Editors on Reviews

Jane Ciabattari
From the July/August 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

While all newspaper book sections include a mix of fiction and nonfiction reviews, some, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kirkus Reviews, don’t cover poetry. Publishers Weekly does. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times publish original poems and regularly review poetry (the Los Angeles Times Book Review gave Kenneth Rexroth’s collection from Copper Canyon Press a front-page review in February), but paying attention to poetry is not without its challenges.

"I think poetry reviewing in this country suffers terribly from a guild mentality—poets reviewing other poets—and they either nitpick each other to death or they stroke each other to a sheen so dazzling you can't get your eye on it," says the Times's McGrath. "The trouble is, none of this is directed at the reader. My notion of the perfect poetry review is one that somebody can pick up by accident on a Sunday—somebody who may not have read a book of poetry since college—and start reading it and immediately be plugged into the discourse. There's no reason that you can't write about a book of poetry as if it were a novel—except that it's very hard to do, and it's hard to find people who can do it. My feeling is that it's almost not worth doing at all unless you can do it well."

The Chicago Tribune runs poetry reviews about once a month. This year contributor Maureen McLane won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing given by the National Book Critics Circle, based in part on her poetry reviews in the Tribune.

The Washington Post runs poetry reviews as well as poet Edward Hirsch's weekly column on the genre. "It's meant to showcase poets, some of whom are obscure," says Arana. "My feeling is that poetry is a kind of vanguard, the clean bullet of writing. You really have to pay attention, because it is writing in its purest form."

Then there are publications like the literary magazine Verse, which is devoted to poetry reviews, poems, and some literary fiction. "We prefer to assign books published by independent presses," says Verse's editor, Brian Henry. "University presses are crucial to poetry publishing, so we pay a lot of attention to the books they publish. When we assign books from major presses, we tend to focus on less celebrated or emerging poets." Verse reviews from 40 to 60 books a year, double the number it reviewed in 1995, when Henry became editor. It receives about 200 review copies a year.

As a poet and as publisher of Fence Books, Rebecca Wolff says she was intensely aware of the shortage of venues for consistent, timely reviews of poetry books. In January she launched the online review, the Constant Critic, which provides three new reviews every three weeks, written by critics Ray McDaniel, Christine Hume, and Jordan Davis.

Although Wolff wants to see more poetry reviews, she is not interested in fluff. "I want there to be room for negative reviewing. There is a good argument for not reviewing negatively: It's so hard to get a book of poetry reviewed, why say something bad? At the same time, that has led to a swampy feeling to reviewing, where you pick up a review and you know it's going to be a ringing of the bells. This approach doesn't allow for a real examination of what's going on out there."

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