By Rebecca Heintzelman
Corey Van Landingham is a contributing editor and regular book reviewer for West Branch. She is the author author of three books of poetry, including Reader, I, forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2024. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry from Stanford University, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.
West Branch: What first drew you to writing reviews?
Corey Van Landingham: I wrote my first book review as a senior in college for Mary Szybist’s advanced poetry class, and first published my reviews during my MFA at Purdue, when students were invited to contribute them for their literary journal, Sycamore Review. I remember writing about Ander Monson’s The Available World and feeling something unlock as I read and re-read the book over and over again. It felt like I was living inside the book more than I did as “just” a reader. And I loved it, that slow, deliberate, obsessive attention of experiencing a book as a reviewer. And I welcomed the challenge, moving from a more passive role into the need to not only metabolize what a book is trying to do, but to find new (and hopefully memorable) language to describe it.
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that I became serious about writing reviews. When I started the Stegner workshop at Stanford in 2013, I felt out of my depth in the critical conversation, the other fellows’ knowledge of contemporary poetry and its lineages and traditions. I wanted to have something to say. So I not only started feverishly reading more collections of poetry, but I was reading book reviews, trying to learn from how others moved from description to evaluation, how they situated a recent book amongst its predecessors, how they moved from the book at hand into offering a larger argument about poetry. So really, I was first drawn to writing book reviews seriously because I was looking for a new way to think.
WB: How did you learn the process of writing reviews?
CV: For my first reviews, I was mostly intuiting my way through. Once I realized I wanted to take reviewing more seriously, though—and part of this came with the invitation to become a Contributing Editor for West Branch and write yearly reviews for them—I knew I needed to trace a lineage, a history, in order to understand my own historical moment in reviewing, and in order, too, to see the possibilities of a review. So I read widely, mostly reviews of poetry, but also prose. And I was struck at how…thin I found many contemporary poetry reviews to be. There seemed to be a formula: a little description, a little comparison, and mostly praise. What I admired about the older reviews I had been immersing myself in—Randall Jarrell, especially—was how they felt like a real occupation of an idiosyncratic mind, how the review was about the book at hand, yes, but was also about poetry at large, and about the reviewer, their preferences and proclivities and diagnoses laid bare. This felt more human to me. I also love reviews that take big swings, that have something new to say, that teach me not just about the book or poet, but about the world, the life, of poetry.
Now, I’m not saying that I do all this in my reviews, but it’s what I started striving for. And I knew I wanted to avoid the formulaic, because not only would that be unfair to the work I’m reviewing, deadening it, but it would also deaden me.
WB: How do you choose what to review?
CV: It depends—I mostly write omnibus or essay reviews, so I’m looking at multiple collections of poems at a time. Sometimes I just choose books I think are exciting, independent of each other, and sometimes I’m looking for some kind of more specific conversation between them, whether that’s thematic or stylistic, first books, etc. That’s the more difficult scenario, having a narrowed focus, reading through a slew of books not only to see if they “fit” my overarching idea, but that they’re also something I’m excited to re-read, to spend hours, days, weeks with. Because the worst thing is a book that’s right for an idea, but wrong for me. That doesn’t mean that I love every book I review—I don’t. But I need to be excited to talk about it, or else how could I ask a reader to spend time with a review?
I try to avoid having only widely-reviewed, or already well-known, books in my reviews. Sometimes I want to add to a wider conversation about a popular book, but I also want to provide space for independent and university presses, ones that don’t have the same marketing funds and publicity push. I also strive for diversity in style, age, gender, race, sexuality.
So it’s a real balancing act, and just finding the right mix of books is itself quite time consuming, before the actual writing of the review begins!
WB: How did you gain the confidence to engage with authors in this way and critique their work as an equal?
CV: Ah, great question. To be honest, to begin with I think it entailed a fair amount of… bluffing. Not bluffing others, but bluffing myself, adopting the guise of one-who-can-critique. I ended up feeling more comfortable with my role as reviewer, though, because it came from a place of curiosity, not of authority.
And I don’t think one has to be an equal to review a book, because to me that suggests a very small percentage of the reading and thinking population that can approach a work of art. What would being an equal entail? Being a poet, with a certain number of books, of a certain prestige, of a certain identity, of a certain profession? I hope criticism can reach wider than that.
WB: What about reviewing has made you a better writer (or simply changed who you are as a writer)?
CV: Reviewing has made me want to take more risks. There are good books of poetry being written right now, of course, but there are also many mediocre ones, ones that seem to circulate the same moves. I’ve seen how difficult it is to stand out. Not saying that my own work does, but that being aware of this has made me think more deeply about what I want my poetry to do, to be. There’s a type of poem that’s fairly easy for me to write, a kind of knee-jerk poem, one I could write over and over again. My work lately has been trying to not write that poem.
In a way, the conversations I have with peers around reviewing, in addition to just reading a lot of contemporary poetry, have been freeing because though I try to review beyond my own personal taste, I realize how much taste drives, well, nearly everything when it comes to publishing and awards. This may seem obvious, but we’re still led to believe, I think, in some kind of objective “greatness,” a book that can transcend taste. And sometimes that happens! But very often it doesn’t. Recently, after a poet I respect read a review of mine—of a book I thought was one of the best of the last decade—they said, “Ugh, I hated that book.” So that was a helpful reminder that we can’t, as writers, always be everyone’s cup of tea. Nor should we be.
Recent reviews by Corey Van Landingham
- “Stay With Me”: A Review and a Case for Difficulty
on Linda Gregerson, Kathleen Peirce, and Roger Reeves
- Stepping onto the Stage: Ambition and Risk in Three Debuts
on Marianne Chan, Alexandria Hall, and Su Hwang
- Spectral Feelings: Scope and Scale in Three New Books
on Kimiko Hahn, Jennifer Habel, and Rick Barot
- American Originality, in Three Debuts
on Valencia Robin, Keith S. Wilson, and Anders Carlson-Wee