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

Karla Kelsey

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

The goals of the critic of poetry are to think seriously and deeply about specific books of poems—and to articulate these thoughts to readers. I say seriously and deeply because these modes of thought are so rare in culture in general and in reviewing in particular. Much review-style criticism that I read seems not to think particularly well—seems to have just read the book once and formed an opinion. Or seems to select books that can be read once (or not at all) and talk about them superficially—usually in terms of an opinion. And why do I want to read someone’s opinion? I suppose it depends on who the person is. If it is Marjorie Perloff then I have time for her opinion. If it is someone who has not read deeply and widely and thought deeply and widely: I do not have time for these reviewer’s opinions.

I say the goal of the critic is to articulate these deep and long thoughts to readers and I’ll qualify by saying that they should articulate these thoughts with nuance. The best criticism provides a model for thinking-through a poetic text. I prize this most with difficult poetry—poetry that is hard to think through—because the criticism shows a way to do this. I also prize nuanced readings of poetry that I would otherwise overlook or feel that nothing needs to be said about the work. Nuance brings my assumptions to the surface and causes me to think again.

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?

If you can show me how a book works and the aesthetic and ethical standards that you use to evaluate the book and why those standards matter today and why the book is flirting with thwarting or making good on those standards and you want to say the book is “good” or “bad” because of these things then I am interested. I don’t really care whether or not you think the book is “good” or “bad” but of the quality of thought that goes into seeing it as such interests me and helps me to think and read more beautifully. 

But if you want to just give me an opinion about the book and trash it or laud it after a surface reading that does not connect the book to any sort of context then I am not interested in what you have to say. Usually you are just repeating clichés of current trends in poetry circles and while that is, I suppose, mildly interesting, I don’t have time for it. Unfortunately I think this is what we generally mean by “positive” or “negative” reviews. They are both boring and minimally useful. I suppose they are useful in the way that gossip is. I wish there were fewer reviews of this nature.

I think the issue of positive/negative reviews is a dead issue and extremely wrong-headded because it usually resides in the territory of opinion. Most reviews that are “positive” or “negative” in a surface-sense are not intellectually engaging. Again, as a reader of criticism, I only care about your opinion if you have earned my investment—either with your career of deep thought and writing, or by the review itself which is much more than merely “positive” or “negative.” Let’s start talking about—and wanting reviews of “depth” and “interest.”

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

Probably critics are overlooking books that don’t fall into popular categories. For small example, in experimental circles conceptual writing has of course been very popular in the past 6 – 8 years. As has documentary poetics, ecopoetics, etc. These are great issues and worthy books to write on, but books focused on these projects seem to grab much of the reviewing attention of experimentally-inclined reviewers. But what else is out there? I want to hear smart people talk about those books too.

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

Jordan Davis for his close-readings. Ray McDaniel for his way of showing me the extra-ordinary in what I would have found ordinary by myself. Vanessa Place for her balls. Sueyeun Juliette Lee for her care and ability to make cultural and intellectual contexts such presence in her writing. This is a plug for the Constant Critic, but also to say that I admire these writers because they create not just reviews but full fleshy essays. Again and again I read Lyn Hejinian’s essays, Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, Jed Rasula, Susan Howe—massive, lively openings.

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

You can’t keep up. I focus on what interests me and figure that someone else will focus on what doesn’t interest me—and will do a much better job focusing there than I would have. I think the concept that a reviewer should weigh in her 2 cents on everything that is going on in poetry is crazy. Because we, as a culture, have such plurality and so many outlets for reviewing, this means that we, as individuals, can be specialists and feel ok about it. Books sent to me that seem interesting but do not interest me—I send these on to fellow reviewers, poets, or students who might click with the book and offer their voices to the conversation. I don’t believe in generalists.

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

Be selfish with your reviews and realize that reviewing is at its best selfish: it allows you to think deeply about something you are passionate about and to join this considered voice with a larger conversation. The idea that you are doing a book or an author a favor by reviewing it is arrogant. Write only about books you are passionate about—that you love or hate or see something disturbing in (however your passion manifests). Read the book at least 10 times. Spend more than a few days writing your review. Get feedback from another writer: use reviews as a way of building community for yourself! If you are not struggling to say something that is difficult to articulate you are not doing it right. Before you publish the review consider that what you are saying is likely more reflective of who and what you are—the quality of your mind and attention and relationship to poetry—then it is about the book itself. If you are still comfortable with the review—with what it says about your mind, your care, your ethics of reading: send it out into the world.