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.

Maps, teaching schedules, and other demented pre-writing adventures

Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:

  • Suture kits and how to stitch up wounds
  • Microquakes, subsidence, and local geology
  • The effects of psychedelic mushrooms and hazards of their long-term use (lots of this via my work computer, yikes)
  • Fungal behavior generally
  • The properties of copper, where it comes from, and the various ways it’s stolen
  • The stages of death from congestive heart failure, and how it’s treated at each stage
  • Home hair dyes, including instructions and the names of colors
  • Local bus schedules
  • What Bengali terms of address to family members a man who grew up in India might use
  • What weird situations a home health nurse might encounter; what the ordinary procedures are and what equipment is needed for them; who staffs the clinic that’s the nurse’s home base
  • Phases of the moon in the summer of 2021

I have a hard time getting students to incorporate research into their creative writing, even the quick Wikipedia kind, but I can’t write much in any genre without internet access–and having friends to interview about mundane details is also a big help. In poetry, specificity is everything. Studying scientific processes helps me understand the world and myself; the textures of unusual words make the language pop. In fiction, people need to have jobs other than mine, and they need to walk around and be doing ordinary things when plot twists surprise them.

My process so far for the novel underway involves writing many pages in a mad rush then hitting pause to reflect on what the characters might think or do next, as well as what I’m missing about the properties of this fictional world and its residents’ patterns of behavior. I had worked out a lot before starting, but when I hit the 20,000 word mark I realized my plans were pretty vague after the opening. I’m at around 45,000 words now, not rereading too much but plunging forward, trying to hack out the basic shape of the story before I go back and make necessary alterations, because my sense of how it all needs to unfold keeps changing. I also know I’m falling into bad habits sometimes: for instance, I’m prone to summarizing action in a first draft and have to go back and dramatize it, as well as making the sentences much cleaner and the detail richer (which means my 45K words probably represent well over half the novel, plot-wise). It’s a lot like the discovery process you experience in the first draft of a poem–you need to see where it’s going before you can revise it, fit all the parts together smoothly. If you know everything about your destination from the outset, the results might not possess that essential element of surprise.

Another thing my writer-spouse thinks is unusual in my process: I do a ton of work that won’t go into the book. For Unbecoming, set at a small college, I mapped out the entire curriculum and every professor’s teaching load just to figure out when two key characters could meet for coffee (surely overkill, but that’s how my brain works, especially post-chairing). In my current project, space is really important, so I’m developing an increasingly detailed hand-drawn map of my fictional county. It’s not Yoknapatawpha by a long shot, and I’m not intending that Tolkienish move of including a map if this ever becomes a real book. I just need to know where stuff happens and how long it takes to drive there. It’s too much exposition to explain it all in prose, but I need to know it makes sense.

I am drafting poems occasionally, particularly when I get stuck on the novel for a few days. I’ll be driving my son back to college in a week, so there’s lots of planning to do, as well as the usual pile-up of recommendation requests and “do this now!” emails. No other publishing news these days–August is always slow–but I have a virtual reading from Unbecoming scheduled for September 16th “at” A Novel Idea bookstore in Philadelphia (sign up for the Zoom here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lesley-wheeler-author-of-unbecoming-online-tickets-117838653585). I also received a super-nice note about The State She’s In from Denise Duhamel, a distinguished poet whom I don’t know personally but whose work I’ve long admired–I’ve taught her books a few times and even ran an independent study on her complete works maybe a decade ago (!). I am so grateful when someone reads a book of mine and sends me a note or gives me a shout-out–it reminds me to reciprocate, which is one of the pleasures of #thesealeychallenge. (One more week to go!)

I’ll sign out with a George Carlin bit I’ve been thinking about a lot. Tensions around the novel coronavirus feel high, even among people with whom I mostly agree. Obviously the anti-mask campaigners are dumb and toxic. Within the rainbow of behaviors sane people exercise, though, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions: whether it’s okay to drive to a lake house for a few days, or order take-out, or take part in a small, socially-distanced event with some friends. Whether it’s better parenting to send your kids to school, too, or keep them at home, and what policies schools and universities should have in the first place. I have opinions, like everyone else, and they’re conditioned by my experiences and temperament, like everyone else’s. Because I’m prone to depression and anxiety, for instance, I have a bigger fear than others would of the psychic costs of isolation to children and teens. I often feel judged for being too slack on one hand or too uptight on the other–which is my problem, I know, I’m too keen a reader of what other people are thinking–and I keep sliding into being judgmental myself. My strategy, besides taking lots of deep breaths, is to remember Carlin’s point about how myopic it can be to draw bright lines between right and wrong. The very high costs of this virus in the U.S. are largely the government’s fault–systemic–not the fault of the dog-walker who gets too close to me on the trail. It’s important not to make a terrible situation worse, but none of us is sure of the exact right answers to pandemic math. We need to be kind to each other, not least because we can’t always see the factors that lead people to make the choices they do. I’m working on resisting the reflex division of the world into idiots and maniacs.

(Funny that I remembered that bit as “assholes” and “morons”–my inner NJ driver resurfaces, I guess.) And since I went down another research rabbit-hole looking for Carlin bits, here’s something that’s earlier and spikier. I read this as Carlin seeming to play to the middle at first–mocking all kinds of extremism–and then showing his hand. There IS a limit to tolerance of different approaches to the world.