I’m guessing that most reviewers are themselves poets. Many of us know that heart-in-mouth feeling of waiting for the critic’s verdict, the one that might influence perceptions of our work. And we’re hyper aware of the fact that it’s an achievement to get published at all; that most poetry books don’t sell more than a few hundred, and a negative review might adversely affect even those small numbers. Also, from a self-preservation point of view, there’s the risk of retaliation! I remember Derek Mahon saying he once gave a critical review. Twenty years later, a play of his opened in the West End. A review appeared in the paper the following morning that was so damning, the play had to be shut down. You guessed it – same poet. That cold dish of revenge! Mahon’s advice was – don’t be a reviewer, if you’re a poet!
But if poets didn’t write reviews, who would?
Joel Brouwer has said that poets have a responsibility to write serious reviews and essays about their contemporaries, even when the prospect seems daunting. ‘Call it literary jury duty,’ he said.
Even so, what a minefield it is! Of course, we could all praise each other’s work effusively, but would that be useful? Surely it’s the responsibility of the reviewer to identify and promote GOOD poetry as much as possible. As Douglas Duncan once said, ‘An honest, descriptive, detailed, clarifying criticism keeps poetry healthy – it’s poetry’s weed-killer and, to the extent it encourages what’s best in writing, it can nourish poetry too.’
This is why it’s important for a reviewer to build up a reputation for integrity, fair- mindedness and most of all, an ability to identify good poetry. Something that takes time. I have written over 45 reviews for Sabotage (as well as a dozen others for different journals), and would have to say I’m still learning.
Obviously no collection is perfect, and no reviewer worth their salt will write a glowing review without a single reservation. As a poet, it’s the criticisms I learn most from. Flaws identified by a reviewer, if they are backed up by evidence, can be of enormous value in alerting a poet to their own stylistic or semantic tics. Of course, you can always remind yourself it’s just one individual’s opinion, and feel free to disagree with it!
It’s a two-way street, being a reviewer. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the poets I’ve reviewed, because I’ve learned a lot, as a poet, through studying their work, learning from both their strengths and their weaknesses.
One of the reasons I initially chose to write for Sabotage is because I could avoid the pitfalls that come with knowing a poet whose work you are reviewing, a particular hazard in our small Irish poetry community. Usually, I’ve never heard of the poets I’m reviewing, so I can be completely impartial. It’s easy to be influenced by reputation too, so I tend not to google and just focus on the work itself.
Sabotage Reviews is a fantastic platform, not just for poets, but for reviewers to hone their critical skills. Claire Trévien is an outstanding editor, and has created a journal with a deserved reputation for the quality of its reviews. Last year, her appreciation of Sabotage’s long list of reviewers resulted in the offering of this award.
Being selected as runner-up for the inaugural Reviewer’s Award last year was a real boost to my confidence as a critic. Just as it’s gratifying for poets, it’s important for reviewers to get validation too. This award honours the time and effort taken, as well as the sensitivity and skill required to evaluate the work of your peers. And for that, I’d like to thank Claire Trévien and her growing team at Sabotage.
Afric McGlinchey’s collection, The lucky star of hidden things was published by Salmon Poetry in 2012. Achievements include the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Award for 2010, Editors’ Choice for the 2012 Northern Liberties Prize (USA) and the Poets Meet Politics award for 2015. Afric is currently poet in residence at the Uillinn Arts Centre, West Cork. She has recently received a Cork County Council Arts bursary to enable her to complete her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (2016). www.africmcglinchey.com – Twitter: @itosha