Reviewing Poetry Books: Why Does It Matter?

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Please welcome the incredible Jeannine Hall Gailey to the blog! She's going to cover a topic that I don't feel gets enough coverage: poetry book reviews.

I'm enjoying the guest posts on this blog, but they can only continue with your participation. If you have an idea, send it my way at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com, and we’ll work to flesh it out. No idea is too big, too small, or too "out there." Okay, maybe some are, but I won't judge.

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I recently had just this conversation over coffee with a colleague: Why do you write book reviews? I’ve been reviewing poetry books for almost a decade now, mostly (luckily) books I’ve loved, a few books I’ve been indifferent about, and very few books I’ve hated.

Does it benefit you in any way? Does it help your writing career? What do you gain from it?

All perfectly valid questions, and, easy to understand. Most of my reviews are unpaid, though I’ve been paid for a portion of them. It’s a lot of time and effort to spend lifting up someone else’s work, without a lot of reward – I mean, very few authors or publishers write me happy notes, saying “Thank you so much for that thoughtful review!”

Why Review Poetry Books?

The reward, I started to say, was being part of the larger critical conversation, where, let’s face it, not enough women are being heard. Reviewing teaches you to be a close and careful reader of books by writers I admire and respect, tests your aesthetic preferences and prejudices, and encourages you to slow down and pay attention to the poetry world around you, what’s being published, and by whom, what isn’t being published and why.

For instance, Copper Canyon Press and Wave Books are both Northwest publishers, but they have very different aesthetics. You learn something about publishers and publishing trends that might help you when you start sending your book around.

But even more than that, someone said to me in my late twenties, “If you want your poetry book to be reviewed, then you’d better review other people’s books.” In the spirit of paying it forward, we writers need to give back to our literary communities in real, concrete ways, and writing reviews is one of the ways we can do that.

In the same way that volunteering to edit at a literary magazine helps you understand the process of rejection and acceptance, reviewing helps you understand why your own book may or may not be reviewed.

How Do I Know If I Can Write Book Reviews?

Another question I’ve gotten a lot comes from a different angle: “How do I know if I’m qualified to write a book review? I mean, I have an MFA, but…” I hear this all the time.

How do you start writing literary criticism? I started out getting a lot of practice, starting at NewPages.com reviewing literary magazines, and from there I just kept practicing, writing for more and more outlets, some more chatty, others more academic.

If you want to learn how to review a book, read the reviews in some of the literary magazines you already enjoy, but also pick up The New York Times Review of Books, The Women’s Review of Books, Poetry Flash, The Review Review, and The American Book Review. Find and read the reviews from some of our best poetry critics, like Stephen Burt, one of my particular “critic heroes.”

Check out some of the more lively online review venues, like The Rumpus, to see what the hipsters are reading and reviewing (but full disclosure: I review for The Rumpus and cannot, strictly, be called any kind of hipster). After all that reading, you’ll have a good feel for what’s required, so just try your hand, practice, and send out some queries!

There are never enough good poetry reviews out there, and despite my aforementioned lack of poetry review thank-you-notes, authors will be grateful!

Jeannine Hall Gailey

Jeannine Hall Gailey

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Jeannine Hall Gailey is the former Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and the author of three books of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers.

In addition to being a great poet and supporter of poetry, including a guest judge for the 2014 April PAD Challenge on Day 27, she wrote a very generous review of Robert Lee Brewer's debut collection, Solving the World's Problems, in the most recent edition of Crab Creek Review. And Robert is very grateful!

Learn more about Jeannine (and buy some books) at her website: www.webbish6.com.

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