woe is us

“.. what we need in poetry are more people who don’t have a stake in it, more people who don’t know the people, the real people behind the words to care about poetry enough to write about it. This is true in every other field, it seems, but us. This is a problem because there is hardly any “demand” for poetry beyond practicing poets.”

Victoria Chang making an excellent point. When was the last time you read a review of someone’s poetry by a practicing poet that said: I consider this work weak, for the following reasons…?

Either people (and that includes me) say stuff is great, or they say nothing. I’ve been on a recent roll of ordering and reading chapbooks and collections by poetry blogosphere poets. Some of it is really good stuff and I have been and will continue to write enthusiastically about it.

Some of it, though, makes me go WTF?! and wonder what the publishing world and standards in general are coming to. I could defend my WTF reactions meaningfully and respectfully in reviews, I think, but I’m choosing not to. Choosing not to even begin to go there.

For snivelingly cowardly reasons, mostly related to my self-interest as an aspiring poet myself.

Woe is me. And us. Where are we going to get the critical feedback we really need, if we’re all so busy scratching each other’s backs…?

Related post here.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

17 thoughts on “woe is us”

  1. Hmm. Thought provoking. I’ve found some good critiques in online workshops, but often the workshops have a certain way of looking at poetry, it’s own flavor, so to speak. This often limits the feedback one gets because everyone is used to looking at poetry in one way and cannot open up to see it in another way. Different becomes wrong.

    Otherwise, there is definitely the self-interest angle, for sure. I guess we all learn the motto: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So it’s easier to just not speak. I think there’s more than just that though, especially online. If you write a critical review online, it is immortalized forever. I know from personal experience that some people hold grudges. Forever. I still get hate mail over incidents that happened over a year ago, so it goes beyond self interest in publishing and wanting to advance one’s poetry, and into the desire to avoid making wacko enemies who will stalk you.

  2. Chrissie wrote:

    “it goes beyond self interest in publishing and wanting to advance one’s poetry, and into the desire to avoid making wacko enemies who will stalk you”

    yikes! that totally creeps me out. Mainly because I think I may already have one or two of that type of wacko enemy, engendered in more naive days when I thought that people could/should/must be truthful about what they thought about other people’s work.

    Maybe poets should all be regularly contributing to a Fund For Independent Criticism of Poetry by Non-Poets.

    I’d support a cause like that, if it were credible, I think.

  3. I was thinking about the same thing. Most of the reviews I read are by poets themselves, and that’s rarely the case for fiction reviews. It’s very dicy.

    I don’t know if I have any enemies. Doubtful since I’m no one, but I’m beginning to worry about my ability to say things without thinking them over.

    “Maybe poets should all be regularly contributing to a Fund For Independent Criticism of Poetry by Non-Poets.”

    Sounds good to me.

  4. As I drift away still further from serious writing, I wonder if someday I’ll have the energy to start doing serious criticism. I have no backs to scratch and, honestly, don’t much care if people hate me.

  5. Like you, I think reviews are important. I can’t write critical reviews, I can only rave – so I only write about folks whose work strikes me down with a lightning bolt of goodness.

    On the other hand, I don’t shy away from reading reviews that do get critical – but there’s a fine line between writing something that’s snarky cause you want to be funny and cool, and writing something that’s helpful to potential readers trying to decide whether or not they should delve into the book! Because in the end, the review is either telling you to read the book or to not read the book – reviews are not, and should not, be telling the author how to “fix their writing” (IMHO). So when a review does tell you to read or not to read, it needs to be clear on the WHY so a potential reader can make an informed decision. I’ve read very few “negative” reviews that are clear on the why (only slightly more positive ones are clear on the WHY, btw :-)

    re: Randall Mann’s book and Fellner’s review – I think the hubbub is about the fact that is seems Fellner completely misread the book. He was trying to write a favorable review, I think. A rave even! And missed the boat landing by like a continent – it’s not light verse (some poems have the form and quality of Auden’s…by no means the entire volume), so the premise of the ostensible Fellner “rave” is shot to hell (he loves it cause it’s light, really really good light). Sigh.

    On a side note, I think the Gays always get out panties in a bunch when we write about sex and someone says we’re being “light.” What can I say. What’s funny to me, is how uptight we all get about it…me included!

  6. Hi Nic, Welcome to Wom-po!
    Just yesterday I copied your …whale URL and sent it to my team as a dazzling use of WordPress – in my case for a small journal. You rock! My site looked better before things got jostled and I lost some of the format and texture. Sorry to run on like this, I am usually more content-oriented. It is like a stranger going on about your shoes without saying hello. So, hello, Nic. Look forward to reading your words.
    Tamam (at http://www.completeword.wordpress.com

  7. Hey Aditi — It certainly is a dicey set-up, rife with massive conflict of interest issues, one would think. We probably get away with it in the poetry world because there’s no money in poetry. But why should money or no money be the arbiter?

    Julie — You drifting away from writing poetry would be a sad loss indeed. You as an independent non-poetry writing poetry critic would be a huge blessing for the poetry business. Here’s to whatever works best for you!

    Hey Melissa — I wasn’t splitting out the gay poetry-writing community from the overall poetry-writing community in my thinking in this instance, but very interesting to read your take on the latest hubub. Many thanks for sharing!

    Hi Tamam — thanks for the welcome! Not sure what took me so long to find and join Wom-po, but better late than never.

  8. Perhaps, Nic, your true cowardice is not your fear of giving negative reviews. But the fear of stepping out of the realm of “chapbooks and collections by poetry blogosphere poets”(which you’ve outgrown) and into the semi-pro or even the pro league where “negative” reviews are given when warranted and accepted by their recipients as par for the course. Regards,DavidM

  9. “… what we need in poetry are …”

    For more of the current crop of po-biz gatekeepers to die. Of natural causes.

    Certainly I’m not recommending that ‘we’ go out and kill anyone, but the sooner the individuals that brought poetry to its current sorry state get out of the way the better off “we’ll” be. Until then, it’s easier to just keep ignoring the current fiefdoms of poetry ’til their zines and book publishing enterprises bore themselves into oblivion.

    Mostly it’s the east coast cabal I’d like to see shrivel up and blow away. To that end, I vowed in 2006 not to buy another poetry book from any publisher east of St. Louis for the next decade. It’s been an easy promise to keep.


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