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.