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Play It Again, Sam: On Poetry Reviewing
I’m still on my mission to convince readers of poetry to try their hand at reviewing a book of poetry at least once! It amazes me how when poets publish a book they hold their breaths awaiting critical responses, and then become disgruntled or depressed when no one else gets off their behinds to review a book. The culture of passivity needs to change, and there’s one good way to do it: the Internet.
Since book review sections in newspapers across the country have become stingier with column space (please see the Save the Book Reviews Page campaign over at the NBCC Blog Critical Mass), and since poetry books are usually at the bottom of the priority list (big press fiction and topical nonfiction fare a little better), the chances of receiving attention at a newspaper are slim.
Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal are the magazine foursome that includes more poetry reviews, but the succinct, mostly hit-and-run write-ups usually leave much to be desired.
Literary journals are more likely to print reviews of poetry books from small and independent presses, and the reviews are usually more substantial than the thumbnail sketches in the aforementioned magazines. But unless it’s a big-budget affair like Poetry, the literary journals will have a limited circulation and audience. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the poet, the poet’s press and the small readership are quite appreciative of the usually literate and intelligent write-ups. Thank you, small journals.
The Internet, however, with its wide accessibility and unlimited space, will be the salvation of the poetry review. There are websites out there that dedicate time and energy to the poetry book, like The Constant Critic, Coldfront Magazine and Luna: A Journal of Poetry and Translation, where I’m also a contributing editor.
But for word-of-mouth, nothing beats the blog and poets blogging about poetry books. Bless them! That is how I discovered one of the recent books I purchased and eventually reviewed, Steve Fellner’s Blind Date with Cavafy. Published by a small press, Marsh Hawk Press, it took a blogosphere buzz around the winning title and equally alluring book cover (designed by poet Claudia Carlson) to get this book some attention. (For my review of this book, check out Luna online.)
In short, the benefits of the Internet are many. The venues are already out there, as are the countless approaches to poetry reviewing. It actually doesn’t take that long to write one once you write a few, and it’s about time poetry readers commit to more than the casual responses posted on Amazon.com. We need to take the experience of a poetry book seriously, because it is a serious art.
I review at least two poetry titles a month: one for the El Paso Times, whose features editor has been incredibly generous with column space (shout out to Ramón Rentería!), and one for Luna. The lesson is: we have to do this ourselves. I never set out to be a critic. Like many poets, I was quite guarded about my writing time, and yes, reviewing takes away some of that time. But after years of watching good books becomes ignored, I decided to participate in the conversation about the books themselves, and not just chime in on the whinier one about books getting overlooked.
In the meantime, I’d appreciate folks sending links of other poetry reviewing venues on the Internet we should all know about. Where else can we send a poetry book for review? Where else can we send a review of a poetry book we would like to spread the word about?