You don’t know me as far as I’m aware, although it’s possible you’ve read my poetry review blog. I was going to post this in your comments section, but it’s become quite long* so I’ve decided to make an ‘open-letter’ of it here on my own site, I hope that’s not inappropriate, it feels like the ‘literary’ thing to do anyway.
(*No, I’m being specious, I wanted plenty of people to read it because I think it’s important, and I was worried that it would get hidden away and lost in your comments.)
I’m a genuine admirer of your reviews and essays, which are often both entertaining and instructive, and your website is an important resource. Also, your championing of under-represented groups in contemporary poetry (and impatience with hegemonic elites) was inspiring to me when I made the decision to review more actively.
However, your essay on Toby Martinez de las Rivas concerns me, and this is why:
1) In reading Black Sun, Terror, Martinez de las Rivas’s writing in PN Review and his interviews online (along with Jack Belloli’s wonderful Black Sun review) the individual I find is a religious conservative with a startlingly powerful vision of the authority of God, a highly sensitized relationship with nature (and the linguistic skill to evoke that relationship for the reader) along with an unfashionable belief in objective truth and the determination to look for that truth at all costs. I also find a political Conservative who would increase rather than decrease central power as an organizing principle, who plays with the mediaeval concept of Body Politic and very possibly even has time for the notion of the Divine Right of Kings (this last is a little speculative but it seems to follow from what he has written). I find a poet utterly at odds with a great deal of the poetry written in Britain today and who associates this with a metropolitan ‘centre’ of which he is quite disdainful on that basis; but also one who lives in the arid south of Spain and finds himself longing for, and therefore making symbolic use of, the green fields and Anglo-Christian architecture – and the snow – of England (this is not in itself a yearning for a mythical bygone world: England is objectively greener than Spain, and Spain’s architecture is clearly more…Spanish). He is a poet looking for meaning where he feels there ultimately is none (truth with no meaning), one who misses his ex-wife, who would like his children to grow up in the England of his childhood (again, the conservative) but feels social media technology (and the tide of, as he sees it, left-wing influence in the cultural sphere) is taking that England away. The overall impression I am left with is of an eccentrically intellectual man on his knees looking up into a dream-sky of birds and a blinding (prophetic?) eclipse – black layered over white (and I see no suggestion of race intended here, more the suggestion of opposition and – mental – conflict as oppose to the harmony of a ying yang approach to duality). All of this is enough to make you loathe and detest his poetry (and possibly my reading of it) – it actually makes it all the more fascinating for me, partly because I find much of it so hard to relate to – but it emphatically does not make him a fascist.
2) The term ‘fascist’ does not serve you well in this context for a number of reasons: a) although it feels like you are calling a spade a spade, it is actually a blanket word which you pull from Mussolini’s text to cover everything Martinez de las Rivas writes and says, obscuring both the intricacies of his poetic experimentation and the theoretical/critical challenges and problems his work presents; b) it’s an emotive word, used to elicit a quick, strong reaction one way or another rather than a considered response; c) it mistakes Martinez de las Rivas’s use of some of the tropes of fascism and totalitarianism in general (and Fabers’ – i.e. the Nazi-like red, white and black of the Black Sun cover) for the thing itself – in fact I almost get the impression that you have fallen into a trap that was set for you…can poet and publisher really not have seen this coming? I wonder how many people have bought and will buy his book on the back of your essay.
3) That Martinez de las Rivas’s poetry is so utterly different from anything else on the Forward shortlist surely makes his presence a welcome sign of the Prize’s diversity.
4) When you say “we all know who lives in cities” you are making a speculative leap (okay, I speculated above too, and should probably also be condemned for it) of the type that overlays what Martinez de las Rivas actually says with your own agenda. You are suggesting his dislike of metropolitan poets and cliques can be extended to assume a dislike of the multicultural nature of cities like London; this is evidence of a penchant for racial purity, and his symbolic use of light and dark can easily be added. But all of this can be read in a different way as I indicated in (1): those looking for fascists will find one, perhaps; but those looking for a poet engaged in an honest and personal dissection of his own sense of place and faith in a baffling world are more likely to find such a man.
5) None of this is to say that Martinez de las Rivas is not a fascist. He may be. I don’t know him and if his next collection turns out to be a genuine attempt to further fascist thought amongst the poetry-reading classes I will openly and loudly eat my entire argument and apologize to you personally. But I would still say that, at this point, there is not evidence to support your allegation.
6) Your timing is also problematic. Posting your essay before the Forward Prize is revealed sends a clear message to the judges that should Martinez de las Rivas win, there will be trouble – from you and from others on Twitter who take an interest. To have an influencing voice appears to have been your motive in posting, and you more or less say as much in your essay (“I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide”). This is not fair on anyone involved. I have seen your comments and opinions on prize shortlists before, but I have not been aware of your actively trying to influence the outcome of a competition. This seems like a very dangerous line to be crossing for a reviewer who has the industry’s ear. The right time to post would have been after the (diverse and capable) judging panel had made their decision, and we were able to see for ourselves which poet had won the money and platform. Your choice of timing smacks of ‘silencing’ those with opposing views. This is itself a feature of tyranny, as you know.
You are quite right to be vigilant when it comes to inequality, privilege and tyranny, and you are probably right to look for the beginnings of totalitarianism in the cultural margins – where poetry still lies for all its popularity (certainly the less obvious and more challenging poetry) because, as Ellen Hinsey says in The Illegal Age, “The Inconceivable first emerges along the periphery”, but if we create a climate where artists are afraid to express alternative and difficult viewpoints because doing so will lead to loud and angry denunciations – to their smothering with blanket-language – if we close down poetry as a place where the unsayable (any unsayable) can be at least investigated, then tyranny is one step closer. imho.
I hope this open-letter does not lead to us being ‘Reviewer Enemies’, although I don’t suppose it’s the best way for me to introduce myself. Perhaps we could both be accused of whitemanspreading over the issue, but I wrote to you, partly at least, because I think open dialogue between interested and engaged people is a sign of a healthy poetry culture. I hope you agree.
My admiration for you as a reviewer remains, but I think you made an error in ‘calling-out’ Toby Martinez de las Rivas, especially when you did.
The second Jack Belloli blog post referred to in the comments below is here.