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.