LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is?
AM: At its most basic, I guess, the purpose of a review is to arouse appetite in the reader.
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?
AM: It depends on the assignment. (It’s worth mentioning, I think, that I work strictly on assignment.) As Stephen Burt put it: “I read through the book a few times, make plenty of notes, then arrange them into what I hope makes a vivid and well-argued essay at the appropriate length.”
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?
AM: The quality of the writing betrays the mind behind it, and quality is all.
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?
AM: The same sensibility produces both the criticism and the poetry. Beyond that, who’s to say I’m the most reliable witness to my method and/or madness?
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?
AM: Sure, I’ve taken those sorts of assignments. At my most genteel, I’ve admitted to my readers that I had no feeling for a certain type of work, then pulled my punches while attempting a judicious description. It’s extremely unsatisfying. Most of us are tyrannous little Catulluses when it comes to poetry— “odi et amo.” Notice that he puts the “hate” before the “love.”
It’s not that I want to review only books I love—actually, it’s the hardest thing in the world to explain why you love a certain poet (as with persons!). Meanwhile it’s easy to find reasons to detest another.
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?
AM: Just last week, I read an archived review of Lynette Roberts’s work by John Wilkinson in Boston Review and immediately ordered both Carcanet books, poetry and prose. Jordan Davis had previously pointed me to a TLS article about her, but Wilkinson’s essay sealed the deal.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
AM: What Daisy Fried said: “I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art.” John Latta does that on his blog. William Corbett’s reviews are exemplary, and Daisy herself does it well (an example is her recent review of Franz Wright in the New York Times). Art reviews are more likely to be sensual, perceptual, visceral: I love the art reviews of Fairfield Porter, Peter Schjeldahl, James Schuyler.
Reviews generally don’t answer the big question, which is: what makes us fall in love with one poet rather than another? The question of taste runs up against the same mystery as romantic love does. We explain the latter by “chemistry,” but chemistry doesn’t influence our reading. Or does it? Perhaps science will tackle this burning question.
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?
AM: Reviewing, unlike poem-writing, is not a vocation. I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t paid. And I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t exposed to the largest readership possible. Those two things tend to go together.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
AM: I’m a believer in the happy accident. The more people I can reach, the greater the possibility of a chance encounter with a new reader.
Ange Mlinko is the author of two books, Matinees (Zoland Books, 1999) and Starred Wire (Coffee House Press, 2005) which was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004, and a finalist for the James Laughlin Award. She was born in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. She has lived and worked in Providence, Boston, and Morocco. She has taught poetry at Brown, the Naropa University Summer Writing Program, and Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. Her poems are about urban life, about language and its failings, about the things we see and do not see. She is often compared to Frank O’Hara. The New Yorker praised her “unique sense of humor and mystery.”
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