Barrett Warner is a writer I had the great pleasure to read with (at the Last Sunday, Last Rites series) when I traveled through Baltimore in late April. I loved what he and poet Jessica Dotson did to tweak the usual line-up of readers. Simply by reading their poems one at a time, alternating (an opaque call and response), they raised the energy level in the room to heights that the normal everyone’s-turn-at-bat would have missed.
Barrett wears a number of hats like most of us: he's a poet who leaves an impression wherever he goes (winner of the 2011 Princemere Poetry Prize and finalist for the 2012 Washington Writers' Publishing House book contest); author of the chapbook Til I’m Blue in the Face (Tropos Press); a horse breeder; and co-publisher with his wife, poet Julia Wendell, of the small press, Galileo Books. As a critic, he’s reviewed books for such publications as jmww, Loch Raven Review, and Rattle; and he has reviews forthcoming at Otis Nebula, Cerise Press, Shenandoah, Fiddleback, and Chattahoochee Review. He lives on a farm in Maryland's Gunpowder Watershed. Without further ado:
Karen: What do you see as the challenges particular to reviewing poetry?
Barrett: The word poetry feels so general. Not all language is verbal. My chargers know six words and a jockey chirp, but lordy, the stories they tell, the poems they sing.
Digging into a book of poems I wanted to be swept away. Falling in love is the easy part. Now it’s more about, OK, where are we going now? Will I need a toothbrush? Most poets are writing from experience rather than particular lyric traditions or “schools” (the Black Mountain School today sounds like the name of a fiddle band). How do you critique someone’s experience?
The biggest challenge is to know who you’re writing to. In the newspaper age you had an idea where the roll-ups were being tossed—houses, newsstands, etc. Online reviews reach an unfixed readership. I’ve got three lines to grab someone I’ve never met and could never describe; three lines to win them over into clicking the “see more” button.
For me, reading poetry is the same great sport it ever was. But talking about it, reviewing it, which is very old school, can be awkward. Having ideas—judging the art of a poem—feels so selfish. My main point in writing a review is that as I get older it’s harder for me to be moved but when I am moved I definitely want the whole world to know about it.
One problem I have—editors want you to discover Mozart’s next Requiem, and to write about it in 500 words. This is Mozart we’re talking about! Try 10,000 words. I mean, it’s online so we’re not offing trees. The cost of paper is not an issue. I need 1,100 to 1,400 words to make a review.
In terms of the poems themselves, I’m troubled by line edits. It’s so much easier and cheaper to lay-out and print a book since it doesn’t have to be off-set anymore. Editors used to do a much better job combing manuscripts, fussing over text. I’ve seen a lot of great poems which still would have benefited from a better word here or there but no one seems to know whose department that is.
Personally, I’m someone who needs aggressive editing. I was forty-eight by the time I learned how to spell bougainvillea, not to mention my affection for confusing rhetoric. Often I’ll write a review and forget to say whether or not I liked a book. I rely strongly on editors who are probably very busy to help me nevertheless, to remind me of the basics. Many of my first drafts of a review need a twenty minute shower. So I couldn’t really work without lots of editing and I sort of wish more poets felt the same way.
Karen: What is it you DO when you review a book?
Barrett: In 1988 my buddy Josh, Christ how he got pissed at me—we were always playing 500 miles. He made up the game or it was in one of his short stories. You know, “500 miles to Georgia tell me what you see.” It was an imaginary contest for who could see the most. We played it out loud, probably to impress someone named Alison. Boys, she’d smirk. She wore contempt like an orchid.
Every book feels like that 500 mile trip only now it’s real. I read a book of poetry as if I’m on a train. That cattle catcher on the engine car is getting bruises. I keep a lively pace when I read so I can hang out on something stirring and still maintain a flow. Michael Collier, let me tell you what I see. Timothy Liu, let me tell you. Kevin Higgins…I’m seeing the country, the stops, the bartender who’s made these rails one too many times.
That stinker Robert Pinsky says good poetry is always going someplace. So maybe reviewers, we’re the travel agents. All aboard still means what it did a hundred years ago. By the way, if you want Slate to continue the Pinsky column you gotta go there and like it or say “Amen.” http://www.slate.com/authors.robert_pinsky.html Slate is always asking the mirror, who’s the fairest of them all?
Karen: How would you describe the art of the book review?
Barrett: Poetry is an art. Book reviewing is a skill. Some of us are just a little more compulsive about it. As a racer and a gambler I was into yearling sales, trying to find a young horse that would grow up and win the Derby. Even today if I drive past a horse auction my foot pumps the brake and I fight the steering wheel to keep moving past.
As a reviewer I’d love to find a snappy sharp young writer, sure, but there are better folks than I doing a great job of that: Alice James Books, Anhinga Press, Lost Horse Press, Autumn House Press, and my favorite, the Pitt Poetry Series. My point is this: let the press find the poet, let the poet find the poem, stay out of the way of this important process. Afterwards, I might tease a little of the art out of the collection. I want to help others connect and maybe give up some coin for the book.
Most of my literary influences are drawn from the Daily Racing Form which has been my Bible for thirty years. When I review a book I’m handicapping a race—where’s the early speed, the power, the late kick, the reach and grab, the pain killers and bandages, the odds, the weather conditions—and I’m partly a tout, but most of all I want to win my bets and witness a kind of enthralling beauty that could never be anticipated.
Karen: Do you approach a review as an encounter with a book you love, or an offering of context for a book that is difficult but deserves a wider audience?
Barrett: Every book deserves a wider audience. Poetry is concerned with what Millay called “that purple edge outside most people’s lives.” So reviewing might be about bringing readers and the poet closer together, close to that edge which for most readers is only a distant horizon. That means connecting a few dots, and sometimes you’re dead wrong on the connection or you find a connection the writer didn’t intend. The night sky is real big. You can see Orion any place you look.
Karen: What do you enjoy or loathe when you read other writers’ reviews of literature?
Barrett: Give me some sugar. Show me something. Make it hurt. Let me laugh. It’s easy for poets to get lost in their own beautiful woods, but readers are blind, trying to find a black hat in a dark room. A reviewer that lets me know when I’m getting warmer, who knows where the hat is but still lets me find it on my own (with some minor coaching), well that’s a review for me.
I don’t mind reviews that give a little more background on the author, reviews by people who personally know the author. I find this helpful at times as long as the reviewer is still making tough demands of the book. The only reviews I don’t like are the short ones. Putting feelings in there is all right too, but it must be clear how those feelings were transformed by the experience of reading.
Karen: Do you see current reviewing tendencies that are pernicious, lazy, exciting, or helpful?
Barrett: Blog posts are everyone’s way of having a Taxi-cab confession. Those reviews should be pernicious, lazy, and exciting all at once. I mean hey, some of us take the bus to work. Others ride a skateboard. It’s important for reviewers to know their poetry, but it’s also important for reviewers to come from whichever culture they’re writing for.
The printing press democratized literacy, but the Internet democratizes art. We reviewers are the clowns at this rodeo. The clowns perform a minor but essential task, distracting the angry bull. What am I going to say? That someone is a bad clown? There’s no such thing as a bad clown because what do you expect, he’s a clown after all.
Karen: Keith Taylor has written a thoughtful, nuanced essay on reviewing poetry in today's media environment, and talks about (among other things) the narrowed audience for poetry reviews because of the downsizing of newspaper reviews, saying: “[T]he chance to review a new collection of poems in a place where several thousand people might read it, and to actually be paid something for our labors, has almost disappeared….In the fairly recent past many people still considered a knowledge of the poetry of the moment—even if that knowledge came only from reviews or the occasional poem appearing in a high brow magazine–as an essential element of the life of the mind, or at least as an important ingredient of contemporary culture. If there ever was a consensus about that, it has been forgotten.” Can you talk a little bit about poetry reviews as potentially adding to "the life of the mind"?
Barrett: Hearts have a beat. Brains don’t. So “life of the mind” has a funny chime to it. The artist and sportsman Frank Stella—he had some great racehorses over the years, I’m thinking Brown Arc for one—in 1982 Frank gave six lectures at Cambridge which dealt with issues like the role of the critic in defining contemporary art. This was a time when almost everyone would hear about a work before they saw that piece. Well it’s a different can of soup today. Now we often see the works, read samples, get some news footage before we’ve gotten the accompanying critical narrative. So it’s an exciting time to be an adorer of fine art and a lover of words.
I’m not sure I buy that we’re worse off than the glory days. When literature used to be a club maybe we needed highbrow reviews to find our way onto the scene. But I believe there’s no such thing as a good club. It’s like saying so and so was a well-meaning and kind dictator. There’s no such thing as a good dictator. Literature isn’t just for angels that haven’t fallen, it’s for the rest of us too.
I’m one of the lucky ones so in love with poetry I don’t care about the conditions. I don’t need the perfect bed to make poetry love, the perfect light, the perfect sentimental view. What I got right now has problems, but it’s action and it’s fantastic. Taylor’s right, but he should drive his idea to the cemetery. There are a lot of folks lying there with dirt on their faces who’d give anything for the chance to come back, even if it meant a life of fewer paying gigs and fewer newspapers and only online opportunities.
Karen: How do writing and reviewing coexist in your writing life--do they complement each other in some way?
Barrett: There are two parts to your question. The harder one is how do I incorporate writing into my life? A hard knocker like me is going to take his poetry where he can get it. I sleep like a dragon with one eye open. I listen to the wind.
I work with my hands about sixty hours a week in the growing season so I have to compose most of my poems on the jog. I say the poem over and over out loud until it’s burned into me but not so deep I can’t revise it. When the tractor’s home and the loader down, or the horse is put away dry, then I write down the poem singing in my head.
Reviewing is different. There’s referencing involved. Dog eared pages. Underlinings. Long-handed rants on legal pads. But I’m also thinking about the poems in someone’s collection all the time and somehow from all of this a review emerges. I send my notes via postal to my typist who emails the goods back to me and then I send it out.
Sometimes I’m talking with a literary journal. I’ll say whom I’m reading lately or I’ll mention a book and suggest they assign it to someone and maybe I’ll make some kind of arrangement for a title down the road. Often my review just shows up in an editor’s box. I read six books a month and I’ll review two or three of these. So the writing life gets crowded.
One of the reasons I started reviewing this year after a thirty year break was that I didn’t want to be another poet without a book on his shelf. The idea that you can learn to write without learning to read amazes me. You want to learn how to write a novel? The best writing workshop in the world is in the library, in alphabetical order.
Karen: Is that where you get your books (libraries) or do they come to you directly from presses?
Barrett: I don’t like receiving books from publishers. Advance copies? No, thank you. It puts too much pressure on me and I’m a coward about pressure. Same with dogging the cat. Kissing in the bedroom with nightgowns and candles? Forget it. I need to start my kissing in the kitchen where there isn’t any pressure at all, just a few dishes, some with spaghetti stains.
The kitchen I go back to time and again for authors are the literary reviews. I’ll see a poem I like, scavenge the contributor notes. If the poet has a recent book I put a check in the mail. Sometimes they don’t have a book and I wring my hands. I noticed the author Bethany Schultz Hurst had poems in Gargoyle and Rattle and maybe Cimarron Review. My notes say, Great poems, but still no collection. So I’m keeping my eye on her. She’s one to watch.
I like to review books that have been out at least a year, and at least four times I’ve gone back six years. Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius Press calls what I do “keeping the conversation going.” I also like pairing my reviews. In September Loch Raven Review will publish my review of Jessica Fenlon’s Spiritual Side Effects alongside Nikia Leopold’s Simple Pleasures (the 2012 Blue Lights Press winner). Both poets are also well known as artists and both designed their own covers. The hint of a controlling nature in this behavior is contradicted by how each author is so willing to lose herself in a poem without losing control of her lines.
I also look for authors at poetry readings. I read two months ago in the West Village with Becca J. R. Lachman. No way I was letting her get in a cab without palming her The Apple Speaks. The nice thing about hearing an author read is that you get a sense of which poems are favorites. I love finding new favorites in the same book. But it’s nice to make a personal connection with an author. I’m reading Kevin Young’s Ardency right now with the aim of reviewing it but the book is so strong and woven and deep I’m anxious to talk with him about it but I don’t really know him except that he teaches outside of Atlanta. I may just have to take Josh’s train to Georgia after all.
The next interview in this series is expected to appear next week.