Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Reviewing: Matthew Zapruder

H: 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?

MZ: I tried to articulate what I think the purpose of a review is in a recent article I wrote for the Poetry Foundation. Basically, I was trying to say that I am much less interested in a critic's opinions than in her or his analysis. I used the analogy of a math or science teacher requiring students taking a test to "show your work," i.e. to reveal the thinking and reasoning process that led to the answer. That process is more interesting and illuminating than the actual conclusion. I also tried in the article to suggest a few approaches that I think might be more productive and respectful to poems than some of the ones currently being employed, especially around certain unexamined terms such as "lyric," "narrative," "experimental," and so on.

I like following along with Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Steve Burt, Justin Taylor, David Orr, Joel Brouwer, Craig Teicher, Ange Mlinko, Michael Theune, Elisa Gabbert, Gina Myers and other reviewers I regularly read, not because I necessarily have the same tastes, but because I respect their minds and how they move through poems. I learn something, as a poet and editor, from that. To that end, generally I appreciate them doing close readings, or focusing in on a particular aspect of a technique in a certain book or poem.

There are certain reviewers whose taste I do trust, like friends, so if they write an article saying a book of poems by an author I don't usually pay attention to is good, that will send me off to the bookstore. That seems to me to be a good purpose for a review, to snap readers out of their preconceptions or habits. Criticism as defamiliarization maybe.

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?

MZ: I don't write about books anymore. About ten years ago when I was a graduate student, I wrote many long reviews for Verse Magazine, where my friend Brian Henry was the editor and was very patient about giving me a lot of time and space to write long considerations of the work of such poets as Yannis Ritsos, Hayden Carruth, Tomaz Salamun, Miroslav Holub, Larry Levis, and others. I was really lucky to have the space to write such long articles, and such a great editor in Brian. I think in those reviews I was trying to shine a little light on the methods of the poems so that readers could take that information back into their own, private readings. I guess I thought of myself as preparing people for wonder.

I was amused to see Steve Burt in his recent dialogue with you mention Reader Response. I hadn't thought about that in a long time. I remember when I was a graduate student in Slavic Languages in Literatures (getting a PhD in the early '90's at UC Berkeley) thinking that Reader Response theorists, as well as Russian Formalists (Shklovsky, Jakobson, Bakhtin, etc) were the only literary theorists whose work seemed to me to be actually useful for reading and talking about literature. That was of course during the height of deconstructionism in the academy. I don't remember what I liked about Reader Response -- maybe it was just the name, which seemed to have the emphasis in the right place, the reader, who seemed to be a pretty important part of the equation. Steve is probably right about it being limited and not useful, but compared to what people were doing at the time it was a breath of air.

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?

MZ: Sometimes I think the review as a locus for inspired writing -- a creative response, one that is respectful, but also alive -- could make for as you say "a more significant document." If you read Ruskin or Coleridge or Dickinson's letters or Pound or Stevens you will encounter truly great writing. I've just started reading a marvelous book edited by my undergraduate professor of Russian, Stanley Rabinowitz, of the early 20th century Russian dance critic Akim Volynsky, in which one reads sentences such as the following which being his review of "Swan Lake": "What is a swan? It is a living aquatic flower." You can I think get a sense even from this brief moment of the type of creative, participatory, playful yet very serious engagement this critic has with dance.

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?

MZ: I haven't as I said written reviews for a long time, but when I did I began with focusing on particular poems, and lines, in detail. It seemed relatively crazy to me not to focus on the actual written words, since it was a review of poetry. Now things have changed significantly: you can read samples of almost anyone's work on the internet, so perhaps it's not as necessary to do extended quotes of poems in reviews in order the give readers who don't already have the book a sense of what the actual poems are like.

It's also important for reviews to contextualize a book and an author, but again that requires some more space, which printed publications don't often give. I guess that's another good thing about our benevolent all-seeing friend, the internet.

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?

MZ: Forgive me if I answer this in a different way. I am a poet and the poetry I write is written by me in a kind of hopeful blindness for other people to read and think about and have their reactions to. I would hope those reactions are, at least initially, emotional, and that if the poems resonate for a reader they do so in a highly personal manner, on the edge of language and what can be articulated. I would like for the reader to feel that she or he and I are together out on the limb, grasping for what can almost not be said.

My main critical engagement -- with the exception of the occasional foray into writing about criticism, or more personal essays such as one I wrote recently for the Los Angeles Times  -- is around editing for Wave Books. The editing work I do with authors is private, but is a deep and respectful and humbling critical engagement with their work, one that gives me enormous pleasure, and from which I learn as a poet and person. I also think of the decisions I make as an editor of what to accept for publication as a kind of critical engagement with poetry, one that is itself subject as it should be to critical opinion, reactions, arguments, etc., part of the conversation.

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?

MZ: All I will say about this is what ended my reviewing career was being asked to review two books of translation for a relatively well-known literary magazine. I said yes, read the books, and disliked them. I wrote the review truthfully, and felt karmically damaged by the experience. That was the last book review I wrote. The best critics, like the best people, like to have their minds changed. I am not opposed to any tradition. I am opposed to being opposed. Negative capability as usual seems to be a good guide in this sort of circumstance.

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?

MZ: Wow, that is a great question. I recently read, in Eileen Myles's absolutely brilliant book of essays The Importance of Being Iceland, her review/interview "The Art of the Real" with Ntozake Shange, which made me feel as if I had completely missed something essential. Her essay on James Schuyler, one of my favorite poets, also made me feel as if I had been missing something essential in his books, all of which I already of course have read.

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

MZ: I think I continually see elements of good critical writing, and would just like to see more of them in the future. I want to learn more, and to keep being taught by those who think and write critically and generously. Despite what has been said in reaction to my articles, I am hopeful and enthusiastic about the state of poetry reviewing. I really respect people who write reviews: they don't get paid very much if at all, and it is as I know from experience hard work. So I just try to give some gentle and respectful reaction to what critics are doing, so that they keep on keeping on.

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?

MZ: Again, I hope people keep doing it. Like typewriter repair experts and poets and collectors of elven figurines, they will have to find another way of getting paid other than for doing what they love.

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

MZ: To the extent I write about writing about writing, I hope, respectfully, to help with bringing readers to poetry, and poetry to readers. This seems to be a very worthy, even lucky endeavor.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry: American Linden, The Pajamaist, and Come On All You Ghosts (forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2010), as well as co-translator from Romanian, along with historian Radu Ioanid, of Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems of Eugen Jebeleanu. He has received a William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In Fall 2010 he will be the Holloway Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. An editor for Wave Books and a member of the permanent faculty in the low residency MFA program at UC Riverside-Palm Desert, he lives in San Francisco.

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