A New Kind of Book Review

The first book was written 5,000 years ago, and the first book review 4,999 years, 11 months, and 28 days.  There’s been quite the hubbub ever since, particularly when it comes to reviews of poetry.  Should we waste space writing negative reviews, when so many brilliant collections languish in the shadows?  But if they’re always positive, don’t they become as uninteresting and distrusted as blurbs?  Does critical opinion even matter?  Is any publicity good publicity?  And so on.  Here are some recent rounds of the brouhaha: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  (Hey, one of those is me!)  There are plenty more where that came from — if you read any of those articles, there will be links to other articles, with links to other articles, and so on.

Most of us fondle the elephant in the room, but for some reason we stop short of naming it.  Maybe (to borrow Marlon Carey) the elephant is just so evident that addressing it can’t be revelant.  Or maybe there are just too many careers at stake.  Either way, no one seems willing to confront how fundamentally subjective art really is, or how successful art — and I mean art that has the power to transform people — is an unharnessable snowball of luck and skill and temperament and vision and time and timing.  I’ve been to the contemporary art museum.  I’ve seen Frank Stella and Blue Square #2.  Doodles my kid could draw — and I don’t even have a kid!  It’s not, as Vonnegut muses, that there are detailed frescoes buried beneath three gallons from a Sherwin Williams color swatch.  Mark Rothko couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel.  And yet people are moved by post-minimalism and abstract expressionism — at least enough people to fill a room if you hang a painting there.

I’ve never read art criticism in my life, but I can tell you how Red Rectangle with Yellow Stripe works.  Stripped of all referents, all sense of time and place, the viewer is forced to enter the painting — is forced to daydream, not in the direction the artist commands, but anywhere the mind desires.  With all the claptrap of meaning removed, we see art finally for what it fundamentally is:  a mental mirror.  Art is the place we go to lose ourselves in the oneness of creation, and the best way lose yourself and touch the infinite is to dive deeper within (I don’t want to get off on a tangent, so just trust me on that).  Hence the subjective nature of art.

Every reader carries their own baggage on that journey, because there’s no one there to carry it for you — it’s an entirely private experience.  Through the dual miracles of nature and nurture, we all have a hell of a lot in common, but no two people share the same history or identity or logophilia.  We have moods that can change in minutes.  All of that effects the way we encounter books (or any works of art).  And everyone knows it.

Over on the Harriet blog, Thomas Brady posited that the public’s lack of interest in poetry is due to a failure to sustain consensus of opinion: “if no façade of objective stability exist over and above that subjectivity, and the public senses no objective control, public interest is sure to wane—eventually destroying contemporary poetry’s legitimacy.”  I would argue the opposite:  If anything turns the public off of poetry, it’s the pretense of objectivity — it’s the professor in your ear telling you that Edna St. Vincent Millay is great, when you can read for yourself and see that she does nothing for you.  In the baseball metaphor we were using, you don’t need a box score to tell you that Babe Ruth just hit a home run — you’re at the game, you can use your own eyes.  And the disconnect appears when that voice in your ear doesn’t match what you’re seeing on the page.  That’s why so many people who don’t read it say “I just don’t get poetry” — they’ve been taught that poetry is something to be gotten, instead of what it really is: something to be experienced.

Critics like to pretend that an official scorer is necessary, when we’d be better off at the other end of the press box — the TV booth, where there’s as much color commentary as there is analysis.  The game is right in front of us and we can score it ourselves; we just want the experience enhanced.  Tell me where to look, not what to think.

So three days before the quincimillenial anniversary of the first book review, I’d like to propose a new kind of book review (and maybe it’s not even new for all I know).  Let’s stop pretending these are objective critiques and start writing personal narratives — don’t tell me whether or not a book is good, tell me about your experience with the book.  Tell me why you picked it up in the first place — did you know the poet, were you drawn to the cover, the title, what was it?  Where did you read it?  How long did it take?  Were you transported immediately or did you daydream?  Which poems resonated with you and why?  The speaker in the poem reminded you of your sister?  Your experience of Brazil was different?  You’re growing tired of poems about divorce?  Why?

Not only would reviews like this be more interesting to read, but they’d be more honest, more true to the real experience of reading poetry.  Because every time you respond to a book, that response has just as much to do with you as it does to the author.  Let’s finally face it.

This is an idea we’ve been kicking around since publishing Cameron Conaway’s review of Clifton’s Voices.  Conaway starts and ends the review with an anecdote about having dinner with Clifton when she visited his college — it was a strange way to write a review, and at first we were skeptical, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked it.  And I think you can go a lot farther than Conaway did.

So we’ve decided to add this note on style to our guidelines.  Getting poets to follow guidelines — or often even to read them — is like herding cats, and we have dozens of traditional reviews scheduled to be published over the next few months.  But I’d like to gradually phase in this new style — the personal narrative review.  We have hundreds of books available for review, and we’d be happy to send you a few.  Anyone willing to write yourself into the script?

Why Tribute African Americans?

In a comment on last week’s very brief post, Cafais asks, “Why, in 2009, is a tribute to ‘African American’ poets necessary?” It’s a very important question, of course — I asked the same as part of the promotional blurb for the issue.  The main point, Cafais writes, seems to be that black poetry should be allowed to flourish — but wouldn’t we all agree that this should apply to all kinds of poetry?  Why focus on race at all?

The question is too big for a single issue of a magazine to answer, or for a single person to answer, I suspect, but I’d hoped that we could at least help cultivate an answer within the body of our audience.  The point wasn’t to provide a solution, but rather, to open up an internal dialogue on race.  But Cafais is a subscriber, who’s read the issue, and still he asks — so maybe I should attempt an answer.

The short version is simple.  I consider myself a liberal, open-minded person — I’m young, and like almost everyone in my generation, I find it difficult to even comprehend the fact the Civil Rights Act is only 45 years old (that my parents were alive during segregation!).  The idea itself is completely foreign to my sense of morality, alien to my entire world view.  It seems like we’re so far past that.

And still, I’ve learned more about my self and my country in putting this issue together than in any other project I’ve ever worked on.  If the issue can have that kind of profound effect on me, I think it can have an impact on others as well.

Another short answer: As Cafais mentions, there was a time when African American authors were segregated to the back of the book, with the implication that their poetry wasn’t real poetry.  As always, our “Tribute” is a tribute — a celebration of black poets that, rather than echo that wrong, hopes to move beyond it.

The long answer stretches the bounds of articulation.  I think the center of all poetry is empathy.  This is the only medium where your audience is the medium:  poetry is an art of ventriloquism; a poet is using your body — your breath, your heart beat, your vocal chords — to produce his voice.  Together the two of you are working symbiotically to create an acoustic and linguistic experience — every single time you read the poem.  It’s the only experience we have where you’re not just stepping into someone else’s shoes, you’re stepping into their body, their mind, their moment in time.

Unless we’re an African American in the United States in 2009, we cannot know what it’s like to be an African American in the United States in 2009.  Unless we lived as a black American through the civil rights movement, we cannot know what it was like to live as a black American through the civil rights movement.  The fundamental lesson when dealing with issues of race or gender or sexuality isn’t that we should all be treated equally (that should be self-evident), and it’s not that we all have different experiences — it’s that we can’t know those other experiences, trapped as we are, within our own private world.  If we want to try to understand other experiences — and we should — then we need help.

When I was an undergraduate I attended a lecture that tried to teach us how to visualize a multidimensional space as a way to better understand superstring theory.  We started with a three-dimensional sphere, and imagined how that collapses into an infinite series of circles in two dimensions.  Then we went back to the sphere and tried to do the opposite, blowing it out into 4-D — it looked like a kind of donut, where any point on an infinite number of spheres translated to a point on the surface of the donut.  It wasn’t easy, but after an hour of straining our minds to the brink, most of us could get at least a fleeting grasp of the image before it fell apart again.  We felt good — and then the lecturer said, “Now just do that 7 more times and you’ll have the 10-dimensional space required for M-theory.”

That’s how issues of identity work.  I can’t know the experience of being a woman, let alone the million experiences in being the woman that is my wife.  I can’t know the million experiences in being the black man that is Terrance Hayes.

But poetry, as a fundamentally empathetic medium, gets me closer than anything else.

You might then ask, why not just publish the poetry of Terrance Hayes?  Well, obviously, we do — several of the poets from this summer’s tribute section have appeared in Rattle in the past.  I can’t be sure, but I’d bet that there isn’t a single issue of Rattle that doesn’t have African American poets in its open section.  The difference is, those poets appear without a context — we read those poems without an awareness of their self-identities, and so they only speak to the topics they directly address.

In gathering together 30 African American poets, we’re providing a context where the poems can speak to each other, as well as to a broader whole.  The collective effect, I think, is exponential — the overall impact is magnitudes larger than it would have been, had the poems appeared individually, scattered throughout an issue.

Obama aside, we’re not living in a post-racial America.  There are still lessons to be learned, wounds to be healed, experiences to understand.  The very reaction like that of Cafais (and please don’t feel like I’m singling you out, you’re not alone) is evidence enough.  In the past we’ve done tributes to Native American poets, Italian poets, Vietnamese poets, Filipino poets — none of which were met with skepticism or unease.  With this issue I’ve had those doubts myself.  Race is still a sensitive subject in this country, a horrible historical fact that we haven’t finished dealing with yet.

So that’s why a tribute to African American poets is necessary in 2009.

Garden Party

I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up to Monday’s post about reader response, but it’s new-issue week for me — typesetting Rattle #31 before we send it on to our brilliant team of proofreaders — and time has been scarce.   This is an important topic, and I really don’t want to half-ass it, but half an ass is better than no ass, right?

In listening to the feedback on issues of Rattle — whether in print or online, whether the commenters are writing letters or talking to me after readings — I always get the impression that there’s one thing people don’t understand: that the hardest part of an editor’s job isn’t picking poems he or she loves — those poems leap out at you immediately with a gong and a bullhorn — it’s finding poems you think others will love, even if you don’t.

My tastes in poetry are as narrow as anyone’s.  I like lyrical poems, with a good sense of music and rhythm, a bit of surrealism, maybe, and a sense of ineffability — poems that are indescribably more than the sum of their parts.  I don’t like certain other things, like a prosy narrative, or a heavy reliance upon allusion.  As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, while picking apart an Ashbery poem can be fun, it’s not my kind of poetry.  But it is someone‘s kind of poetry.

Rattle publishes nothing but poetry and essays on poetry, and with around 200 pages per issue, there’s room for everyone.  The goal of the magazine, every single time, is to have anyone who speaks the English language be able to pick up a copy and find at least a few poems they enjoy.  That includes people like my mom (Hi, Mom!), who never read poetry except when her son is involved, and people like Richard Wilbur, who won his first Pulitzer Prize over 50 years ago and, I’m told, complimented a poem in Rattle just last week.  The fact is, neither of their sensibilities match my own — Wilbur’s tastes are too erudite, my mother’s too sentimental.

And yet, limited as we are to the submissions we spontaneously receive, we try to satisfy both of them, and every potential reader in between.

So when I say that readers are hypercritical, I think they’re just treating the subjective too objectively.  “Death and Tacos” might not be the poem for you, but it’s the poem for a lot of other people.  And if you turn the page to the next poem, hopefully the roles will be reversed.  People tell me which poems they enjoyed and which they didn’t all the time, which is great feedback, and I always listen.  But it seems like they don’t realize that, the day before, someone else told me the exact opposite.  That’s just how poetry is.

It happens with my own book, too.  When my thesis advisor read American Fractal last month, he pointed in particular to “Hiking Alone” as a kind of poem he didn’t care for — too closed, and straightforward.  He preferred the more “open” poems, the scattershot pieces, which he seemed to genuinely enjoy.  In the time since, several people — including my first Amazon.com review — pointed specifically to “Hiking Alone” as one of their favorites.

There’s no way to get around this broad spectrum of poetic taste — so I think we should always try to embrace it.  And that’s what we do.  Sometimes I’m fumbling around in the dark, trying to find the right poem that’s extremely accessible, but still interesting; sometimes I’m publishing a poem that I don’t quite understand.  And I’d say that I’m sure sometimes I screw up, but so far, it really does seem like every poem is someone’s favorite.  There hasn’t been a poem yet that’s been panned by some, without being lauded by others.

There are probably two schools of editing, that could each be summed up with famous quotes:

You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

(Did Rick Nelson really say that first?)  And:

You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.

I had to revise Abe a little, but that’s the route I want to take.

A Bunch of Hypercrits

hitsgraphThe graph on the right is “unique visitors” to Rattle.com. I had to crop out the y-axis, but you get the drift. On Saturday morning we went from our usual 1,000 or so visitors a day (is that good or bad for a website? I have no idea) to 20,000, thanks to the snowball effect of online networking. A couple people recommended the poem at StumbleUpon, and “Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore went viral.

I love it when that happens, as it did last summer with Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.” The only difference is, that poem was posted before I turned Rattle.com into a blog, so there was no comment feature. The tens of thousands of people who read the poem simply read it and moved on.  This time around, a small fraction (0.1%?) are tossing in their two cents.

Reading through the comments, it occurred to me that poetry is facing another epidemic not many people are talking about.  If WaLS is the Bird Flu, this is the common cold; a less debilitating disease, but extremely pervasive.  Or maybe it’s Herpes.  Out of 17 comments, about half describe what they like about the poem, while the other half bicker about line edits. It sounds like an undergraduate creative writing workshop: “I think the poem would be stronger if you cut line 22.”  “I trip over the syntax.”  “Show don’t tell!”

Part of me feels sorry for Nathaniel Whittemore, despite his sudden popularity — his isn’t the only poem that’s being critiqued at Rattle.com right now.  The rush of readers would have you think otherwise, but looking back at previous comments as a whole, across all the post, the trend becomes obvious — a large portion of the comments are always critiques.

And that word “critique” is very specific.  I think it’s one thing to express a negative reaction to a piece of writing — and those comments are wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — but it’s another thing entirely to pick at a poem and try to offer “constructive criticism.”  Who, in this setting, is received advice?  This is a poetry magazine, not a classroom.  The author is god-knows-where, not on the other side of a laminate table.

What compels us to do this?  It doesn’t happen with fiction or other arts.  No one reads a short story in The New Yorker and says, “The story was alright, but it would have been stronger if you cut the penultimate paragraph.”  No one looks at a painting by Mark Vallen and says the woman’s shirt should be red instead of blue.  Maybe you say that stories in The New Yorker are too straightforward and neapolitan, or maybe you say you prefer abstract art to realism.  But you never micromanage the artist.  So why does poetry produce so many backseat drivers?

Here’s my guess:  Poetry isn’t popular.  We encounter fiction and visual art everywhere we go.   It’s half of every bookstore; it’s hung on every wall.  Maybe the frame cost more than the print you bought in bulk at Target, but it’s there.   Poetry isn’t ubiquitous.  Even when we’re with friends who read poetry, we don’t talk about it much.

There’s only one setting in which we’re used to having a discourse about poetry:  the poetry workshop.  That’s the only social venue we have — whether the workshop is at a coffee house, in a college class, or online — and I think most readers of poetry have encountered a workshop at some point in their lives, for two reasons.  1) There’s nowhere in our society that poetry is pushed on people except those settings, and 2) the fact is, most poetry fans are poets themselves.

So I think we get used to speaking about poetry in the scripted way, talking about line breaks and imagery and so on, and have never really learned how to talk about it any other way.  Call it another symptom of academization, but we’re nothing but a bunch of hypercrits — I’m guilty of it myself much of the time.

And we lose something because of it.  The point of poetry isn’t the critique, it’s the poem itself.  It’s the spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction to language.  To pick a poem apart is to muffle that reaction.  That’s not to say every poem is moving or interesting, of course, or that there is a proper objective reaction to any poem at all.  If you don’t like what you just read, that’s perfectly fine — say “yuck” and move on.  Just react.  There’s no need to dissect it, unless we’re actually in a workshop. Otherwise, what are we gaining from the critique?

Or to quote Edith Wharton, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could probably have a pretty good time.”

Return of the Dancing Bear

mywall1This is the brick wall I stared at for three days straight.  It was a nice wall, sturdy and white, with an electric outlet, which would have been convenient if the Hilton didn’t charge $20/day for internet access.  I really did mean to live-blog.  Lots of interesting people stopped by the booth, and had I been able to immediately post pictures, I probably would have taken more of them.

Here’s a partial list of Rattle contributors who stopped by (sorry if I’m misspelling any names, but I’m not going to look them up):

Michele Battiste, Vievee Francis, Anne Haines, Michael Meyerhofer, Patricia Smith, Richard Jackson, Brian Trimboli, Eric Kocher, Traci Brimhall, Christine Hamm, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, Janice Harrington, Molly Peacock, Brent Goodman, Gary McDowell, Hilary Melton (I think), Lucille Clifton (smiled and nodded as she passed), Tanya Chernov, Jonathan Wells, Steven Schroeder, Karyna McGlynn, Charles Harper Webb, Todd Davis, Susan Elbe, Doug Goetsch, Joy Gaines Friedler, Anne Whittemore, Ricardo Pau-Llosa (I think), Kip Deed’s S.O., Jamey Hecht, Alan Soldofsky, and Ash Bowen.

I’m probably forgetting several, but it’s a challenging exercise trying to remember.

I was one of a select few who spent the entire conference behind a booth — most presses sent several reps and rotated, or else abandoned their posts for long stretches at a time.  Surely there were other dedicated troopers, but I didn’t see them, because I was behind my table and not roaming the halls.  I only attended one event, an off-site reading after hours, featuring Patricia Smith, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, and Jeffrey McDaniels, which pretty well rocked (and what a diverse group, too…Patricia’s passion, Susan’s intricacy, and Jeffrey’s humor).  That was enough for me.  It was only my third AWP, but already the panels have started bleeding in together — seen one, seen’em all.

Far more interesting to me is the challenge of being a used car salesman, a task I wasn’t designed to do.  I’m not extroverted or charismatic; I don’t dress well, can’t lie with a straight face.  But I think I’m getting alright at it.  Rattle sold out, and I sold all but three copies of American Fractal.  By the end of the week I’d developed an accidental conversational flow-chart in my head, like a good telemarketer:

Are you a poet?  Do you like poetry?  No? Well, we’re the journal for you — check out this short poem by Brett Myhren.  Isn’t it funny how we accept that fiction can be written simply, while remaining complex and powerful, but we think poetry needs to be opaque?

mytableThat was definitely the most pleasant path in the chart — if I could get them to read a short poem, the strict fiction writers almost always bought in.  I mostly used Brett’s poem, and “Bach in the D.C. Subway” by David Lee Garrison, from the winter issue — each probably a dozen times — and every single time, if I could get them to actually read a poem, their faces instantly flipped from suspicion to curiosity.  It really is magic.

The elevators at the Hilton had little televisions screens, playing CNN on the first day, which at some point switched over to short films from the Poetry Foundation.  Cartoons of poems by Russell Edson and CD Wright, among others.  Video killed the library star…  Not once did my elevator mates seem to enjoy these poems, and I can’t help but think we’d be better off with “Telemarketer.”  But it’s too easy to criticize someone else’s choices, so I’ll refrain, except to say that I actually liked a lot of the poems I saw on my trips up to the 20th floor, but found the presentation too pretentious (or maybe self-righteous) to really enjoy.

Selling poetry to non-poets always seems like a difficult task, and it’s probably my main job as an editor of this magazine.  But for three days I couldn’t believe how easy it was, when you just let the poetry speak for itself.  That’s a lesson I took back to California with me.

Still, I’m not a social person, and by the end of each day I became fairly loopy.  I made a game out of shouting random phrases at passersby, like a hotdog vendor on acid.

“Get your fresh hot poetry here!  If you can’t stand the heat, go back to the fiction!”


And so on.  Anything to amuse myself, and laughter came easy.

Once in high school, we did a physics experiment rolling a ball bearing down a track (F=MA, etc.), and I volunteered to stand at the end of the track and catch it.  A friend of mine told me to catch it in my hat, so I did.  Others started yelling to catch it behind my back, then in my pocket, and then someone just yelled, “Dance!” and I did a little dance.  For the rest of the year I was the Dancing Bear, and stood up to do a little jig on command.  It was amusing for a few weeks, and then it got old.

That’s exactly how the AWP Book Fair feels.  Thank God it’s only three days.  A good three days, but I don’t think I could handle four.