Reviewers & Critics: Steph Burt

Michael Taeckens
From the September/October 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The more privilege you have, the more it’s incumbent on you, if you are a working critic evaluating contemporary poetry, to look for the poets you will not see at parties, the poets who aren’t your friends’ friends, the poets who cannot and will not book you into their reading series, the poets who are not famous for anything else. The next Ezra Pound will make himself known; your job is to show us the next Lorine Niedecker.

You don’t write merely about canonical or contemporary giants but really go the extra distance to champion new and unknown poets and often those published by very small and experimental presses. Do you view this as a corrective of sorts, or is it merely your own inspiration guiding you?
I try harder to write about less famous poets, because you probably don’t need me to tell you that John Ashbery or Elizabeth Bishop are pretty terrific, but you might need me to tell you about Liz Waldner. Or Carter Revard. On the other hand, if an editor asks me to explain again why I think Bishop is terrific I won’t say no. I have been doing this sort of thing long enough to see poets I like become more famous than they were when I started out, which is, I suppose, one pleasant thing about not being twenty-four.

I should add that for everybody who would identify me as a champion of experiment, there’s probably somebody who would consider me a voice of liberal recuperation, cherry-picking, and invidious compromise, opposed to the real goals of the avant-garde.

You identify as trans and have spoken and been interviewed about your genderqueer status, and you write about it beautifully in your own poetry. Has your trans identity informed your criticism?
It certainly has when it’s been the explicit subject! I’ve written a couple of essays about the fact that I feel like a girl inside and present myself as a woman sometimes (but not all the time). My favorite among those essays—though not the most revealing among them—is probably my piece about the trans and genderqueer poetry anthology, Troubling the Line, from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I’m working on a new essay about critical approaches, changing tastes, poetic style, and the pronoun singular they, which goes very well with my sense of myself but not so well with my sense of my own poetry, which often depends on old or subtle usage cues that the singular they and its cognates try to erase. Apologies if that’s unclear—the essay’s still on the drawing board.

I’m sure that being transfeminine has informed my sense of how art and literature works in broader ways—I seem to be drawn to femme subjects, and to defenses of femininity, girliness, and decoration, especially lately. But I hope that I am capable of writing well about poets who have nothing to do with those tastes and nothing to do with anybody’s being trans.

Coming from Washington, D.C., has informed my literary criticism about as much as being a girl inside has.

You’re a devoted fan of science fiction and indie music, which any reader of your poetry will readily identify. Has your passion for them influenced your work as a critic?
Science fiction not often, except when poets take science fiction, fantasy, or superhero comics, or the fan cultures around them, as explicit subjects, as in Ray McDaniel or Albert Goldbarth.

On the other hand, the indie-music world provides useful analogies for how the poetry world works, not in specific aesthetic devices (tremolos against epistrophes?) but in how art gets categorized and received. Because I have some background both in 1990s indie and college radio, and in composed (“classical”) music, I have some sense of how tastes change, how institutions affect those tastes, and how arguments about what’s cool, what’s authoritative, what’s alternative or subversive or avant-garde and so on—some sense of, Lord help us, canon formation—outside the poetry world. That sense—I hope—gives me useful comparisons, and maybe a better nonsense detector, when I encounter arguments about canon formation, authority, coolness, and avant-garde status within poetry.

During your TED talk you commented, “We’re all going to die—and poems can help us live with that.” And also: “Poetry helps me want to be alive.” I love how these statements can be translated, loosely, into poetry being a matter of life and death. As many seem to marginalize poetry, how can it enter into our lives with such magnitude?
Glad you love it! Obviously poetry is very important to me, and I’d like to help other people enjoy and share and learn from poetry too, but it’s okay if poetry isn’t as important to Jane or Jo as it is to me: “If you don’t need poetry bully for you,” Frank O’Hara quipped, and he meant it too, though it’s sometimes hard to tell how serious he is (also hard to tell how serious life is, or how seriously to take life—which is also part of O’Hara’s usual point). That’s a response but no answer. Maybe this is an answer:

As far as I can tell everybody needs some art form, and everybody has some art form, to which they respond, some way of using sight or sound or bodies or words especially well that makes life especially meaningful and enjoyable. For me the primary art form is poetry: I am a creature of language. If you are a creature of language too, if you like words, there’s probably some poetry out there for you, even if your primary art form is something else, like viola-playing or moviegoing or hockey.

The New York Times Magazine wrote, “Few doubt that Burt’s opinions help dictate who becomes part of the canon.” While recognizing that the canon shifts over time and often requires the benefit of considerable hindsight, do you think your writing on poetry has held sway over the favoring of particular poets?
We need to talk about canon, because it can have several meanings and they get in one another’s way. For most Christians, the Gospel of Luke is part of the canon, and the Gospel of James is not, and there is or was a committee or a person who decides what goes into the canon. (If you are Catholic it is, in theory, the pope.) Syllabi in literature courses work that way—there is a person who decides what goes into my ‘Modern Poetry’ course, and it’s me!—but there is no one list of things called “the canon” in contemporary poetry. There are big overlapping clusters of poems and poets who appear in anthologies, who get taught in high school and college courses, who show up on people’s Tumblrs, who get quoted in popular culture, who influence the next generation of poets, and so on. Some poets and poems are at the center of one cluster and at the margins of another; some are central to one cluster and entirely absent from another. One cluster has Gertrude Stein at the center and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha not far away; another has Mary Oliver and Gary Soto in major supporting roles, and another puts everything else in orbit around some sort of binary star consisting of Milton and Stevens. Which one is the canon? All of them? Any of them? And there are more every year: We live in an expanding universe.

When I write about a poet who is already pretty famous I am expressing a reaction, making an argument, or introducing that poet to a broader audience, but when I write about a relatively new or unknown poet I am asking well-informed readers to take a look, running a poem up the flagpole, if you like, to see who salutes. If they do, the pole sways. But in the long run, no individual critic has that much sway: The “canon” isn’t much more than a collection of stuff that people who have read a lot of poetry either like or used to like.

By the way, Liz Waldner and Allan Peterson aren’t famous yet, and if you read contemporary poetry at all you should consider reading both of them. Any book will do; they’ve each written several.

In 2015 you wrote a New Yorker article about the surprising persistence of literary magazines in the Digital Age. How has the rise of the Internet—including the proliferation of social media—affected the world of poetry criticism?
Things move faster; institutional power and inherited or granted authority matters less. I like these changes. The changes I don’t like have to do with the struggles facing university presses and the pressures those struggles create for poetry critics within academia; they arise from the Internet, in part, but quite indirectly.

Speaking of social media, do you think it’s been mostly a force for good in the poetry world? Has it brought more attention to the work of poets and to a healthy discussion of them?
Yes, it has, and yes, it is. I’m just slightly too old to have felt the full force of such things during the years when my own tastes, for what it’s worth, formed. Social media make it easier to circulate all kinds of short poems, including quite traditionally conceived ones like Allan Peterson’s, or George Herbert’s; they also make it possible to create and circulate new kinds of poems that emulate the immediacy and the informality of life (especially young people’s life) online, as in the work of Gabby Bess and Ana Carrete.

Have you ever changed your mind about a review you wrote, whether favorable or unfavorable? Has a work of criticism ever changed your opinion of a poet’s work?
Yes, and yes. I can think of several poets I liked in the 1990s who interest me less now than they did then, though it seems uncharitable to name them here. (Some of them simply seem to have gotten worse.)

I will name some critics who have changed (for the better) my sense of particular poets’ work: James Longenbach on Richard Wilbur, Robert Potts on J. H. Prynne, and Clare Cavanagh (who is also her translator) on Wislawa Szymborska come immediately to mind. Daniel Tiffany’s arguments about poetry in general have also changed, for the better, my sense of Swinburne and Crashaw, though I’m not sure he wrote with that purpose in mind.

Who are the new poetry critics coming up in the next generation, and what’s exciting to you about what they’re seeing in contemporary poetry?
Rather than naming critics, I’m going to name online-only, easy-to-find, nonscholarly serious publications: the Los Angeles Review of Books; the Economy; Prac Crit, out of Britain, which has treated me very well; Nat. Brut; the Volta; Coldfront; at Length. I also follow Vetch, which is all trans and genderqueer all the time, and Strange Horizons, which covers science fiction and fantasy, including poetry and poetics within those rubrics.

The critics and poets “coming up”—a great phrase, and a relatively new one—grew up with the Internet. They also grew up, many of them, with no strict separation between “performance poetry” and the other kinds.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band
by Michelle Cruz Gonzales; Ivy by Sarah Oleksyk; the rest of Katherine Mansfield’s stories; the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels; whatever Catherynne Valente does next.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR