How to Profit from Writing Negative Poetry Reviews

Negative photography in the dark is fun!

Negative photography in the dark is fun! (Photo credit: Meffi)

Every now and again someone on a listserv or blog makes a call for more negativity in poetry reviewing, but only rarely does anyone pick up a poison pen in response. This state of affairs would seem to suggest that there is a large unmet demand for negative reviews of poetry that a career-minded poet-critic could take advantage of.

In fact, profiting from writing negative reviews requires careful planning; simply writing an occasional, well-reasoned negative review when you read a book or chapbook you dislike will not do you any good. Indeed, if you choose the wrong targets, such an approach could even do your career harm.

If you truly want to benefit from writing negative reviews, you need to attack regularly and often, and you will need to think less about poetry and more about the following:


In order to grow your reputation through negative reviews, you have to market yourself as a negative reviewer. To start with, choose an angle. If you’re an old white man, you can profitably describe yourself as a curmudgeon. If you don’t have an M.F.A., you can call yourself a plain-spoken speaker of the truth. Anyone can set themselves up as a provocateur or as a brave soul speaking against the establishment, and it’s even better if you name the establishment (don’t worry too much about accuracy; the point is to give the enemy a name): free verse, experimentalism, experimentalism that has become more codified than experimental, academic verse, school of quietude, etc., etc. Just make sure that whatever you set yourself up against does not overlap with oppressions. If you go after sexism in poetry, only feminists will care, and the goal is to improve your own career prospects through an appeal to a broad audience, not to a marginal one. Besides, the core group that negative reviews appeal to will tend to dismiss such concerns as “political correctness.”

Once you have your brand, choose a name for your blog (or, better yet, for your column on a high-traffic website like The Huffington Post) that reflects your brand. Be sure to Google the name (with and without quotation marks) to make sure it is sufficiently distinctive.


Once you have brand set up, you need to choose targets—and you need a lot of targets because writing frequently is key to building up your reputation (though repeating yourself on occasion is no problem). If you have named the enemy as part of your branding, your choice of targets will be limited somewhat, though you shouldn’t worry too much about the precise boundaries of the group you claim to oppose.

Picking the poets you will pick apart is the tricky part. If you choose poets with little to no status, you will look like a bully. If you choose someone with higher status than you have, however, they can cause you problems. They can connect with editors and make sure that you are frozen out of certain journals, presses, or reading series.

You could try to target well-published poets who are terrible at networking, but that is a vanishingly small group. Instead, you should go after poets who have such high status that they will not care about your criticisms even if they notice them. You’re a gadfly; go for elephants instead of goats. Going after the biggest names will also earn you admiration for going against the grain and, ironically, for courage.

Occasionally going after large institutions or events (say, National Poetry Month) can work as well.


Once you have chosen your target, you need to write your actual review. Make sure that whatever you say is consistent with your brand. Try not to quote more than a line or two of the work being addressed, as doing so will encourage readers to consider the poems themselves, when what you want is for them to focus on your voice. Draw broad conclusions about groups of poets (or even all of contemporary poetry) whenever possible.


When you start out, your work should be unrelentingly negative. Once you have established your reputation as a negative critic, however, you can occasionally support a poet or a press, particularly one that someone else has attacked. Your word, so rarely positive, will carry extra weight, and you will receive extra gratitude in proportion to this heft. Just make certain that whomever you support has the status to pay you back as you deserve.

If you follow these steps (and maybe take a few tips from SEO and Social Marketing professionals), you will see your reputation as a poet and a critic of poetry grow exponentially—as long as you don’t forget to write a poem on occasion.

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The Heavy and the Light in Poetry

Postmodern Yeats

Found Erasure


I am troubled and challenged by Hannah Gamble’s How to Write a Good Rape/ Suicide/ Break-Up/ Genocide Poem, or Lightness as the Necessary Companion to All That’s Sad and Disturbing. Troubled because if we react to unrelenting sadness and oppression by regarding it as a game or as something boring and settled rather than as a challenging problem to solve, that says something deeply unpleasant about human nature. Challenged because I recognize that kind of numbness or acclimation as a common enough response (even if some people do appreciate Dancer in the Dark) that, as a writer, I must address it. This is especially important to me now, as I am currently working on a long poem in the voices of victims of Aktion T4, the Nazi mass murder of disabled people.

Gamble’s examples of bringing lightness into a heavy poem tend towards content—“[t]he old woman who died of a heart attack when the grocer’s security guard caught her putting bags of wasabi peas into her purse”—or obviously antic language (Hamlet’s “uncle-Father” and “aunt-Mother”).

She borrows this latter example from Italo Calvino, but it is Calvino’s definition of lightness (which Gamble quotes and describes as slippery) that raises the possibility of other kinds of lightness, especially in a poem:

whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into the irrational. I mean having to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.

Poetry may remain emotionally pure in content, but it must in some way convey that something else is possible. Sylvia Plath’s most painful poems achieve this end with sound; the aesthetic pleasure of hearing “Daddy” reminds us that beauty is possible. In Julie Buffaloe-Yoder’s “Don’t Write a Poem about Rape” the lightness is in the ability of the poet to write about, to own, what was done to her, and there is, too, an aesthetic experience to be found in the use of repetition. In Magdalene & the Mermaids, I tried to combine this kind of reclamation of violation with the use of mythological figures to create alternative views of the world.

What I have done in this blog post is mostly to refine and extend what Gamble has to say. But I remain troubled. While I recognize the resistance of readers to wholly heavy poems, I wonder how much that resistance to “emotional purity” actually amounts to a resistance to a more challenging experience than the combination of lightness and heaviness provides. It is difficult to accept that there is pure and senseless horror in the world, but I remain uncertain how, as a writer, I can deal with readers’ resistance to heaviness other than with lightness.



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Fiction: In the Deep Woods

written for the ds106 Daily Create: Write a 400 word story describing an event from two different characters’ perspectives.


Gaultheria shallon #2

Gaultheria shallon #2 by J.G. in S.F.

Gaultheria shallon #2 (Photo credit: J.G. in S.F.)I died that day. There would no more reaching for the sun. Every day since I was shorter than the salal that covered the forest floor, I had been told it was impossible, and I guess they were right. My neighbors died before me. I heard the crunch of the saw through their bones. I wanted to run, but I was rooted in place. Running wouldn’t have helped anyway. There were so many of them.

The machines were so loud. Screaming wouldn’t have helped. The birds who had come to trust me enough that they would land on me and sing had not visited that day. They say animals know things. Maybe they just heard the rumbling. Or maybe, flying above, they saw death coming.

My body has been dragged away. A few limbs remain, rotting, returning to the floor of the forest that protected me for so many years. Except I’m not sure if the forest is still there.

I used to stretch towards the sun every day, and every year I grew another layer. You might say at least I’ll never get any fatter, but that’s not the way my kind thinks.

I wish I could’ve tasted salal.


We was a week behind. Nothing else was special about the twenty-second of June. Same as the twenty-first, same as the twenty-third. Why? Tree sitters and road blockers. Look. I’m not unsymp . . . I get it. They’re not wrong. Trees are pretty. And important. They mean well but goddamn, I gotta eat, and my kids gotta eat. When the project’s late, my job’s in danger, and my crew’s jobs are in danger. And they know it’s dangerous sitting up in those trees.

And I don’t even get to see my kids. Not that I blame their mom for leaving me, but did she have to leave town?
Yeah, I guess she did. Not a lot of jobs for her there. And how could I ask for her to wait when I was always away working?

So that day we was working extra fast. It was real easy to miss something or someone in the trees. And the noise the saws and everything else make . . . We didn’t hear any screams. I didn’t notice anything until the logs were on the trucks. There was an arm. I swear, even dead, the woman it belonged to was reaching for the sun.


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