Monday, March 9, 2009

Negative? Reviews and A Mad Song

In the past week, Jason Guriel, Ron Silliman, and Michael Schiavo have all offered what might be called "negative" reviews of books of poems: reviews that don't flinch from articulating what they see as the flaws of books which have garnered praise and attention. Such reviews might seem to fly in the face of Auden's famous dictum "Criticism will be love, or will not be." Guriel prefaces his own triple-review with an interesting reflection on his process: "Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative." While the movie comparison isn't ideal (I wonder how much negative reviewing there is of independent movies in comparison to mainstream films) Guriel's call for another term - he suggests "necessarily skeptical," admittedly with his tongue slightly in cheek - to describe these types of review is worth attending to.

Part of the problem with negative/positive as terms is that they situate reviewing only as an activity aiming to get us to read or not read a book. Reviewing, though, does much more than that. It develops and articulates the conversation "we" are having about poetry while also broadening who that "we" is. Perhaps few non-poets have read the recent reviews that have caused a stir on the blogs, but we need that to start happening. I've read plenty of theater reviews beyond the number of shows I've been able to see; such reviews, whether they recommend the show or urge me to avoid it, allow me a participation in a conversation about contemporary theatre. We can't read and re-read all the worthy books of poems that come out in any one year - as Ron Silliman's posts on the William Carlos Williams award indicate - which is one of the reasons an articulate and visible review climate, consisting of recommendations as well as hesitations, is necessary. As John Gallaher says "If there were more of a conversation about poetry, and that conversation was something people could find some interest in, then they might start to actually talk about the poetry itself."

Michael Schiavo's review of Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem is especially interesting because it confronts an extremely contemporary book in order to broaden the conversation about it. Copper Canyon's website for the book lists "reviews," four of which are by the judge, two blurbers, and a friend of the author. It is not that some of these "reviewers" are his friends that is problematic; what matters is that their interests and methods do not lie in giving us a complete picture of the book: how does it differ from Frank O'Hara? Does it really mean anything to say "These poems swing with verve and luminosity. They take no prisoners." as Dorianne Laux suggests?

These commenters' partiality - in the sense of being incomplete and of being biased towards, both fine qualities if announced as such, which the description of Tony Hoagland as "judge" does (nowhere does the website admit some of these "reviews" are from the jacket blurbs) - filters down into supposedly objective reviews, like the other two featured excerpts, which are from established venues - Los Angeles Times Review, New Haven Review. As well as using some of the vocabulary the partial blurbers used, these reviews both rely on a mention of Whitman and O'Hara. The conversation about poetry too often develops in this way, by shorthand, the easiest possible ciphers for situating a book. Such ciphers are not only inaccurate, as a glance at Dickman's book shows: they cement the American canon in narrow ways. I long for someone to describe a book in terms of it being "as American as Jose Garcia Villa," and thus to recognize that the description of anything as American must be complex. Michael Schiavo's own review approaches this position as it takes such reviewerly laziness to task: "Name-checking the states of the Republic does not make your poetry Whitmanic. Shoveling pop culture references into sloppy lines does not transform your poems into Frank O’Hara’s." His target is both the poetry and the conversation, and that's what makes his review so useful to us as readers and potential readers of poetry, whether Dickman's book or no. His own work, interestingly, offers a pretty complex version of America, as I get to later.

Reviewing is fundamental to our reading practices, for what we chose to read and not read. The incautious review that relies on shorthand not only risks giving an inaccurate impression of a book but it takes attention away from other books we could be reading: a far worse thing for poetry than a so-called negative review, since the would-be reader who listens to a review and finds that the book is nothing like Walt Whitman might not return to other books of poetry. And so, in this sense, perhaps Auden's dictum still holds: Criticism will be done for the love of poetry, society, of politics, or it will not be done.

This week on The All-Purpose Magical Tent, I'm going to feature a two-part interview with Michael Schiavo, conducted before his review and addressing in part his own book, which I'd like to suggest is one of the books that fetishizing the Dickman twins' blend of personality and ciphered Americanism could obscure. (A list of five others ends this post; I'd recommend checking out reviews of each to see if they're your cup of tea).

I first began interviewing Michael because I was taken with the means of production of his book. Published via an Espresso Book Machine at Northshire Books in Vermont, complete with a foreword by Douglas Crase, The Mad Song links the production of poetic knowledge - the writing of poems - to the production and distribution of the book itself, an intricate and engaging step that is not fully covered by existing dimensions of Print On Demand, Self-Publishing, the First Book Contest, or the time-honoured and necessary tradition of friends publishing the friends and strangers whose work they admire.

I pitched an interview to Poets and Writers, thinking that they, as the foremost magazine for beginning, emerging, and even established poets, would be keen to feature another dimension of the publishing conversation. They declined, so I decided to run the interview here on Wednesday and Friday. I hope any of you who read it will disseminate it widely as I think it deserves a wide audience. Michael speaks engagingly on The Mad Song, on the methodology of publication, on independent bookstores (he's a bookseller at Northshire), and on questions of American-ness, influence and spirituality.

The other reason I wanted to interview Michael developed once I had begun the process and started reading his book. Formally as well as thematically it engaged and enticed me, leading me to readings and re-readings. Pound wanted us to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase and not the metronome, but Schiavo does both,: the irregular metronome that measures The Mad Song ticks from conditional to imperative, and its hesitancy in remaining at either pole suggest how complex and conflated each position is in the current socio-political arena, and in the historical-mythical America. The Mad Song isn't a unconsidered paean to diaspora, an elegy for a lost past, or a lament for a broken promise of the future, although it put each of these modes into play. What it does is investigate, in its formal methodology - its anaphoric gestures, "incomplete" sentences, unanchored vocalization - and its thematic registers, the challenges and paradoxes of participatory democracy.

The way that The Mad Song enacts such participatory democracy (not to celebrate it only, or to castigate it, but to set that metronome ticking between both positions) is evident from the first paragraph:

Of Bedlam in its prairie pride. Of the roach that winds between the stars, triumphal. Of well-water served in garnet goblets. Of crusted penknife sitting on the pillow in the crib. Of the foxy light July bestows. Of tightwad peace and spendthrift war. Of the ousted governor’s children, especially his eldest, and the way she swings her hips. Of notorious arts and how they make hoi polloi drunk. Of lauren-blue drifts and plumes. Of your vulcanized scent. Of nightly the oceanic barb I must remove from my heart. Of the bison and the owl. Of a country boy, not easy to know.

These sentences pose questions of connection and adjacency: to each other, but also to the worlds and cultural particulars in which they seek to participate. The nod to the epic opener, "of," and the erasure of the familiar "I sing." The gesture to American iconography and the complication of it: how to square "the bison and the owl," how to take the status of the "ousted governer?" The way this paragraph involves the personal is not to sing identity but to complicate it, "a country boy, not easy to know." Amid these recombinant sentences and fragments, where we are mid-stream but unsure if we're missing the source or the end, the question of who we are as selves becomes problematic. The activity of speaking is dynamized within The Mad Song . This book's pronouncements are just there: pronounced, moving between contexts, asking us to speak with and against them. This is the wisdom of the mad song and The Mad Song. As it beats its own, singular drum, it doesn't ask us to follow along, but to join in, keeping a different rhythm if we so choose. That, after all, is where conversation begins.

Check back here Wednesday for Part One, and Friday for Part Two. In the meantime, here's five books which I think articulate Americas in intricate and compelling ways. The links take you to thoughtful reviews.

Quan Barry's Controvertibles
Craig Santos Perez's from Unincorporated Territory
Patrick Rosal's My American Kundiman
Laura Walker's Rimertown: An Atlas
Shanxing Wang's Mad Science in Imperial City (This is my own review.)

Three of these reviews, incidentally, are from The Believer. I wasn't trying to plug the magazine, which I have reviewed for, once (but which also rejected poems of mine having already accepted them, because of internal editorial conflict, so I have mixed feelings). However, it is interesting to note that The Believer , which isn't primarily thought of as a poetry review venue, is featuring reviews of some of the more challenging, ground-breaking, and affecting books of poetry being published in the early 21st century. Good for them.

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