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Response to Kris Hemensley

In the latest Overland, Kris Hemensley criticises the Overland editors’ decision to allow a response by poet John Kinsella to a review of two of his works by Elizabeth Campbell. Hemensley wonders why we have accorded special favours for John, when it is not our usual practice to publish responses to a review. We did not, he points out, invite Elizabeth to participate in a debate. She has, in Hemensley’s eyes, been ambushed. All in all, in Hemensley’s view, we’ve used both writers to create a little sensation on behalf of the magazine.

We offer the following explanation:

1) In our opinion, the review was not your typical review. It was, in fact, extremely critical of the work of a poet who has many publications, and is a long-time correspondent of Overland. It was thus natural that we would have to let John know of the impending review, and offer him the chance to respond.

2) We decided to publish the review and response side by side, which we figured would allow our readers to assess both arguments. Before publication we notified Elizabeth that John was responding and that we would publish it in the same issue. We offered her the option of seeing it before the issue was published. This, we reasoned, would allow her the option of pulling the review if she felt ‘ambushed’.

3) We also offered Elizabeth the right of response.

4) In all of this, we were conscious that we wanted to make sure everyone was treated fairly, and that we were negotiating a difficult terrain. We wanted to publish the review, despite the fact that it was so critical, because we don’t want to discourage critical reviews. But we also felt that given its nature, John should probably have the right of response. It was a difficult situation to negotiate, but it seems to us that the two pieces work together well to bring to light some issues in Australian poetry.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. I was very interested to note these two pieces. I can understand the logic of including both of them, particularly given John Tranter’s body of work to date and his longstanding relationship with Overland, but I can also see what Kris means.

    I’m not sure an immediate defence gives the reviewer the space they deserve to have their opinion considered…or whether such an immediate right of response would have been provided to a lesser known talent in similar circumstances.

    But a right of response to a right of response? Surely one would have no option but to stand by the original review and decline such madness.

    I do wonder if this will actually have the unfortunate reverse effect of discouraging the submission of critical reviews in the future. I hope not… Though I’m of course, I’m much too frightened now to divulge which piece I concur with now.

  2. OR COURSE, I meant Kinsella folks: I’ve had my head in Tranter all afternoon!!! Will this add to the scadal?

  3. Yeah. Of the criticisms we’ve received over this, the thing about discouraging critical reviews seems the most serious. But two points:
    1) as a reviewer, I was always told not to make points that you wouldn’t make to authors in person, cos if only one person reads your review, it will be them.
    2) I think we do have a different responsibility towards people who have had a long-term association with Overland. We are trying to build networks of support for progressive writers in an environment not necessarily particularly conducive to the Left. So we wouldn’t, for instance, have offered a right of reply to an explicitly conservative poet. There’s other channels open to them.

  4. Oh, you know you shouldn’t have published that crap review in the first place, Jeff. And then they do their best to make it political with snide asides, as if they aren’t as conservative as each other. You should take those photos away. And they don’t discuss the poetry, only the context in which the poetry appears. I dare John Kinsella to do two things. Be an anarchist, get down on the street here with us and give some of your precious words away to the peasants and also get published under a different name in Overland. Without telling anyone. Do that and I’ll listen to what you have to say. Overland is my favourite place on the web, Jeff. You are doing a brilliant job.

  5. Seems like I’ve broken through Jeff.

    Campbell should have been afforded the space to deliver her review without the intervention of the author – it almost seems funny that someone as critically engaged as Kinsella would react in this way to the reception of ‘his’ work – obviously the author hasn’t ‘died’ yet. Indeed, it was refreshing to read Campbell’s piece & know that certain people are prepared to have a ‘crack’ – which is what I thought Overland was fundamentally about.

    Also, I’m concerned by you’re reference(s) to conservative poets/poetics – where do you draw the line? If John Kinsella – happily ensconced in his middle-class academic position(s) (& I wish him well) – isn’t part of a contemporary ‘middle-ground/psuedo avant-garde’ then I’m obviously misreading modern poetry in Australia.

    Sorry for the huff & PUFF.

    C

  6. Hi Rjurik,

    good to see you blogging here too! I am enjoying this new incarnation of Overland online, and I think it’s really encouraging to see the comments and to feel that you’re openly discussing these issues.

    It’s always tricky with reviews, isn’t it – you can’t be too critical, because you run the risk of someone over-reacting and doing something silly (like topping themselves – it does happen); but you can’t be too nice, coz it just reads like an ad. Then again, if you really disagree with a book, why not say so?

    I thought Elizabeth Campbell’s review was provocative, but then I expect that from many of the works published in Overland. I’m not so sure about the wisdom of publishing John Kinsella’s reply in the same issue.

    I also disagree with Jeff’s reasoning above, for similar reasons to Cameron’s. Where do you draw the line, in terms of people who are allowed a right of reply and those who aren’t? What other channels do you mean, Jeff? ALR???

    Regardless of what I think about the decision to publish the review and response, however (a decision I of course respect your right to make), I am glad that there’s a space here for people to give their opinion.

    It’s something I think about with Cordite all the time – should we open our reviews to comments? We have not done so for several years now, mostly because the subject of the review usually weighs in and starts slagging off the reviewer. It can be pretty ugly, and preserved for eternity (technically).

    I wonder though whether Overland might consider allowing comments on reviews – maybe you do already? That way, technically every review subject would have a right of reply, any time of the day.

    Problem solved, or hornet’s nest opened?

    David

  7. That’s fine, Cameron. Huff and puff is good. :-)
    Whether John should have felt the need to respond is a question for him. But he did, and then we had to react to that.
    As for John’s own politics, well, there’s two points.
    When I first became involved with Overland when issues raised by Mark Davis’ book Gangland were still being widely discussed. Ian Syson, who was the editor of Overland at the time, told me that, yes, Overland was a gang. The difference was it admitted it openly. Part of the point of the magazine was to develop a community, not around back-slapping nepotism, but around an engagement with the kind of ideas that Overland represented. (In some respects, the blog is a development of that).
    In that respect, we relate differently to a poet (or a writer or an essayist) who has been actively engaged with Overland as opposed to someone who hasn’t. And that’s as it should be. There aren’t many forums available to those who explicitly identify themselves as progressive writers; there are lots of forums available to those who don’t. That’s what I meant about John as a progressive poet — he is someone who identifies himself explicitly with the Left and with Overland.
    As to his poetic practice, well, that’s another debate, and one that we’d be very happy to have within the journal. What exactly does progressive poetics mean today?
    To be honest, we did hope that printing Elizabeth’s and John’s pieces side-by-side might spark some interest in that question (given it seemed to be at the heart of their disagreement) and to that extent we do probably plead guilty to Kris’ accusation about try to stir controversy. It does seem kinda weird that the focus has been so much on process (almost etiquette) and so little on the substantive debate.
    That being said, I can’t see how John’s academic position particularly impacts on his politics. Not all academics are part of the middle class, and, in any case, a substantial chunk of the poetry infrastructure is now dependent upon the tertiary sector — Keri, our poetry editor, earns her living teaching creative writing at some uni in Newcastle.
    We’d be happy to hear arguments about what progressive poetics might mean but I’m not sure that calling for a real avant-garde as opposed to a fake one helps that much.

  8. Kinsella and Overland may identify with the left but that doesn’t mean the left identifies with them.
    You may be trying to create controversy but you’re failing miserably. Noone cares, not even the participants.
    As soon as you saw that review say there was traces of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in Kinsella’s work you should have canned it. Even an uneducated mutt like me can see that’s not true.
    “a substantial chunk of the poetry infrastructure is now dependent upon the tertiary sector.” A tragedy indeed. Perhaps we should try to figure out how that happened. Just when did the academics highjack poetry and start to strangle the life out of it? Sometime in the 70’s I reckon.
    Have nice life, Jeff, see you on the picket lines (haha).

  9. Jeff, did Overland feel the review had merit, and that the ideas put forward were based on solid and sound research and a thorough understanding of the subject matter? Did Overland feel that, notwithstanding the reviewers opinion, the review was a good piece of writing and analysis?

    ‘Engagement in the kind of ideas Overland represents’ is the key. The reviewer engaged, and the nature of that engagement was heavily and immediately criticised, some might say ridiculed.

    But ‘Overland is a gang?’ Are you listening to yourself Jeff? There is a difference between fostering a community based around common leanings and inviting people to engage and shooting them down if they dare criticise those within it.

    Many might be inclined to hand back the Balaclava and lay down the bat.

  10. On the issue of where you draw the line about who constitutes a part of the left, it seems to me that the left can’t really afford to be drawing the line too tightly at the moment. God knows we’re small enough at the moment. (As an aside, are there picket-lines/street actions we should be on at the moment? It’s fine to throw around the whole activist versus armchair-lefty opposition, but it’s surely better to be specific about this rather than just throw it around as an abstract counterposition).

    I might also mention that (without wanting to speak for her) I think Elizabeth would probably count herself as on the left and as a feminist. She’s also a published poet herself with obvious talent. As someone without too much knowledge of poetry (such as the details of LANGUAGE poetry), is does seem to me that hers is a voice worth publishing.

    And I’m not sure we’re really trying to “create controversy” so much as engage in debate. Overland is a broad magazine reflecting many different positions on the left. It is a magazine of dialogue. This means that as editors we publish a range of opinions we might not personally agree with, as long as they’re part of a general left position and relate to issues we are all trying to think through at the moment. We will continue to do this, and continue to try to foster debate. And again, it seems amazing to me also that there has been so little discussion about the political issues of this particular interchange between Elizabeth and John. Or related issues, such as how poetry should and could respond in this particular political moment.

  11. Yikes. Don’t know what happened to David Prater’s comment — it bizarrely appeared in the spamanator hours after he sent it. Now that I’ve approved it, it’s suddenly turned up right up the top of the discussion.
    On the gang thing, I probably didn’t make myself clear. The gangland rhetoric came from Mark Davis’ book, which was around at that time. Mark’s argument was that the culture industry was dominated by a nepotistic cliques, who denied their own existence. Ian’s response was to argue that people on the Left needed to publicly state a common purpose and work collectively towards it. Another word for that is solidarity.
    I’m not trying to say that, if someone’s a mate, then no-one’s allowed to criticise them. But I do think it’s fair enough for a progressive journal to treat writers and critics who identify with the Left in a different way to those who identify with the Right. If Keith Windschuttle took umbrage at an Overland article, we’re not exactly going to open the pages for him (that’s what the Opinion Pages at the Oz is for).
    Whether John should have replied is a question for him. But given that he did want to respond, our attitude naturally took into account the fact that he’d been a listed Overland correspondent for years and years and years. Where do you draw the line on that? Well, I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule; it’s partly determined by other factors, such as the extent to which you think others will be interested in the discussion.
    On David’s thing about opening comments on the online incarnation of the journal, I’m a bit reluctant because of the same issues Cordite has grappled with. Unmoderated online discussions get pretty ugly.

  12. Yes, Jeff, I know the comment was in the Gangland context, it’s just that I’m unsure that asserting Overland’s ‘gang’ status in relation to the particular incident at hand is relevant to that same ‘Gangland’ context, particularly given apt Rjurik’s comments above about Elizabeth’s leanings. Doesn’t it imply that Kinsella is a part of the clique, while she isn’t, because she dared to criticise a longstanding ‘gang member’?

    My two cents are well spent, but bring on the unmoderated online discussion, I say. You could always pull it later if it gets out of hand

  13. Yeah, I think I’ve done my dash on this, too — except to add that everyone should get a cool Gravator like my enormous pink chicken eye.

  14. i too think enough has been said for this particular topic, other than the fact that my image is obviously the coolest, taking into account only david, jeff, & i seem to have them. what could be more radical than a profile pic that refuses to take in the face, & instead focuses on the extreme opposite?

  15. hi jeff – this is the comment i posted on derek’s comment stream…

    hi derek,

    on the overland ‘review thing’ – just wondering if i should post on my own blog something more detailed – but wanted to say a couple of things here, seeing as this is where i found the link.

    ) i’m not sure if overland pay their reviewers, so that may have something to do with why they would show a review piece to the poet under review prior to the review being published. this is not something that i would do with the foam:e reviews, sure let the publishers and the poets know the review is up – but not before and why? why give a poet/publisher advance notice?

    ) in an old copy of heat (heat 5 1997) the poetry of les murray’s collection ’subhuman redneck poems0 was being reviewed by both gig ryan and ken bolton, with gig’s review less scathing than ken’s review (and more to the work of the book under review)than the wider field of the poet’s work. it did seem to be refreshing to have two reviews of the same work and no response invited by the poet to the ‘bad’ and ‘less than bad’ reviews seemed necessary.

    ) surely overland could have sought another reviewer for kinsella’s work, one who might offer another perspective on the work under review. this would then allow a distance between subject of review and review, which would assist the poetics under discussion far better than the allowed response of a poet under review ( almost a tantie – but not) and not, in my opinion furthering the freedom of literary debate, if tied into a right of reply for only some.

    ) declaring my own deep interest in kinsella’s work and stating how much i like and enjoy his varied modes and yes (he does write too much) but that is his beast and he feeds it. let others do better with less. also declaring my own interest in campbell’s work, first encountering her work by having been included together in a ‘blue dog’ vol 2 no 3 issue in june 2003 – she on page 44 and me on page 45.

    ) as poetry reviews editor for foam:e http://www.foame.org/ i would find it distasteful to do what overland did and i would really rather find another review to add to the fray or the clarifications – anything but let the author voice an opinion on the reviewer’s take. the author already had a turn at voice, the published work is the voice.

    ) as you yourself have reviewed recently, for foam:e, i’d be interested in your take on all this.

    ) another journal which will go unnamed forwarded a review of a poet’s collection to the poet, who then contacted the reviewer prior to publication of the review and requested ‘nicely’ that the reviewer alter something, because they had got the reference/influence wrong…

    is this really where we want reviewing to go? what’s the point of independent thought and approach. no wonder it is difficult to get people to stick their necks on the block of poetic discussion in ozland.

    your thoughts and a little expansion please, as you can’t just post links and not think about the flow on…(lol)

    …and this is the recent post on my own blog…

    overland – review bias?
    not to diss on the excellent overland or its blog discussion http://web.overland.org.au/?p=1058 – but came across the link on derek motion’s blog typing space (sorry derek, tried to get the link to work but it won’t for some reason keeps going to wordpress main page – so trust people know your blog well enough to have it in favourites or they can just google you and find it) – and so responded with a comment on derek’s blog and a mention that i had done so on the overland blog comments.

    please link to derek’s blog comment on this one for what i think, as i am too lazy now to retype it all, but happy if any want to challenge me here directly.

    i can’t think of anything or anyone who warrants a blatant ‘running interference’ as i said on derek’s comment stream – this sort of thing silences true and healthy discussion of poetics in ozland (or i said it in a longer and more detailed fashion).

    just doesn’t seem right to me and i feel it needs to be addressed more completely by the editors of Overland, than what appears to be the rationale offered in the Overland blog comments stream.

    mistakes are ok, but to defend them as being ok, seems not too cool and a little lacking the rigor required for independent discussion. i myself, prefer not to write a review if there is nothing positive to say, let the work go unreviewed – but for those brave enough to challenge with a not so nice review, go for it – but watch your back.

    …so you can see my point and my opinion i hope and i am offering it on faith and in an honest attempt to further tease out at the notion of poetic discussion in australia and the posible folloy of the selected editorial interferences.

  16. A few things strike me as strange about this debate.

    First is the idea that there is something bad about having Kinsella’s response side by side with the original review. It would be ok if the response was in the next issue, but side-by-side means the review doesn’t have time to “breathe”. This seems a strange argument to me because the two pieces would be exactly the same either way. If one were to come across them on the web, for example, and read them, the experience would be exactly the same as if they were in the same magazine. In addition, surely a reader would give the review more attention if there was a response next to it. Does this not also give the reader a greater opportunity to consider the issues at hand? If, as an editor, you receive a response to a piece and have a chance to publish it in the same issue, is it not artificial to hold it over so that the original review has time to “breathe” (whatever that means)?

    Second: the idea that the reviewer was “ambushed” in this case is false. What’s more, if one writes a review, one should have the courage to stand by one’s convictions. Whenever I review the work of others, I am very careful in my formulations because I know I will have to hold my position. I am always aware that I might meet the writer or filmmaker one day, and that I should have the courage to say to their face what I have written down.

    Which brings us to the third point. The real questions here are actually being avoided by discussion about “process.” And those questions are about the content of the review and the response. Who is right? Who is wrong? I’m not a poet, and I wouldn’t feel qualified to make a judgment, but I’d like to hear the opinions of others.

  17. Ahoj, I’m with Louise on this. You can’t force the debate about who is right and who is wrong about Kinsella’s work, if it’s not an appropriate way to frame it perhaps. I think Louise has made some productive suggestions in terms of OL (and more general) reviewing practices in light of this?

  18. \happily ensconced in his middle-class academic position(s) (& I wish him well) – isn’t part of a contemporary ‘middle-ground/psuedo avant-garde’ then I’m obviously misreading modern poetry in Australia.\

    Cameron, I agree. I do not think you are misreading Australian modern poetry. Kinsella, in my opinion, has by becoming such an academic, distanced himself from the politics he professes. He may truly believe it, but political activism is not as black and white as being a young student radical or sitting in an office and only writing about it, and maybe giving a name as support. There are ways of professing and supporting these politics that would prevent someone such as Kinsella from being called \psuedo avant-garde\.

    Interested in the books, I came across this much later. From what I know of authors, I thought they generally professed to value criticism, and would have assumed a long-standing author like Kinsella would have more self-respect than to publish a response to a review he didn’t find favourable or \accurate\.

    Yes, I find it unusual that Kinsella was the exception to, shall I say, review protocol, but very intriguing the responses and the subsequent perception of Kinsella.

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