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.

“I live in language on land they left”

Some troll tweeted at me the other day that since I seem not to like Lexington, Virginia, I should just leave. He styled himself as a lover of the Shire who’s not ashamed of being a hobbit. He even used Elijah Wood as Frodo for his profile picture. Good to know hobbit-hood is white supremacist code, I guess–a state of intransigent smallness.

“Love it or leave it” is a glib, narrow-minded slogan that’s already received more intelligent rebuttals than I could come up with (see my final paragraph on Kiki Petrosino, for instance–the title of this blog is from her poem “Farm Book”). The hobbit was responding to my tweet about the imminent renaming of local institutions such as Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the R. E. Lee Hotel, and, after a couple of long and contentious city council meetings, Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. A couple of years ago, R.E. Lee Church was rechristened Grace Episcopal (another hot and protracted fight that caused permanent rifts), and even my employer, Washington and Lee University, may be lurching toward a belated rebranding. Washington’s name needs to go as well as Lee’s, and it’s quite possible the trustees will hold out for a few more years against any change at all, but encouraging things are happening. The rising sway of clear-eyed young people has made a big difference here, as well as the hard work of others who have been putting their weight into moving the local culture for a long, long time. I know the activists, because Lexington, and W&L, are tiny. I remain moved and astonished by the opposition they continue to face and the grit they bring to facing it.

Yet fixing offensive honorifics feels so small! These names have always been aggressions, and if they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be trolls and outraged alums and people spouting conspiracy theories at council-meetings. Still, they’re relatively superficial markers of a violence that goes so deep, that is so rhizomatically entwined with other aspects of town and university life, that expunging it would be more than a lifetime’s work.

For these obscene entrenchments and other reasons, I don’t like Lexington, and I thought about leaving right from the beginning. There’s a poem in The State She’s In, “Native Temper,” that ends with the line, “I’d rather die than die in these parts.” I don’t know if it’s a good line poetically, but it sang in my head for a while before I wrote it down, its paradox making me laugh with a hysterical edge. There’s always a reason to stick around a little longer. Some of the most serious reasons at various times have been a terrible job market, the exhaustion of raising very young kids, my spouse being hired to W&L’s tenure-track, fabulous tuition benefits for my older kids (damned if I wouldn’t take every cent I’d earned!), and fear of uncertainty, of hurting myself and my family by making a stressful move that turned out to make life even harder. W&L also did me a lot of damage–a plantation ethos entails systematic sexism as well as systematic racism and other noxious prejudices–and I think that paralyzed me, too. Staying hasn’t been good for me, as a friend observed after reading my new poetry collection. But here I am anyway, researching local history, writing about small-townness and southernness, thinking and teaching about complicity, continuing the small-scale work of making my spheres of influence some fraction better while very much doubting the rightness of my choices.

I feel particularly stuck right now because I don’t have the release of travel, of periodic escape to remind myself there’s a bigger world. I’m reading a lot but mostly books about small towns, too: Stephen King’s sin-haunted Maine villages (my stay in Salem’s Lot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons); plague-ridden Derbyshire mining country in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (I loved that one); a prissy Ohio suburb in Celeste Ng’s justly-celebrated Little Fires Everywhere; the island horrors of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. Is that because I’ve been on a mystery-thriller kick, trying desperately to get out my own head? Do those plots work best in little bubbles? This spring, able to concentrate only in short spurts, my reading was mostly poetry that felt quite different, conjuring cosmopolitan places or a sense of global connectedness, as 21st-century poetry tends to.

The brand-new poetry collection I just finished, though, is local without ever being small–and illuminates Kiki Petrosino’s relation to a place she can neither love nor leave behind. In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, three long poems are based on the results of a DNA ancestry test; one section, titled “Albemarle,” eviscerates Jefferson’s celebrators in breathtaking ways; and another sequence locates itself in Louisa County, where some of Petrosino’s ancestors resided. Petrosino herself seems to have departed the region after earning a B.A. at the University of Virginia, and is now back as a professor there, drinking tiny glasses of bourbon at gastropubs while researching and receiving dream-messages from her dead kin. As Terrance Hayes writes, this book is “wonderfully irreducible” to tweets and slogans, plus so honed and gorgeous that it reminds me that poetry has special ways of helping people struggle with intractable problems; I think it will strike others that way, too, and be on short-lists for many prizes. I’m on sabbatical for a while but I’d love to teach it one day, in whatever still-messed-up America we land in a year from now.