By Shannon Webb-Campbell and Sue Sinclair
Reporting Live From the Critic-in-Residence Relay
The new year sees Sue Sinclair passing the baton of Critic-in-Residence to Shannon Webb-Campbell, CiR for 2014. As Sue lets the baton go and Shannon grasps it, they pause to exchange a few questions before Shannon sprints down the track and Sue heads to the locker room.
Shannon: What are some of your highlights from your experience of CiR 2013?
Sue: I’m quite interested in thinking about literary criticism: why it matters, how it gets practiced and by who, what shapes it might take, what it can and can’t do. Because I’m curious about such questions, I found participation on panels on criticism—both at the Blue Met Festival and at the Railroad Reading Series—to be stimulating. The existence of these panels and my invitations to participate as CiR also revealed an interest in CWILA and the work its members are doing, which I was glad to see from the wider literary community. The most rewarding aspect of my work, however, was the series of poetry discussions I hosted at the Atwater Library. It expanded my notion of what practicing criticism is, i.e. not necessarily the honing of a univocal response by way of the written word but also the cultivation of multiple perspectives through face-to-face encounters between readers. One of the things I hope criticism can foster is alert and engaged readers, and I and the other participants worked toward becoming such readers at the Atwater Library this year. The experience also confirmed for me that two heads are indeed often better than one: at every discussion I found my readings of the poems in question enlarged.
Shannon: Why do you think the CiR position is important for CWILA?
Sue: With the institution of the Critic-in-Residency, CWILA members have not only identified a lack of representation of women in criticism but have also made efforts to do something about the lack. The residency is a concrete measure that steers clear of the awards culture, that I find problematic. I think the position is likely to yield fruit over the long-term: each year a new woman/genderqueer person will take up the practice of criticism and will hopefully continue to do critical work after their term such that the number of female/genderqueer critics builds. I also think it’s a useful position given that anecdotally it seems that many women and genderqueer people underestimate their capacities and can be backward about presenting themselves as legitimate critical voices. Having the title of CiR helps a person feel more secure in presenting herself as a critic to the general culture; being given the position is a vote of confidence, and I certainly felt that support this year.
Shannon: What are your aspirations as a critical thinker and poet post-CWILA CiR?
Sue: I must confess that at the end of my tenure, I’m still not entirely comfortable writing reviews that point out weaknesses in a writer’s work in a public forum. Nor am I comfortable writing only about books I have found enriching. But I also think that to publish is to ask to be heard and that if handled well, critical response can be a way of saying “I hear” even as it notices failings. So I aspire to continue to negotiate this uncomfortable territory, showing respect for the effort that goes into the creation of a book even when my reading experience falls short of what it could be. I’ve also become increasingly interested in the possibility of co-writing reviews in an attempt to disperse the overly authoritative aura that can cling to the voice of the single critic. So I’m finishing my tenure by writing what I hope will be the first of several co-reviews.
Now Sue, though out of breath and looking forward to a shower, runs alongside Shannon and asks her a few questions:
Sue: What drew you to the work of CiR for CWILA?
Shannon: As a freelance arts journalist and book reviewer for Quill and Quire, Telegraph Journal, Room Magazine and The Coast, I tend to engage with the critical work of Canadian women writers, especially poets, and contemporary fiction writers who are queer, Indigenous, and write outside the lines. When I came upon the application for the CiR 2014 program, I found myself intrigued by the position. I questioned my internal role as a reviewer in Canadian letters and the work I was drawn to, and found myself answering the call to further develop the critical work of Canadian women, queer, and Indigenous writers under the framework of the CWILA CiR program.
Sue: I know you as someone who took a pretty innovative approach to an interview we did a while back: you suggested we start by exchanging handwritten letters—a rare enough exchange between friends these days, let alone between people who had never met! I thought it fostered a sense of trust between us, and I appreciated that as interviewer, you were willing to get personal and reveal things too. It almost certainly encouraged me to dig deep for my answers. I have two questions for you coming out of that experience. First, are you interested in pursuing other critical innovations this year?
Shannon: When I pitched the Salon cover story during your University of New Brunswick writer-in-residency to Telegraph Journal two winters ago, I knew I wanted to approach our interview with a sense of intimacy and poetry. At the time I was working at Quill and Quire in downtown Toronto, and you were living on the East Coast, so a proper interview over tea and treats wasn’t possible.
The next best thing we could do together was a letter exchange. I remember sitting down in a park where the tulips poked through the snow on my lunch break reading your letter, intrigued by your handwriting, and thankful you were so open to such an unusual interview request. I felt a kinship, and a sense of critical possibility.
I try to approach any form of criticism with a sense of creative flair. I believe art should be met with art. Criticism is a conversation, and any good conversation deserves a listener, equal time to speak, and a sense of artful curiosity.
During my time as Critic-in-Residence, I intend to write a “Manifesto for the Canadian Women in Literary Arts,” and invite fellow writers and poets to participate in a collaborative visual project involving the text. Also, I will steadily continue to pursue publishing reviews that contextualize criticism and creativity.
Sue: And the second question stemming from that most unusual interview: do you think there’s a role for the personal in the work of the critic?
Shannon: I understand the distance between subject and author in terms of ethical and professional criticism. It’s par for the course in our boundary-driven society; yet, many critics gravitate towards the work they wish to engage with. Editors have a keen sense of what books suit certain reviewers.
There is a duty for a critic to be honourable of their position, and let readers know their relationship to the work, as well as their stance. But I do believe there is room for the personal as long as the critic is respectful and remains true to the work itself.
For example, National Post book reviewer Stacey May Fowles sometimes places herself in the midst of her critical reviews, and contextualizes her life experience with the work she reviews. The personal is the political. As a reader, I feel safe and visible within her critical reviews. I trust her.
When Fowles reviewed Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp, 2013), her confessional introduction about the experience of having her sexual assault poem published immediately engaged me as reader on a personal and visceral level. Not only did her personal narrative echo the subject matter of Amber Dawn’s ferociously brave memoir (which I later reviewed for the Telegraph Journal), but it also opened up an entire conversation for women in Canadian letters. If we can’t talk about rape culture in literature, and by extension in our critical reviews, then where can we? [You can read Fowles’ review here]
Sue: Which leads me to the question of who you write for as a critic. Who do you imagine as your audience?
Shannon: In terms of audience, I attempt to reach and engage as many readers as possible. Age, gender, nationality, geographical location and occupation are all variables. My role as a critic is to engage newspaper, magazine and online readers with the work occupying the current cultural climate. It is my responsibility as a critic to remain honest, aware, and inclusive.
Sue: What do you hope to offer those readers?
Shannon: I hope to offer readers a variety of literature and poetry from all sorts of voices and backgrounds, to broaden their literary horizons and continue to foster a love of books. I want to ensure women, queer, and Indigenous authors occupy space in the minds and hearts of the reading public.
Gracefully taking up the baton, Shannon charges ahead for a full year as CWILA’s Critic-in-Residence for 2014.
Sue Sinclair is the author of four books of poems; her latest collection is Breaker, published by Brick Books in 2008 and finalist for the Pat Lowther Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. She was CWILA’s inaugural Critic-in-Residence for 2013 and a writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick. Sue is currently completing her PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Shannon Webb-Campbell is a Canadian writer, poet and arts journalist. Currently, she is earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Colombia, and holds an English Literature and Journalism degree from Dalhousie University. Her writing has appeared in the top Canadian magazines, anthologies and quarterlies such as Riddle Fence, Quill and Quire, and Room, among many others. She is working on a book of short fiction, as well as a collection of poetry. She grew up outside of Toronto, calls Newfoundland home, and lives in the north end of Halifax.