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?
AF: The purposes of a review are to bring attention to a book and to help readers better understand or appreciate it. Blogging is a wonderful invention as far as the calling-attention-to-a-book aspects of reviewing are concerned. And blogs encourage reviewers to expand their parameters; they can show respect for a book without needing to review at length. I mention books in my blog on Harriet, and probably will in my new blog American Witch as well.
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?
AF: My approach to reviewing is centered on historical awareness, close textual attention, and evaluation. Historical awareness involves a sense of the book’s importance in a wider context, its influences, its impact. Historical awareness should ideally include an awareness of one’s own literary position and stance, rather than, as it all too often does, statements made from an impossible assumption of objectivity: I review as an Anglo-American, a wiccan, a straight woman, a PhD, a feminist, a person of privilege, a Quaker, a mother, and so on, and I try to remain conscious of all that, as well as of any aesthetic and theoretical biases, as I review. You can’t make those limiting truths go away, but you can try to be aware of them and to compensate for them. When discussing poems in detail in a review, I consider their prosodic vocabulary—lineation, meter, or metrical effects—along with aspects such as meaning, tone, and diction. I always notice whether, and how, a review acknowledges the prosody of a passage under discussion. Like all of us, I also notice implied or explicit evaluations. Many reviewers nowadays stay away from evaluation, but like one’s position and biases, one’s judgments are always there even when they are unconscious, so it’s better to make them conscious. I evaluate very carefully and try to do it through description rather than through rankings or judgment claims.
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?
AF: A significant review will not only shed light on individual poems, the book as a whole, and the poet’s body of work, but will also teach us something about the literary movements and trends which inform the poet’s work as a whole—and, in the case of a truly significant review, will teach us something worthwhile about poetry as a whole in the process. This is why we still read some of Eliot’s or Bogan’s reviews.
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?
AF: I focus on the book at hand. To do this thoroughly, I need to think about the body of work and situate the book in it, at least briefly, and also to use specific poems and passages for illustration. Attention to the connections between the three levels you mention—the leaves, the tree, and the forest—is the key to writing a serious, helpful review. When these connections are not made—when, for example, several individual poems are discussed without tying them convincingly into larger thoughts about the book—the resulting review will range from amateurish and irresponsible to a possibly delightful but still slight bon-mot.
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?
AF: My critical writing, particularly my reviewing, tends to be inductive: I make observations and notes and build arguments from them (but of course, there are plenty of “aha moments” as well—that’s what keeps it enjoyable). My creative writing is deeply based in meditation, intuition, and flow. It really arises from inside. I sometimes do field work, research, take observations and notes for poetry as well (in fact, I’m starting on a big poetry project that will be based extensively in research) but everything for poetry is filtered through me before it enters the page, as if I were some sort of earthworm or sea anemone. The processes are so different that it is wonderful how much they do affect and inform each other, as they always do. I’ve written an essay about this called “A Horse With Two Wings: On Criticism and Poetry” in my book The Body of Poetry.
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?
AF: Yes, it happens. It’s always a great occasion for growth in my experience. When it happens to me, I stay hyper-alert against stereotyping and other reactions and try to compensate for my own positioning. Of course, for reviewers of more combative and bifurcative temperament than my own, it can also make for real entertainment value.
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?
AF: Clare Harman's piece in the Guardian on Sylvia Townsend Warner.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
AF: Fabulous writing, unputdownable writing, writing you’d want to read for its own sake, breathing with charismatic charm. Once in a while I see something like this; Stephen Burt had a review on the Poetry Foundation website last year that had a lot of this quality in the writing, but it’s very rare. Another quality is genuine breadth of vision—making sense of the current poetic divisiveness and helping heal it rather exploiting it. But the most essential quality would be a commitment to the art of poetry above all else, and a sense that the reviews are all written in service of what I believe to be the best of poetry. I suppose many or most reviewers believe this is what they are after, but I want to believe it too, when I read their work. I’d also like to see reviewers do more to tie the work of contemporary poets in with its forerunners, with poetry of the past. After all, we are not cut off from the past but part of it, adding to it every day, as becomes clear each time a poet dies.
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?
AF: I imagine the trend is likely to reverse at some point. Either way, I will always do some of this work, because I learn so much from it that helps my own poetry in so many ways.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
AF: As with writing a poem, I feel in a sense that every word I write, just like every moment I live, needs to be its own justification. But as with writing a poem, in my critical work I want to give a gift to an audience as well. Basically, in reviewing I hope to repay in the hearts of other readers the satisfaction and enlightenment I’ve gotten from reading the writing of others about writing. The rest isn’t up to me.
There is an infamous track record of clueless reviews—for example, notorious early misjudgments about Whitman, Hopkins, and Keats. Yet presumably there must have been many other reviews—or, the equivalent of today’s more numerous reviews in the form of letters and other communications among poets and readers - that were not clueless and that helped build appreciation for those poets’ work and helped it survive. If reviews can’t, it’s hard to imagine anything else that could.
Annie Finch is author or editor of fifteen books of poetry, translation, and criticism, including Calendars and The Body of Poetry. Her forthcoming books include Among the Goddesses and A Poet's Craft. Coeditor of the Poets on Poetry Series of the University of Michigan Press and founder of WOM-PO, the Discussion of Women's Poetics listserv, she lives in Maine where she directs Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.