Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

Ada Limón

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

It seems to me that the goal of the poetry critic is to bring certain books into the public arena, to serve as a conscientious curator to contemporary poetry. There are so many poetry books being published these days that, even though I’m an avid reader, it’s hard to keep up with what’s emerging and significant within the poetry community. Poetry reviews work as both a guide to new and important books, and as a platform for continuing discussions about contemporary poetics and the larger implications of the literary art form.

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books?

Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

As a non-academic who views herself as a rogue proponent of all types of poetry, I can see why reviewers want to promote new work and wish to be overly positive, if only to reflect well on the unsung art we’ve all chosen to fully commit ourselves to. I find it a great deal easier, and more enjoyable, to talk about poetry that I like, than poetry that I dislike. After, “I don’t get it,” I don’t have a lot to say about work that I’m not moved by. Also, we’ve entered an era where the majority of poetry critics are also poets themselves. This presents an unusual issue of wanting to promote work as you may someday wish your work to be promoted. Unlike the fine art critic, or the music critic, the poetry critic, for better or worse, is both the pot and the kettle.

I was once part of a panel discussion where we talked about negative reviews and Kevin Prufer presented fairly substantial evidence that negative reviews were few and far between. Whether this is a result of the afore mentioned pot-kettle conundrum, or if we’re all so scared that contemporary poetry will blow away completely that no one wants to shake the delicate dandelion seed head too harshly, it’s hard to say. That said I do find that negative reviews—when done respectfully and deftly—can serve, not only the larger writing and reading community, but also the poet themselves. Where negative poetry reviews fail however, is when they seem to be written by someone who simply doesn’t like contemporary poetry. The reviewer may love Whitman and Dickinson and Crane and Neruda (who doesn’t?), but now they look over the stunning collection of all the young upstarts writing in new and unusual (and yes, sometimes banal) ways and it all seems “disappointing” to them, to say the least. I’ve read a few reviews like this and I’m always shocked that the reviewer chose to review a new book of poems in the first place. I do think that if you’re going to review on a regular basis, you should at least surrender yourself to the changing and diverse landscape of poetry—it may have grown into an wild, unruly beast, but it’s still worthy of love and attention.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

What I find sometimes frustrating about poetry reviews these days is the need to constantly compare one writer’s work to another writer’s work. This not only makes all new work seem derivative and unoriginal, but it often shuts non-academic readers, or new poetry readers out of the conversation. I’m not saying that reviews need to be overly accessible, but there’s a reason why album reviews in Rolling Stone are more fun to read than poetry reviews. It’s alright if a music review states that a new album borrows heavily from Motown greats like Marvin Gaye and Smoky Robinson, but if we say a new book of poems is influenced by—insert a list of fabulous obscure poets from around the world—is the review doing much to widen poetry’s audience, or is it alienating the audience who may or may not be familiar with the listed influences? Perhaps I sound too much like the commonplace magazine marketer that I am, but I vote for more plain language and clearer connections. I can’t tell you how often I read a review and realize I have no clue what it’s saying. Tell me why I should read this book, tell me what I will get out of it, tell me why it’s important, or why it fails to be so, just tell me something.

Also, when you look at the VIDA count on reviews, it’s clear that reviewers aren’t reviewing books by women or writers of color in anywhere near the same numbers as books penned by white male writers. It continues to be an overwhelmingly prevalent issue in most of the major magazines, and it’s something that urgently needs to be addressed.

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I read the regular reviews in Publishers Weekly, American Poet, Pleiades, Poetry, etc. but I tend to be most excited by reviews on random blogs by writers and readers that were moved enough by a book to want to tell their friends about it—or tell their friends why they didn’t like it. That sort of bare, honest work that speaks to what a book means to someone, personally rather than professionally, always feels so refreshingly authentic. I’m drawn to blog titles like “The Top 5 Books of Poetry that Helped Me Through My Crazy Week of Single-Parenting & the Flu” (I just made that up, but I’d read it). I’m not saying that the reviews in the New York Times Book Review or the Paris Review aren’t as interesting, in fact I enjoy them a great deal, but I will say that I find what books they choose to review pretty predictable. I tend to have to go elsewhere to find new books that may be flying below the radar.

If I return to reviewing, I think I’d like to strike a balance between speaking to other writers and speaking to non-writers. Also, I’d love to toy with the idea of reviewing anonymously. That way I could promote work that I genuinely feel moved by, speak to work that’s interesting, but perhaps not as stirring, or discuss work that falls flat or attempts something risky but doesn’t accomplish it—without having it be about me, my work, or my creative life. Although, if you’re paying attention to the VIDA Count (and you should be) and the count on writers of color—I feel like it may be my job not to review anonymously—just so I can bust up the boy’s club a bit.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

Oh how glut is such a horrible word! Let’s say, pleasant abundance. Let’s say, happy plentitude. Having just read the majority of poetry books that came out this year (as a judge for the National Book Award), I think there’s great deal of exciting variety in the books coming out these days. This is why poetry reviews are so important, we need to have trusted curators that steer us to the real vibrant work. And, I should add, that if you’re a writer, avid reader, or poetry fan and you find yourself loving a book—it’s your job to promote it. Be your own billboard for work you love.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t be an asshole. Begin a review as if you’re talking to a friend and telling them what you think about the book. This doesn’t have to be an overly academic brain bomb laden with references to dozens of other literary figures, and this is not simply a showcase for your own linguistic acrobatics—let a review be about the work you’re reviewing. Be as kind and as generous as possible and at the same time be honest and stay true to your beliefs as to what poetry should do. Be conscious of the work you choose to promote—are you reviewing books only by well-established writers, are you paying attention to writers who may be underrepresented elsewhere? If you are choosing to shine the light on someone—be aware of what that light means, and again, don't be cruel. In the end, we are a uniquely sensitive group of artists who keep creating simply because we love it—that doesn’t mean we always get it right, or always strike the right cord—but it does mean that the craft and the creator deserve a respectful honoring.