic, and the review gives me occasion to spell out what this is and whty.
LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?
RS: Bill Mohr’s review of The Alphabet in Or. He made me rethink some aspects of my own work.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
RS: Illumination.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
RS: Less than one percent of my reviewing work has been done for pay. Almost without exception, the constraints placed on writing for pay make the resulting work of a lesser quality. The trend away from bad newspaper book reviews is a good thing, not a bad thing.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
RS: I think writing about writing, just like talking about writing, helps keep me and everyone else on their toes. It is one part of the larger process, but it is one too important to leave to the academy or to journalists. If poets don’t think about what they do, why should anyone else bother?
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Ron Silliman has written and edited over 30 books, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 12 other languages. Silliman was the 2006 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, a 2003 Literary Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.