Ryan Teitman’s poem “An Essay on Criticism” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Ryan read the poem in our audio gallery here, and read more about his thoughts on defying, and defining, genre below.
Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “An Essay on Criticism”?
Ryan Teitman: The inspiration for this poem came from working as an editor at a community weekly newspaper after I graduated college, and then as an editor for Indiana Review when I was in graduate school. At the Indiana Review, we got hundreds of review copies of books in the mail, even though we were only able to review about a dozen in every issue. I thought a lot about the books that just sat on the office shelf, just like I thought about the hundred or so nonnewsworthy faxes—destined for recycling bin—that we’d get each day at the newspaper.
KB: The poem’s title implies that the poem is also an essay, and the content of the poem is a commentary on criticism. Could you explain why or how this poem took its form? What is the commentary, if any, of a prose poem about criticism?
RT: For a while now, I’ve been exploring the question of what makes a prose poem a prose poem—as opposed to a piece of flash fiction or a short lyric essay. I don’t know that I have an answer to that question, but I do like to see what happens when you start blurring the lines between these boundaries. This particular piece is a poem, but maybe that’s only because I called it a poem when I sent it out. The boy in the poem does the same thing with his “reviews.” They’re reviews because he calls them that—he doesn’t know the conventions of the form, so that lets him do something completely different.
KB: The book reviewer likes the boy’s reviews because “they’re honest”; he also lets the boy keep the books because they “belong to the boy now.” What’s the definition of honesty in this poem?
RT: I think the honesty in this poem is the boy following his artistic impulse. He doesn’t know what he’s really supposed to do, but he manages to make something surprising, and funny, and even a little bit beautiful. The old editor sees that, and even though he’s not going to run the boy’s reviews, he knows the books will fuel the boy’s creativity.
KB: In your opinion, what would the most honest book review have to include or describe?
RT: First off, I think an honest review should understand what the book is trying to do, as opposed to what the reviewer would rather it do. Second, a review should appreciate that it’s also a piece of art. I read criticism by writers like Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal, Kathryn Schulz, and Wesley Morris because I value their insights about culture, but also because I love their writing as literature.
Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City. His poems have appeared in New England Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.
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