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Journal, Day Five
On Book Reviewing and A Few of My Favorite (Recent) Poetry Books
I have been reviewing books for the El Paso Times of Texas since June of 2002. This opportunity has shaped the only newspaper column in the country dedicated to U.S. Latino literature. (Fellow Chicano writers Sergio Troncoso and Daniel A. Olivas are also frequent contributors to the column.) Though the circulation is at about 110,000, the reviews move swiftly through the Internet because, the reality is, that books by U.S. Latinos are ignored by most other newspapers or reviewing venues, and readers of Latino literature want to know what’s out there, who’s writing, and is it worth a look. Since June of 2002 I have submitted over 100 book reviews of poetry, prose, and the occasional anthology and children’s book.
From the get-go I decided that I would pay closer attention to poetry books, because of all the genres being reviewed today this one is the most neglected. But I had other self-imposed rules, an approach if you will, to the art of reviewing. I chose, for example, not to review a poetry book if I didn’t like it. A better use of space would be to point out a poetry book that had merit and that was worth reading. The truth is that the market for poetry books is so specialized that telling a readership not to bother buying a book they most likely wouldn’t buy seemed oddly superfluous. I wanted to send people to the bookstores or to the Internet since the other sad truth is that most bookstores don’t carry many poetry titles and especially small press titles by Chicano/Latino authors. And let us not forget the library, where many good books collect dust, the spines stiffening because no one comes by to flex the covers.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that this is my final entry to the Poetry Foundation blog. I’m wrapping up here with a discussion of two of my favorite activist practices—book reviewing and book recommending. The column and my visibility as a person who knows Chicano/ Latino literature well, has given me a place of authority, and I speak confidently about who is writing, who does it well, and who is just another empty promise being promoted by a publishing house. But, as per my philosophy, I’ll spare the negative energy and bad karma by listing here instead some of my favorite titles of poetry published this year.
Before I do that, however, I’d like to make an appeal to poets out there to write about and review other poets. Everyone wants their books reviewed, and we all know that poetry reviews are rare, so why not participate in providing the poetry community a valuable service: review poetry books. A reviewer brings critical attention to a poetry title since poetry books most often fly under the radar. A reviewer also contributes to the education of the readership, showing people how to read or approach the reading of poetry. A reviewer also has the power and, frankly, the responsibility to introduce readers to new talent, good books, and a language for talking about art.
Besides newspapers, literary journals are a perfect venue for submitting poetry reviews. My friend Scott Hightower is such a champion of reviewing poetry, that I must single him out as the ideal activist—he is constantly talking about the necessity for poetry reviews, writes and places many, and encourages others to do the same. Indeed, he has convinced me that once poetry reviews become more visible and available (because more people are writing them), it will no longer be a surprise to come across one—it will be an expectation. What a benefit to all of us.
In terms of how to write one, well, there really isn’t a big secret or special formula to this art. It just takes commitment and, for the reviewer who is also a poet or writer, a bit of generosity with the time and patience spent on someone else’s work as you read, contemplate, and formulate. A reviewer, like any writer, cultivates an angle and a voice. Thankfully, there are various models out there. I learned through practice, but it wasn’t difficult because I also love poetry and enjoy discussing it. So all of those conversations I would have with other poets gave me a solid sense of how to evaluate and articulate. It’s important to be fair, honest, resourceful, clear, and respectful. It’s important to talk about context as well as content, and to be descriptive and illustrative. It’s more important to highlight the work than the poet (unless it’s a profile), and the review should be a forum for thought, not for showboating the reviewer’s intellect, cleverness, or wit. But above all, be true to the discipline; reviewing should be more than free publicity, more than an opportunity to suck-up, or, worse, a chance to exercise some passive aggression.
All that said, I’d like to end by mentioning the poetry books that I have recently reviewed. I reviewed them because they taught me something new about language and because they kept my faith alive in the art of writing:
Lorna Dee Cervantes, Drive
Ray Gonzalez, Consideration of the Guitar
Ada Limón, Lucky Wreck
Pat Mora, Adobe Odes
María Meléndez, How Long She’ll Last in This World
Orlando Ricardo Menes, Furia
Urayoán Noel, Kool Logic /La lógica kool
Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Dreaming the End of War
raúlrsalinas, Indio Trails
I’ll conclude with many thanks to the Poetry Foundation for this invitation to be part of this distinguished company of poets/journal writers. It has indeed been enjoyable and helpful for me to commit to writing these thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head or bouncing off my tongue for the last few years. I hope it has been as useful to readers out there in Cyberspace. And to borrow from my colleague Daniel A. Olivas’s signature closing on my favorite Chicano blog, labloga.blogspot.com, ¡Lea un libro!