On Reviewing: Steven Collis

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?SC: In a review, one writer enters into dialogue with another (or better, one piece of writing enters into dialogue with another). The ideas, aesthetics, techniques, forms or one writer are taken up by another who engages with them intellectually and critically, thinking through them, extending them, finding planes of relevance and correspondence for them. This would be my ideal sense at least. It’s certainly not a matter of “advertising” a new work, or passing judgment on it, or establishing taste—although any of this can be the outcome of a review. I know, in terms of my own work as a poet, getting reviewed means that what I’ve written has entered into some kind of a conversation, encountered a response that is an extension of that work, that changes that work, so it’s no longer simply “something I wrote,” but has passed into our collective conversation about poetry, writing, ideas, etc. I come to better understand what “I’m” doing through another’s response to it. I also think that if we’re going to have an intellectually healthy poetry, there must be thoughtful reviewing going on. It’s the way—one (crucial) way—we come to understand our poetics. And for me writing poetry for 20 years has been the pursuit of a poetics, the pursuit of an answer to what poetry might be. Sadly, surprisingly few poets are willing to write reviews, while every poet wants to get reviewed. I think we all need to get down to writing reviews—on blogs (I don’t blog myself) or otherwise.

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?

SC: I suppose my approach in writing a review is somewhat ad hoc. I do exegesis and close reading, but I also think contextual reading is important (getting a sense of how a work is responding to the here and now, socially and aesthetically), and if various theoretical approaches seem like they would be generative, I go along with them. I have no specific axe to grind (in terms of my approach)—but that said, I gravitate towards work that is intellectually and or socially engaged with some sort of problem or question, and my reading of that work will inevitably gravitate towards theoretical approaches that reveal that engagement.

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?

SC: I don’t think so, and I can imagine any number of approaches producing a successful review. I just look for writing that engages other writing intellectually, that extends our possibilities in writing. I tend not to get a lot out of dust-ups between one camp and another (though I’ve probably participated in them, and been partisan at times).
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?

SC: I tend to focus on the book at hand, though getting a sense of where/how it fits in an evolving body of work can be important too. I don’t see this as a major issue.

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?

SC: Not all that different, ultimately. In writing I’m trying to find something out. That discovery might be made in writing a poem, and it might be made in writing a review about someone else’s poem. In fact, I’m generally producing “readings” of other texts, whether I’m writing a poem or writing criticism. The books of criticism I have written have tended to go hand-in-hand with the poetry I was writing at the time. So, many of the same ideas are at play, for instance, in my book of poetry, The Commons, and my books of criticism, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good and Through Words of Others (all three books written more or less at the same time, between 2004 and 2007): what is the relation of one text to another? How does one text respond to/incorporate/extend/use another? Is there a model of sociality at work in this, formally? What is the politics of poetic form/practice? Is language “common”? How do selves and others find one another in words?

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?

SC: I have reviewed books I was “luke warm” about, but not books I “didn’t care for” or which came from outside my own “tradition.” I’m not sure this is a good idea—to not review work I’m resistant too. Such an effort could be very rewarding. As to reviewing the “luke warm,”  I’ve found that even then there’s still something I eventually warm to in the writing of the review—I find the scale, the plane on which I can engage with it. Otherwise the review wouldn’t get written. 

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?

SC: Option b/ happens all the time—well, fairly frequently. I think I started reading Bolano’s novels because of reviews in the New York Times. It’s a less frequent occurrence with poetry: the books I like rarely get reviewed. I find out about them through other poets, through community. I have at times bought a book I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to agree with or like because a review made me want to understand better why I didn’t like it or what exactly I wasn’t agreeing with in it. So I can recall picking up a Charles Wright book after reading a review….

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

SC: I guess I’m still waiting to have my socks knocked off. I’m hopeful, and wear oversized socks.

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?

SC: Yeah. Much of cultural work in general is increasingly unpaid. And underfunded. I will continue to do it because I have a good day job which recognizes “critical work.” But this may be one reason why reviewing has suffered so badly in the last 10 to 20 years: it’s rare to get paid for it. So we rush around doing the things that pay our bills. The gremlins in the neoliberal machine like this: keep ‘em busy; idle hands might start reviewing poems (or something worse).

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

SC: Maybe they can bring new readers. But what I hope to achieve is thinking. I hope to join the collective conversation that writing is, or can be, or ought to be. I hope to understand poetry better—this thing I have ridiculous irrational love for and never feel like I really understand but keep on trying to figure out.

Stephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001), Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, The Commons (Talonbooks 2008)—the latter two form parts of the on-going “Barricades Project”—and On the Material (Talonbooks 2010). He is also the author of two book-length studies, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks 2007) and Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions 2006). He is currently editing a collection of essays, Reading Duncan Reading, organizing the Charles Olson Centenary Conference (June 4-6 2010), and continuing to work on “The Barricades Project.” A member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he teaches American literature, poetry, and poetics at Simon Fraser University.

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