And come to that, why read them? If I pick up a magazine that mixes poems and reviews, will I turn avidly to the reviews? Nope. Unless – just possibly – I know there's something controversial in one of them. I will start by reading the poems: first the poets I know, then the ones I don't. I may get to the reviews later. Maybe.
There's only one type of review people turn to immediately with an adrenalin spurt — yes, it's the one that features their own poems. In fact, it may be the only thing they read in the magazine.
Poets generally like to get reviews of their books, though they don't always like the reviews they get. They're far less keen on the writing side, that is to say writing reviews of other poets' books. A few, however, do take on the review task regularly, uncomplainingly and reliably. They are usually – but not invariably – unpaid. Reviewers are the Cinderellas of poetry. There are no national prizes or shortlists for them (fortunately). Occasionally, of course, a review does draw considerable attention by upsetting people, generally unintentionally.
Since 2005, I've been running Sphinx Review: an online publication offering short written responses to poetry pamphlets. I have a co-editor (Charlotte Gann) and a team of 14 – 25 reviewers. Each time a set of reviews is ready, an email newsletter goes out. We have just over 400 subscribers; the 'open' rate is about 33% and the click rate 45%. People may also arrive at individual reviews through FaceBook, Twitter, email and word of mouth. Some of them are widely read. Some are copied onto other websites. Some are hardly read at all. But since they're online, they're there for as long as the site lasts. They help make a poet googlable.
Running Sphinx Review costs masses of time and a growing sum of money. I've been doing it since 2005, with unpaid helpers. It's getting more difficult to afford, in every sense. Next year, when I'm seventy, I will stop. My bones are creaking.
But why start it in the first place? I thought it was important. I still do. I'm a publisher. I put out books and pamphlets and I want them to be noticed. I want there to be a conversation. And I believe in putting your money, as they say, where your mouth is.
The Sphinx approach to reviewing has always been unconventional, and bound by certain principles. We review nearly all the pamphlets that come in, not just the classy ones. We run more than one review for a pamphlet, provided we have more than one copy. When we have new reviewers, we work with them to build confidence and sharpen style. Our reviews are short – hopefully too short to be boring. Our editors (Charlotte Gann and myself) are dedicated and painstaking.
I believe it's good for poets to write reviews. It makes them better readers; it makes them think things through. It makes them look closely, makes them re-read, check references and examine their own prejudices. It teaches them poetry tricks they can use themselves and poetry faults they can avoid. Writing good, accessible reviews is an art worth working at.
Ah but I find it easier to say why poets should write reviews than why they should read them. I'd like to think people might read interesting and original reviews for pleasure. But do they?
This forthcoming Saturday 5 November, I am taking part in a poetry panel as part of the Push the Boat Out festival in Edinburgh, a live event. We will be wrangling over the ins and outs of reviewing. And the very next day, on Sunday 6th, HappenStance poet D A Prince will be on a panel in Poetry in Aldeburgh doing something similar, a live event with a live-streamed option. If you can get to either, please do come along, bringing your ideas and opinions with you. Or post them below. Do you read reviews of poetry books and pamphlets? And if so, why?