Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

Jai Arun Ravine

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

I can speak to my personal goals as someone who has written book reviews of mostly small press titles for Lantern Review, Galatea Resurrects and other online venues on a volunteer basis over the past six years. During this time I have had the opportunity to self-select many of the books I have reviewed, and because I was granted this privilege I consciously chose to prioritize works by women writers of color and queer writers.

I have done this for three reasons:

  1. To encounter, engage and be transformed by the work of women writers of color and queer writers, as a queer writer of color, in the relationship I develop with their texts;
  2. To define and continually re-define my aesthetics as a writer and artist and to negotiate where and how my work exists in conversation with the current landscape; and
  3. To contribute to more rigorous discourse around the work of women writers of color and queer writers, which is a revolutionary act.

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books? Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

I think that there should be more reviews with a social justice lens. As poets, writers, reviewers and teachers of the English language, we’re used to talking about words. But what are these words actually doing? How does a book of poetry act on the world? Does it demolish capitalism? Does it defeat white supremacy? Does it dismantle the prison industrial complex? Is it actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-classist? Does it disarm militarism, state violence and other forms of oppression? Does it promote individual and collective healing? Is it transformative? Will it survive? If not, then what’s the point? I don’t just ask these questions; I really want to know if a book can answer them.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

Who is the audience for small press book reviews? From my perspective, criticism of contemporary poetry seems fairly insular and houses itself primarily within academia. Readership and circulation tends to remain inside this bubble. I believe that critics, as well as poets, need to think about how their writing, and their reading, breaks out of the contemporary poetry academy and reaches, stumbles, interrogates, struggles… in relationship to other artistic disciplines and social movements. What are our responsibilities? To whom are we accountable? In the words of Audre Lorde, “poetry is not a luxury,” and we need to live this.

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I think of my literary criticism as essay writing with an emphasis on cultural studies. I’ve been inspired by Craig Santos Perez’s blogs on food justice and the relationship between environmental politics and colonization. I look to Marissa Perel’s writing on contemporary dance and performance for Art21 blog and Movement Research, as well as Pamela Lu’s writing, in particular the quirky resonance of everything in her latest book, Ambient Parking Lot.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

I focus on writers I’m excited about and the presses that publish them.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

Can’t afford new books? Disappointed by the poetry selection at your local public library? Want to stay connected to the current literary scene? This is the gig for you. You will do it for the free review copies, but you will continue to do it for what you get out of it. Think about your subject position in relation to the text. Find your point of entry, and with gentleness, compassion and generosity, re-imagine a poetics in which language designs, desires and deconstructs. This is the place from which you will begin to write.