Almost invariably, we select reviewers based on pieces we have read by them in other magazines. Sometimes we come across these pieces ourselves, and other times a reviewer approaches us directly with clips of previous publications. What we look for in a reviewer is intelligence, courage, unpredictability, and style. A single provocative and illuminating review can convince us to hire a reviewer over someone with ten plodding books to his credit. Indeed, it has been our experience that the best omnibus reviewers are generally young. This has probably always been the case. Look back at any defined literary age—Romanticism, Modernism, etc.—and it’s the young who most consistently identified the best, and diagnosed the worst, poetry of their time.
The rules for our omnibus reviewers are simple. (We bend the rules occasionally for other pieces, when there is a pairing of reviewer and book we especially want—Phyllis Rose and Richard Wilbur, for instance.) They can have no personal connection to any of the authors they are writing about. They do not get to select the books to be reviewed, though we do discuss the list with them and try to make the assignment interesting for them. They are given a strict total word count, which they are free to distribute among the various books as they see fit (e.g., eight hundred words for one book, four hundred for another, etc.). And finally—most importantly—they must express a clear opinion about each book reviewed.
These rules were put in place a couple of years ago, because it seemed to us that the state of reviewing in contemporary poetry was so dire. Not only was there a great deal of obvious logrolling going on (friends reviewing friends, teachers promoting students, young poets writing strategic reviews of older poets in power), but the writing was just so polite, professional, and dull. We wanted to eliminate the descriptive review, those pieces you finish without any clear idea of whether its author loved or hated the book in question. We wanted writers who wrote as if there were an audience of general readers out there who might be interested in contemporary poetry. That meant hiring critics with sharp opinions, broad knowledge of fields other than poetry, and some flair.
It has also meant, inevitably, publishing a lot of negative reviews. Any honest glance at literary history will reveal just how rare good poetry is. If a critic gets ten books sent to him for review, and he finds six or seven of them are excellent, then he is either the luckiest poetry reviewer on the planet, or he has no taste. We believe that it is important to publish these negative reviews along with the positive ones (though we would never print what we considered an ad hominem attack). Not only does it give some ballast and context to the critical praise, it also is a gesture toward treating poetry as a public art in the same way that films or novels are, both of which are routinely and fiercely argued over in the mainstream media. It is a service to serious readers.
Of course, this reviewing policy causes us great conflicts and disappointment at times. Anyone who has followed the magazine over the past two years can’t help but recognize that we are often in the position of printing negative reviews of poets whose work we have published extensively. In effect, our reviewers sometimes criticize our taste. This would be a very easy thing to control. It requires only a phone call to feel out a reviewer on a particular book, or a willingness to kill reviews you don’t agree with, or a stable of reviewers whose opinions you can easily predict. All of these options seem to us timid and deadening.
Omnibus reviewers are the most difficult reviewers to find and the most difficult to keep. This is mostly due to the climate of the times, in which established poets almost never say what they think about a range of new books and often lower the boom on younger poets who do. Still, we believe it’s a fight worth fighting. Poetry is not served by protecting it like some endangered species; quite the opposite, in fact. There are all kinds of signs that a much larger audience for poetry exists in this country, and there are also signs that poetry itself is, to paraphrase D.H. Tracy’s (positive!) review of Glyn Maxwell’s latest book, trying to pull its head out of its behind. Here at Poetry, we’re doing everything we can to encourage both of these developments.