Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Imagining poetry after the election

Inside Out
September, 2016
 
 
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
 
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.

Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.

I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.

Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.

After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.

Sonnet prompts from #SonnetsfromtheAmerican

Octave and sestet: my ridiculously precarious Zoom setup for delivering a paper at the Sonnets from the American Symposium, and then my home symposium-delivery system. Presenting on short-lined sonnets in a piece called “Partial Visibility,” I edited my messy desk out of the virtual window, throwing the focus instead on the bookcases behind me–so much more professorial. I thought about our partial visibility to each other all weekend, especially when Diane Seuss, the second-lo-last reader in the final event, talked about using long lines to expand the parts of life that can be included in the sonnet’s “gilded frame.” (Her new book, frank: sonnets, promises to be amazing.)

I loved the symposium, which was thoughtfully and effectively curated, and I learned a lot. Among the highlights: we viewed a video tribute to Wanda Coleman and her American sonnets put together by Terrance Hayes. There were mesmerizing live readings by Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Tacey Atsitty, Kiki Petrosino, Shane McRae, Patricia Smith, and many others. Carl Phillips gave a particularly good keynote about “disruption built into” the sonnet and its “tendency to sonic dispersion,” making the form especially hospitable to marginalized writers. Fruitful panel discussions swirled around work by Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jericho Brown, Brandi McDougall, Henri Cole, and many more. I heard from friends, put some names and faces together among scholars and poets I knew only by reputation, and even saw fellow bloggers whom I’d never before met (hello, Frank Hudson! I really appreciated your comments and want to hear more about singing sonnets sometime). What I liked best were the recurrent readings of the American sonnet as a dissident form, incorporating multiple voices through its characteristic turns and pivots, treated rebelliously and inventively by North American practitioners. When Phillips called the sonnet “wired for rebellion,” he echoed the symposium’s exhilarating theme–exhilarating for me, anyway, because my education emphasized the sonnet as an exercise in obedience.

This symposium also gave me a million ideas for writing. I gave you a prompt for short-lined sonnets last week as I was prepping my paper. Here are some more, with credit to the presenters who jogged these ideas.

Interpreting the parameters of the form however you like, write a sonnet that:

  • Is a mode of transport or place of collision (Marlo Starr, “Dissident Sonnets”; Yuki Tanaka, “Cross-Cultural Sonnets”)
  • Depends on a single repeated line, like “Nothing in That Drawer” by Ron Padgett, possibly breaking the pattern at the end (Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Standing In One Place to Move”)
  • Involves collaboration, maybe tossing couplets back and forth with a partner or using octave/sestet for the switch between voices (Simone Muench and Jackie K. White, “The Sonnet as Conversation”). (I’ve been involved, too, in a couple of collaborative crowns, handing off the baton poem by poem. Here’s one.)
  • Uses a meter other than iambic, as Courtney Lamar Charleston does in “Doppelgangbanger” (Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “This resonant, strange, vaulting roof'”)
  • Is a duplex, following Jericho Brown’s torque of the form (Michael Dumanis, “Subverting the Tradition in The Tradition”)
  • Is improvisatory, derived from jazz, a mode Brian Teare discussed in relation to Wanda Coleman (I think this was in post-panel chat–but if you want to read more Coleman than the “American Sonnet” I just linked to, I highly recommend the new Selected Poems edited by Hayes)
  • Is based on David Wojahn’s “rock n roll sonnets,” Molly Peacock’s “exploded sonnets,” Tyehimba Jess’ “syncopated sonnets,” Philip Metres’ “shrapnel sonnets,” Amit Majmudar’s “sonzal,” Lyn Hejinian’s “anti-sonnets”–research these variants and have at ’em! (Kevin McFadden, “The Resistant Strain,” plus additions from the chat after)
  • Dances through the volta in an unusual way. Many panels raised these questions: where can voltas go? Can they be outside poems, or between poems in a sequence?
  • Breaks other “rules.” A prompt for any form: what patterns can you warp to put your work in lively conversation with the myriad traditions snaking behind us? Or, how can you hybridize sonnets with other forms or texts, as poets do with blues sonnets and sonnet-ballads?

I hope one of those prompts clicks for you and you start drafting. We can’t doomscroll ALL the time (hey, what would a doomscrolling sonnet look like?). For still more alternatives to watching the political weather, check out this cool cluster of short essays, “#MeToo and Modernism,” just published by Modernism/ modernity; I have a piece in there about teaching Eliot recruited after the editor saw my blog post on that subject–an interesting development that has now happened to me a couple of times. And if you’d be up to listen in on an intimate multipoet reading from 6-7pm ET on Thursday 10/15, please contact me and I’ll send you the link. It’s part of a sweetly inclusive series run by Lucy Bucknell at Hopkins, not fully public, but I’m allowed to invite friends.