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October 29, 2009

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I write & read about books (music, movies, etc.) because I like to talk about them. In all cases I prefer the essay to the review, but I also appreciate when essays & reviews co-mingle. Since September I've been writing weekly response papers to poetry books for a class I'm taking, and I've been treating the paper as a form to explore. If poets talk to each other in poems, and I write poetry, I figure these papers are a way for me to talk to poets and to poems.

Poets should also talk to people who aren't poets, and I want to write papers that talk to people who aren't grad students or teachers. A few weeks into the class I started posting the papers to my blog, which made me think differently about writing them (since the audience at least hypothetically is now not merely hypothetical).

You could say I write because I have an assignment, but I'd say that impetus is becoming less important to me. I write (and read) for the pleasure of the texts.

I write review-ish things on my blog about poetry, but I rarely review a book or poem negatively. Poetry is always hurting for serious and enthusiastic readers, and I think that poetry as a field is best served when I promote poems and books that I love. I want my readers to find poems to get excited about, to get turned on by, not to discount something just because I don't like it.

I suspect that some professional reviews of poetry do the work of "keep[ing] the art form in line," whether they mean to or not, which is why I've decided to follow my grandma's advice when reviewing: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Poetry publicists?

I've been writing poetry for about 40 years, have published 11 books, and have never yet met a poetry publicist. Do I live a sheltered life? Should I get out more? Do I need to buy a poetry publicist? Can I get one at Walmart?

Believe it or not, these are all serious questions. Maybe I too live in a pre-deluvian universe and ALL the young poets have publicists, or their poetry does. All I can say for certain is that, while I have written quite a few reviews of books of poetry over the years, I have never done so at the behest of a poetry publicist or with one in mind; presumably a poetry publicist would blanch at the thought of a negative review, and therein lies a problem.

Thanks for writing this: it's always interesting to think such thoughts.

I've gone back and forth in my life of writing reviews. I started writing them, just as a consumer on Amazon but I quit doing that because - well - tired of Amazon.

Now I write reviews for some online and print lit mags when they have books they want reviewed and I like to shout out to the ones I really enjoy on my blog, but I am hesitant to review books I don't like. What does it serve poetry to write negative reviews?

That being said, I did finally have to write an assigned review of a book I didn't really like, and it was an interesting task because I made myself really pull out what I didn't like. What wasn't working for me was that the poems were a bit flat and I found a nice way (I think) to say that in the review. It was a first book by a small publisher. Book just needed more editorial insight I think. Still hard to do.

Great topic!

Yes Terry, these are serious and important questions. Mainstream publications so rarely review poetry that when they do, and the reviews are negative or hostile, as they so often are, I always think they've wasted an opportunity. I recently heard the wonderful dance critic Joan Acocella explain why she doesn't write negative reviews: "The more time I spend writing about things I don't like, the less time I have to write about things I do like." This is not to say that critics should be writing advertising copy. But I wish they would see themselves as guides who can tell the general public not what to think of something but how to think about it. Here I'm paraphrasing another great dance critic, Edwin Denby, someone anybody thinking about writing criticism of any art form should read (they should read his poetry too). There isn't enough space to cover all of the important points raised by this post. Thanks for the comments too. Really thoughtful and interesting.

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