16 January 2014

Reviewing the Less-Familiar



Reviewing the Less-Familiar
by Ann E. Michael

In the past four or five years, I have reviewed a small number of poetry books—maybe two dozen or so. It’s not a large number, but what interests me is how many of these books have been collections of ‘experimental’ poetry of one kind or another.  This may seem a bit odd because my own work, in general, does not particularly lean toward the experimental. I do push tradition sometimes, employing nonce forms or playing with free verse, sonnets, and bastardizations of rhyming, as well as writing prose poetry now and again; but I am hardly cutting edge in my work and tend to be characterized as “accessible.” Sometimes, that term is a way of damning with faint praise, but that’s how I roll.

I have heard from readers, though, that my reviews of more experimental poetry are appreciated—even valuable. I doubt these readers are familiar with my own poetry. If they are, then perhaps it is even more surprising to them that I “get” non-traditional approaches to verse. I know that poets often decide not to submit manuscripts to contests if they feel that the poet-judge writes in a categorizable style; there’s a sense that the judge may not appreciate sonnets if she happens to be a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, or that he will not ken to free verse if he is known as a metrical writer. I “get” that, too; but I think that aspiring writers may be in error to judge the judge along those lines. Writers probably feel the same way about certain reviewers. So this brief post explains, sort of, what makes a more traditional writer like me a potential reader of non-traditional poetry.

What I look for in a collection may be hard to categorize, but it isn’t style alone. Just because I write about nature, family, and speculative thinking in a mostly-plainspoken, slightly biblically-influenced free verse with nods to metricality or assonance does not mean I will avoid or dislike sight-rhyme, puns, odd spacing, wild allusiveness, purposeful disconnectedness or challenging topics in another person’s poetry. As a critic, I am quite open-minded. I want to learn from the work of the writer I am reading. If I learn nothing—if nothing is gained—then yes, I will feel disappointed. With challenging, experimental writing, I have to work harder. But if the effort is worth the result, then that’s ok. I was raised with a Midwestern Protestant mentality: I am not afraid of work (sorry, Midwesterners, for the stereotype).

Credit: Cheryl Penn
I learned how to read literature that was hard to read mostly on my own. A natural autodidact, and not particularly full of self-esteem, I felt my job as a reader was to figure out what the author was saying. When I got to graduate school, I finally found the tools I needed to analyze poems and fiction that were “hard” for me to understand, and I learned to relish difficulty. I like poems and stories that require me to use my brain, to learn context, to figure out puzzles, to re-arrange my expectations. What is a brain for, after all? Especially if the reader learns something in the process.

While I will never write like Lisa Jarnot, Leslie Chang, Gordon Massman, Michael Benedickt, Lois Marie Harrod, B. K. Fischer, or Karen An-Hwei Lee (PQ review Oct 2012)—among many others—I can feel inspired by the strategies they use, the topics they explore, the ways they choose to use the language, the images they create, the forms they invent, stretch, subvert, expand, and play with. That, for me, encompasses much of what poetry is about: not static, not encrypted or coded, but living, elastic and controversial.

There are lovely aspects to the familiar and the comfortable. But poetry invites us deeper, further. The experiments may not always be successful on their own, but they remind us to keep examining expression of the human experience as manifested among so many individuals. That’s what I look for in a text, in a work of art. What I don’t know informs and teaches me the most. It’s the best part of being a reviewer.


Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.