On Reviewing: Ken Babstock

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?

KB: Being a late arrival to this conversation I have to preface my answers by underlining how much I’ve enjoyed the bewildering array of previous respondents. Much of what many said first, I’ll likely repeat, in a diminished form.

At a basic, functional level, a review (referring here to Newspaper Books sections and the like) is meant to shine a light on the simple fact of a book’s existence. Saying to a reader, Look, this has arrived, it has A, B, C, and D, attributes and more or less steers clear of X, Y, and Z. But also and simultaneously, this functionalist’s goal can be achieved through more inventive, more aestheticized moves. Otherwise why have a human do the job? I’m sure there’s a program that could adequately categorize, slot, offer descriptives, quote, etc.

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?

KB: Approach: trepidation. Method: effort. I’m keenly aware of my own shifting opinions and deficiencies in critical thought/practice, so I come to every book with a sense of climbing up toward it lacking the proper gear and training. I want to be affected by the book under consideration and will try hard to make that happen on some level. Space constraints begin to close in around what wants to find expression.

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?

KB: I enjoy “enjoyment.” Speed of thought; economy; connections; humour; the sense of a reviewer ‘wearing’ those poems for the time the writing lasts. It sometimes appears as an honouring, or a yearning to have been these poems’ creator, or at least to have been present at their birth. I suppose I’m simply reformulating notions of “attention.”

I’m also always very impressed when a reviewer risks teasing out what they believe to be a book’s central agon (if I can use a Bloom-y word). I’m thinking here of connections—to traditions, contemporaries, aesthetics, etc—but then also where and how a work attempts to wrest itself free of similarity and gain purchase on its own particular struggles.

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?

KB: The book at hand must remain the focus, it’s just we can sometimes see the book with more clarity through a single poem, a single line.

Now the risk here is in choosing the exact wrong poem or line to focus on. It happens. I’ve tried to mitigate the danger by avoiding the building of large essayistic edifices that can crumble if a single poem or trope or line is asked to withstand too much torque or pressure. Perhaps the shorter (Newspaper) review has been a friend in this respect.

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?

KB: With the reviewing I’m actively trying to not hide anywhere. It’s meant to be civil and honest and inclusive. For my own poems you can imagine a flipped switch; the rules of engagement change.

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?

KB: To clarify, I’ve written far more reviews of fiction and non-fiction for Newspapers than I have poetry. Finding fault or disappointment with fiction or essays or whatnot has always felt like more of an open conversation. There’s such a whiff of the zero-sum game when ‘disapproving’ of a book of poems that I’ve felt ok about sticking to work that excites me. I’ve also had no problem admitting (to an employing editor) to the personal deficiencies alluded to earlier. There are gaps in my reading that mark me as unfit for certain author’s work. It would do the book nor the general reader no service to have to watch me flail, blather, misapprehend, sweat and end up lying.

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?

KB: Being up here in Toronto (it’s my excuse, anyway), I knew nothing of Rae Armantrout or D.A.Powell; Stephen Burt changed that. Daniel Soar in the LRB on Svetislav Basara. For that matter Benjamin Kunkel changed what I thought I thought of ‘Netherland.’ Anne Lauterbach’s ‘The Night Sky’ has sent me back to Anne Lauterbach’s poems.

I’ve recently fallen for the long view. The late review of all the reviews. What’s been in the wind and why direction or velocity should or might change. Daniel Mendelson does this really well in the NYRB on film; recently for Avatar, and earlier, Brokeback Mountain. Sort of Janet Malcolm’s ‘The Silent Woman’ in essay form. Or the ongoing back and forth regarding Frederick Seidel. Someone convinces me one day he’s prosodically poaching Lowell, then the next he’s our best cultural barometer, the next that he’s not, in fact, ‘Fred’ at all! I suppose I’m easily swayed.

And Michael Hofmann can be relied on to speak is mind while reading the poems as poems.

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

KB: Tough question. Well, speaking of Hofmann, so many of his descriptive flourishes on how a poet’s line sounds are gloriously exact. Really working hard to hear the singularities and foibles and habits and signatures. Not pointing and saying “here lies assonance” but actually trying to get at the quality of sound. It’s wonderful to watch even when I’m disagreeing. And so here’s the question, could this same descriptive strength be applied to a poet’s shifts and leaps and elisions and skids of mind? I’m presently reading Spicer’s Collected so may here be expressing my wish for a tutor.

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?

KB: I came to reviewing because I needed paid work. I’d like to write longer pieces on poetry but have yet to get over my sense of myself as still putting the tools in place, still engaged in the education.

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

KB: They must. So much of my own reading has been instigated, or just reinforced, by reviews. There must be others like me.

Ken Babstock is the author, most recently, of Airstream Land Yacht (Anansi, 2006) winner of The Trillium Prize for Poetry, finalist for the Governor General’s Award, The Griffin Prize for Poetry, and The Winterset Award. Earlier collections include Mean, winner of The Atlantic Poetry Prize and The Milton Acorn Award, and Days into Flatspin, winner of a K.M. Hunter Award and finalist for the Winterset Prize. All three books were listed in The Globe and Mail‘s Books of the Year. His poems have won Gold at the National Magazine Awards, appeared widely in anthologies in Canada, The US, and Ireland, and have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Serbo-Croatian and Czech.

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