Saturday, June 6, 2009

On Poetry Reviews

I like Don Share's take on the issue of poetry reviews mostly because he doesn't try to stake out a "my way is the only way to look at this" position. That appeals to me populist side.
I’m not advocating weeding out the bad from the good in poetry or in anything else; my good is your bad, and vice versa. But one has to know the physiology nonetheless. That’s my point, and in fact I’ve argued elsewhere for the great and enduring value of very bad poetry (which I read in enormous quantities). But I think there’s much to assent to in Joel’s remarks, particularly with regard to “civil society,” which does seem to be vanishing (like sherry-drinking and dressing gowns)… assuming it ever existed, that is.
As I've written here before, I try to stay away from "good" and "bad" when it comes to poetry. I talk more about what I like and what I dislike, what moves me and what doesn't, what I'm able to communicate with and what I feel sealed off from, but I don't like making value judgments about poetry in general because tastes vary, and what I find cold and hermetic may seem vibrant and inclusive to another reader.

When it comes to reviews, I approach the matter from two very different perspectives. When I'm writing a review, I stick with stuff I appreciate. I'm one of those people who will pass on doing a review before writing a negative one. I understand the criticism of taking such a stand, and I'll take the hit, I guess, but I'm not willing to hit another poet for doing something with language that doesn't appeal to me. I'd rather spend my time and effort pointing out poets who are doing stuff I find interesting, who appeal to my aesthetic, who I can communicate with in new and interesting ways. I'm just not a basher when it comes to artistic matters--the number of people who read poetry is already small enough without turning more people off by being dicks to each other.

As Poetry Editor of The Rumpus, though, I have a different approach. For starters, I'm willing to talk to anyone who wants to write a review for me. I won't promise publication, but I'll definitely take a look at your style and see if it fits our mode. If you look at the poetry reviews we've published over the last few months, you'll find that they're largely positive, and even the ones that are less so point out something positive in the writing. I haven't published a completely negative review (though I haven't really been faced with the possibility yet), but I'm not completely opposed to doing it, as long as I feel the review approaches the work honestly and as long as I don't think the reviewer is looking to settle an old score or make it a hate letter. That's a fine line, and I'm sure that at some point I'll publish a review that does just that, and then I'll feel the need to apologize for it. That's the editor's life, though, unless you're only going to publish love letters.

The big challenge for me so far has been making sure that my reviews reflect the diversity of voices in the poetry world, and while I've been trying, I won't say that I've succeeded. I'd like to have more women reviewing for me, as well as people of color, and I'd love to have more books by women and people of color reviewed here. That challenge has made me reach out to communities I'd neglected to in recent years, much to my own loss, and I've really enjoyed both the poets I've discovered and the communication I've had with them as a result.

I'm also trying to get reviews of and by people whose aesthetic I don't share, because the last thing I want The Rumpus to be known for is a single, limited set of voices. I'd love to publish advocates for poetry I don't get, because I'd like to get what they're doing, and I work from the assumption that the problem is mine, and not the poet's.

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