Monday 9 July 2012

An Open Address to the Poetry Community in Canada

Too many books of poetry in our country are released to no comment, languishing until eclipsed by the next spring/fall cycle of indifference. As a poet and avid reader of our poetry, I have started The Urge as a forum in which to express, in detail, my considered engagement with a single book per month—a book from the current poetry-publishing season that I feel deserves more (or a different sort of) attention than it has heretofore been afforded. This should be simple. But because entering the literary blogosphere raises all sorts of (in some ways quite justified) questions about ulterior motives, I will answer some of the most obvious ones below.

What sorts of books will you review?

As I say above, all reviews on this site will be of books from the current publishing season. They will appear monthly, and will all be in the neighbourhood of 2000 words, so as to allow plenty of space for thorough engagement. My aesthetic preferences are by no means straightforward. I hope they’ll become clear (but not so clear as to become dogmatic) through my reviews. As a critic with an authentic interest in and sound foundational knowledge of a wide variety of poetic traditions in English, I’ll attempt to engage an appropriate breadth of poetries. One crucial stricture I’ve imposed on this site arises out of the important awareness-raising work of the recently formed Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) initiative (which I first encountered on Sina Queyras’s routinely engaging Lemon Hound blog): I will review 50% books by women and 50% books by men.

Why not simply review books for the existing literary journals in Canada? Aren’t they always looking for reviewers?

Yes they are, but I want my reviews to appear like clockwork each month, and online. I find the paucity of online discourse surrounding poetry in Canada—especially given the diversity and quality of what’s being written right now—incredibly discouraging, and I believe that the more regular, engaged, easily-retrievable-through-google reviewing venues we can establish, the healthier the artform and its attendant community will be. Besides their relative infrequency, the problem with the lit journals is that their review sections are not always available online, and thus not accessible to the late-night idlers (I am often one) who find themselves wanting to see if anyone has reviewed that really compelling or mystifying book they just read, hoping to test their as-yet unformed critical rehearsals against a more composed and concerted engagement. This is not universally true, of course: The Malahat Review posts their reviews online, Prairie Fire makes their Review of Books accessible as individual pdfs, Arc makes some available, and there are other examples. But too often, reading journal reviews requires actually having a copy of the journal in hand. So I very much look forward to Michael Lista’s monthly column on The National Post’s Afterword blog (arguably the only regularly appearing online engagement with poetry in our country of any significant critical depth), and find myself reading with weird eagerness even Quill and Quire’s capsule reviews, sundry irregular blog posts of varying quality, and (when it gets really bad) trolling Twitter for abortive blurts of appraisal. Thus afflicted, I’ve decided that some of this time would be better spent writing reviews myself. Thus The Urge.

Speaking of Mr. Lista, where do you stand on the recent negative-reviewing brouhaha?

Because I respect the work of all the involved parties, I find myself firmly unencamped. I already know the first three books I’ll be reviewing: one I’ve read many times, one I’m two-thirds of the way through, and one isn’t out yet. In the case of the latter two, I decided to review them before having read them because, having previously encountered the poets’ work in other venues, I already know them as writers with whom I want to more thoroughly engage: not necessarily out of sheer enthusiasm, but out of a sense that their work raises important questions (aesthetic and otherwise) that I and my potential readers could benefit from further exploring. If it turns out that I don’t find their books as compelling as I think I probably will, then my reviews will contain at least some of what might be construed as negativity, and of course that’s fair. As on many subjects, W.H. Auden delivers a close-to-authoritative statement on the positive vs. negative reviewing dilemma:

To write about a poet for others who have not yet read him is not criticism but reviewing, and reviewing is not really a respectable occupation. When a critic examines the work of a well-known poet, he may, if he is lucky, succeed in revealing something about it which readers had failed to see for themselves: if on the other hand what he says is commonplace or false or half-true, readers have only themselves to blame if they allow themselves to be led astray, since they know the text he is talking about. But a reviewer is responsible for any harm he does, and he can do quite a lot.

A “good” review urges the public to buy a book, a “bad” one tells them that it is not worth reading. It does not matter very much if a reviewer praises a bad book—time will correct him—but if he condemns a good one the effect may be serious, for the public can discover his mistake only by reading it and that is precisely what his review has prevented them from doing.
                                                                                     “Two Ways of Poetry” (1960)

Suffice it to say that I know that what I’m pursuing here is the unrespectable practice of reviewing, but that my reviews will at least aspire towards criticism (and respectability) by helping readers to feel much closer to having read the poet, and by not only articulating judgements but illuminating the grounds upon which those judgements are made. I take seriously the harm a bad review can do—particularly, given the state of reviewing in this country, since it may be the only review a book will receive. That said, I would certainly never promise never to write one.  

Isn’t this just your personal blog? Why give it a fancy name?

Blogging is not in my temperament. I’ve never been on Facebook, never even owned a cellphone. Overall, I’m simply not very plugged in, nor do I want to be. Beyond the basic bio, you will not find anything directly about me on this site; what snippets you do learn, if you choose to read my invested engagements with the writing of my contemporaries, will be gleaned by inference. So The Urge is both a description of the site’s genesis, and a distancing mechanism: not only do urges drive us all, but I do hope to do quite a bit of public, outward urging on this site. Beyond the potential narcissism of believing I have a worthwhile critical voice to contribute, this is not a narcissistic venture, not an extension of “social media” or an exercise in “image management.” And while of course you’re welcome (and probably wise) to doubt that, I think my reviews will demonstrate my true and fairly simple motive: I read things that I’d like to see written about, but they aren’t being written about, so I’m writing about them myself. Which brings me to another (and I hope eventually more crucial) reason to name this more like a magazine than a blog. If at any pointand I know this can only happen after a while, once readers realize this is indeed a legitimate venturesomeone out there wants to join me in committing to write a review per month, then I encourage them to contact me. This begins as my forum, but I’d like it to become a forum.

Okay, but as of now this is much ado. When will your first review appear?

I’ll post my first review in two days, on July 11th, of Erin Knight’s Chaser (Anansi, 2012).