Hey New York Times please stop reviewing shit

Written by Rebecca Rijsdijk and Sean Felix

Our Sarah sent a New York Times article in our poetry group app a couple of days ago. It was a review on a pandemic poetry book. On the cover, it said ‘America’s poets respond to a pandemic.’ The author of the review, Dwight Garner, complained about a lack of bite in the book. We all thought that was a bit of a no-brainer.

First, we personally think the bite won’t come from a place of privilege. If all you can come up with during a lockdown is that the virus looks a lot like your dog’s toy, it probably means you haven’t been outside a lot lately. The virus looks nothing like a dog toy, it looks like dead, despair, skin discolouration and a lot of tears and choking. I know this because besides being a poet, I am also a care worker and have lost fourteen of my elderly clients to the virus in the second wave.

Secondly, you don’t have to be an essential worker like our digital contributor Sean and me, you just have to be able to do what Salmon Rushdie said in that beautiful quote the article starts with:

What are poets for? One answer arrives in Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” when the satirical poet Baal comments that “a poet’s work” is “to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”

A question that came up in our group chat was: why do reviewers review crap in the first place? How did this anthology get an article in the NY Times? Simple: its editor used to be NY times poetry editor Alice Quinn. Mates publish mates. We think Dwight Garner could have used his time in a much more positive way by critiquing a Pandemic themes poetry anthology that does have bite. Like the one East French Press came out with. So we decided to write some praise about that book instead because we only write about books we do dig. Books that aren’t for us don’t need to be dragged through the mud. The following review is written by Sean Felix.

Quarantine Works: Covid Edition opens with a stark simplicity. There is no cover art to pull you in, it announces itself with a simple white cover with black lettering. That is all that it needs to reveal a world of quietude, isolation, and discomforting awareness that the world, and we along with it, are not alright.

Bianca Perez’s Cabin Fever on Preheat 350 is the first poem that greets us. We are in her home as she struggles to continue writing the pretty poems that expose her loneliness while cataloguing the whimsical hope driven baking projects of pandemic social media life. But what is on her menu is survival.

The poem is immediately followed by an art series of acrylic and charcoal pieces by Jing Reng Ong. Each artwork is a series of bodies in various states. Alone or connected to other bodies, the viewer is captured by the fragility and disruption of the body. Our relationships to ourselves and each other are in desperate states. We are moved to connect but fall further away with each passing day.

Quarantine Works continues to open doors of poetry, short story, mixed media, and photography, so that we can peer through slightly parted curtains into the artist’s darkened shelters. Audry Parodi ruminates “What a strange taste/Or is it a feeling?” as time and experience seems to loop back on itself and lose its tether. Our own Emma Williamson checks our fear level in Viral; reminding us that the world seems to be fuelled by recycling and broadcasting our fear, the banality of mediated evil. The poet, Bordie, makes a number of appearances in the short collection, giving the reader vignettes of time in confinement.

Most times work produced in times of crisis feel reactionary and insipid or cold and disconnected. This East French Press collection is welcome because while not everything hits and there are some reactionary pieces, it feels connected. These writers feel like real people. They live lives, think thoughts, experience death and isolation, like the people reading the book. This virus isn't unnamable. We have given it a name, and a website, and an emoji, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets its own social media manager, but we tend to float above when we try to create art around it. That is the unnamable. Artists need to challenge themselves to stay on the ground, and open the curtains even further, to reveal the dark uncertainty of this life, and to let the light in. 

And that is where we’ll end, by letting a little light in. Though Sarah Herrin’s Ode to Coronavirus arrives earlier in the East French Press collection, her song of celebration to all of the good moments that we should take to heart when we can, acts as a kind of guiding star to the things that are most important, each other.

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