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Poetry magazine people: How many review copies of poetry books do y’all receive? It must be bargeloads, because I’m just one low-rent sometime-freelancer who writes maybe five or six reviews a year, and I get something like, I don’t know, probably six or eight review copies a month. Some from presses, some from the poets themselves. Let there be no doubt about this: I’m wildly grateful to receive this bounty. The sight of a book-sized envelope in my mailbox has always given me a thrill, and I don’t see that state of things changing any time soon. No way, though, will I ever have the opportunity to review but the smallest fraction of these babies, and the unshakeable-no-matter-how-hard-I-try Midwestern Calvinist ethic of my childhood demands I experience guilt over this fact.
Presses and poets aren’t sending me these books because they like me personally, much as I’d like to think so. They’re sending them because they think I’ll perhaps review them, or exhort or require students to buy them, or talk them up in the locker room at the gym. OK, they’re probably not expecting that last. But they’re expecting something, and most of the time, I’m not coming through. I’m hoarding. Squatting. Freeloading. Cheating.
WWJCD? (JC = John Calvin, of course.)
(a) Send the books back if you’re not going to plump them one way or another.
(b) Write deeply thought-through and wildly entertaining reviews of each and every one of them and find a way to disseminate them.
But I don’t want to do (a)! I like having the books! I like loaning them to students! I like reading them! I like how they furnish a room! And I can’t do (b). I’m a glacially slow reviewer. I could write reviews all day every day and never catch up with the mail. Plus I have other demands on my time, like, well, my job. And even if I could write all these reviews, how or where would I publish them?
Today another idea occurred to me. SpeedReviews(TM). Not sure if this would earn JC’s approval. But I think it might be better than nothing.
(NOTE: That’s a possible discussion question (PDQ). “Are speedreviews better than nothing?”)
Yes, friends, SpeedReviews(TM). Ever notice on Ron Silliman’s blog how he posts lists of books he’s received, but doesn’t say anything about them? Isn’t that kind of weird? They do that on the Poetry Daily web site too. I guess we’re just supposed to be like, “Oh, thanks, now I know that book exists, um, thanks.” Wouldn’t it be more fun, and potentially more helpful, or at least, yes, “better than nothing” (cf PDQ supra), if Ron Silliman would say something like, “Received: Blacken’d Delphiniums Dans Ma Cravasse: A (Still) Life, and Other Poems of Social Disease, by Craig S. List. List’s sonnets to syphilis will strike the smart set as a bit below the belt, but his relentless ‘Chlamydia Canzone’ left this reader itching, eager, and inappropriate.”
Better than nothing?
Here, I’ll try a couple live rounds on volumes pulled at random from my long shelf of books that interested me but which I never had a chance to review anywhere.
Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia, by Lee Peterson (Kent State, 2004). Often, when a poet chooses to write about a specific historical circumstance, the poems become so bloated with information that they cease to be poems; instead, they read like history written fancy. How to get the information to serve the poem, instead of the poem serving the information? Peterson provides many possible (and pleasing) answers to the conundrum. To name two: She casts many of the poems in persona, so what information needs to be delivered can at least be delivered in a character’s voice rather than that of narrator who’s spent too many hours in the library. And she takes Pound’s advice — “Vary a little!” — to heart, offering all sorts of different kinds of poems — lyric, dramatic, narrative; fractured and coherent; hermetic and candid — thus ensuring that the collection never sounds monotone. On the contrary, this book’s remarkably full of formal vitality, which is all the more impressive given the fact that its subject matter is so tragic.
OK, that’s one, here’s another, sticking with the Eastern European theme, because why not . . .
The Arrival, Daniel Simko. Edited by Carolyn Forche and James Reidel. (Four Way Books, 2009). Simko was born in Bratislava in 1959, emigrated/fled with his parents after the Soviet invasion in 1968, attended Oberlin and Columbia, translated Trakl, and worked as a librarian at the New York Public Library until his untimely death in 2004. He wrote his poems in English and published a few in journals, both here in the States and in translation in Europe. An earlier book appeared posthumously in Bratislava. This is his first American book publication — his “Arrival” — and his last. Tonally and formally, the poems are clear kin to the Soviet Mitteleuropa house style of Popa, Sorescu, and Holub: simple sentences, stark and dramatic imagery, wry fatalism, winks of humor. In terms of content, of particular note is the poet’s (wholly understandable) obsession with deracinations both geographical and lingual. The poems of displacement — from the homeland and from the mother tongue — are . . . well, stunning. They leave me speechless. They sound like poems trying to carve themselves into my head.
OK, that’s two! And they only took me maybe fifteen minutes apiece to write. (Reading the books takes longer, obviously, but reading is fun, so I don’t count that into the labor charge.)
How am I doing, John Calvin?
It occurs to me these would make ideal Tweets. Are these too long for Tweets? I think they are.
Now it occurs to me that one of the advantages of SpeedReviews(TM) is that I don’t feel the same pressure to write the valedictory closing sentence which both closes one door and opens another. Those are so hard to do well. And even if you do them well, they can still sound totally annoying.
Now it suddenly occurs to me that these are in fact way, way worse than nothing, insofar as they are revoltingly superficial accounts of texts whose authors labored for years. They aren’t reviews; they’re notices. Isn’t that insanely disrespectful? To spend twenty minutes writing a notice of a book that perhaps took the author a lifetime to create?
Revised PDQ: Can a notice be better than nothing?