It’s been an interesting experience trying to garner reviews for my book over the past few months. I’m delighted to have received two very positive ones so far, from John McAuliffe in The Irish Times and Richard Hayes in the latest issue of Poetry Ireland’s Trumpet magazine. I’m hoping for a few more in the coming months.
The hunt for reviews is a strange process. It opens you up to criticism as a writer, which means that there is often a temptation to allow the work to slip by unnoticed. But if no one engages with your work in a critical fashion, how do you improve as a writer? The two reviews I’ve had so far have both commented on tendencies in my work of which I previously unaware. This, obviously, will be a great help to me when it comes to writing my second book. Pulling a collection together is an exciting experience, but you can come to a point where you can no longer see the wood from the tress. The viewpoint of the critic is invaluable, when they carry out their work with due care and diligence of course.
I’ve become aware in the past months that there is a very small pool of poetry reviewers working in Ireland. I can understand the reasoning behind this – it’s a small country and it’s not ideal to have acquaintances or even friends reviewing each other’s work. This can devalue the review in the eyes of many and lead to charges of nepotism. There were a few interesting cases of this in 2014, and a recent article in the TLS about David Harsent winning the T.S. Eliot Prize continues the debate and demonstrates that small pond-ism isn’t restricted to the Irish poetry scene.
So how do we become good critics when everyone knows everyone? A lot of this depends on keeping to a firm ethical code – simply don’t review the work of a colleague. It’s an easy line to preach, but how easy is it to practice? My thoughts on this, paired with my own experience waiting for reviews, got me wondering whether the role of a critic is something I’d like to take on. It has its advantages; offering a heightened awareness of the contemporary poetry scene and hopefully fulfilling a useful purpose. But there’s also the risk that after a lot of hard and often unpaid work you could find yourself standing face to face with a lynch mob of angry poets. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that engaging with a scene from which I’m at a safe enough remove would be a good starting point. I decided to see if Sabotage Reviews would have me as a reviewer. I like the aim of their website: to offer reviews to pamphlets and collections published by smaller presses in the UK and further afield. I like that I’d have an opportunity to become more familiar with the English scene at grass-roots level. And I also thought it would be a good discipline for me to try to think critically about the work of other poets.
Sabotage Reviews were happy to have me on board and here’s my first review, of Helen Clare’s Entomology, a pamphlet published by Happenstance Press from Scotland: