Does reviewing feed into your writing? This is one of the questions I, and other poet-reviewers, hear most frequently.
Well firstly, I feel that I need to add the following disclaimer: I’ve been heavily reducing my own reviewing of late, mostly as an act of self-preservation. I reserve my reviewing energy for other magazines than Sabotage Reviews, such as The Warwick Review or Poetry London, because it’s easier to say no to myself than to others. It’s frustrating, because I love reviewing, I love the act of getting under the skin of other people’s phrases. Plus there are obvious perks, such as free books or shows, as well as the sense of contributing to a wider vital discussion of poetry as a whole. Reviewers are the temperature-gaugers of the poetry world: to the reader they are a vital way of getting the sense of an author but also, more widely, of literary culture as a whole.
Unfortunately, my foolish propensity to take on too many projects means that I am more a commissioner of reviews and an editor of reviews these days than a reviewer per se.
One reason why I say ‘unfortunately’ (I know there are obvious downsides to reviewing: falling on a text one doesn’t feel strongly about either way, getting a backlash from the writer(s), tight deadlines and tighter word-counts,…) is because yes, actually, almost every time I’ve reviewed something it has sparked a reaction in my own writing.
So here is my short list of pros for both reading and writing reviews:
- Reading and writing reviews of poetry are a fast way to clarify your taste in poetry.
Whether you agree or not with the review you are reading there will almost certainly be a flash of recognition ‘hey! I do that! I like that! Back off reviewer’ or ‘Yes! Totally agree, I hate it when xyz does that, urgh!’
Why is this important? If you are just starting out as a writer this is especially helpful, but it is also a nice reminder of what you want your writing to stand for in the midst of daily battles with deadlines, commissions and the messiness of living.
- Writing a review is an act of close reading.
You’re probably writing marginalia all over your review copies with ‘yes!’ ‘awful!’ ‘what a line!’ etc. Without necessarily realising it, you’ll be getting ideas for your own writing from this, imbibing techniques, wanting to react with your own take on a subject, and so on and so forth.
Why is this important? We all know that nothing solves a writer’s block as effectively as reading. Well, writing reviews is like that but with added Duracell batteries.
Personally, I am also fascinated about the concept of people only being familiar with an author’s work through their reviews: how does this change in light of their own reading? Do they find the reviewer’s way of framing a work inspiring to their own practice without needing to read the original in its entirety? The latter has definitely happened to me in the past, such as with Rosie Breese’s description of Jared Joseph’s Mammal as ‘a wall of sound – a riotous rattling-off of terms from the animal, human, and physical worlds; a litany that mixes all three into a kind of primordial soup laid thick over the page’. How can such a vivid description not have you reaching for your pen and furiously attempting your own version of a primordial soup?
Some of my favourite online places for quality reviews of contemporary poetry:
Dr Fulminare’s Irregular Features (updated on Wednesdays and Sundays)
Elsewhere (edited by the Magma reviews editor)
Magma Blog (a companion to the hard-copy magazine, which also features reviews)
The Review Review (reviews of magazines, mainly US)
Sphinx Review (reviews of poetry pamphlet)
Stride (generally specializes in experimental/indie poetry)
Naturally, I’d also plug Sabotage Reviews for reviews of indie literature…
Claire Trévien is the Anglo-Breton author of the pamphlet Low-Tide Lottery (Salt), and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins), which is longlisted in this year’s Guardian First Book Award. Her poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including the Forward Book of Poetry 2014 and Best British Poetry 2012. She edits Sabotage Reviews, co-edits Verse Kraken, and co-organizes Penning Perfumes.