LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?
DF: It’s a public engagement between a reader and a book.
I blogged for a few months for Harriet and a few times talked about books I was reading. It was more informal. I didn’t worry about whether I was saying something in the best way, as I would when writing a more traditional book review.
LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?
DF: I try to figure out what the writer is trying to do and how well s/he is doing it. I try to quote a lot, so the reader of the review can judge for herself, and so I make sure I stay close to what’s happening on the page.
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
DF: The review should be well-written, thoughtful, respectful (as long as the subject deserves respect, and usually they do), and entertaining. It should also be honest. Generosity towards the subject doesn’t hurt. Being critical when it’s called for doesn’t either.
LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?
DF: I generally review individual volumes. I often reference the writer’s body of work but focus on individual poems as examples from the book at hand, as a way to describe what’s going on in the book.
LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?
DF: Quite different. I know what the job is with reviewing. I don’t ever know what the job is when I write poems, so I find it much harder to write poems.
LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?
DF: Yes. As honestly as possible. I try to understand why the writer would be doing what s/he’s doing. I try not to let my taste override their project. The stupidest reviews are the ones that complain that the writer is doing exactly what s/he meant to do. If I really think what the writer is doing is invalid, I’ll probably pass on reviewing him/her. That doesn’t mean I only do positive reviews. It means I try to do reviews only of those I can find some respect for, something interesting in the work.
LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?
DF: When I first encountered Frederick Seidel I didn’t get it. Then when Ooga Booga came out, and all different kinds of people were writing fascinated reviews I figured I should take another look. Now he’s one of my favorite writers. It wasn’t so much what the individual reviewers said as the fact that such a variety of people were interested.
I’ve occasionally read a review introducing me to an author that sounded interesting, and turned out to be. I’ve also occasionally had the experience of being convinced to buy a book by an intelligent reviewer when I didn’t actually end up liking the book. But that’s okay, it’s all part of the life.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
DF: There are some good reviewers out there. Which only means I can kind of figure out what I’m going to think in response to their reviews, not necessarily that I agree with them. I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art. That’s when reviewing is good. Not so much when it explains but when it shows real engagement.
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
DF: I pretty much only review for money. I can’t speak to trends, I’m kind of out of it, trendwise.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
DF: I like the way intensifies my normal reading process, makes me more generous in my reading—because I’m not simply reading for what I feel like reading. I also do it to make money. Not much, but a nice little minor infusion now and then.
I do think reviews can bring new readers to texts. Maybe only a few at a time, but that’s better than nothing.