When I first started this blog, I didn’t quite know what it would become. I looked for a formula, but there was none. I thought I might post every single Sunday, but then life intruded, rubbed its fur against me and insisted on being pet. And yet, sitting down as many Saturdays as I can and writing these reviews gives me the greatest of pleasures. Reading books for review is like spending time with new friends, trying to figure them out a little, but also just listening, letting their words fill you up with new images, images you never even considered before. I see writing reviews as an act of deep listening. The greatest compliment is when the poet themselves tells me I heard them. As a culture we don’t put much stock on listening, and yet that silence is where the dialogue is born.
A friend recently criticized my reviews, saying, you are too kind, you should be more critical. But I argue against this notion. People too often confuse critical with negative; it is easy in a way to be negative, to see flaws and not teach yourself how to love them. I review books I genuinely like and think are worthwhile. I do not review books I don’t want to spend time with, that do not call out to me, haunt me or delight me. I see these reviews as guides. I take the time to find a good way through the landscape, to help readers see whatever graffiti is written on the walls, or ancient symbols on the rocks. The guide has a source of knowledge because they have walked the path so many times, but the guide also is flawed by her knowledge which she sculpts to her interests. At the end of the day, it’s the act of walking the path that matters.
To read a book of poetry is to walk across a threshold into another person’s emotional landscape. It can be difficult, as it is often night and the ground unpaved, but there is always moonlight.
No book of poetry is ever perfect, no matter who wrote it. Perhaps poems should have been dropped, changes made to the ordering, or maybe the poet clung too desperately to their version of their story. Though sometimes the weaker poems give strength to the strong ones, they can even be just a pause for the reader to breathe. Life is messy, and poetry that strives for perfection is in many ways missing the point. The gleam we seek when reading poetry comes not from the outward shine, but from the place where the poem has broken open and light stirs up some emotion within us. A great book of poetry is often a difficult thing to read, it can be so emotionally overwhelming you are afraid to turn the page. Or it can be such a revelation that you want to bask in its sunlight for so long it takes weeks, if not months to finish. Though we’re never finished with a good book of poetry, it always calls us back, and through it we converse with our own changing self.
To me, each book of poetry is a kind of miracle. For it to exist, a poet will have spent years learning, studying, crafting, revising, discarding, rediscovering, and other various activities that can be both joyous and torturous. Recently, when revising my own manuscript I broke down: I cried, I laid my head on my desk, I wanted to howl into the night air like some wounded animal. It was difficult to be confronted all at once with so much of my own psychological pain. Individual poems have broken me in the same way, the weight of them is often too heavy to bear until you finish, and wake up the next day lighter for having written it. Knowing what it takes to be a poet gives me deep respect for all poets at whatever stage in their careers. The writing itself never gets any easier.
And not only that, but poets are often writing without ever expecting any monetary gain. The gain, when it comes is slight, so slight I don’t believe any American poet, however well-renown, can live off of writing only poetry. I think if people understood this as more than the cliché of the poverty-stricken poet, as the off-handed joke at a party, they would buy more books of poetry and relieve poets of their burden of having embarked on a struggle that will hardly feed them. Poets tend to celebrate their non-capitalistic endeavor—to preserve the purity of the art as something money hardly touches—or perhaps this is just a web woven so tightly around us that we haven’t been able to tear down. To be paid a day’s wages for a poem is, for me, incredibly exciting, and yet it is also painfully rare. Almost none of the work I do as a poet is paid, including my three editorial positions. I think poets know this reality so intimately they think it’s just how things have to be. I don’t think this is how things have to be.
By reviewing books, I am in my own small way, helping these books reach an audience. Sometimes it feels as if no one is listening. But now and again someone writes me to tell me they enjoyed a particular review and are going to buy the book and my heart practically explodes. I celebrate poetry and poets with every fiber of my being. Poetry has given my life shape and purpose, it calms me when I am anxious, it motivates me when I am sluggish, it pushes me to deal with my personal pain, it connects me to a network of emotional and intellectual energy, and even when I am not writing or reading it, I can still feel the way it flows through my body. Yes, poetry is sacred, but it is also ordinary as an apple waiting for you to take a bite.
Below is a list of all the books I have reviewed so far on Fork & Page; all are linked to where you can buy them:
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
How the End Begins by Cynthia Cruz
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez
Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis
Blackacre by Monica Youn
Orogeny by Irène Mathieu
How to Prove a Theory by Nicole Tong
Like a Beast by Carly Joy Miller
Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon
Ornament by Anna Lena Phillips Bell