Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Reviewing: Michael Robbins

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?

MR: A review should be something more than an appreciation or an attack—it can appreciate, or attack, but it should do so in order to clear the mind of cant. Too much poetry criticism is a repackaging of idées reçues that disguises the reviewer's analytical incompetence by genuflecting towards "interest" and "sonic charge" or some such empty marker. I try in my reviews to understand the cognitive work the poems are doing. I'm not interested in pointing out how the t's in a given line mimic the trees the line describes (not making this example up).

Blogging at Digital Emunction, on the other hand, allows me to say whatever I want about a book—it's informal, the initiation of a conversation. For instance, I recently wrote a post proposing that the fourth section of Ashbery's Flow Chart  is a parody of Dorn's Slinger. In a blog post, you don't have to provide an argument, you can just throw something out there to get discussion going.

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?

MR: I don't think the approaches you mention are mutually exclusive. I'm interested when a reviewer sees  something about a poem or a poet that no one else has seen that strikes me as incontestably right. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but ideally it will combine stylistic brio with analytical insight into the work's cognitive dimensions. Christopher Ricks is the most consistently astonishing reviewer in this respect.

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?

MR:  Ricks says in a review of Empson that "a philosopher needs not only to mount a right argument but to explain how unstupid people have mounted wrong ones." We aren't philosophers, but that seems to me not only a useful summary of Ricks's own method, but a line that all reviewers should pin on the wall above their keyboards. For what I mean by "cant" above is something like "the wrong arguments mounted by unstupid people." The wrong arguments of stupid people—people still hung up on undermining the hierarchies of grammar by highlighting the materiality of the signifier, say—are, or should be, beneath notice.

But this goes nowhere without style, an element I can define only by example. Ange Mlinko has it, Michael Hofmann, William Logan. Reviews should be at least as well written as Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

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?

MR: I try to focus on each of these. I do look for close readings in reviews—that's where you find out if dude can read. Some can't.

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?

MR: Well, I get assigned books to review. If someone hired me to write a poem on a deadline with a certain number of words, they would receive something like a beat-up stuffed bunny wearing an Iron Maiden jersey with a duckbill stapled on it.

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?

MR:  Oh, sure. It's difficult—you want to try to read it as objectively as possible, to try to understand where the work is "coming from." But the cliché of origin there belies my own pretense to objectivity.

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?

a) Marilynne Robinson's essays on Jean Cauvin.
b) Don Share's blog post on Robert Palmer's Blues & Chaos.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

MR: I like cats.

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?

MR:  What! My own career has trended in the other direction, and I pray to the gods of the pharmaceutical industry that this continues.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MR:  I know they can, as a new reader who has been brought to texts by reviews. I hope to achieve all sorts of things by writing about writing, such as fame and romance and carpal tunnel syndrome. I also hope to say something that a few people, somewhere, will find useful and true.
Michael Robbins writes reviews for Poetry magazine and the London Review of Books. He has poems coming out in The New Yorker and Fence.