Publisher’s note: Leah’s thoughtful words have inspired IS&T to designate many of our reviews as ‘In Praise Of’ pieces where, while still demanding thoughtful analysis as described below, we acknowledge the link between the Reviewer and Poet, as at the moment and due to financial constraints, we ask writers and publishers to seek out their own reviewers.

The angle of review feels so open-ended. Classic hits might range from a love letter, to a star-map charting the poet’s text, to a process of decryption or diamond appraisal. Spam Cuts, for example, are slices of attention, single poem reviews for a reader to taste the critical meat. I only sit in judgement when I feel stranded on the top shelf (and I can’t get down). My house got robbed; they lifted my Vanessa Kissule poetry book (finally, a commendation better than a MacArthur Genius Grant) and left, very intentionally, my friend’s crocheted hat (one star). I’ve unintentionally looted a library of Vahni Capildeo. These are not un/effective measures of poetry.

Still, review is seldom effusive! I adore it when, I guess, I just had to text you, wow, yeah this is so great, I love the way, I want to share, this made me think of, I just can’t believe—! Like, melting into delight, capitulation, outside of words, again. Still. In the onslaught of billboards & blurbs, if the gilded chrome seems uncritical, savvy city-dwellers have filters set to are they marketing me something?

When you have (as is clear at IS&T) a community of people speaking to each other, what’s the use of an artificial critical distance? Poet or otherwise, your best critic probably loves you. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks speaks about the place of love and care in her classroom, an arena where passion and desire have been characterised as out of place. She goes back over her students’ feedback, points out, “I read notes that could easily be considered ‘romantic’”. The journal of one student in particular stood out to me: “Isn’t that part of feeling whole— the ability to be able to talk, to not have to be silent or performing all the time, to be able to be critical and honest—openly? This is the truth you have taught us: all people deserve to speak.”

In Praise Of perhaps runs the chance of diplomatic cursive, circling, or the milky cliché of wedding speeches. I find I am defensive, in advance, of this idea, which ultimately I can’t defend. And I don’t want to defend it, I want to find out if we can start to enable a culture or a community that might nurture all of us as poets. You tell me. Are we all striving to sound like professional reviewers? Fred Moten says, “a riot erupts and the professional looks absurd, like a recruiting booth at a carnival”. Shed the suits, no more business-casual, please.

 

BASIC GUIDELINES FOR REVIEW

When reviewing for IS&T, it is helpful to:

  1. Introduce the work and include some context.
    • This might look like drawing out touchstones for the collection. For instance, a first-time reader of Karenjit Sandhu’s collection young girls! might be interested in an introduction to Amrita Sher-Gil, the Indian-Hungarian artist the poems circle.
    • Though a CV of awards or accolades or the background of the poet might be of interest to some, they don’t always work in favour of a review. In particular, as Sandeep Parmar points out, “In the case of poets of color, too often British reviewers emphasise their identity or biography rather than engaging with the poetry itself.”
  1. Engage with the poetry. Work backwards from what you feel.
    • Where do shifts or changes take place? Which poems feel significant to you, across a pamphlet or collection? Which lines, words, or features stand out in a poem?
    • What about the form? How does it arrive to you? Most poems aren’t hung on the bleached out walls of a gallery; it assumes a parameter, situation, or takes a shape to be read. Tanatsei Gambura’s pamphlet Things I have Forgotten Before performs feats of finesseher poem, ‘Diagram of a Phone Screen Belonging to the SAPS Officer Processing My Documents’ rings through a telephone tree, the kind of help that isn’t really help (is much worse).
    • While many poems arrive in freer verse, constructions will still persist! I’m thinking of the way D.S. Marriott begins Hoodoo Voodoo, in ‘On the Whiteness of the Whale’, how he manages to carry a rhyme so it still hits, strung across half a stanza; how the same phrase echoes again into the next poem.
    • Notice, does the poet use slang, different registers, expression or colloquialisms—and what if they don’t? The professional register, the Queen’s idea of perfect grammar, is far from neutral.
    • Who is that voice? Or is it voices? There are so many textures to I shades of you, we, our, that fold the reader back inside the poet. Who are you, they, uttered in accusatory tones? Who is I when it is not I? (Whose I is that? In more detail, Will Harris writes on perspective and the weak strength of I; Dorothea Lasky points out, don’t assume it’s the poet’s…).
    • Read the poem aloud, listen to the poet read it. The page is not the end.
  1. Briefly acknowledge if you have the pleasure of knowing the poet in question.
    • Poetry circles are small, and writers are readers are writers (I would argue readers have the right of it).Counter that idea! Uno! Reverse the direction of play: if acknowledged, what might the close insight do for, to a review? Dave Coates uses disclosures to let the reader know if or how he might be connected to the poet, so the reader might make their own informed judgment on his opinions.
  1. Include quotations of different length.
    • A short, single line lets you linger and read closely.
    • A longer line or whole section demonstrates for the reader how the poetry flows.
  1. Does the work answer, ultimately, the questions it poses?
    • Or what loose ends are left for you to gather?
    • A judgement of good or bad tells me so little—good or bad for what? Listen, like it’s a conversation. Can you hear what the poet wants/to say?

 

RESOURCES