Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jason Guriel

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Jason Guriel

Jason Guriel is the author of The Pigheaded Soul (The Porcupine's Quill), a collection of his intense and sometimes controversial reviews, essays and anecdotes on poetry and culture in North America. A poet himself, Jason brings a unique viewpoint to his no holds barred reviewing.

In a frank interview with Open Book, Jason shares his feelings on reviewing culture and sacred cows, the Canadian poems he's excited about right now and whether, in his opinion, the call to end negative reviews helps reviewing culture as a whole.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Pigheaded Soul.

Jason Guriel:

It’s a collection of reviews and essays about poetry, written for various magazines over the last six or seven years.


How did you decide what to include in the book and how to order your pieces?


I picked the pieces I was partial to. My editor figured out the running order. The first half of the book is given over to Canadian subjects, the last half, to American and British subjects.


How do you balance work as both a poet and a reviewer? Do you think reviewers who work in the genre they critique have an advantage over career critics?


How do I balance work? I don’t; sometimes I write reviews, sometimes poems. But more often than not I do neither. In any event, your question seems to suggest that “poet” and “reviewer” are professional roles that require juggling. They don’t. Michael Hofmann has it somewhere that the energy he expended on his reviews could just as easily have been expended on poems. I think he means that it’s all just writing.

Reviewers who work in the genre they critique may have some additional insight into nuts and bolts that career critics aren’t privy to. But I’m not sure. These reviewers are also apt to see their poems neglected, especially if they’re willing to commit to an honest, public opinion about the work of others. But most poems are neglected anyway.


There has been a call by some people to do away with negative reviews given shrinking review space. How do you feel about this proposal?


I would call the “proposal” unconvincing if it struck me as sincere. But it would seem to be yet another covert call for censorship. A few years ago, the Globe got wind that the reviewer it had assigned to Margaret Atwood’s last book of poetry was going to file a tough review. So the paper yanked the assignment from the reviewer, and gave it to someone else. That tough-minded review eventually wound up in a little magazine with less reach than a national newspaper. Had it appeared in the Globe, the review would’ve generated conversation, site traffic. It would’ve been good for the Globe — and for Canadian literary culture in general, which often insulates its icons against criticism. It would’ve even been good for Atwood, who doesn’t deserve to be condescended to. Of course, down in the States, where she isn’t quite the national treasure, Poetry treated her book with respect; the magazine took it on and took it to task. But up here, the editors with power pulled on their kids’ gloves. They must have boxes of the stuff, like surgeon’s latex.

The irony, of course, is that arguments against so-called “negative reviews” (a term I’ve never much liked) are themselves a species of negative review — and often far nastier and more personal than anything I could ever pen. On a recent Facebook thread, a female critic suggested that my review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial was the “poetry world’s version of a Twitter rape threat.” The critic had badly misread and misrepresented my relatively mixed and innocuous review. (For example, I called Oswald’s writing solutions “easy”; the critic decided I had called Oswald “easy.”) Nevertheless, Gillian Jerome — the Chair of CWILA — concurred immediately, and commissioned a blog post from the critic. Eventually, there was pushback on the thread — from no less than Tabatha Southey — and both thread and accusation were promptly deleted. The blog post has yet to appear. But for a few hours there, CWILA was in the business of libel.


Do you have an all-time favourite review that you’ve written? And what do you think makes a great poetry review?


Hmmm. Maybe the title essay of The Pigheaded Soul? It looks at the American poet Kay Ryan — but from the vantage point of a critic in the far-flung future. If I didn’t think people who fancy themselves “avant-garde” irredeemably silly, I would call it my most avant-garde review. It was certainly tricky to write.

A “great poetry review” should be at least as enjoyable to read as any other great piece of writing. It should be honest, stylish, engaging, and avoid cliché.


What Canadian poets are you most excited about right now? What is the last great book of poetry you’ve read?


I’m not excited about any Canadian poets. I do get excited about some of their poems, though. Robyn Sarah’s last poem in The Walrus, “Cast-offs,” had a knockout ending. If I cared more about poets than poems, I would say that Sarah is undervalued in this country.

“Great” books are rare. The last really good book of poetry I read was Daisy Fried’s Women’s Poetry, which I just reviewed for PN Review.


What are you working on now?


I’m trying to write an essay about Clive James for Parnassus. And I have a new book of poetry coming out in the spring. But I haven’t written a new poem in at least a year.

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in 2009. Guriel lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about The Pigheaded Soul please visit the The Porcupine's Quill website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

1 comment

In the interview above, I indicated that a Facebook thread that was
hidden was deleted. This was an honest mistake, and I apologize for

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