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Snark & Blurb: A Dialogue

By A.E. Stallings

Dramatis Personae:
Snark, a thin, brittle, elegant demon, the shade of an autumn leaf, with dry, cicada-like wings, and a long sharp nose. Eyebrows perpetually arched in an expression of mock-surprise. His sneer shows off double rows of pin-like black teeth.
Blurb, a plump goblin covered in iridescent scales, with a wide, trout-like mouth and a show of feathery crimson gills. She has large, purple soulful eyes perched frog-like at the top of her head, and leaves a trail of silvery slime like a snail wherever she goes.


Snark: Nowhere, I tell you! That’s where they would be. You think a young critic makes his name by close reading and cautious praise? It is the clever putdown, the brilliant and memorable metaphor, reducing a poet’s lifework to a punch-line. (I have a special notebook of these, which I save for the occasion.)
Blurb: Who cares about criticism? Poets write their names in the stars by working the argent reticulations of the moon on water…
Snark: Are you trying to say “poets make their careers by networking”? You realize, I hope, that readers actually turn to the reviews first out of the whole magazine, all giddy with schadenfreude, ready to gloat over other people’s punctured pieties. A nasty review even sells books. You think that puffery on the back cover sells copies? Has anyone ever purchased a volume based on the absurdities perpetrated there?
Blurb: But I’m sincere! Poets have become so chary with image and metaphor, so parsimonious with the sublime in their work that it all has to come out somewhere—why not in praise of a friend?
Snark(aside): …or crony…
Blurb: Such luscious, juicy words of praise: luminous, brilliant, urgent, liminal, radical, necessary, radiant, lucid….
Snark: “Necessary” particularly irks me. When was another book of poems ever necessary? Plumbers are necessary.
Blurb: I’m up front about what I do. I’m there to, to praise, to celebrate, to. . . cheerlead!—and yes, sometimes I’m over the top. So what? Poets need encouragement…
Snark: I’m with Auden on this. What young poets need is more discouragement. It’s the readers who need encouragement, or courage, anyway, wading through all this effluvia. Have you ever had to read a dozen books for an omnibus review? I don’t think you even read the books you gush over…
Blurb: I read the best bits. Anyway, the urgency comes through the cover. The splendor! The sidereal glory! And spangled with prizes!
Snark: Prizes that are worth a dime a dozen—no, wait, $25 dollars an entry fee. You’d blurb anybody, wouldn’t you? Do you ever say no?
Blurb: I’ve tried. Once. It wasn’t pretty. And I do so like things to be pretty!
Snark: How can you stand it? The books keep coming and coming! An MFA used to be enough to get a job in this racket, now it takes a book—or two. The only good thing I can think of coming from the pullulation of these MFA programs is there have to be thousands of poet manqués out there who actually realize halfway through their degree that they are in the wrong line of work, and maybe they go on to do something useful, something necessary, like, say, garbage collecting.
Blurb: Isn’t that what poets do, gather up the discarded ephemera of the quotidian, the cast-off chrysoprase carapace of the world, which in their eyes alone glitters with the doomed beauty of longing? Anyway, an MFA is a marvelous thing! It gives a budding young poet time to work on her vision, to explore her unique voice, meet peers, blossom under the gaze of wise mentors…
Snark: Future blurbers, you mean…
Blurb: Mentors, and to have a sense of belonging to a community of artists.
Snark: There you go again. Writing isn’t about community. It is about isolation. It is about being alone with the page, or the screen…
Blurb: Or the glass of whisky, in your case…
Snark: Very uncharacteristic of you! I approve. I should have expected some pun on “intoxicating”! But now that you mention it, a drink is in order.
Blurb (giggling): Oooo! Let’s celebrate! Champagne, champagne! Oooo! What are we celebrating?
Snark: Well, do we not between us have all po-biz in our clutches?
Blurb (with deep sigh): Po-biz, yes. But there are still the poems.
Snark (darkly): Yes, the poems. We’ll have to do something about that…

Comments (12)

  • On November 13, 2007 at 2:42 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Enter stage left: Eschew, a pale wispy frequenter of health food stores who grows hybrid poems in her garden on a postage stamp island in Maine, suffers from allergies, presses her poems in dictionaries and stores them in her cellar.
    Eschew: ACHOO! …… Well, I guess that takes care of Snark and Blurb. (vigorously blows nose)

  • On November 14, 2007 at 1:20 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    The Snark was a Boojum, of course…

  • On November 14, 2007 at 5:02 am Rigoberto wrote:

    BRAVO! BRAVO! ENCORE!

  • On November 14, 2007 at 7:31 am rachel hadas wrote:

    Brava again, Alicia. Dialogue is perfect for this. I am foggily forgetting who it was who reviewed
    James Dickey in dialogue form, pro & con, back in the day…
    and I esp. like the point about displaced figurative language finding a home in blurbs.
    Blurbs have been a scandal for a long time – maybe a low-level scandal, but still…Maybe this will help a little.
    What is the relation of Snark & Blurb to the Anti-Muses?

  • On November 14, 2007 at 8:07 am Ange wrote:

    This reminds me of the stylish “anti-blurb” on the back of your book. There too you abjure any claim to “necessity” — have you ever had to defend that?
    It would be wonderful if we could all go back to putting a poem on the back of a new book…

  • On November 14, 2007 at 8:34 am Jordan wrote:

    > go back to putting a poem on the back
    Or an advertisement for the publisher’s other titles, say.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 11:47 am Sheryl Luna wrote:

    I agree too! Too much in poetry has become business, marketing and schmoozing while the poems fall by the wayside. But honestly, there are a lot of glowing reviews written by pals or favor-trading-I-owe-you’s out there. This has been a real shock.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 12:43 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    Linda Gregerson claims on the back of Catherine Barnett’s first book that, certain metaphysical issues aside, Catherine’s poems can “revive the dead.” Best. Blurb. Ever. I mean, how can you top that? I can’t even make fun of it (I tried) it is an etherial pillbug and rolls up when you touch it.
    One blurb “scandal” yet unmentioned is that many prolific blurbers do not actually write the blurbs themselves, but simply allow their name to appear under a blurb written by the author.
    All joking aside, I think poets should consider recruiting a critic to write a long interpretive passage to replace the blurbs on the back cover. One edition of James Merrils’ Divine Comedies does this and it’s wonderful.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 6:40 pm Steve Mackin wrote:

    I have always loved the idea of the Community of Artists (I am a member of the Wednesday Night Martini Club). It makes me think of Shakespeare writing for the Company of Players, or the world that swirled around Pound. A number of years ago, in the early 90s, I was reading almost daily in the cafes and other venues in San Francisco. There was a reading somewhere in the City every night. There were quite a few regulars, and we became a pretty tight group. One of this Company, one Eli Shivers (real name, honest), decided that he was sick of paying taxes. To that end he hit upon the bright idea of starting a political party, The Poetry Party. We held a couple of meetings in Pacific Heights, at the beautiful home of the brilliant Laura Mann. It had a breathtaking view of the Bay and the Golden Gate, and was warm and comfortable. 20 to 30 poets showed up for each of these events, where we tried to hammer out our poetic platform and constitution (I believe I still have some of the notes stashed away in a pile of paper). At one of these meetings Big George T, self-styled hardcore street poet, inaugurated the convention by informing everyone that his dingy little apartment in the ratty old hotel down in a place he affectionately called Interzone (see Naked Lunch), had been burglarized, that he lost everything he had. Without a second thought we passed the hat and raised over $300 for George. Then, during the ensuing discussion about the platform, George told us that a true artist is always autonomous, and that a community of poets was impossible. The irony was too obvious. We never did come up with a platform or a constitution, and we never registered the Poetry Party. We may have been a close knit little band, but I swear you can’t get any two poets to agree on anything.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 7:44 pm Hannah wrote:

    Are Snark and Blurb in the employ of the anti-muses?
    I hope so.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 8:08 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks very much for your comments…
    Ange, I don’t know maybe I am mistaken, but it seems to me that I see “necessary” a lot in blurbs; the rhetoric seems both overinflated and wrong to me. It starts to sound like we “need” poems because they are “useful,” like saying we should have music in schools because it makes kids better at the math section of the SAT. We should have music in schools because it makes kids better musicians, and listeners of music, because music is humane and pleasurable. I guess it boils down to an art for arts sake issue for me. When I see such blurbs, I think–why must poetry be necessary? It seems to me that a lot of things that are not necessary are nonetheless important. Poetry is “not all, it is not meat or drink, nor slumber, nor a roof against the rain…” No doubt I am arguing myself into a circle.
    Revive the dead! Wow! That’s a blurb. And I don’t think of Linda Gregerson as an OTT kind of poet. Why do poets who should know better loose all self-control when blurbing? Is it more than anything to please the blurbee? Is it that the backs of books demand exclamation points?
    Rachel, I know I’ve seen the Dickey piece you mean… but can’t recall it. Steve would probably know. Is it by Dickey himself? Sounds like him! (There’s a poet whose stock has plummeted, and is perhaps in need of a reevaluation.)
    Mind you, I know blurbing ain’t easy, and I’ve done plenty of it. I’d be curious to here other people’s experiences of asking for and, maybe more interestingly, writing blurbs. Blurbing is not reviewing–you are expected to do it for friends–and sometimes, sure, you really do want to give a book your enthusiastic imprimatur, and it is flattering; sometimes it is a matter of saying something true and kind “or at least not untrue and not unkind.” Sometimes you have to say no–whether you are too busy or do not feel there is anything useful you can say.
    I’d love to see a moratorium on blurbs. As Ange mentioned, I tried to get away with no blurb on my last book–but then, that is a luxury a first-book book probably does not have. And I’d love to stop writing blurbs too–as a matter of policy–but then, I think of those writers who blurbed my own first book, some of whom did not know me from Eve’s left elbow, I just wrote them out the blue, and the generosity of that gesture, and I feel I should be willing to give back in that sense.
    Blurbs can be useful–you can get a sense of the type of book in very broad-sweeping ways–Richard Wilbur is probably not going to be blurbing the same book as John Ashbery–though I’d certainly be keen to peek in a book that got the nod from both!
    I’d love to see a poem or a longer excerpt from an intro or review on the backs of books. Here’s hoping…

  • On November 16, 2007 at 4:26 pm Ange wrote:

    Alicia, I couldn’t agree with you more.
    It’s not that you’re arguing in a circle, it’s that you’re saying something that should be obvious. But it isn’t. I cannot explain why poetry must be scapegoated for all art’s failings. But it is, and every so often, we have to go back to square one and say: poetry is an art that was conceived to make glad the heart of man.
    And woman.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, November 13th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.