Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Kindness of Reviewers

The latest brief (#36 - The NZ Music Issue (2008): 111-13) includes what seems to me a fantastically generous review of my poetry chapbook Papyri from renowned poet, classical scholar and verse translator Ted Jenner. I guess I was a little afraid what he might say, since he knows Greek and I don't. Also because John Denny's Puriri Press published some of Ted's own Sappho versions in a beautiful little book called Sappho Triptych late last year.

Certainly he finds some things to criticise. Who wouldn't? But the overwhelming impression is of someone who's really taken the trouble to think through the various choices and decisions that go into making a book of poems, however slight the end result may seem. It's clearly a process Ted's familiar with, and he's interested in debating the pros and cons for interested readers.

You can check out some of the main points of his review here. It got me to thinking, though, about my various experiences with reviews and reviewers in the past.

Basically, while I've had a few stinging notices in my time, the really important point is that virtually every time I've put out a book, I've received at least one fascinating, complex, and thorough review from someone who's really devoted a good deal of time and energy to trying to understand what I'm up to.

And I really appreciate it. It's far more than one dares to expect - even once - and to have been so lucky repeatedly argues for a lot more generosity and selflessness out there in the literary world than we're accustomed to expect. Once before on this blog I had occasion to remonstrate with a reviewer (of an anthology which I'd appeared in, not edited), and that gave rise to quite an interesting conversation between the two of us. Generally speaking, though, I tend to think that it's a mistake to react too publicly to notices: good, bad or indifferent. It tends to amuse onlookers far more than it benefits oneself.

I feel I should make an exception for those thorough, generous and scholarly reviewers I've mentioned above, though - so here's (unfortunately very truncated) honour roll of particularly shining examples:

City of Strange Brunettes (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998):

John O’Connor, “Pound’s Fascist Cantos, by Jack Ross, Perdrix Press & City of Strange Brunettes, by Jack Ross, Pohutukawa Press.” JAAM 12 (1999): 126-28:
… Ross’s versions are alive with Pound’s energy and convictions; they spark and jar ...

Nights with Giordano Bruno (Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000):

Richard Taylor, “Review of Nights with Giordano Bruno.” brief 19 (2001): 14-17:
… transpierced throughout with sex, suffering, and a burning joy and queerness.

Chantal’s Book (Wellington: HeadworX, 2002):
Olivia Macassey, “Jack’s Book.” brief 27 (2003): 101-2:
He skilfully – and with almost an appearance of accident – lays bare the twitching nerves of the genre.

Tracey Slaughter, “Points on a graph of Chantal.” Poetry NZ 26 (2003): 100-07:
… diagrams of dead sciences encrust the page with the algebraic mystery of cells …

Monkey Miss Her Now (Auckland: Danger Publishing, 2004):

Scott Hamilton, “After the Golden Weather: Jack Ross and the New New Zealand.” brief 32 (2005) 115-19:
As postmodern as it is parochial, Monkey Miss Her Now drags a venerable tradition into the strange new worlds of twenty-first century New Zealand.

• [editor] Kendrick Smithyman. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004):

Paula Green, “Review of Kendrick Smithyman, Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian.” brief 32 (2005) 108-12:
Smithyman’s versions represent a tender conversation with the Italian poems …

Trouble in Mind (Auckland: Titus Books, 2005):

Katherine Liddy, “Something Strange: Reviews of Coma by William Direen, Trouble in Mind by Jack Ross & Curriculum Vitae by Olwyn Stewart.” Landfall 212 (November 2006):
Underneath the eye of the sun, in the murky territory between Life and Death, the story unfolds like a papyrus emitting the spores of an ancient curse.

The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (Auckland: Titus Books, 2006):

Gabriel White, “Planet Atlantis – The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis: A Novel by Jack Ross.” [24/11/06]:
The Da Vinci Code gets geometric cum stain on it.

• [editor, with Jan Kemp] Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2006):

Peter Wells, “In Praise of the Poetic Voice.” Weekend Herald: Canvas (July 15, 2006) 31:
The book, and the CDs, are taonga. The result of a mission by poets Jan Kemp and Jack Ross, they reproduce the poetic voices of our past. …
But what is the bigger story of this collection? It is a treasure of voice and poem. I am hoping it is the beginning of a longer series. Every school should have one. There is much to ponder on, to celebrate here. And people searching for poems for significant occasions could do well to buy this book. It is of our people.

• [co-editor, with Jan Kemp] Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2007):

Graham Brazier, “Ferries at the bottom of my garden.” Weekend Herald: Canvas (11 August 2007) 29:
I will, in my twilight years, press the leaves of the puka puka tree (book) until dried to a parchment and write what I hope may be a slight but heartfelt tribute to what appears in this collection.

• [editor, with Jan Kemp] New New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2008):

Pat White, “A Delight for Poetry Lovers: Review of New New Zealand Poets in Performance.” Wairarapa Times (20/8/08): 15:
Without a doubt the monumental task Kemp and Ross set themselves must have grown to something more than they imagined possible. Now however, the results speak for themselves ... As editors Kemp and Ross deserve the nation's thanks for a task completed well.

To Terezín (Auckland: Massey, 2007):

Scott Hamilton. “To Terezin and Back.” Reading the Maps (June 14, 2007):
"I think you may look back on it in twenty years and not feel dissatisfied with it."

Jennifer Little, “Visit to Czech Nazi Camp inspires Massey Author.” Massey News 9 (16 Hongongoi, July 2007) 9:
To Terezín is an entrancing model of how travel writing can encompass a range of genres – essay, verse, images – as well as wider themes of ethics, philosophy, literature, art and history ...

E M O (Auckland: Titus, 2008):

Jen Crawford, “Launch Speech: E M O, by Jack Ross.” Titus Books launch, Alleluya Café, St. Kevin’s Arcade, K Rd, Auckland (19/6/08):
EMO reminds us – shocks us – into a new consciousness that we are not without means, not without tools, not without a language for understanding and engaging with the full substance of our world, if we choose to acknowledge it. Because we have our stories, and our stories are talking to us.

So is this long list designed purely as a device for skiting about how many good reviews I've got from my friends? Partly, I suppose. I mean, wouldn't you feel a bit proud - both of the reviews and the friends?

But that's not entirely it. Some of these writers I've never even met. Mainly it's meant as a heartfelt thank-you to a group of people who took the - not inconsiderable at times - trouble to try and work out what an almost wilfully obscure-looking text was trying to tell them. Above all, to encourage them to keep up the good work.

They certainly serve as an inspiration to me to go the extra mile when I'm given someone's work to review. I only hope that I sometimes live up to their example.


Anonymous said...

I've only been 'reveiwed' by tutors on my writing courses but after a particulary sarcastic and unhelpful review once, I now feel incapable of reviewing anything and am far more careful with my words. On one hand I don't want to hurt feelings but on the other I don't want to 'gush' over things I love.

I really liked your reviewer-review. Knowing Andrew Paul wood a little I am not surprised.

It does bring to mind that whole Kidman/Grimshaw thing though. I have a 2nd hand copy of Landfall 208 that must have passed through Kidman's hands and inscribed and annotated accordingly :-)

Richard said...

I also reviewed your "City of Strange Brunettes" in Pander Jack.

The kind of work you do (like Brunton's etc) needs careful study ... especially by a potential or actual reviewer. Your restraint (when you do restrain) is
almost disturbing and you have considerable arcana and obscure references etc but your books can be read also some what on sight - or some of them can ("documents on sight").

I think it is good to affirm your achievements Jack. You have done a lot of work.

I once submitted some poems to a new mag in the early 90s called Printout and Iain Sharp (one of the editors) replied to me - he knew me - (to the effect) Richard, you have some great lines and some very bad lines - if only you would only write poems with all good lines in and others with all bad, we could do as publishers do and publish the bad ones and reject the good ones ... (!!)

At the time I missed the funny side of that - I laugh over it now...but what it did - it made me "go back to the drawing board" - I studied meter - looked throuh many of Auden's poems - how he crafted them - even tried to write Shakespeaen sonnets (ad tried other things) - I also started writing for a while on smaller notebooks - which helped.

Also Tony Beyer rejected me but made a reasonable comment. (One day he phoned me quite enthusiastic about my book RED) I actually - BTW wrote a very positive review of one of his works but couldn't think where to publish it.

And Alistair Patterson and yourself helped and also both published me. Also the people in Spin and Bryony Jagger in "Auckland Live" - later came "Tongue in Your Ear". Judy McNeil, Mark McIvor, Nick Alexander, Scott Hamilton, Brett Cross, and Raewyn Alexander have helped me also and supported me. Most feedback I get is (usually by direct comment to me) from those few deluded (but much appreciated!) enthusiasts!

So reviews can have a practical value - good or bad.

Richard said...

"artandmylife said...

I've only been 'reveiwed' by tutors on my writing courses but after a particulary sarcastic and unhelpful review once, I now feel incapable of reviewing anything and am far more careful with my words. On one hand I don't want to hurt feelings but on the other I don't want to 'gush' over things I love."

This shows you care - but sarcasm reflects on the reviewer or commenter. If you are on a course you need positive and constructive if critical assistance if it can be given - hurtful comments do no good. Keep working and eventually you will just 'go for it' - but take into account reasonable criticisms. Write reviews - especially of works you think are interesting.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, I agree with Richard on that one. Don't let that one bad experience sour you on sharing (particularly) your loves and enthusiasms with others. Of course they may not agree, but I think everyone respects -- or at least should respect -- genuine passion.

Oh, and Richard, your review of City of Strange Brunettes was really splendid and much appreciated, but I didn't want to seem to mention the same names over and over again. It certainly hasn't slipped my mind. It's just that the Bruno one was far more extensive and came -- I think -- from a place of genuine empathy with the book.

Anonymous said...

Thx Jack and Richard. I always appreciate construcive criticism and sarcasm is seldom helpful. The next 'review' I got was much better. I occasionally do mini reviews on my blog e.g. M Edmond's "The Big O Revisited" but usually stick more along the lines of commentary.

Richard said...

I mentioned my review as it was there I realised you had a real poetic gift - thus I could work on your less obviously 'poetic' works - I must admit that (at first)I felt "City" was or seemed as if you were too "restrained" or even too "conservative" or too analytical perhaps...not letting rip so to speak!... hmm but from the struggle of your intellectual reserve and your inner very deep sense of things and your intelligence and erudition (and careful planning and hard work); in sum, it meant I had to look very carefully at Bruno - which is the book most people liked the most of the so-called "Trilogy"* - I was also inspired by Prof Smith's endorsement - I always appreciated him very much when I was at uni - how is he getting these days? He was always so enthusiastic! He would talk for ages on various subjects - Wallace Stevens, Swift, Shakespeare and so on... he would always listen.

* I think for me to really get a grip on EMO - [sometimes I despair of it!!] - I need, I feel, to look carefully at everything in Bruno, Imaginary Museum and possibly other things...

Richard said...

A point about reviews - I suppose it's fairly obvious - but anyone can do a review of anything at any time - it doesn't have to be a new book - Powells have review of classics, or more recent titles etc (many are very good) - and reviews and essays area quite a good way to go - I haven't done a much of it - or enough of it perhaps - I should do some essays...hmm...

But meantime - "artandmylife " might be interested in looking at EMO - I am intending to take some time over all these texts (EMO et al); and as you know I divigate greatly so a review by someone such as "artandlife" might come out quicker - I know there have been comments but different views are good.

My self I am not that interested in reviews of my own book as such as it was of poems I had written some time ago that were more or less cobbled together - whereas EMO/ Bruno/Atlantis etc is/are more complex...