Friday, April 20, 2012

National Poetry Month: Leah Umansky

Reading and writing are parts of a conversation that can reach across eras and cultures. Today, poet Leah Umansky looks at another side of that conversation: The poetry book review.

Leah Umansky is a New Yorker by birth, a teacher by choice, and an anglophile at heart. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton, her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a recipient of a 1-week fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry Blog.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Barrow Street, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Contemporary Verse 2, and Cream City Review. Read more at her blog: She is also the Host/Curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series on the Lower East Side of NYC. 

Poetry Book Reviewing

Over the past year, I’ve started to review books of Poetry for The Rumpus. First, I started with Tom Sleigh’s, Army Cats, then Carol Muske-Dukes Twin Cities, and Dorothea Tanning’s final book of poetry, Coming to That, which will go “live” next month.   At first, I had hesitations about reviewing poetry, especially because as a poet myself, I do not have a book of my own (as of yet). As with any kind of writing, I believe you have to do it for yourself.  You have to forget about the anticipated audience. You need to be proud of your voice because it needs to run alongside that of the poet’s, so it better be good.

I always start with theme. Maybe it’s the 8th grade English teacher in me, but any strong collection of poetry has a thread of some kind woven through it. Once I discover the thread, I can pull it through my own narrative and sit with it a while. As a reader, I keep post-it notes in the back of my book, small ones, sometimes big lined ones, sometimes fancy ones, and as I read, I mark the poems that resonate with me.  After reading the poems, I look at each poem I’ve flagged, and then I go through and annotate. I make notes in the margin, I put brackets around stanzas I’ll want to quote, and I put footnotes to poems I want to relate back to. Once, I step inside the poem, I try to think about how it’s working; about why it’s working and how it relates to the book as a whole.

Ironically, I’ve realized that of the three books I’ve reviewed so far, none are anything close to that of my own writing style.  I’m not sure if this sort of distance is a positive or a negative, but I will say, that I asked a similar question last summer in Cornelius Eady’s “Manuscript Workshop” at the Fine Arts Work Center, about contest judges. I asked if judges often pick work that mirrors their own, and he said actually, they don’t. He said they usually pick something that surprises them.  (With that said, maybe my distance from the work I review is just fine.)

In 2010, I won a poetry fellowship for a writing workshop with the literary critic/scholar Christopher Ricks at the Norman Mailer Writing Colony in Provincetown, MA. I was not familiar with him or his status in the literary world.  I was honestly dumbstruck, when he revealed that he, himself, was not a poet. I didn’t understand why someone who wasn’t a poet would want to critique poetry.  After seven days of listening to him discuss poets and poetry, I realized that any kind of writing about poetry is just about getting it and you don’t have to be a poet to get poetry.  Ricks is someone I wish I could be more like. His knowledge of poetry and criticism surpasses anyone that I’ve ever met. Listening to him discuss a poem by Marvell, I would often find myself writing down nearly word for word of what he would say.  That week workshop was more like an intensive study of T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy. I learned about the art and craft of poetry, which helps in reviewing it. Ricks said, “Poetry refuses to tell you what kind it is.” I agree with that, you have to go in there and dig around.

Reviewing poetry is like an exploration into the world of why a poem works and how it is working. I like being that kind of explorer as I’m always up for a challenge.  For anyone who wants to start reviewing poetry, I’d encourage them to contact editors/writers at online or print journals, blogs, web sites – even on Twitter or Facebook.  From my experience, most people are kind-hearted and willing to give someone an opportunity to write. Besides, you’ll never know unless you try.  It’s an old cliché, but there’s truth in it.   To quote one of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson in The Passion:  “What you risk reveals what you value.”

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