On Reviewing: Anselm Berrigan

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?

AB: I think the purposes of a review are multiple, and begin or may begin as a record of the reviewer’s experience with the book under consideration. Length dictates what can be accomplished, and I am a proponent of the Fairfield Porter statement that a short review should say what is there. He was usually writing about gallery and museum shows, but I think that premise can be readily transferred onto short book reviews and makes sense as a companion for relational considerations that might better play out in a longer review. I am currently writing a little bit about books for the Harriet blog, though I will be done fairly soon. Blogging is a new experience, and I’m finding that it lets me make more use of digression than a straight review typically might. I’ve actually avoided reviews for the most part over the last six or seven years, and blogging is allowing me to get interested in the possibility of doing it again with some regularity.

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 aspect of reviewing do you notice?

AB: I typically read a book a few times and then hone in on the pieces, passages or aspects that struck me during those reads. The approach depends a bit on how much I know about the writer’s work before engaging the book; if I think I have an idea of this person I try to work against that idea to some extent, say, so as not to feel reduced to what I think I know. That is a very inexact science, however. Generally I look for things I can articulate some feeling for in relation to sound, form, content, humor, identity, and something like a strangeness. That last quality is about getting at what I don’t know in order to have an unknown at work – I’m not sure that when I was writing reviews regularly I would have been able to put it this way.  When I read reviews I notice the sensitivity or lack thereof the reviewer is applying to both the work at hand and, in the case of poetry, the whole art.

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?

AB: This links back to the first question for me, in that I believe a successful review lets a general, interested reader know what’s going on in the book. I do think the issue of sensitivity that I mentioned in the last answer is relevant here: it’s hard for me take seriously any review, for instance, that makes a point of generalizing about the state of the art in order to set up the work in question as excessively relevant. When I see that kind of approach I tune out very quickly. Sensitivity in my usage here should not imply a lack of criticality, by the way – I’m talking about paying close attention on several levels while not assuming you know everything.

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?

AB: I focus on the book at hand, and depending on the space available I’ll move out into individual poems or passages (I have almost exclusively reviewed books of poetry by the way). Looking at the book as an arrangement of consciousness-in-form is a focal point and keeps me from getting distracted by polemical considerations, which are typically covered elsewhere. The author’s body of work comes into play, yes. But whether it is a salient feature of the review may depend upon how much work the author has published, and even then there’s the matter of how the book at hand extends, changes, differs from that body of work. Plus you have to have a feel for the audience you’re writing for – you might be writing about a poet who has been working for decades, but that doesn’t mean most of your readers are going to be at all familiar with the work. There’s a balance to strike.

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?

AB: When I write about other people’s poetry in prose I usually have a narrower sense of order in play than I do when writing poetry.  I also tend to let material for poems sit for awhile – months even – and that’s not going to work for review writing.

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?

I wrote reviews for Publisher’s Weekly for a couple years, and at one point I let my editor know that I wanted to write about things he wouldn’t necessarily think to send me based on what I seemed to know very well or professed interest in. I wanted to be in that position, to some extent, although reviews for PW are very short and in a kind of house style that doesn’t let you stray too far. I’m not opposed to any tradition, and while I’m resistant to any number of didactic articulations about poetry I’ll look at anything for at least a little while. I wouldn’t write about something I felt under qualified to handle or something to which I felt too close. Either category can be rather murky, but I think it’s a mistake to avoid books that don’t seem to fit your comfort zone, however one may define that. I’m not sure I have a comfort zone when it comes to writing about poetry, when it comes down to it.

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?

AB: Barry Schwabsky’s very recent review in The Nation of a book called Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting made me want to look at that book. I say look and not buy because the book costs seventy-five smackers, but I was struck by his ability to handle the surfacy/concrete aspect of artistic movements and the real ambiguity of abstraction in painting as an on-going and transformative phenomenon.

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

AB: Yeah. I’d like to read some reviews of poetry books that get closer to an understanding of humor as an inherent quality of consciousness. Everyone has a sense of humor. That’s very odd. It’s not just some disposable construction.

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?

AB: If I take up writing reviews again with some regularity it will be out of a sense that a bunch of things I’m very interested in are not going to be otherwise taken up. I’d like to get paid for that – I’d like a big bag of money for it, in fact – but the lack of the big bag wouldn’t prevent me from doing it. Being driven crazy by writing reviews instead of poems might be a problem though.

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

AB: Yes, I think reviews do bring new readers to books – I seek out new books by writers I’m unfamiliar with based on reviews quite often – and I think there aren’t nearly enough poetry reviews right now given the amount of work that is regularly being produced. I also don’t think anyone has a real handle on the scope of the art at the moment, but there seems to be an upswing of poetry reviews, and that’s a start.

Otherwise I think writing about writing helps me figure out how to think, how to perceive the work of others, and how to get some understanding of what the hell it is I’m doing.

Anselm Berrigan is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Free Cell, published by City Lights Books. He’s co-editor of The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (with Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan), poetry editor for The Brooklyn Rail, and recently published Selected Poems of Steve Carey through subpress.

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