Jason Guriel

Jason Guriel, teeth hidden

Jason Guriel is known for his sharp teeth. According to some, he is a vicious critic, always willing to address the moments of weakness in a book of poetry. To others, he is performing the duty often ignored by other reviewers: actually approaching literature critically. While I was working on my article for The Puritan about literary community (forthcoming in the Littered T.O. Supplement this summer), I attended This is Not a Reading Series, where Michael Lista and Guriel chatted about the latter’s new book of criticism, The Pigheaded Soul. Guriel’s perspective highlights some of the shortfalls of literary community, a negative position not usually defended.

Guriel is a poet in his own right and has just released his third book, Satisfying Clicking Sound, with Véhicule Press. The poetry is much like his criticism, in that it is full of wit and keen observation—and, above all else, it provides entertainment. “Women in the Arts,” excerpted here, is a poem that Guriel described to me as being “criticism-as-poem.”

[…] The wife
of the novelist who’s been
blocked awhile and –
he being a hack
haunted by failure
and equipped with an ax
to grind—chases the wife
around the grounds
of a hotel as if she was
firewood with feet.
The muse who gives
birth to ideas which
is to say the enabler
with the berth of eggs.
The nearest warm
bodice that’s available
when Byrons and
other such shits
find themselves between
poems or—“sleepwalking”
in the servants’ wing—
all of a sudden between
a pair of some body’s
legs and raping
the benefits.

— “Women in the Arts” from Satisfying Clicking Sound

Within this poem, Guriel uses the critic’s eye to expose the unseen role of women in the arts (and especially literature) and transforms this into poetry. True to his criticism, he is not content to just summarize, but instead focuses on wrongs that have been done—abuses of power and domestic violence. His other poems are at times closer to his subject matter, as in “My Father’s Stamps,” wherein he isn’t afraid to veer into a vulnerable, emotional realm.

I asked Jason to clarify some of the concepts within his criticism, particularly those involving literary community that he discussed with Lista at This Is Not a Reading Series.

Jess Taylor: During This Is Not a Reading Series on January 8, 2014, you stated that you feel participating in literary community might affect your position as a critic, as you might not be able to be as objective if reviewing the books of people you know and spend time with. Many writers end up making a choice between becoming involved in community in a social way or just through their work (writing their poetry or fiction, contributing to review culture, etc.) Can you elaborate on your choice?

Jason Guriel: If I made a choice, I hardly noticed it. I was never much for readings and launches. To the extent I take part in a “literary community,” it’s usually in the manner of the catapult: fiery, I hope, but from afar.

The very first book I ever received to review felt like an affront. Before I realized it, I’d filed some pretty tough prose. Was this a choice? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help myself; I’m pretty sure I still can’t. Chris Wiman, who used to edit Poetry, said somewhere that young reviewers will shoot blindly from the hip for awhile, before they realize the damage they’re doing to themselves professionally. “[S]weet’s the air with curling smoke/ From all my burning bridges,” is how Dorothy Parker put it. But “damage” is probably an overstatement. Unless they have their sights set on tenure or some other prize, poetry reviewers hardly need worry about a track record; they’re not Supreme Court nominees, whose least opinion might come back to haunt them.

They should be worried about being unduly influenced. Once, at a launch, I met a guy whose book I was set to review. The guy was alright. Turns out the book wasn’t. Needless to say, that was a hard review to write.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a few friends who happen to be writers, and I do make it to the odd reading. But I’m not sure I understand what people hope to get from participating in a “literary community.” I’m not sure “community” is even an inherently positive goal. Like the buzz word “dialogue,” it’s often an excuse for groupthink. Writers should be focused on their work, on impressing editors and netting readers—not networking with their peers.

JT: During the same talk, you mentioned that you are writing for an “ideal reader,” someone who is interested in reading literature, but not themselves a writer. You also pointed out that one of the problems with literary community, especially in Toronto, is that it is insular, mostly consisting of writers or publishing professionals. Can you discuss this a bit? Is the concept of an ideal reader really just a fantasy?

JG: Poetry lacks a critical mass of readers who aren’t themselves also poets. In other words, most of the people who consume poetry are the ones producing the stuff. They can take for granted the needs of their audience because the audience is full of ringers—other poets!—who will applaud on principle or, at the very least, stay mum if the stuff’s no good. We depend on food critics to block the door to bad restaurants. We depend on movie critics to save us the money we might’ve otherwise wasted at the multiplex. But most of us aren’t restaurant owners or movie makers. So no one much wrings their hands over the way we talk about restaurants or movies.

In the insular poetry world, we’re all over-invested. We tend to boo the few critics who, by delivering a tough review to one of us, put a pin to the collective delusion. You asked about literary community; that’s one use for it—policing how we talk.

I try, then, to write for a reader who has no investment in poetry, who approaches books the way I approach movies or records: as a paying customer who wants to be entertained but who’s also demanding. If such a reader is a fantasy, it’s still one worth believing in.

4 Comments

Andrew M

Heading into this after reading the description, I assumed my comment would be pissy and insulting. Instead, I liked the general impetus behind it, especially: “They can take for granted the needs of their audience because the audience is full of ringers—other poets!—who will applaud on principle or, at the very least, stay mum if the stuff’s no good.” I think that’s why it’s important to have people like Beattie or Mark from the National Post. In ‘murrica, critics like James Wood and Kukatani and their ilk CAN scathe when the scathing’s needed, since their next publishing deal doesn’t need to come from [Canadian small press], which also publishes the book being reviewed. I can’t count the number of times a friend has a book to review and is like, “boy howdy, this is a piece of shit, but I can’t say that because if I trash it I could jeopardize my own position in the pecking order.”

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E Martin Nolan

Jason, points well taken, but I can’t believe that you “do not see what people hope to get from participating in a ‘literary community.'” For one thing, people are social beings, so how can you hate on a desire to hang out together? That just comes off as spiteful. I’m never going to meet a lawyer that’s going to say some weird shit about metaphors in someone else’s poetry, but that happens when you’re hanging out with other poets. Sure, the networking and other scene-type group thinking can get annoying, but that’s not hard to get over or ignore. We can all bitch till the cows come home about how we’re all insular and all that, but in the end who cares? It’s fine. If you don’t want to come hang on Press Club’s patio, or you think your criticism is sharper if you avoid it, that’s great, and you’ve got the body of work to back up the claim. But don’t think you’re better than someone else just because his or her social life is different than yours. Artists have banded together since art has existed, and you don’t get The Puritan or the Town Crier, through which your work has been exposed, and both of which make concerted efforts to reach outside of the normal poetry realm, without a strong literary community. So to answer your question, we seek literary community (which includes your reviews, by the way) so that literature can exist, to whatever extent is possible. Is that good enough for you?

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