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

Dorothy Wang

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

To expose readers to unknown or new work; to bring to light something in the work, the larger critical debates, or the poetic tradition that is hidden or overlooked; to frame/contextualize (theoretically, historically) aspects of the poetry, the tradition, and fundamental poetic concepts and categories; to get readers excited in the work of particular poets.

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?

I think this is more of a problem among critics, particularly those in the academy, who are afraid to criticize or disagree with another critic, particularly a senior one, for fear of hurting their own careers than with critics who treat poets too gingerly. Poets usually have a lot less power to affect a critic’s career than other more powerful critics. Of course there are also those reviewers who are themselves poets and who may want to curry favor with certain more important poets and thus will review their work positively. Or they will refrain from saying anything critical (“negative”) because of certain allegiances and alliances (say, within certain aesthetic “camps” or other political groupings).

I don’t think there should be “positive” or “negative” reviews but truthful ones (though not hurtful destructive attacks). I do think there is a place for polemical reviews. What one hopes for is honest respectful dialogue between critics and poets and among poetry critics, with the right to disagree. Too many critical debates are personalized so that what is an honest difference in opinion or worldview is seen as a “negative” response or a personal attack. I think I’ve learned more from critical disagreements (and from criticism of my ideas) than from those whose aesthetic and political proclivities align more with mine. The best critical conversations are those in which both parties are open to having their minds changed, even if—or because—they disagree.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

The inextricable significance of race in American poetry (even, or especially, in racially “unmarked” poetry) and poetics; formal concerns in minority poetry. The ability to close-read poetry with sensitivity and nuance also seems to be on the decline.

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

Giacomo Leopardi, Ezra Pound, Aimé Césaire, Raymond Williams, James Baldwin, Edward Said, and Amiri Baraka.

Wish to emulate: all of the above.

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

It’s obviously impossible to “keep up” with all the poetry that’s being published these days. My strategy is to look at what’s coming out from presses whose work I already like, what’s new at Small Press Distribution, what other critics are discussing and reviewing, and to get recommendations from friends. The AWP book fair can also be helpful, though pretty overwhelming.

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

Read a lot of good critics, both contemporary and historical, and not just critics of poetry. I have learned as much from Noam Chomsky, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon—critics of society—as from poetry critics. Though I’ve never done it myself, blogging might be a less intimidating way to begin: there’s less pressure than with formal reviewing, the feeling is more “loose” and informal, and the reviews can be less lengthy.