The image is a painting of a woman reading a book

On Reviewing

The poetry group I belong to was talking about reviews. I said that one of the good things about writing reviews is the way it helps you to grow your poetry community, bringing you into contact with other poets and with publishers. It’s of value to your reading practice since it encourages close reading of poems and there is a chance that this discipline might also feed into your own poetry writing and help you get better at writing poems. We were discussing poetry publishing in general, routes into publishing work in magazines and anthologies, and single-authored pamphlets and collections. Our group is a mix of published and unpublished poets of different backgrounds, ages and experience. We meet each month at Drawing Projects UK, a lovely art gallery, studio, café and workshop space in the centre of Trowbridge, a small town in west Wiltshire.

What struck me in our discussion about poetry reviewing was the response that some people didn’t think they were “qualified” to write reviews, that they “wouldn’t dare!”. The majority of those in my poetry group are qualified, and highly qualified, people in their various occupations, not all to do with literature or poetry, and would be described in most circumstances as not lacking in confidence. So I have been wondering about why they, and others I’ve come across, might have this attitude towards their ability to review. One thing I’ve noticed in recent years, on social media since that is where I see discussions of poetry, is a criticism of poetry reviews. First the criticisms were about the reviews not being published in mainstream newspapers any more or, if they were, the tiny wordcount afforded to them. Then the criticism shifted to the reviews themselves, their “lack of critical engagement,” that they are “puff pieces”, concerning themselves with the poet and the “poet’s identity” rather than the actual poems, the craft and technique. All of these criticisms are valid, and perhaps the reviews under discussion seem ubiquitous because of the proliferation of online platforms like Goodreads, online journals and blogs, as well as in some poetry magazines. Also, there has been a trend to simply photograph a book or poem and share on social media without also offering any kind of considered review. Perhaps this has also offended people seeking detailed critiques. Unfortunately, in my view, the criticisms risk silencing a group of people who might want to review, or even to express that they like a book or poem, but who now won’t, for fear of being on the end of such criticism. I think it’s far to say that some of the criticisms I’ve observed are from poets who are also academics, used to the rigor of academic principles, and critical of work that strays from from, or seems to disregard, this rigor. I think that’s a shame. The poetry world has room for a rigorous, intellectually challenging approach to appraising and analysing poetry as well as a different kind of response, perhaps personal to the reviewer, regardless of their academic training and experience.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of the nature of social media, particularly Twitter with its limited wordage, these kinds of criticisms can appear aggressive, especially when a lot of people seem to join in. Perhaps one of the good things to come out of the current implosion happening at Twitter will be that this kind of ‘pile on’ will become less prominent in poetry (and other) circles.

Anyway, I am no expert, and can make no claim to be academically rigorous, but I’ve written a few reviews in my time and to be honest, I think I have been timid about sharing them widely, possibly because of some of the reasons mentioned above (I am not worthy, etc). So here are some links to reviews I’ve written, all available to read online:

My review of My Mother’s Language/ La langue de ma mère (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021) by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated and introduced by André Naffis-Sahely. Published at Modern Poetry in Translation magazine.

My review of Filigree: Contemporary Black British Poetry (Peepal Tree Press, 2018) Edited by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, preface by Dorothy Wang. (Originally published in Under the Radar magazine).

My review of three titles from Pavilion Poetry in 2019, full collections by Lieke Marsman (translated by Sophie Collins), Mona Arshi and Janette Ayachi. (Originally published in Under the Radar magazine).

A few reviews from my blog: Kin (Cinnamon Press, 2019) by Hugh Dunkerley; Every Little Sound (Pavilion Press, 2016) by Ruby Robinson; ; The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood (Cultured Llama, 2013); Riddance (Worple Press, 2012) by Anthony Wilson.

A few of my reviews on Sphinx (OPOI reviews – One Point of Interest): The Great Vowel Shift (Telltale Press, 2014) by Robin Houghton; Goose Fair Night (The Emma Press, 2016) by Kathy Pimlott; White Whale (Southword Editions, 2016) by Victoria Kennefick.

As always, thanks for reading. I have also published this post at Substack.

POSTSCRIPT: Since writing this, a few people I don’t know and haven’t heard of have got in touch out to ask me to review their books. Rather than reply to each one individually, I’ll just say here that I’m sorry I’m unable to help (time, other commitments).

8 thoughts on “On Reviewing”

  1. An excellent post, Josephine. Of course another issue is time. If you’re already scratching around for time to spend on your own writing, you’re unlikely to have time to write reviews. That said, I’m very tempted to cut my teeth on an OPOI review for Happenstance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am definitely one of those who feel ill equipped to give a “good” poetry review. When I first started my blog as part of an assignment in college while studying poetry and working on my bachelor’s I did do some critiques of individual poems just to get some content out there. But, I just have never felt like I have enough experience and knowledge to make what might be considered a worthwhile review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have reviewed theatre and poetry for a decade or so. my first question is “is it any good?” the second question is “why”. most people can do that. there are far more people not qualified to write poetry than those not qualified to review it.

    Liked by 1 person

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