In my thirty years of writing, I had only published four poetry book reviews until last year. So ending the year with sixteen reviews written and published took a major shift in attitude and practice. You could do this too.
Reviewing is certainly about being a good literary citizen and paying it forward, but I also love the relationships I’ve built with writers and editors, I love how much reviewing has taught me about how to put a book together, and I certainly don’t mind all the publishing credits.
get over yourself
We all have good reasons not to review, like we choose to give the precious time outside of work and family obligations to writing poems. But maybe we have reasons that are just unnecessary road blocks, basically another way of saying, I’m not worthy.
My academic background trained me that if you were not an expert on a topic, you better not weigh in. Basically, I expected a dissertation from myself every book review.
I don’t think it’s wrong to expect some background knowledge. Certainly, having a basic understanding of the Great Migration gave me a starting point for Eve L. Ewing’s book 1919, a series of poems about a race riot in Chicago, but I didn’t need to know as much as the author, a sociology prof.
Also, Google. In this era of having all references at our fingertips, if poetry brings us words and worlds we don’t know, it’s no longer days searching through the library stacks to get up to speed. In a few seconds, I found out about chaos theory, Aztec rituals, and the meaning of aventurine, camerae, and carbochan. I don’t have to be an expert going in; I have to admit what I don’t know and be open to a little research.
In a similar way, my concerns about social justice stopped me cold. I’m a White middle-class middle-aged woman from the west coast, what right do I have to comment on the poetry of Black gay men? Or young women who move from the Mideast to the Midwest? Or Latinex poets? I may not know how my white colored glasses distort my understanding of Hala Alyan’s poetry, but I don’t doubt it’s happening. White people reading people of color includes an ugly history. The words colonizer, patronizer, distorter, appropriater, and fool jump to mind.
But. If I let my fear of getting it wrong get in the way of trying, it’s just another way of shutting the door. My reviewing books by people other than myself can be an act of social justice if I am self-aware and careful.
where to find books to review
If you start reviewing books, you will have free books for the rest of your life. Everybody will shove books at you. Editors would be happy to have you review their publications. Journals have a list of titles they want reviewed, and then there are your friends and friends of friends who have a new book out and would love to send you a copy for review.
Which brings us to an important question: what if I’ve promised to review a book and I discover I don’t like it?
Option 1: Politely bow out.
Option 2: Don’t write a review that says whether this book is good or bad. Write the review that says what this book does and how. Most journals these days don’t want a negative review. They say so in their guidelines. But they also don’t want you to be fawning. They want a review that tells them the context of the book. Are all the poems in liminal places like airports? Do all the poems take place in front of art? Does this book follow a cancer diagnosis? They want a review that covers the book’s themes. They want some samples of the style and some analysis of that style. So, even if you personally don’t like the convention of capitalizing each line or couplets don’t make your heart go zing, you can still say how they work in these poems.
organizing while reading
I read the first poem and code it. Where does this poem take place? What themes does it address? What cool craft moves does it take?
So, I start to get entries with multiple page numbers after them, like this:
Marriage and Sex pp.5, 9, 19
formal structures: pp. 54, 62
As I’m reading the poem, I’m also pulling out quotes and analyzing how they support my point about theme or craft. So, you’ll find entries like this in my notes:
Simple Language 30, 32, 71
Nye’s language is often very simple. And this is not just because sometimes she is channeling the voice of a child. In telling of what her father said about Jimmy Carter, she writes:
He saw us as human beings
He wasn’t afraid to say Apartheid which of course
it was and always had been 76
Nye takes the misery and injustice of Palestine straight on. That simple language makes her voice stark and honest. She is cross-listed in Middle East Studies because she is speaking for those invested in this struggle.
I’m basically writing the review as I write the notes. The problem with my method is I could easily spend half an hour per poem. Not tenable for me. So, I code everything, but I try really hard to only dig in on 5-10 of the poems.
how to organize the review
Once I have my notes done, I decide whether I’m organizing by theme or craft. I still cover both; it’s just which one will give me the structure.
Then I write your basic essay: intro, thesis, body with evidence and analysis, and conclusion. I am kind of terrified until I have the first draft done. What if I just spent all that time reading and cannot figure out how to say anything about this book? What if my review is terrible? But I am working very hard at practicing what I preach to my writing students—bad first drafts, revision.
big important notes
limit your time or you will lose the flow
My first review took me two months. I would pick the book up, read a couple pages, and not get back to it for several days or weeks. Of course, every time I sat down, I had lost the flow. Don’t do this to yourself. I have found that I work best when I can read ten poems in a sitting, and I keep that up daily until done.
you can be in the essay
I’ve seen reviewers talk about their kids and their faith. Acknowledging your background or your personal connection to the book will make your review more intimate for the reader.
write down your page numbers
You want to know the most annoying waste of time? Thumbing through the book trying to find one line from the middle of one poem when you don’t know the title or page number. I did this to myself several times. Ugh.
you will have the pleasure of an editor’s comments
One of the great delights of writing books reviews is it’s never just a yes/no like poetry. You will have the great privilege of having someone else take your work very seriously and help you make it stronger. To help the editor help you, read sample reviews from that journal, proofread, and read their guidelines.
But, don’t embarrass yourself, as I did, by having an editor catch errors you should have caught. It’s one thing if the editor thinks the poem title should come in parenthesis after the poem, and you’ve been introducing the title is an introductory phrase; that’s just style. But editors don’t have the book in front of them. It’s your job to get the quotes exactly right.
It’s not like I haven’t had stacks of poetry around my house for the last thirty years. But, I didn’t always give myself the best chance to learn from them. Writing a book review makes me read poetry slowly, carefully, with a deep consideration of how each poem was made. Writing a book review makes me a better poet.
Deborah Bacharach’s new book, Shake & Tremor, is available now. It’s a very contemporary book of poetry uses references to biblical stories in order to illuminate the relationships between men and women, their difficulties and complications. It’s a bold book of loss and survival, betrayal and love, a book about work and about humanity. Abraham and Sarah are here, as well as Lot and his wife, Hagar, Potiphar, and others. Modern-day lovers are here too, along with struggles and satisfactions that are universal.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015) and Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as The Adroit Journal, New Letters, Broadsided, and Colorado Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.
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