On Reviewing Poetry: I decided to go home

Having reviewed fiction and poetry for a number of years for The New Zealand Herald, and as I am about to embark on a new course of reviewing for Poetry Shelf, I have got to thinking about the whole practice. Unlike a number of reviewers in this country, I love reviewing New Zealand books and I actively seek out other reviews of New Zealand books. Why? Partly because I love reading New Zealand books and partly because my academic studies and degrees focused on all things Italian (There are still readers who resist reading and buying NZ books!). Once I walked over the academic threshold with my little box of things and my head full of Italian, I decided to focus on home for a change. I had spent so many years reading Italian from Dante to Calvino to Ramondino and Sereni, from poetry to narrative, and from the Renaissance to contemporary writers, I had missed out on a lot of local books. I decided to go home (in my head, in my reading).

I don’t think I have ever constructed a list of reviewer dos and don’ts to pin to my wall but, after all this time, I realise I have become quite opinionated on reviewing options. So I thought I would share my views and invite comment. This is a somewhat idiosyncratic list, I must confess.

1. I only ever review books that I might be interested in (oh I can’t stand detective novels but let me review this one — really?).

2. I only ever review the book (I can’t stand those reviewers that indulge in personal attack and allow some kind private prejudice against the author to seep into the review. I find this immensely unsatisfying and pointless).

3. My objective when I review a book is to open myself up to the poetry or the narrative and explore what the book is doing. When I did my doctoral thesis I felt slightly allergic to the governing decree that one ought to deconstruct, smash apart. I preferred to build a thesis based upon tenets of construction).

4. When I am reviewing I really don’t want to spend most of the review feeding back the plot (like those film trailers that give you the whole movie in a little pot). Short and sweet I say.

5. Some people have suggested that I am a very kind reviewer. I can see how this opinion might be taken up with poetry. I get to review so few poetry books now that I only pick ones that I have loved (even then I don’t get to review all the books I have loved). So it is not surprising this handful of reviews will be glowing. I write what I experience in the process of reading, and I am not going on the hunt for negative points for the sake of negative points. We produce so many fabulous poetry books here that are cause for celebration as both reader and critic.

6. I am not afraid, however, to make points of criticism when I see the need. I welcome someone who reviews my books in a thoughtful and intelligent way and is unafraid to signal weaknesses (Emma Neale is a case point).

7. We all have different relations to reviews as writers. I can remember my first review of my first book (Cookhouse — and it got some rather nasty reviews!). I was in a supermarket in West Auckland on a Sunday and was walking around going (oh my god! oh my god!) as I read. I was shocked that someone could brutalise my book so badly and get it all so wrong! But by the time I got home I saw this as a valuable lesson. I would never hold a review against someone. I would let my books have their own lives in the world. Years later strangers still come up to me saying they liked Cookhouse. I see the kerfuffle of Book Awards, reviews etc as white noise that can eat away at the process of writing. Unsatisfying and pointless and can only lead to bitterness. Books have lives greater than reviews and awards.

8. When I review poetry I want to be open to as wide a field as possible (and not be constrained by some arbitrary notion of what makes a good poem). In poetry all rules are rules to be broken and any poetry dogma ought to be banished to the garbage bin.

9. I welcome a climate of critical exchange on poetry (and in particular New Zealand poetry) but it seems in danger here of prompting toxic, smart-Alec responses. Unsatisfying and pointless.

10. Whatever I do, I do out of joy and love (maybe this is what happens to those who have had a life under threat). This is how I operate as a writer whether on my blog for children, or visiting schools, or writing poems or secret novels, or reviews. This is my impetus for Poetry Shelf. I review out of a joy for poetry. I will be unafraid to criticise books and I will be unafraid to celebrate them.

2 thoughts on “On Reviewing Poetry: I decided to go home

  1. Diane Brown

    Thanks Paula for such a thoughtful response to reviewing. I don’t do many reviews these days partly because of our small community but I will print this out and make it my guide. I think the point of a review really is to signal the work to a reader and help them make an approach to it. Showing the moves of the dance if you like. So right too about awards etc. But I don’t think you necessarily have had to have had a life under threat to operate out of joy and love. Simply getting older can do that for you as well. It’s the way I approach teaching and is immensely rewarding. Just half way through a writer’s residency at Columba College and it’s a real tonic being with younger students and all their energy.

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    1. Paula Green Post author

      Thanks Diane. It requires a degree of bravery to review NZ books but I know of others (David Hill, Charlotte Grimshaw) who do it out of love of reading and reflecting. I agree too you don’t need a body under threat to get a guiding perspective of love and joy. My list seems to come from my gut and from experience rather than a theoretical grid. Best wishes for your residency!

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