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Reviewing Reviewing: Ethos and Praxis, by Tyrone Williams

I’m going to talk about the topic of reviewing books of poetry from both autobiographical and professional points of view, primarily to give you a sense of how and why I view this practice—in both senses of the word, rehearsal for an act and the act itself—as inseparable from my identity as a poet. I think it’s safe to say that if I have a “name” in the wide-ranging, complex, and complicated world of U.S.A. poetry, it is as a reviewer of contemporary books of poetry. This isn’t false modesty regarding my status as an American poet. Rather it’s simply an acknowledgement of a fact: more American poets encounter me as a book reviewer than as a poet. This fact alone points to some of the complexities and complications I mentioned above and I’ll return to them below.

I don’t recall why I became interested in reviewing in general, but I’ve been writing various forms of journalism since high school when I was on the staff of my school paper. However, I didn’t start writing reviews until my sophomore year in college. One of my friends from high school, Armond White, a year older and a class ahead of me, was writing film reviews for The South End, the college newspaper. He encouraged me to start writing for the paper and so I started sending him my reviews of pop, rock, and R & B record albums and concerts. I was so thrilled to see my reviews in print that it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was a staff member and earning a salary. A full year went by before the comptroller called me and told me I had almost twenty-four checks (we were paid twice a month) waiting for me. Because I was a staff member, I wrote a few book and theater reviews, but my primary job was reviewing popular music albums (the paper already had jazz and classical music reviewers).

Reviewing records gradually came to a close when I left college and started teaching at Xavier University, gradually because I was still trying to break into national magazines like Creem (only a few miles from my house in Detroit), Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice. At the same time, I was starting my academic career, and the more time I devoted to that, the less time I had for “keeping up” with popular music. I was so focused on my own creative writing, primarily poetry, that I gave little thought to anything else, including book reviews. Nonetheless, long before I published my first book of poetry in 2002, I had already started reviewing, if not always publishing, contemporary books of poetry.

My motivation for doing so then is the same as now, one I think most reviewers of books, art shows, and music and drama performances can understand: I am always trying to figure out, or just wrestling with, a problem—aesthetic, cultural, political, etc.—by way of a specific object or performance. But of course, for poets, writing poetry is also, if only partly, about wrestling with, trying to figure out, some aesthetic, cultural, and/or political problem. This means that just as my academic and scholarly concerns gradually supplanted my popular musical ones, so too my obsession with writing poems and getting a book of poetry published. That left little mental energy or psychological room—to say nothing of time—for thinking about book reviews except for the occasional, sporadic, one-off.

Then I read—somewhere—an interview with the poet Lisa Robertson. I can’t recall when or where I read the interview, but I believe it was after I’d met her and the late Stacy Doris at the Positions Conference at the Kootenay School in Vancouver in 2008. In that interview, Robertson was complaining about how academic critics tend to ignore contemporary poetry, and that it was up to poets to review books of poetry. I’d read and heard these same sentiments before but Robertson’s comments really resonated with me, perhaps because around this same time I’d been thinking about the late Lorenzo Thomas, about the standard for social and aesthetic activism set by his exemplary career. Instead of following the usual trajectory that most American poets take as they enter what Nathaniel Tarn calls the “po’ biz,” this Panamanian American poet left New York City, moved to Houston, and began working in the local arts communities. Along with the challenge presented by Lorenzo’s life, I’d also been thinking about doing the kind of capsule review I’d first seem in Creem magazine way back in the 1970s. Few people outside the record review business know the name Robert Christgau, but he was, for a couple of decades, the self-styled “Dean of Rock and Roll Critics,” and his column of short reviews of primarily rock ‘n’ roll albums in Creem and The Village Voice inspired a slew of imitators, including yours truly. I had only occasionally used Christgau’s grading scale to evaluate record albums when I was writing for The South End but, some thirty years later, I was thinking about doing a poetry book version of Christgau’s music column. Robertson’s notions about poets reviewing books of poetry and Christgau’s capsule music reviews resonated with words I’d heard three decades earlier in the living room of Edward Hirsch’s house when he taught at Wayne State University. He was sitting in front of a bookshelf full of books of poetry, all arranged in alphabetical order. He told me two things: poetry was too important to be stacked haphazardly; and poets must buy books by their peers. I’ve never forgotten that, which is why my shelves of poetry books are also arranged in alphabetical order while the novels, philosophy, history, art and cultural criticism are stacked in random order. For me, Hirsch’s comments summed up many, but not all, the professional responsibilities of being a poet.

A few years later, I was invited by Jacket2 to do a series of columns over the summer of 2015 on anything regarding poetry. I told them I wanted to do short capsule reviews of chapbooks and books of poetry, about one per column. That was no problem. However, when I told them I wanted to cover older as well as recent publications, a couple of the editors balked. However, I think it was Michelle Taranksy who gave me the go-ahead signal. I insisted on reviewing older books of poetry because, as we all know, the majority of poetry books published in a given year are never reviewed at all. I admit this idea also came from reading those music magazines from the 1970s. Occasionally, they’d do a kind of “lost treasures” column or article, focusing on “hidden gems,” albums released with little or no fanfare but retrospectively considered classics. My ambitions for the Jacket2 series were much lower: I just wanted to write about chapbooks and books that I felt were new and significant and chapbooks and books from years past that had been largely overlooked.1That is, chapbooks and books I hadn’t seen reviewed. The assumption was always that my critical compass was as limited as anyone else’s. I take for granted that no critic, no matter how well read, can master the explosion of new books coming out every year.

All this got me thinking seriously about book reviewing as both a responsibility to poets and poetry in general, not just to my own little niche or community. Given that there are only so many hours in a day, days in a week, weeks in a month and year, a book reviewer, like any artist worthy of the name, has to take the long view. This view—which means thinking beyond the limits of the profession, thinking, that is, of one’s avocation above and beyond one’s vocation, beyond the ever-expanding market and public relations overload, beyond even the end of one’s life—is espoused often enough by poets, usually in the form of a cliché (I’m writing for my future audience of readers). However, too often, in actual practice, poets succumb to the po’ biz, our po’ boys’ version of what Joni Mitchell once called the star-making machinery. I don’t mean just the inevitable announcements of newly published chapbooks and books across print and social media, an unavoidable necessity for those working with small presses (defined as those unable or unwilling to publicize their publications via ads in expensive trade magazines like Poets & Writers). I also mean the road less often taken: devoting time, precious time, to reading and thinking and writing about the publications of other poets. Even rarer is the poet willing to cross the threshold of their comfort zone: reading and thinking and writing about the publications of poets working with different, even oppositional aesthetics, to those the poet espouses.

I hope it’s clear that this little sermon—yes, we’ve passed from winsome autobiography to hectoring lecture—has nothing to do with, does not depend upon, eliciting guilt and shame. I’m not clamoring for conversion experiences. I was in New Orleans in October 2018 for the ASAP (Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present) conference and had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, the poet Farid Matuk, and reconnect with his partner, the poet Susan Briante, who I’d met in 2008 in southern Spain, where we were encamped in an artist residency for five weeks. I’d reviewed Matuk’s book, This Isa Nice Neighborhood, in one of those Jacket2 columns and he expressed his thanks. But he and Susan had lots of questions for me, one of which was, how did I “find the time” to do “so many” book reviews. I basically gave them a capsule version of what I’ve just told you. They looked at me with somber faces; I had, they said, made them feel like couch-potato slouches, solipsistic losers. As you might surmise, that was hardly my intention. We were at dinner with a bunch of other poets and their daughter was at another table with her friend, Rose Acala’s daughter. They had all been talking about the struggle of raising young children in Texas, teaching loads, tenure anxieties, and being supportive of one’s partner’s endeavors in poetry while trying to find time to write their own poems. In other words, they don’t have time to write their own poems, much less review books of poetry.

I don’t have children, so I have never had that particular problem regarding time. And like a lot of poets I am, to a large degree, a loner. I haven’t been to an outdoors concert since the mid-nineties; I rarely go out to dinner (unless we’re interviewing job candidates); and unless I’m invited to lunch by a friend—usually another poet—I eat at home. I have way too many books and am always sneaking more into the house. When I’m not teaching or trying to find time to exercise, I’m reading or writing, except at night when we have dinner in front of the boob tube. And I end my nights with The New York Times crossword puzzle, a book of poetry I’m currently reading, and, sometimes, a notebook where I jot down a few lines, a few words, of poetry. I’ve been doing this, more or less without interruption, since I was a kid, which is why my mother, at a certain point, had to make me go outside to play with my sisters and cousins. I always had, as she said, my head in a book (as did my father).

Still, given more resources of time than many people of my generation, this fact still begs the question: why review books of poetry? Is this a useful way to spend the time I don’t have, and if so, for what, to whom, might it be useful? There are various answers to these questions, but I’ll try to answer them. In general, reviews of books of contemporary poetry serve to inform a number of distinct, if overlapping, audiences of what—and who—is new, the latest trends, the most recent controversy, and so forth. Casual readers of poetry may find the kind of reviews one sees in Publishers Weekly more useful than those that appear in The New Criterion or The Colorado Review. On the other hand, MFA students may find the reviews in Rain Taxi: Review of Books or The Denver Quarterly more useful than those in The New York Times. The case of the critic William Logan is pertinent here. Logan is well known for his negative, occasionally sarcastic, reviews of books of poetry, his primary targets being poets with reputations heretofore presumed unarguable, poets on the rise, so to speak, and versifiers posing as poets. As a poet himself of traditional verse along the lines of Auden, Lowell, and Larkin, Logan is a fierce and honest defender of the trade as he understands it. He writes for those readers dismayed by the post-modernization of poetry, the experimenters, quacks, and outliers who, according to another cliché, have helped ruin contemporary poetry. Logan isn’t, however, a modernist fuddy-duddy. He reviews, and occasionally likes, contemporary books of poetry, mostly those whose poems would have appeared in traditional outlets like American Poetry Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.

In other words, reviewing books means reviewing books for a specific audience. That specificity isn’t permanent if the book reviewer writes for different publications since each publishing venture has its own audience, and even those with similar aesthetic values—say, Poetry and American Poetry Review—only have, at best, overlapping audiences. The implication here is that poetry critics, like poets, generate their own followers, their own readers, who come to trust their judgments. However, like the poet too restless to remain self-satisfied with a comfortable coterie, the adventuresome book reviewer will want do what they can to enlarge the following by reading and reviewing books by poets working with aesthetics alien, even hostile, to those of the reviewer, even if doing so risks alienating or losing some of the faithful. That kind of book reviewer will risk losing and gaining adherents in the pursuit of vital poetry wherever and whenever it is being published, has been published.

If the book reviewer is also a poet, that usually means they will occasionally wind up reviewing books by poets they know. As you perhaps know, many journals and magazines have various policies for evaluating whether or not book reviewer Z should review a book by poet X. Generally speaking, these policies presume that the more “distant” the relation between reviewer and poet the better chance the publication will receive an “objective” review. If the reviewer and poet are mere acquaintances, objectivity becomes less certain. And if the reviewer and poet happen to be friends or colleagues, objectivity evaporates. As incontrovertible as this ethos underwriting most magazine and journal policies on book reviews might appear, it actually substitutes one mode of pretense for another since every critic, like every poet, cannot avoid revealing their biases and presumptions. This doesn’t mean, however, that the book reviewer has no obligation to strive for an even-handed evaluation of the book under consideration. That too is part of what it means to be a professional.22] I have written elsewhere on the flaws at the heart of this logic.

Even when reviewer and poet share the same or similar aesthetics the elephant in the room doesn’t vanish into thin air. The basic question remains: is this a good book of poetry? As someone who began by reviewing books of poetry by friends and colleagues, this question can test one’s mettle, especially when the friend in question doesn’t like the review. Despite my misgivings about doing so, I’ve sometimes succumbed to pressure from friends to write blurbs and reviews of their books and the results haven’t always been pleasant. I’ve had blurbs rejected because I refuse—on general principle—to use superlatives (the first, the best, the most, etc.)—or unsustainable claims (“the most important book of poetry published this year”). It won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve had friends become upset over even “positive” reviews of their books because of the tenor or direction of the positive observations, about things included, about things excluded, in the review. If, then, friends shouldn’t review each other’s books, these unfortunate outcomes—not some misguided presumption of objectivity—are the best reasons for obeisance to that dictum.

But what happens when the tables are turned, when the poet-reviewer is on the receiving end of a bad review? I certainly have had more negative than positive reviews of my work. And as we know, the most devastating review may well be the silence that swells month by month, year by year, after you publish a book. Self-doubt is the faithful partner of the artist. Was my book simply overlooked or is it simply that people are trying to be kind by not saying anything at all? Why didn’t all those Facebook “likes” under the announcement (and photo) of my new book turn into actual sales? You can drive yourself crazy and spend sleepless nights trying to answer these questions. I subscribe to the advice Ernest Hemingway supposedly told F. Scott Fitzgerald, who tried so hard to write screenplays for Hollywood: just throw the book over the wall, and when they throw a bag of money back over, walk away. In other words, I don’t get too excited about positive reviews or comments and I don’t get too down about negative reviews. It’s all about keeping the long view in focus, reminding yourself that writing well, following one’s own star, is the best revenge. And whatever your status as a poet, that should not, cannot, bleed into your job as a book reviewer. I’m not denying the obvious, that your identity as a poet has a strong bearing on your identity as a book reviewer and vice versa. The traffic between these two facets of your sense of selfhood is continuous and, yes, sometimes accidents occur. Those too are inevitable.

The point is simple: having chosen a profession that allows me time to read and write, I’ve tried to balance my own reading and writing ambitions with some semblance of a commitment to a larger reading and writing community. It isn’t the best of all possible worlds—that would have been earning a living as a songwriting lyricist while reading and writing poetry in my “spare” time—but it has been a pretty good one.


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