The Art of the Book Review: Barrett Warner

Apr 1, 2018 | Bubbler

Barrett Warner is a writer I had the great pleasure to read with (at the Last Sunday, Last Rites series) when I traveled through Baltimore in late April. I loved what he and poet Jessica Dotson did to tweak the usual line-up of readers. Simply by reading their poems one at a time, alternating (an opaque call and response), they raised the energy level in the room to heights that the normal everyone’s-turn-at-bat would have missed.

Barrett wears a number of hats like most of us: he’s a poet who leaves an impression wherever he goes (winner of the 2011 Princemere Poetry Prize and finalist for the 2012 Washington Writers’ Publishing House book contest); author of the chapbook Til I’m Blue in the Face (Tropos Press); a horse breeder; and co-publisher with his wife, poet Julia Wendell, of the small press, Galileo Books. As a critic, he’s reviewed books for such publications as jmwwLoch Raven Review, and Rattle; and he has reviews forthcoming at Otis NebulaCerise PressShenandoahFiddleback, and Chattahoochee Review. He lives on a farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder Watershed. Without further ado:

Karen: What do you see as the challenges particular to reviewing poetry?

Barrett: The word poetry feels so general. Not all language is verbal. My chargers know six words and a jockey chirp, but lordy, the stories they tell, the poems they sing.

Digging into a book of poems I wanted to be swept away. Falling in love is the easy part. Now it’s more about, OK, where are we going now? Will I need a toothbrush? Most poets are writing from experience rather than particular lyric traditions or “schools” (the Black Mountain School today sounds like the name of a fiddle band). How do you critique someone’s experience?

The biggest challenge is to know who you’re writing to. In the newspaper age you had an idea where the roll-ups were being tossed—houses, newsstands, etc. Online reviews reach an unfixed readership. I’ve got three lines to grab someone I’ve never met and could never describe; three lines to win them over into clicking the “see more” button.

For me, reading poetry is the same great sport it ever was. But talking about it, reviewing it, which is very old school, can be awkward. Having ideas—judging the art of a poem—feels so selfish. My main point in writing a review is that as I get older it’s harder for me to be moved but when I am moved I definitely want the whole world to know about it.

One problem I have—editors want you to discover Mozart’s next Requiem, and to write about it in 500 words. This is Mozart we’re talking about! Try 10,000 words. I mean, it’s online so we’re not offing trees. The cost of paper is not an issue. I need 1,100 to 1,400 words to make a review.

In terms of the poems themselves, I’m troubled by line edits. It’s so much easier and cheaper to lay-out and print a book since it doesn’t have to be off-set anymore. Editors used to do a much better job combing manuscripts, fussing over text. I’ve seen a lot of great poems which still would have benefited from a better word here or there but no one seems to know whose department that is.

Personally, I’m someone who needs aggressive editing. I was forty-eight by the time I learned how to spell bougainvillea, not to mention my affection for confusing rhetoric. Often I’ll write a review and forget to say whether or not I liked a book. I rely strongly on editors who are probably very busy to help me nevertheless, to remind me of the basics. Many of my first drafts of a review need a twenty minute shower. So I couldn’t really work without lots of editing and I sort of wish more poets felt the same way.

Read the rest here.