I had never heard of Anis Shivani before a few weeks ago, when I came across his 2011 piece in the Huffington Post excoriating the work of recent poets laureate, namely Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, and Billy Collins. Predictably, a few of the reader comments offered praise and gratitude for his brutal honesty, but most dismissed Shivani as petty, small, mean, or not up to the task of criticizing his betters.
Being a lifelong sucker for polemics, I ordered his book, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies. In addition to the HuffPo piece mentioned above, the book contains reviews of poets Shivani actually likes (including Franz Wright, C.D. Wright, and Jay Parini, among others); a few pieces on contemporary fiction [sucking]; a piece lamenting the fact young people no longer read novels not written by J.K. Rowling; a send-up of Heather McHugh; and an essay which asserts that the MFA/creative writing system is a closed, undemocratic medieval guild system that represses good writing, titled The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing.
No equivocator, he.
There’s no point in taking Shivani to task on his opinions of particular poets. I agree here, I disagree there, but so what? Only time wins that fight. In any case, if I read him correctly, the poets he savages are incidentals – symptoms of an academic poetry culture that allows too many poets and writers to prosper who might not have without some kind of institutional sponsorship. Here, I think, Shivani has half a point, but it’s hardly an original one. Entire books have been devoted to the myriad forces that shape canons, fashions, and tastes. And remember foetry.com? I also find it a bit funny that he attacks poets who have been appointed laureate of the nation, since almost no one – even within the “medieval guild system” – cares all that much about the office. Don’t like the poet laureate? Wait a year or two. There will be another.
Shivani is right to criticize the vague workshop notions of finding one’s voice (What is that, exactly? And is it behind the couch?) and honing one’s craft, and he does so with a sharp wit; but again, there’s little here that hasn’t been offered up by others before him. Still, if you hate Jorie Graham or Billy Collins or anyone who’s edited, or appeared in, The Best American Poetry between 2004 and 2007, and you appreciate a good eviscerating for its own sake, Against the Workshop is worth borrowing.