Poetry Shelf: On reviewing poetry, blogging and answering emails

How to review a book? I keep returning to this perplexing question, allergic as I am to review models that demand you ought to do this or do that, or to represent the content of a book in such detail there is no point in reading it. I love reading reviews that entice me to read a book, without ruining the potential reading experience, that offer criticism for the sake of creating not breaking, an idea Virginia Woolf played with.

I think I am a gut reviewer who takes eons reading and writing. There are so many doors and windows, walls and sidepaths, stairways and stairwells, to experience along the way. Reviewing is a way of re-presenting a reading experience, of translating the moment where you drift and stall, ponder and puzzle, or the moment where you feel the poem and its ripple effects, or the way a truckload of questions might ferment, pleasingly. It can be so unexpected. Recently reading and reviewing Joan Fleming’s Song is Less and Katherine Rundell’s Why You Should Read Children’s Books: Even Though You Are So Old and Wise epitomised this for me. It also applies to the trove of children’s picture books I am currently reviewing on Poetry Box.

Reading a poem, is a sequence of diversions or hauntings, a soothing balm or disconcerting spike. The thought of holding a yardstick up to a poem with a provisional set of rules or entrenched poetry etiquette makes me feel nauseous. And yes, the book that captivates me, that fills me with reading joy, might infuriate you, leave you unsatisfied. Pick up a book and you activate your own version of it.

If it is a matter of getting a book, I think it is a matter of receiving it. This means opening arms wide to embrace what a poetry book might do. I am also drawn to review fiction and nonfiction on the blog so maybe Book Shelf seems a more apt label – but the blog’s origins are in poetry and it is still my aim to provide space and occasions for poetry in Aotearoa.

Poetry Shelf started out in response to a paucity of poetry reviews in Aotearoa. Today there are so many avenues for celebrating poetry, poetry books, poets and performances, both online and in print media: for example, Landfall-on-Line, Poetry NZ, The Listener, Starling, Kete Books, The Spin Off, the revitalised NZ Review of Books. Poetry makes innovative and crucial appearances at our literary festivals, the small ones and the big ones! Poetry communities get together and perform work, drawing together audiences in ways that are energised and inspiring.

The past year has been a tough road for me, as I recover from my bone marrow transplant and boulders surface along the way – but reading, writing and blogging have been such a crucial anchor. I am currently running on 8 tablespoons of energy a day which means I choose carefully what I do. I am no longer prompt at answering emails, and I only post one review a week tops. Ah, I have so many blog ideas that sit in the waiting room and I still have to get the series of place poems online.

Sometimes I fill with despair and raging self doubt, maybe at a review I have just written or the enticing stack of books on my desk. Yet books, writing and blogging are a vital way of connecting with the world, with ideas, feelings, startle moments. A poem can pull you in so closely, so intimately, to inhabit a time or a place, it is transcendental. You rise above daily routines and you experience an uplift of body and spirit. Like an essential oil. This also works for me with reviews. I have read a few “lazy” reviews lately that have irritated me so much; badly written, as far from the book I have read as you can imagine, cribbing from publicity material, a seemingly scant history of reading widely, criticism for the sake of criticism rather than enhancing what fiction, poetry, writing can do within a vibrant range of styles, forms, subject matter, points-of-view.

I may not answer your emails – I am not yet using Poetry Shelf as a regular noticeboard – but slowly, step by step, small review by small review, featured poem by featured poem, I aim to furnish a space that demonstrates the width and breadth, the heart and lungs, the vital pulse of reading and writing poetry in Aotearoa. My blog is nothing without you, the reader, the writer, the fans of poetry, books, conversation. Thank you to everyone who helps make Poetry Shelf work as a community of voices.

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