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

Sina Queyras

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

Only Excite.

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 say you are “against negative reviews” there is an assumption that you are therefore against all aspects of evaluative criticism. These formulas are misguided. I think there is always room for a skilled evisceration of a text. This tends to mark a work’s “arrival” and to me, suggests that it can hold its own against the worst of it. But, and here’s the tricky part, the worst of it has to illuminate, not simply be vindictive: this sucks, here’s why. The canvas of that exploration feels like the inside of a bottle cap...

A hyper critical review is probably not so great for a first book—I like Richard Ford’s observation that trashing a first book is like veering to hit road kill—but in a world where first books are carefully crafted golden lifeboats a decade in coming, then I say, yes, give it the full treatment. I really, really, don’t care for reviews that are simply cheerleading a book. And again I note that many people who purport to love the negative review seem to love getting those cheerleading reviews themselves.

We need to move beyond binaries here. I say if you want to take sides be a dodecagon. In short, the kind of reviews that I find offensive aren’t negative, they are blind or one-sided.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

Why are we writing criticism, and for whom are we writing it? If it’s just social positioning I don’t want to read it. Worse, I am beginning to suspect we are writing criticism only for each other, which then makes me think, why bother at all? I would rather read poetry frankly.

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

This is a really tough question—the kind of work I want to emulate isn’t out there much, which is why I am working so hard to make Lemon Hound happen. Randomly, I always trust A O Scott, Michael Robbins, Eileen Myles, Christian Lorentzen and Stephen Burt. For reviews, I will read pretty much anything by Jordan Davis or Vanessa Place on Constant Critic, or Marjorie Perloff, Ken Babstock, Daisy Fried and Ange Mlinko. I admire William Logan but he often dismisses writing I find more interesting than he can appreciate. I recently read Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism and while I don’t agree with quite a lot of his questions or conclusions he is clearly a serious, and often generous reader, and one of the hardest working poetry critics in Canada.

Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets, Louise Gluck’s Proofs & Theories, Gail Scott’s Spare Parts, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack & Honey, Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects, and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson are all books I adore. Anne Carson, Lisa Robertson and J. M. Coetzee’s critical work is in a league of its own. Still I can only say there are aspects of these writers I might want to emulate. I haven’t found one single critic that I admire everything about, not even Woolf or Sontag.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say there are quite a few new voices coming to life on Lemon Hound that are worth watching. Critical writing is way more difficult to produce than many of us want to admit. I am nowhere near the critical writer I would like to be.

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

I have a sorting hat… No, but I am quite ruthless by now, and if a book doesn’t excite me I move on, even if the book comes from a good friend, or a famous poet, or a famous poet friend. You have to. I have a dozen books I adore and would love to write about and often can’t find the time. Sometimes I’ll just write a very brief note, or even a Tweet. And if you don’t think a Tweet matters, think again. I wrote a Tweet review of the first book of a Canadian poetry reviewer who argues for negative reviews and it seems to have really wounded him. But you have to have your opinion, or your Tweet in this case, and you have to take your hits for it. That’s life. If someone carries a grudge there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t let any of that silence you.

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

I encourage new writers to try the short take: two or three hundred words in which you get at one aspect of a book and say something clear and precise about it. Writing critically is like anything; you start small and build up. I make my students write summaries and responses to everything they read in workshop (canonical or peer). Don’t be full of shit. Don’t be a pompous ass. Don’t condescend to writers but also don’t have your nose so far up their ass you can’t breathe. Do be an engaged reader and use your basic skills: summarize, expand, question, and quarrel with everything you read. It’s a great habit to get into: quickly you will find you have developed a strong critical reflex and those good habits will carry you far.

Also, read good critical writing. I like the London Review of Books, Poetry, Boston Review, The New Inquiry and the Los Angeles Review of Books but I find good writing in the oddest places too—on tumblr and blogs such as this one, The Bull Calf, Rumpus.

One other suggestion is to develop a critical persona. Not a character, a persona, a way to channel the critical energy into the poetry energy and vice versa. The critical voice is as important as the creative, and should be just as fun to create and maintain.