Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Reviewing: Ron Silliman

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?

RS: I don’t think that there is a single purpose. Rather, there are many, dozens if not hundreds of reasons to respond to something – a book, a poem, a film, some music, dance – in a written, public form. When I started my blog I was looking for a form that enabled me to communicate directly with other poets. I was looking for a forum that combined the virtues of the talk, especially as given outside the academy, the little magazine & the conversation one has between poets after a reading. Blogging, as it happens, has most of these virtues, plus some others – one is that it reach people over a broad geography very quickly, another is that I can target it to my readers, as such. It’s much more efficient in this than magazines, for example.

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?

RS: Sometimes I’m reviewing a book, but more often what interests me is what the book reveals about the nature (or history) of poetry, or of the universe. I sometimes write reviews that focus in on a single poem in a larger volume, or even a single literary device or detail.

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?

RS: A successful review is one that tells me something about a book, perhaps giving it a context that I did not already have. Of the several hundred reviews my own poetry has received, I’ve learned something about my poetry from exactly two of them, one by Michael Davidson, and one recently by Bill Mohr. Reviews that can teach the poet something about his/her own work always strike me as the most illuminating.

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?

RS: Most often I focus on something specific. This helps me to make more concrete statements about the writing.

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?

RS: Totally. They are different practices. It’s like playing chess versus playing soccer.

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?

RS: Mostly I avoid these type of reviews. Life is too short and there are too many good books to worry about the bad ones. But on occasion I will point to something as being exemplary of something I think of as problematic, and the review gives me occasion to spell out what this is and whty.

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?

RS: Bill Mohr’s review of The Alphabet in Or. He made me rethink some aspects of my own work.

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

RS: Illumination.

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?

RS: Less than one percent of my reviewing work has been done for pay. Almost without exception, the constraints placed on writing for pay make the resulting work of a lesser quality. The trend away from bad newspaper book reviews is a good thing, not a bad thing.

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

RS: I think writing about writing, just like talking about writing, helps keep me and everyone else on their toes. It is one part of the larger process, but it is one too important to leave to the academy or to journalists. If poets don’t think about what they do, why should anyone else bother?
Ron Silliman has written and edited over 30 books, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 12 other languages. Silliman was the 2006 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, a 2003 Literary Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.