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An Interview About Contemporary Poetry-Reviewing With Poet, Editor, and Critic Seth Abramson

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{NB: On July 31, 2013, the above author was interviewed on the subject of contemporary poetry-reviewing by poet and editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Due to a now-resolved dispute between Wilkinson and the author over an unrelated article on American Conceptualism, "The Most Interesting Thing About Conceptualism Is That It Doesn't Exist," this interview was not run in the Reviews Issue of The Volta published on November 1, 2013. It appears in full below. Wilkinson discusses the dispute, the interview below, and many other issues relating to contemporary poetry-reviewing in his introduction to the November issue of The Volta. The issue itself can be found here, and, like Wilkinson's introduction to it, is well worth reading. The most recent edition of the Huffington Post contemporary poetry review series discussed in the interview below can be found here.}

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

Seth Abramson: I think different critics have different goals, or different matrices of goals, and I think literary criticism is amenable to a wide array of ambitions. So I can't speak to the goals of other critics, and don't wish to speculate on or critique what brings them to the table.

I'd like to see much more poetry criticism in major media. This isn't to say that all criticism is equally responsive to the considerations contemporary poetry deserves, or that all criticism is equally ambitious, or that all criticism is equally generative for readers. But ultimately I do trust readers of poetry to find the poetry criticism (and the modes of poetry criticism) they consider most instructive. I don't have any special access to knowledge of what others find illuminating, so I'd rather there be quite a lot of poetry and poetry criticism out there and have a discerning audience make up its own mind.

My own goal as a critic is not an all-encompassing one. I don't believe my way of critiquing should be the only way, nor do I want it to be. Nor do I think it adequately achieves all the ambitions we normally associate with literary criticism. It doesn't. But I hope it fills a certain absence. My critical mode is informed, generally, by my doctoral research; specifically, it's most engaged by these important contemporary phenomena: The number of working poets writing and publishing today; the relatively small number of contemporary poetry scholars now writing criticism, and the relative paucity of poetry criticism of all stripes; the conventional, often systemic prejudices of contemporary poetry scholars; the unprecedented amount of poetry that's being published today; the unprecedented number of readers who use online research to determine which poetry collections to read; the longstanding bias of American literary criticism in favor of trade presses, coastal poets, poets associated with discrete bohemian cadres, well-networked poets, and poets whose work is readily conducive to scholarly exegeses; and sea changes in American poetry and poetics that have nothing to do with aesthetic taxonomies or the histories of individual literary cadres, and everything to do with a perpetual evolution in the sociology, psychology, and pedagogical instruments that surround and inform poets, poetry, and poetics.

What all of the above leads me toward is a belief that criticism that implicitly centralizes the "canon" is misguided. Today's contemporary poetry scene is simply too large for any critic, scholar, or editor to determine contemporaneously which of the works of our time will become canonical (or why, when, and how). So I leave that assessment to the next few generations. In the present, I don't think fetishizing the canon is productive, not just because attempting to canonize a work in real-time (by explicitly and permanently situating it within the tradition) is folly, but also because it doesn't educate us about important developments in contemporary poetry--trends that can and do contextualize and inform what and who and even how we read. So while in my criticism I'm often effusive, and often express an opinion on the relative value of a work within its local context, I nevertheless usually avoid "vertical" (i.e., canon-conscious) assessments. I'm not looking to aggregate that sort of cultural capital or authority to myself. I think that some literary critics always have one eye on posterity; they want to participate, at least implicitly, in the longstanding "anthology wars" and in determinations of canonicity. My hope--and I'm sure I fail in it as often as I succeed--is to keep both eyes on contemporary readers and writers of poetry and let posterity take care of itself.

My approach to reviewing privileges "horizontal" analyses of literature. These analyses emphasize how a literary community inductively forms a "subculture of poetics," and how such a poetics can generate, in turn, observable (and innovative) literary phenomena. So I often use individual authors and collections as a starting point for broader discussion of recent literary history, literary communities, literary institutions, and poetics. I know this sort of review can be frustrating for readers who are looking for something entirely different; I comfort myself with the knowledge that enough literary critics are invested in "vertical" analyses that any reader who favors that critical mode has numberless options before them.

Another important aspect of my ethos as a reviewer is that I'm more focused on helping readers decide how to allocate their time, energy, and money than on positioning myself as an iconoclastic kingmaker (which ambition often requires a reviewer to indulge certain critical temperaments, particularly cynicism and derision, that historically communicate intellectual gravitas to an audience, and which don't, not for nothing, suit my personality very well). With so many poets, so many publishers, so much literary discourse, and so many poetry collections released each week, I think the dilemma of the contemporary reader of poetry involves not just selecting which title to read next, but also better understanding how large numbers of contemporary titles intersect as to their inclinations and ambitions. Because--perhaps regrettably--such a high percentage of contemporary readers of poetry are also poets themselves, this latter form of knowledge is often particularly illuminating.

Less useful, I think, is haranguing contemporary readers about which poets to avoid. With more than 2,000 poetry collections published annually in the United States, and with most readers of poetry having the time and resources to read only a dozen or so books of poetry a year, is it more useful to warn someone off twenty titles or to offer a reading list of sixty recommended collections? This speaks, too, to another important element of my ethos: I write criticism in volume, not because I think quantity is more important than quality, as I never have and never will, but because I want to honor the range and volume of poetry collections now being published, and I aim to give exposure to as many authors as I can whose work I feel merits it. I also, as mentioned, hope to do as much as possible to counsel prospective book-buyers on a month-to-month basis.

The result of all of the above is that my monthly poetry reviews do tend to be topical as well as qualitative, do tend to spend less time with each collection than a periodic review series would, and do tend to emphasize what is superlative about recommended collections rather than conducting complex analyses of why individual collections should not be read by anyone. Many readers have written in to say that they enjoy and profit from this style of reviewing; at the same time, I know many others would prefer another sort of review and another sort of critic. I think that's healthy. I'd be suspect of anyone who said that there's only one way to review poetry, only one type of person who should review poetry, or only one type of ambition that can inform careful, fully-engaged literary criticism. And even more than that, I can tell you that I wouldn't write in the critical mode I do if it were the only mode presently in use; I can do what I do precisely because so few others are doing it. Which also makes hostility toward this style of reviewing somewhat bewildering: Need vertical analyses of literature, and pyrotechnic displays of individual critics' virtuosity as derisive cranks, make up 100 percent of all the reviews published in the United States, rather than just 97 percent? It's hard to take seriously claims regarding the hegemony of "positive reviewing" in America when nearly all of our most-read poetry critics are routinely lauded in public for their snarkiness and negativity.

JMW: What's your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books? Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

SA: I think the debate over "positive" versus "negative" reviews is misguided. It ignores the more significant issue of cronyism. Everyone in the American poetry community knows that if, starting tomorrow, no one could review a poetry collection written by a friend or close associate, we'd have substantially fewer reviews than we do There are, of course, instances in which a critic's admiration for a poet's work predates (or is exactly contemporaneous with) that critic's admiration for the person behind the work; that's a relatively rare scenario, however. More commonly, we see positive reviews of new collections whose very reason for being is that the critic likes the poet personally (and their poetry well enough) and wishes to help advance their career. So we should be discussing critical objectivity as much or more so than critical judgment.

If we look just at those reviews of contemporary poetry written by critics who don't know the authors they're reviewing intimately (and/or aren't intended to pander to someone the critic wants something from), I think we see that there's no particular bias in favor of either "positive" or "negative" reviews. Nor should there be. I think it's just a question of what a given reader is looking to learn from a review and what a given critic is working to achieve. But I will say this: When a critic writes a positive review of a collection selected for recommendation out of a pool of submitted and already-held collections that numbers in the thousands, to suggest that that critic has abandoned the critical faculty is farcical. The issue in such situations is simply which critical processes make it onto the page, not whether the critical faculty is being engaged in the first instance.

JMW: What are other critics overlooking these days?

SA: I don't really want to give advice to other critics or take issue with how they've chosen to proceed, apart from the general objections I've voiced above about poetry-reviewing's present culture. I'm of the view that--because I trust readers of reviews to be discerning and to make decisions in their own best interest--the more discussion of poetry that's going on, the better. Assuming, of course, that what's being discussed and indulged is actual poetry and poetics, not the seedy politics of cliques or vagaries of networking.

I'll say that, generally, I'd like to see more reviews of small and independent press collections, more reviews of poets who live in the 94 percent of America that's not the New York Metropolitan Area, more reviews of younger poets who've not yet received major awards, and more reviews of poets who are not so well-networked that their work already has a built-in constituency and/or advocacy bloc. I'm seeing, over time, too many reviews being written of the same poets; there are more than 75,000 working poets in America, and the universe of poetry reviews should reflect that. Poetry sometimes feels more like a village than the city it is.

JMW: Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

SA: Michael Davidson, Ann Vickery, Alan Golding, John T. Newcomb, James Edward Smethurst, Marjorie Perloff, Jed Rasula, Stephen Burt, and Charles Bernstein are all critics I've profited immeasurably from reading, though of course there are many others. The critics I admire most tend to be scholars (or poet-scholars) who are interested, as I am, in conducting long-term horizontal analyses rather than engaging in the canon-making enterprise. As for emulation, I try not to consciously do that--I try to speak in my own writing voice, with my own particular (admittedly, sometimes wanting) critical temperament--so I'd have to let others decide whether or not my reviews read the way other reviews do.

JMW: How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry, and how do you keep up with what comes out?

SA: Anyone who says they're "keeping up" with what comes out is not being honest with themselves or with their readers. It's just not possible anymore. I do the best I can to read what comes in, to listen to what others are talking about, and to pursue my own peculiar interests through both online and real-time research into new authors. I try be as eclectic as I can in the collections I consider; what excites me most is finding someone whose work is entirely new to me, or convincing a reader who's never read work in a particular vein to reach escape velocity from their comfort zone. Championing those whose champions are already legion is less interesting to me, though I'm certain I've done it on occasion.

I don't think there's a "glut" in contemporary poetry in the way I understand this question or that term. There's only a "glut" of new writing if you don't trust the average non-academic poetry reader to ultimately make the decisions that are best for them about what and whom to read. And since I do have that trust, I'm not worried about a "glut" in the sense that it's been talked about lately.

I suspect that there are other types of "gluts" in the poetry community, ones we don't talk about often. For instance, a glut of self-interest, cynicism, and snark in the midst of a national literary community that really needs more poets to step up and do ambitious things for poetry and poets they've never met. But a glut of poems? No, there's no detrimental effect to anyone writing a poem. It's time we put that canard to rest.

JMW: What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who'd like to get started writing book reviews?

SA: One of the things I've written a lot about lately is how little use we poets are making of the media now available to us to promote contemporary poetry.

There are over 20,000 poets graduating from MFA programs every decade with no earthly idea what to do with their degrees, yet almost none of them turn to reviewing contemporary poetry. And of those who do, many could be more ambitious about reviewing than they presently are. Every major newspaper in the United States offers daily online content for free to its readers; why shouldn't a poet--particularly one with the sort of cognizable bona fides that editors, rightly or wrongly, often look for--approach one of these online media outlets and offer to write a regular contemporary poetry review column for free?

That we're not seeing monthly poetry review columns in the online editions of newspapers like The Boston Globe, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is a travesty. American poetry has the bodies and the minds to put a contemporary poetry review column in front of every American who reads the news online with their morning coffee, yet we're not doing it. I can't figure out why, given that it would benefit both the critic, the poets reviewed, their publishers, and poetry generally, not to mention turning on new readers to contemporary poetry. When I first starting writing for The Huffington Post, I saw a few poets saying, "Who does he think he is?" But in fact I want everyone who's willing to do it to be doing the same thing I'm doing. I want poetry reviews to be as ubiquitous in America as professional-grade movie reviews. And I believe they can be, and that they will be, though it may take another generation or two for it to happen.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize. A regular contributor to Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). Presently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in Poetry, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, Fence, and elsewhere.