Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetry Reviews and Revenge

If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please come along to the Lit & Phil on Wednesday evening (24th November, 7pm) where I’ll be reading with Red Squirrel poets Kevin Cadwallender, Tom Kelly, Eleanor Livingstone, Alistair Robinson, and Salt co-conspirator, Andrew Philip. It’s a benefit gig for the Lit & Phil, so well worth supporting. I should mention my trip to London last week. I’ve written about the launch of Magma 48 on the Magma blog. My reading the next evening at the Betsey Trotwood with Simon Barraclough, Claire Crowther and Roddy Lumsden was also very enjoyable. Not a massive crowd but they seemed to like what they were hearing, and it was great to hear fine new poems from the other readers.

I did a quick podcast with Ryan Van Winkle yesterday, which I guess you'll be able to hear online some time soon. One question he asked was about reviewing, whether some poets respond to criticism by taking ‘revenge’ and if I have ever suffered from that kind of attitude. I answered by saying that I thought poets didn’t tend to react in that way. They might smart at a negative comment in a review, but most get over these things quickly. Also, that I wouldn’t know if anyone, for example, had blocked me from a festival, prize or magazine because they were miffed at something I’d said about their work. It’s not as though they’re going to tell me, as that would obviously make them look pathetic. I certainly haven’t noticed anything like this so, if it’s happened, it’s not made any difference to me.

I thought about the question afterwards (I often compose better answers to questions after an interview). I still believe what I say above, but I guess there are some people who react to any negative opinion on their work with life-long hatred and will take any opportunity to damage the critic, often in ways well out-of-proportion to the perceived ‘offence’. Well, that’s the way it goes. It’s vital for critics and reviewers not to bother about such things and to write what they think with a degree of integrity. Such revenge-poets, who believe themselves beyond criticism, who somehow think their work is perfect and without any weakness worth mentioning, are still living in Toddlerdom, stamping their feet on their bedroom floors for all eternity. They’d be better not to publish at all if they assume the reaction is going to be universal hero-worship.

It’s with this in mind that I made a solemn vow a while back (unfashionable as solemn vows may be). I promised to myself that I would never allow personal feelings about an author to influence any review I write. If that person has made negative or positive comments about my work, I won’t allow that to affect how I read or comment on their work. If I find that impossible, I simply won’t review their book. Someone else can do it. The same goes for reviewing well-known, ‘influential’ poets. I determined not to allow their position to affect a review, either positively or negatively. I’ve seen reviews published in journals by Poet X on Poet Y’s new book, on how ‘wonderful’ and ‘brilliant’ it is, and then six months later there’s Poet Y reviewing Poet X using those exact same words. That represents the death of criticism and I don’t want any part of it. To paraphrase Morrissey, 'It paves my way, but it corrodes my soul.'

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