1. I come to reviewing as a reader, a simple lover of books. For many years, I believed that loving a book was not reason enough to review it. I believed that one needed special degrees in judgement in order to be able to speak of books with the detachment and “objectivity” they deserved. Although this remains true for academic papers, I have come to see reviewing poetry as a labor of love, a pursuit tied to one’s relationship to the book.
2. The most valuable poetry reviews I’ve read conversed with the poetry. Sometimes these conversations included the poet’s life, books by others, historical contexts, additional media, but always (always) these reviews were bricked from the reviewer’s fascination with the poet.
This fascination which leads us to read closely, to study and re-read, to engage, is a close relationship. It is in the spirit of an intimate encounter that I understand reviewing.
Marina Tsvetaeva influenced me in this. Her essay, “The Poet On The Critic,” interrogates the right to judge other poets. She does this in her tumultuous, self-negating way, ultimately relying on literary “kinship,” a form of review which is less evaluation than expansion of a relationship.
“To evaluate is to define a thing in the world, to relate to it is to define it in own’s own heart,” Tsvetaeva writes. “Relating is not just not judging, it is–beyond judgement.” I think judging is far less interesting and less challenging than relating to what the poet reveals about the world.
3. In trying to create a free resource for poetry reviews, I have learned a few conventions or rules of thumb that bear sharing. Many journals do not accept reviews from friends, lovers, and partners. This helps to preserve the illusion of objectivity that is critical to assessment-style models but I’m not sure it serves poetry. The reader in me wants the same thing as the poet from a review–to know the book better, to gain knowledge or insight that I would not have without reading that review. To the extent that reviews have become pro-forma parts of book release marketing packages, I worry that we are missing things. I worry that the relationship between reviews and book sales reduces the vulnerability one brings to a review. I worry that poets don’t review outside their demographic, which skews reviews towards white, heteronormative production. My children say I worry too much.
4. Every inch of this literary landscape is subjective, though some preferences are more common than others. Ultimately, what qualifies as “a good poetry review” depends on the expectations of a literary journal as well as its reading audience. Both should be considered carefully when writing and placing reviews.
Read this 2013 issue of Evening Will Come where different poet-reviewers answer the same questions in vastly different ways. For every reviewer who centers a semiotic reading, there is another reviewer who centers an engagement of history, context, place, or formal elements. The review you write should emerge from a space of authenticity, which is a form of authority.
5. Most literary magazines prefer a review of one book to run under 1,500 words (and many prefer something between 600 and 800). That is a shallow depth from which to convey the complexity of an entire collection. As a result, the standard review focuses on close-ish reading of two to three poems from the text. The demand for short reviews is increasing. A micro-review summarizes a poetry book in one or two paragraphs. Usually two poems or quotes are selected to offer insight or buttress an observation about the book. For example, if the poet is using form, what about this use stands out or sets it apart? Or how is theme approached in a unique manner?
6. As for writing the review, sit with the poems. Give them the time they deserve. Cultivate patience and study the poet. Poetry is the space in which the writer’s personal experience is predominant, and in the review, our personal experience plays a role in how this poet speaks to us. Be honest about that. Don’t fall back on abstractions. Aim for close association and nuance rather than generality. Don’t make sweeping claims outside the intimacy of that encounter. Center the discernments which emerge from deep engagement with a text. It is truer to say what you got from the poem than to insist that what you got is what the poet intended.
I love reviews that experiment and innovate on the traditional form–reviews which treat the review, itself, as a text rather than an annotated template. How does this poet answer the world? How does the review situate this answer inside a text that respects the distance between one mind and another? How many questions are touched upon by replicating the form itself in the review? I love that Dan Beachy-Quick encourages us to show “what it is to think within the poem’s thinking”–to give “not a work of judgement but a work of vision.” I love getting lost in the words of my peers. And I love writing. All these loves are intimately twined in the review’s encounter.
Conversation form review of, and with, Matthew Zapruder for Adroit Journal: https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/03/05/love-dread-and-poetry-a-conversation-with-matthew-zapruder/
Definition form review of Jim Whiteside for Empty Mirror: https://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/reviews/jim-whiteside-writing-your-name-on-the-glass
Traditional form review of Angelica Narciso Torres for Cleaver: https://www.cleavermagazine.com/to-the-bone-poems-by-angela-narciso-torres-reviewed-by-alina-stefanescu/
Poem riff form review of Sara Borjas for Another Chicago Magazine: https://anotherchicagomagazine.net/2020/06/15/heart-like-a-window-mouth-like-a-cliff-by-sara-borjas/
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Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Prize and was published in May 2018. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes and Random Sample Review as well as Poetry Review for Up the Staircase Quarterly. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, the 2019 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can’t believe or deserve any of this. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.