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

Juliana Spahr

You ask six questions.

Some of them I feel I can’t answer. I do not know the goals of the critic of poetry.

And does anyone really express a desire to “get started” writing reviews? If so, they should jump right in. Or I guess that would be my advice. Go for it. I don’t think anyone stops anyone. Geez, let a thousand blog tumblrs whatever.

Some I can answer. Among the critics I return to are those who write a sort of associational essay, such as that written by Susan Howe and Heriberto Yepez. But really I could put a thousand names here. Every poet also a critic.

I do not keep up with what comes out as well as I should. But less because of a glut and more because much of it feels familiar.

But I was interested in your question about the positive reviewing of poetry books. Because it is said often and I keep trying to figure out if it is true or not.

It does seem a little bit true if the traditional review of five hundred to a thousand words that summarizes the book in the first few sentences and then goes on to maybe what could be thought of as larger discussion or makes some value judgments does skew to the positive. I read a bunch of this sort of review to try and find some contention in them. There isn’t much. There are probably a million reasons why this is true. Most of these reasons are about poetry’s sociality. I suspect that these sorts of reviews tend to be little love letters. There is a long tradition in poetry of promoting one’s friends. Or promoting those one wishes to become one’s friends. And that is nice. I mean, why not? Poets should be able to tell each other that they love each other in a public forum and mix in a few thoughts about a book. But not just that. When this form gets grumpy, then people get upset. I seem to remember at one point, was this like a million years ago?, Tim Davis wrote a negative review of an Ed Sanders book in the Poetry Project Newsletter. Who published this review? Was Jordan Davis the editor then? But whatever I remember there was trouble with this. Tim had alienated an elder and a sometime member. And I heard it said then that the Poetry Project Newsletter was a place that wanted to promote poetry, not dismiss it. And so had an unspoken policy of never the negative review. Maybe that is spoken at moments? I am wondering as I write this if there has been a negative review since then. I can’t remember one.

But this sort of “review” seems like such a small part of the way poetry gets discussed. And if “review” is considered to be something larger than this narrow sort of genre then poetry reviewing might be thought of as unusually contentious. Or as contentious as one might expect a genre that seems to have absolutely no formal conventions except an excess of formal conventions. Poets will throw down hard in what we might be calling the article. And then in the comment stream after the article. I was just rereading Cal Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism” in the Boston Review. They also throw down in the blog post. A month previous to this there was Garrett Caples “Poetry and Accountability.” And that is just the start. I hear that UK poetics list has a lot of words stored in its throw down archives. Poets also often do odd things. Like call themselves “Il Gruppo” and threaten to publish an attack to what they perceive to be an attack on Olson by Yepez. Only in poetry-land can one call a free skool into existence and get a ten page open letter of complaint that ranges from autism to gluten to the Baader-Meinhof in reply. They also still call each other Stalinists. Often enough that I joke with friends about how it has been a slow month because no one has called us a Stalinist.

In other words, it is a weird world out there where it might be that the word count that discusses poetry has more words than all the poetry together. And that would be a lot of words because there is a lot of poetry being published right now. I’ve always liked this way that poetry-land takes poetry-land seriously. Friends outside of poetry-land often look on puzzled. And yet I try to think of it with a good humor. And enjoy its strangeness. (I’m still puzzling over Bedient’s daddy shed line.) This might be part of what makes the poetry interesting. It is interesting enough to fight over. Although the risk is that all that is left is the endless sociality, manifestos, blog tumblrs, status updates, and the rest.