On Reviewing: Jordan Davis

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?

JD: I write public correspondence. Part of reviewing is signaling to the poet under review that I see them and to some extent I notice what they’re doing. Another part, the journalistic part, is a brief sketch of the biography, temperament or context that informs the work. I used to think of this part as the fuel tank or booster rocket of the review/essay but a few 3000 word pieces later and I have more respect for critics who put as much or more work into the sketch as into the reading. But I still feel a review is about reading, about embodying an argument for the experience of reading a given book, or writer, or school of work. That larger part of the review, the theatrical part, is an open declaration of my ignorance of how a writer achieves whatever it is a writer achieves — I don’t want to say effects. I make some gestures at parsing and reverse-engineering, but almost always there’s something I find out is half-right the day after the piece goes to print — take when I reviewed Native Guard a few months before it won the Pulitzer. I went on about this strange form in which each couplet ended with the same word. A ghazal, but I didn’t know, it wasn’t a form used where I came from. Now I know.

I used to blog but I had to kill it (stalkers). Blogging was fun. I enjoyed communicating enthusiasms, even as I recognized that it was like lighting amaretto cookie papers on fire. A year or so before I quit, Steve Burt and Adam Kirsch each wrote somewhere or other that it was their opinion that real literary criticism couldn’t really happen on a blog. I hated to hear that, of course, but then I started reviewing again, for The Nation and the TLS and other places, and while I missed the daily practice of a blog for a while I was very glad to get my energy and concentration back for longer pieces.

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?

JD: All of the above — except, if the work at hand appears to demand a particular in-club kind of reading, I try not to use that approach, e.g. if a work is crying out for a “conceptual” reading, I’m much more likely to offer an evaluative or journalistic response.

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?

JD: Make me see what’s alive in the work. Any kind of review can do that. I read a lot of music and movie reviews — critics in those fields seem to take it as a given that half of what they’re talking about is the sociology of the fan base for the work they’re discussing. It might be terrible for that substrate to come to light in poetry reviewing, but it might not. I have the idea some younger art music critics have changed the competition between classical and popular music by emphasizing differences between notation and improvisation. I used to get on Ron Silliman’s case about his hyperbole, which he’s toned down, thank goodness, and his splitting everything into good and bad, Post-Avant and SoQ, which he will maintain until the end of time. But he’s got a point. There are different ideas floating around about what a poem is supposed to do. I could get angry at prokaryotes for being different, but look at those amazing symmetrical/fractal colonies they form, and then there’s the mutually beneficial thing some of them have with us for digestion. I like quiet cars on trains, and quiet libraries, and I’m so happy to be away from the drag racing drug dealers when I want to sleep. I want variety in art and in criticism. The problem comes in with hyperbole, with the anxiety that there’s only so much time and other resources and we have to choose *the best.* It’s a cultural mania and poetry’s always had it bad, and the happy by-product of this absolutely zombifying process is that we have these enduring amazing canonical works of art. That hypnotize us and sting us into thinking that *only* the *best* is *good enough.* I’ve known a few of these best addicts. Deep sadness.

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?

JD: I try to balance these elements. This makes my criticism seem balanced, less attention-grabbingly enthusiastic than I mean it to be. I assume that’s why I sometimes have that going-unnoticed feeling. But then, independence is for the anonymous. Such is life. I like life. I want to live a long time. (Shows how little I understand life, no?)

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?

JD: Approach is a sexy word, by the way. My “creative” writing is almost never commissioned, though I tried that — took ten dollars a poem from a couple dozen people — and I liked it, but I’m much more of an analyst than a salesman — I was making like a quarter an hour on that deal. Whereas with the reviews I make closer to two or three dollars an hour.

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?

JD: I reviewed William Logan’s last collection for the TLS and discovered that while I’m still not entirely sure I *trust* him his powers of persuasion are real enough that while I may not share his taste I see why he likes what he does, and I also see that his complaints and criticisms are often offset by praise and understanding. Sometimes not. Still, a good surprise is enjoyable. I guess I don’t totally *trust* him because his tastes seem so set.

That I dislike, when I can tell after reading two reviews by a critic pretty much what they’ll think about anyone. I really don’t know in advance what Ange Mlinko will say, or Daisy Fried, or Gary Lenhart.

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?

JD: The piece on William Appleman Williams this summer in The Nation by Gregg Grandin made me go get The Tragedy of American Diplomacy from the library. And a piece on Michael Sonenscher’s work in the TLS made me seek out his book about The Hatters of Eighteenth-Century France. Lawrence Wechsler’s thing in the New York Review the other month about David Hockney made me buy an app for my iPod (Brushes). It’s usually a long sell-cycle for me with books, though. I’m much more swayed by an especially strong poem in a journal, or a run of several good poems in journals over a couple of years.

The question is a good one and I have failed to answer it.

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

JD: All the time. I keep trying to write it.

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?

JD: It is? Don’t say that! I really *need* that three dollars an hour.

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

JD: I can’t help it, I’ve been doing it since high school. I have complicated feelings about the supply side economics of if-you-build-it-they-will-come, which is unfortunate — it might work better if I believed it wholeheartedly. What I *do* think, is that anything surprising, memorable and true will attract attention. I hope to let people know when they’re making poems that do that, that are surprising, memorable and true. Sooner rather than later.

Jordan Davis reviews books for the TLS and his poems and prose have appeared in Boston Review, Chicago Review and The Nation. New poems are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Passages North and Court Green.

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