In “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” published in The Atlantic in April 2012, Sarah Fay outlines a modern history of book review culture in which the primary question, as it tends to be today, is whether overly glowing book reviews or completely damning ones are ever productive ways to become aware of or understand literature. For instance, she writes, “In 1846, [Edgar Allan] Poe wrote that book reviews (and the publishing industry) were a sham and riddled with nepotism.” Further along in her survey she explains how Zadie Smith railed against “mean” reviews and insisted that they always be positive and “useful.” The thesis of Fay’s essay is that book reviews have consistently been under fire for having ulterior political or personal motives and for being ultimately suspect in their greater purpose. She then criticizes those who have criticized reviewers for forgetting the human element of review. A deviation from the traditional review seeks to amplify, exploit, or diminish this problem, not accept it.
Many literary magazines have dedicated space to alternative modes of approach, response, and discussion to poetry, including Lemon Hound, Volta,and Horse Less Press. The purpose of this portfolio is to continue the project of exploring and expanding the notion of the review into wider and weirder territory. What constitutes “review” in light of its semantic, social, political, and literary purposes? These creative and experimental responses intend to provide an unexpected view that then manifests as a surprisingly useful way to understand someone’s poetry beyond a simple and extended analysis of its form, themes, and ways of conforming to the expectations of readers. The purpose of such a review is not necessarily to comment on the poetry, or to provide a reflection that deepens an understanding according to prescribed standards. Rather, an experimental review provides an entirely new text that shows how a reader has moved forward with their own thinking and relationship to language and poetry as a result of experiencing the work.
The poet and literary critic Hillary Gravendyk organized a roundtable on the “Poet-Scholar” for the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, with participants Juliana Spahr, Jennifer Scappettone, Julie Carr, Heather Dubrow, Margaret Ronda, and Barrett Watten. She asked each speaker to speak to what she called the “permissions and limits” of the interface between poetic practice and scholarship, and to consider the various sites — the Internet, the academy, the performance/reading space — where such creative-critical combinations are occurring. The talks, printed here, offer wide-ranging meditations on her prompts.
Here is Hillary’s introduction from the event:
Welcome to our roundtable on the Poet-Scholar. This session was largely conceived of as a forum for poet-scholars to get together and share ideas, goals, and challenges of working “across the divide” between poetry and scholarship. I’ve asked each participant to speak for five minutes about their position as a poet-scholar in some form or another, and then we will open the roundtable up to a more loose discussion in which participants can respond to the presentations and ask questions.
The poet-scholar is an increasingly common figure in academic life, one that suggests the official convergence of creative and scholarly output. Yet a look at the job market or at tenure and promotion standards reveals that a strong division between critical and poetic work seems to persist in our institutions. It is my hope that this roundtable will provide a forum for articulating the shared methodologies and theoretical pursuits of both kinds of labor.
Many poets (and other artists) are producing research now, bringing a different set of skills to the production of scholarship. This session hopes to open a discussion in which we can talk about the ways creative practice alters our approaches to literature and cultural studies and, in turn, how scholarship affects poetic practice. This discussion becomes even more urgent in the context of an increasingly preprofessionalized academic sphere in which “useless” discourse like poetry has become threatened or, at least, suspect. The participants on this panel take this discourse seriously from a practical and theoretical perspective, and I’m anxious to hear what they have to say about the peculiar role of the poet-critic in the academy and the world.
Hillary was herself a poet and scholar of tremendous talent, passionately dedicated to exploring connections between the critical and the creative in her own poetry as well as her research. An assistant professor at Pomona College, Hillary worked on twentieth-century American poetry and disability studies and was the award-winning author of the book of poems Harm (Omnidawn, 2011) and the chapbook The Naturalist (Achiote Press, 2008). She describes the generative interchange between poetry and criticism in her manifesto for the 2012 Convergence on Poetics conference, which we print here with grateful thanks to Hillary’s husband, Benjamin Burrill: “There is no concluding paragraph, no concluding poem, only / a cloud in the room where the two make weather.” Hillary died after a long illness in May 2014.
There are various online tributes to Hillary, honoring her work as a poet and a scholar, as well as a Squaw Valley Community of Writers scholarship and an Inlandia Institute book prize in her name. This gathering of the talks from the roundtable she organized is a further tribute to Hillary’s energy, intellect, and generosity as a poet-scholar. The talks aim to follow her injunction: “Let’s remove the hyphen between poet-scholar, let’s be poelars and scholets, poetics emerges from the poem, poems emerge from scholarship.”
In memoriam: Hillary Gravendyk, 1979–2014
“The Motion of Light” is named for the Kelly Writers House celebration of Samuel R. Delany’s performative poetics, held on April 11, 2014, and archived at PennSound. This Jacket2 feature collects work by all those who were a part of the Delany celebration, of an event that celebrated the writer who, as Tracie Morris notes in her introduction, “is a constellation that continues to be fixed, yet revolves, for me and for so many lovers of poetry … a maker of many worlds.”