RW: For the most part, I think reviews let conversations begin. In their best incarnations, they provoke and promote discussion not only about writing, but also about those ideas that inform the writing.
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?
RW: I have written a few reviews, and started to do so – I fully admit – in order to get free copies of poetry books I couldn’t afford to buy. I found myself in a jam now and again, offering up my services to review a book by a writer I profoundly respected, but whose latest volume I found sorely lacking. This was a real conundrum for me, since I think the values of the negative review are often suspect, and I think the best way to review an irrelevant, immature, or incomplete book would be with an earth-shaking silence. My method, since this time, has changed, probably motivated by self-defense. I now offer to review only books that I’ve already read. Thus far, this has mostly involved an attempt to celebrate success and bring writers that I didn’t know before into public debate. But there’s room in there for some critique, of course. Some of that has emerged for me when I’ve written critically or academically, though much of this critique engages in conversations that a book or writer has already provoked rather than baldly engaging with a close reading.
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?
RW: Yes. A new review, in my view, needs to strike a balance between admitting that it inevitably comes from a biased, personal, limited and limiting perspective and transcending the egotistical banter that this self-situating sometimes provokes in order to use this qualification advantageously. So often I find that reviews are either rejections or confirmations of poetic ideals upon which the reviewer has decided long before they ever even read a new piece of work. So the review ends up more or less saying “Does this new book conform to the preconceived notion of poetry that I have and have committed to fight for?” If the answer is yes, invariably, the reviewer tends to praise the author; if the answer is no, they tend to tear them down. None of this really has much to do with the poetry in question, but addresses, instead, a wider idea or poetics that is rendered political by using some new book as a scapegoat for either one-way praise or inflexible insult. For me, then, the central question for a reviewer is if this kind of discussion is productive. It certainly can be, if the reviewer situates her/himself in the context of his/her preconceptions and agenda. I guess the central question for me, then, concerns how we can ever escape our own preconceptions in order to make our responses to new work more searching and open and willing to self-critique, engaging in real politics and conversation instead of some internal dialogue about what counts as art.
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?
RW: Yes, it does. If the author is new, young, inexperienced, or just conventional, I don’t really see the point in a negative review that condemns someone’s best efforts as though the reviewer is somehow the moral vanguard of our society’s artistic community. If the author is firmly established, being praised even if they don’t really deserve it, etc, I can see the point of entering into the fray and talking about what’s really going on here, if the writer has become a celebrity. One of Carmine Starnino’s reviews of Margaret Atwood’s most recent book (a response we published a couple of years back in ARC) is an example of this kind of productive negativity, I think, where what’s at stake ISN’T one’s personal defense of a poetic ideal, but the wider implications of readership, literary culture, etc etc.
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?
RW: Here’s the best advice I’ve ever heard on this subject: “there’s good writing and bad writing. Most work will fall somewhere on the spectrum between these bookends.” What’s the point of categorizing what kind of writing the writing is? Isn’t what’s really central whether or not a book does what it wants to do, affects you, and effects 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?
RW: See all my previous answers. I think when folks are faced with these kinds of problems, they essentially become ethical issues rather than artistic or critical ones. This isn’t a bad thing, but deserves a more nuanced treatment than it often receives.
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?
RW: I have a sideways answer to this: it was a back-page column by Stuart Ross called “I hate poetry,” in which he admitted that he detests 98% of the poetry that emerges in any given year in Canada, and would therefore rather be known as a poetry-hater than a flaky so-and-so who generically declares that they “love” poetry. This made me go and seek out some of Stuart’s fine, funny, pointed excellent poems. For me, they fell within that 2% he’d parenthesized as worth your time.
LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?
RW: Yes. An I. Reviews are so often more about the reviewers than the reviewed books. Why not admit it and get on with the conversations that matter most?
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?
RW: If there’s someone out there who got into reviewing, writing, reading, or publishing poetry for the money, I think they might want to seek some counseling.
LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?
RW: Yes, yes. Reviewers that transcend egotistical longing DO help to shape how a national literary culture unfolds and is recorded, and I think the way books are talked about is very important in this way. Many people have said that all writing is really about writing anyhow. If that’s true, I suppose writing about writing has the same goals as just writing, and this becomes a bigger question: what’s the point of writing?
Rob Winger grew up in a tiny Ontario town, and has since lived in eastern Canada and Asia. His first book, Muybridge's Horse: A Poem in Three Phases (Nightwood: 2007) was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, Trillium Book Award for Poetry,and Ottawa Book Award. Selections from the book also won first prize for English Poetry in the 2003 CBC Literary Award. Rob's work has been published in journals and anthologies across Canada, and he's currently Poetry Editor for ARC Poetry Magazine here in Ottawa, where he's lived for a half-