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.

Between 2005 and 2017 I ran Sphinx Review: an online publication offering short written responses to poetry pamphlets. I had a co-editor (Charlotte Gann) and a team of 14 – 25 reviewers. Each time a set of reviews was ready, an email newsletter went out. We had just over 400 subscribers; the ‘open’ rate was about 33% and the click rate 45%. People also arrived at individual reviews through FaceBook, Twitter, email and word of mouth. Some were widely read. Some were copied onto other websites. Some were 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 cost masses of time and a growing sum of money. So finally I have stopped. 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 reviewed nearly all the pamphlets that come in, not just the classy ones. We ran more than one review for a pamphlet, provided we had more than one copy. When we had new reviewers, we worked with them to build confidence and sharpen style. Our reviews were short – hopefully too short to be boring. Our editors (Charlotte Gann and myself) were 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?

On Saturday 5 November, 2022, I took part in a poetry panel as part of the Push the Boat Out festival in Edinburgh, a live event. We were wrangling over the ins and outs of reviewing. And the very next day, on Sunday 6th, HappenStance poet D A Prince was on a panel in Poetry in Aldeburgh doing something similar, a live event with a live-streamed option. So these topics are topical and lively. Do you read reviews of poetry books and pamphlets? And if so, why?

Twelve Reasons Why Poets Should Write Reviews

Okay: here goes.

  1. Poetry is a communication — a message in a bottle. A review is a reply.
  2. There is no shortage of poets. But good poetry readers are rare. Reviewing helps you read well.
  3. Reviewing is educative. You look up the references, you look up the poet, you pay attention. You learn things you never knew you didn’t know.
  4. Reviewing poetry gives craft insight: you see new tricks to try, and also some to avoid.
  5. Most poets like to have work reviewed. If you give reviews, you get reviews (not always in equal proportion).
  6. Poets need to write well in prose too. Reviewing (with an editor and some constraints) strengthens prose style and confidence.
  7. Poetry books are costly, especially if you read widely. But review copies are usually complimentary.
  8. Reviews are an art form. Writing them is creative. 
  9. Reviewing strengthens your profile as a writer and extends your network.
  10. People sometimes think reviews are about criticism or praise. Not necessarily. They are (or can be) about expressing interest and encouragement.
  11. Reviewing is a way of paying respect to the community you’re part of, putting your money where your mouth is.
  12. A book and its reviews are a conversation anyone can join, provided they use words carefully. Join the conversation!

Please take a look at sphinxreview.co.uk with its ongoing resource of OPOI reviews, and, if you can bear a few more emails in your inbox, subscribe to the list. 

This will mean you get notifications about new material on the site, mainly new OPOI reviews. Such emails tend to come in little flurries when groups of reviews are posted. If it drives you nuts, you can unsubscribe at any time.

OPOIs are short reviews of poetry pamphlets which focus on only one point of interest (OPOI) in not more than 350 words.

Far more poets would like their pamphlets to be OPOI-ed than would like to write the OPOIs. Forty-three poetry pamphlets have been received for review this year so far, and only three new reviewers have offered their services. More are needed. Over 60 pamphlets are waiting hopefully.

Some poets don’t have the confidence to write reviews. They are nervous of this role, which they see as authoritative and judgmental. OPOI reviews are neither. They are edited before they go public. They are a good thing to do, and if you are reviewing for the first time, the ideal place to start.

Wanted! Echoes for rose petals. . .

So what is an OPOI again? 

I wrote about them before last November and on the Sphinx website too, where there already quite a few of these little beasts are congregating.

They are responses to poetry (or prose) pamphlets that focus on just One Point Of Interest. Not more than 350 words each and can easily be shorter, depending on what the point of interest is.

They are reviews with a difference. The aim is not to evaluate (forget praise or blame). The idea is just to focus on something interesting in the publication, a point of discussion. It could be line six in one particular poem. It could be your inability to make sense of any of the poems. It could be a particular metaphor. It could be the use of ellipsis.

What I really hope will happen is for a publication to attract several responses, not just one. Polly Clark’s A Handbook for the Afterlife has two already, but there must be dozens of you out there fascinated by that set of poems. We have room for more.

This is not just another ‘send me your pamphlets and I will organise reviews’. Never mind the pamphlet and the stamps. Send me your OPOI!

There are a few rules. Very simple:

  • 100-350 words.
  • Only focussing on one point of interest (preferably with a heading to indicate what it is).
  • Must approach the work with respect (no cavilling or carping).
  • Written in prose.
  • Details of price, date of publication and source/publisher required.

Of course people can post whole pamphlets to me too and my trusty team will do their best to organise a starter OPOI, though equally you could look at what we have already, and send your OPOI to join the others. It is a friendly fray. Please join it.

Remember ginger beer plants? The way they grew and grew in the cellar (well, ours was in the cellar)? Each day you had to divide the starter and let it begin its work again. So you would give a ginger beer plant to a friend in a jam jar, and they would give one to their friend, and so on. In the end, the delicious ginger beer took over the town, until no-one could bear to think about it any more.

I don’t envisage quite that end for the OPOI but I would like them to be a different kind of response, and to grow. Alan Hill reminded me last week that Don Marquis said ‘publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo’. Echoes to rose petals – that’s what these OPOI are, but louder. You don’t need to be a weighty reviewer. You just need to respond to a single point of interest in any (probably poetry) pamphlet that has come your way, new or old. Send your thoughts to me in an email or via the contact box. Don’t be shy.

Are you, by any chance, contemplating the publication of your own poetry pamphlet? If so, it’s time to read and have thoughts about other people’s. What makes a short collection interesting to you? What has made you want to keep one forever, as opposed to flicking through and smiling politely?

The Grand Canyon is waiting.






The days of three reviews per pamphlet have come to an end.

It had grown too time consuming. It was a fine thing to do but it has stopped.

Thankfully more outlets are doing pamphlet reviews these days. And the era of the poetry pamphlet is still in full swing, with the second year of the Poetry School / Pighog pamphlet competition.

So Sphinx can concentrate more on features and interviews, and maybe some other pamphletty bits and pieces. We’ll see. It’s a new year and, thanks to Zipfish, the site has a new look. Do pay a visit! And please note the news items – and let me know if you have any you’d like added.

Meanwhile, I’m deep, deep in the submissions pile. If yours is one of them, I hope to have them all returned by the end of the month and probably in time to enter them for the Pighog competition, if that seems appropriate and you have any money left after Christmas. (I am not working through the manuscripts in the same order they arrived.)

At the same time, I’m writing Chapter Eight of the Story. Phew.




The answer is no. But then the answer could be yes.



Gillian Rose GraphicIt depends whether a review can be considered an art form. It depends what’s meant by ‘ekphrastic’.


I’ve never warmed to the term ‘ekphrastic’, but then I suspect all complex literary terms. Too quickly, they become the privileged jargon of Those In The Know (TITKs). Poems termed ‘ekphrastic’ start to sound special.


There is no univeral agreement about the meaning of the term. Ekphrastic is plastic: it can be moulded to suit the purpose of the user. It can simply mean “a literary description or, or commentary on, a visual work of art” (Merriam Webster). According to this definition a review might even be ekphrastic, provided the poem under scrutiny were conceived of as visual works of art, and reviews as verbal.


The freedictionary.com draws on another popular definition of ekphrasis as “the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art”. The Ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for. For them, ekphrasis was part of the literary training known as ‘rhetoric’, an art in itself, and a dramatic one. The derivation (though it doesn’t help us much) is from the Greek ‘ek’ and ‘phrasis’, meaning ‘out’ and speak’. The verb ekphrazein is to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name. (It cheers me to know ekphrasis can be spelled with a c.  Ecphrasis looks less intimidating, though also – to me – wrong.)


Wikipedia (like a number of other sites) lists the famous instances of ekphrastic writing, from ancient to modern. These include Homer’s extensive description of the shield of Achilles, Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and a Shakespearean description of paintings in Cymbeline. I don’t know Cymbeline well enough to remember where the reference to paintings comes. But the other two . . .  Keats may have been thinking about one particular urn, but it’s more likely he invented an urn image to suit his poem. Homer is unlikely to have seen Achilles’ shield, other than in his imagination. These are responses to imaginary works of art, not actual ones.


But Marjorie Munsterberg (2008-2009) says “For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined. The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.”


It seems to matter to us these days that the subjects should be actual. The Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award (Victoria, Australia) 2013 posts the artworks that are to be responded to, and later posts the images beside the winning poems. Some of these are amazing: well worth a look. A number of art galleries (The Scottish National Portrait Gallery does this annually) run competitions for poets to write in response to paintings. During the Titian exhibition in 2012, the National Gallery in London launched the ‘Tweet Titian’ challenge: to write a poem inspired by Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, ‘The Death of Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ in 140 characters or less (Jacqueline Saphra won). Ekphrasis joins Twitter.


Andrew Carruthers, writing in the Cordite Poetry Review in May 2012, comes up with a form of poetry that has escaped me up to now: “poetic art” – that is to say, not the art of poetry but “poetry which is not simply poetry but also art, and not even just art; a practice which attempts a ‘generalised ekphrasis’ across the boundaries between mediums while considering its main business to be that of poetry.”


It is very difficult. What is poetry?


Please don’t answer that, not even in a comments box. People are always defining poetry and it doesn’t help. The significant factor is that one considers oneself to be about the business of making whatever one considers poetry to be. And our simplest understanding of poetry is something significant made of words. Hold that thought.


Carruthers talks about what he describes as xerographesis, a form of art work more simply termed ‘the photocopy poem’. But his discussion is enormously complex and simplification from me won’t help here. The visual works themselves look (follow the Cordite Poetry Review link above to see them) surprisingly easy to respond to, given the complexity of describing what they might be doing in words.


Carruthers goes on to rehearse the way other art forms have poached the concept of ekphrasis: musicians who respond to paintings or sculpture, painters who respond to music etc. He quotes James Heffernan’s definition of ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (1993),  a delightfully simple but somewhat problematic statement (it doesn’t mention art at all). He (Carruthers) then applies a mathematical metaphor:


reduce it to its common denominators, and then factor in the hybridity of interartistic exchange in ekphrastic practices, you get ‘the representation of representation.’ Before each representation you might substitute any of the multiple types of art: ‘sculptural representation of musical representation,’ ‘painterly representation of verbal representation,’ and so on.


I have a bit of a problem with syllables. Once words with large numbers of syllables multiply, I find it difficult to follow the meaning. Put “interartistic” in the same phrase as “ekphrastic practice” and one of my eyebrows starts to misbehave. Still, I am quite attracted to “the representation of representation”.


Although this blog is already too long, I can’t conclude without mentioning Ryan Welsh’s essay on ekphrasis (2007) in the University of Chicago Theories of Media glossary. Thinking about just one word can be enormously educational.


Welsh says (reassuringly): “Few pieces of media jargon have as long a history or as considerable an evolution as ekphrasis”. While bearing in mind Humpty Dumpty’s celebrated assertion (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”), it is worth reading on: Welsh says a number of illuminating and entertaining things.


For example, he quotes art critic Peter Wagner (1996) – “We should drop, once and for all, the tacit assumption that the verbal representation of an image must be “literary” to qualify as ekphrasis – in our age of the arbitrary sign it has become extremely difficult to distinguish between ‘literary’ and ‘critical’ text.”


Ha! Indeed it has. Certain kinds of review may be more literary than critical. They may be one form responding to another: they may even be the representation of representation. On the other hand, “Wagner is mindful of the need to broaden and restrict the usage of the word ekphrasis.” Quite. The TITK fraternity need boundaries to stay defined, though type designers see word as image, which really throws a spanner in the works.


I like that W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) proposes a three-part understanding of ekphrasis:


1. ekphrastic indifference
2. ekphrastic hope
3. ekphrastic fear


Bear hug, a graphic by Gillian RoseI shan’t attempt to explain these steps in the evolution of the understanding of the word ‘ekphrastic’ because I am pretty sure your (and my) use of the word has now regressed to an earlier state where our indifference is more than merely ekphrastic. Besides, “If ekphrasis were to become a complete and perfect intermediary between the two sides of the word/image dialectic”, as Mitchell points out, “the entire paradigm would crumble.”


I will make a couple of unsupported assertions anyway and sod the paradigm. I think a poetry review could be one art form responding to another. It need not necessarily comment on perceived strengths or weaknesses, because reviews can do all sorts of things, not least when they think of themselves as art forms (though this has risks of its own).


Most poetry reviews are written by poets. A review might be written with the same precision and attention that a poet pays to her poem in construction. It could be a piece of ekphrastic art: a creation in its own right, a unique response to something worth responding to.


It makes no commercial sense. Perhaps not even any other kind.

I’m talking about the Sphinx poetry pamphlet review service. I am proud it happens, but each time I do it, I wonder. . . .

There’s no spin-off, no ‘profit’, other than that of (perhaps) securing good reviews for some of my own poets. And my own poets have the same risk as all the others whose pamphlets go out for review: they don’t always get the remarks or the rating I think they deserve or that their authors would like.

Here’s the process. Publishers (some of them and by no means all) send in three copies of a pamphlet of poems. The publication has to be short enough that it’s not a book in disguise. Some full collections now are as short as 40 poem pages (I’ve seen 38), so the limit for this service is 34. Even then, if you write short poems and squash in 2 to a page, you’re chancing your arm.

I log the pamphlets on receipt. Sometimes they can’t be reviewed because they’re too short, or have no ISB number, or for a variety of other reasons. In this case, I usually post them back. Quite often the publisher sends only one copy, not three. In this case, if they’re this side of the Atlantic, I usually email the sender and suggest they might want to send two more. If they’re on another continent, I figure they should just have read the site submissions more carefully.

The pamphlets start to stack up on my shelf and topple onto the floor. When I can’t bear it any longer and have a little time for the task, I send them out to the review team. There are a lot of reviewers now. There have to be. If the pile of pamphlets numbers, say, 30, that’s 90 reviews. If I send out two each, I need 45 reviewers.


But it’s complicated keeping in touch with that number of people, and each time round, I’m aware some of them won’t want to review or will have moved house or something. Each time, one of the parcels won’t reach its reviewer (such a nuisance, because that means I’ll only get two reviews in, not three, and sometimes that means I end up buying pamphlets to replace the missing ones).

I update the notes for reviewers each time round and post them out with the pamphlets. It takes about a day to do the notes, the parcels and take them to the post. This week’s consignment cost not much short of £50.00 to send because the price of postage has sky-rocketed. More review copies have arrived so I’m not done yet.

When the reviews start coming in, I edit and file them. When all three are complete for a publication, I put them together and edit out any duplications if they unbalance the review (sometimes reviewers say the same thing, or all three choose the same poem to quote), work out the stripe rating and save them ready to go online. I try not to offend any of the reviewers, since they, too, are getting no payment for this.

When most of the reviews are done, I start to chase up late ones. There are always a few who have forgotten or mislaid the pamphlet. Or even those who sent them and I somehow deleted them by mistake (I try to be careful but it can happen).

Some of the reviewers will have returned their copies in despair. They don’t like something at all, or it baffles them so completely they feel unable to respond. Generally reviewers prefer poems that make sense, but not all poets intend ‘sense’ as the prime mover. So often I end up reviewing these myself, as well as a couple that I allocated to H. Nelson early on.

Finally I upload all the reviews to the website and wait for the flak. Somebody will spot an error in a review, or complain about the treatment they got from x, y or z. Someone I like will get a mean review from someone else I also like. Hey ho!

Of course, someone else will be dead chuffed by their review, busily milking the text for blurb for their next publication.

So why do it?

Originally, it was because pamphlets didn’t get reviewed. A method of ensuring they did.

However, these slender publications are getting more attention than they used to. There are a number of worthy poetry pamphlet competitions promising a pamphlet as prize. This publication can then be entered for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award (if Scottish) or The Michael Marks Award: more publicity for pamphlets. As a result of the most recent Michael Marks event, a whole page in the Times Literary Supplement was devoted to Andrew McCulloch’s discussion of pamphlets.

However, they don’t all get reviewed, except on Sphinx, if they’re sent in. Some of them can vanish without a trace. Some of them, of course, probably should vanish without a trace, but that’s by the by.

I’d like to think that dedicating three reviews to a small publication can complete the circle for a poet. Poetry is a communication – not just a communication with people you know, but with people you’ve never met. Here are three readers, none of them friends of the author, making intelligent responses, from which something may be learned. The three readers can be the start of an ongoing discussion: what they say may make other readers want to get hold of the publication and contribute their thoughts.

So much of poetry these days (like everything else) is about winning something. I think winning is a red herring. We should stop obsessing about winning and start being interested in what makes us think, what makes us curious, what we can learn from.

There’s also the business of what poetry pamphlets are – and what they’re for. The reviewers are part of a thinking process: looking at that, weighing it in the balance, seeing where this aspect of poetry culture is going in our time. Most, though not quite all, of the Sphinx reviewers are poets, and I’m convinced it’s good for them to think hard about this issue. They have, after all, an investment in the business, and it’s in all our interests to raise the game, to brandish our shared understanding that we take this kind of thing seriously.

Latterly, there’s been interest in an even more neglected type of pamphlet publication: the short story pamphlet. One of the publications from the new pamphlet press Crystal Clear Creators is Without Makeup, a set of short stories by Hannah Stevens. Meanwhile, the division between poetry and short story blurs, as other poets create whole pamphlets of prose poems.

At the moment Sphinx can’t do reviews for short story pamphlets, even though such publications are a great idea, either on paper or as e-books. Perhaps someone else would like to organize a review service? You need a few bob to cover the costs, and quite a lot of time. What about it?


The three high stripers for 2011 have been REVEALED!

In 2011, no fewer than 65 poetry pamphlets were reviewed on Sphinx.

That was 195 reviews, three for each publication.

As you probably know, Sphinx reviewers not only write a review in the ordinary way, they make a rating, using four categories:

  • production values
  • quality of the poetry
  • coherence of the collection
  • strength of recommendation.

Generally, any publication getting six stripes or above is worthy of note, and it’s likely at least one of the reviewers has liked it  a lot. The rating process, though, is a tricky one. Without doubt it does happen that two reviewers rate high, while the third does the reverse. The way we evaluate poetry (and much else) is . . . subjective.

To get a very high stripe rating, a publication must impress all three reviewers.

In 2011, 17 of the 65 publications achieved eight stripes. This is a significant accolade. It suggests just over a quarter of pamphlets sent in for review are indubitably of a high standard –not just the poetry, the production values and so on. But poetry pamphlets have upped their game, have they not? Some fabulous things are springing from the presses these days.

Three publications achieved even higher ratings. At 8.5 stripes. They were:

And finally (roll of drums please and ta-da!), the nine-stripers and therefore leaders in the field for 2011 were:

Congratulations to Luke, Kirsten and Tony! May your stripes never grow shorter.

Meanwhile, you can find the latest reviews for 2012 on www.sphinxreview.co.uk.  None of these so far have attained nine stripes but some are pretty close . . .


How could I NOT have said this last week?

How could I NOT have said this last week?

. . .  is to learn. Maria Taylor reminded me and of course it’s true. For a  poet-reviewer, you study other people’s poems because you want to learn how it’s done (and occasionally what to avoid).

Gerry Cambridge, whose ‘bio’ paragraphs for poets at the end of The Dark Horse are often a little more unpredictable than some, once described me as “a practising poet”. Wonderful description! It’s like being a doctor, in which case my practice is in Fife. But it can also mean, and certainly subsumes, the sense that regular practice is required, or even that one is only a practising poet. Practising for the real thing, that is.

But part of being a Permanently Practising Poet (PPP) is taking part in your own individualised master-classes. By this, I mean carefully and closely reading work you admire. In this way, the master poem demonstrates its art to you. Sometimes, with superb work, you just goggle because it is so good.

Or you go over and over it, and can’t quite work out how it does what it does, although it still does it (my favourite kind of text).

At other times, after reading and re-reading, you see many interesting intricacies in the pattern of shape and sound. It’s like a first-rate fruit cake. You enjoy it more, the slower you nibble, the more you notice the shape and texture, the fine ingredients.

I don’t want to push the fruit cake analogy, or mix my metaphors too far. There is a limit to how much fruit cake you want to nibble. Also a limit to how much fine poetry you can take in at one go. But that’s as it should be.

Mostly reviewers grapple with mixed work. Some great bits, some wobbly bits, some damned interesting bits. And then the analogy is more like panning for gold. When you find what you think might be the RT (Real Thing), you get very excited and pore over it for ages. And if you think it definitely is, you want to share your find. What a pleasure then, to write about it!

If you think it’s FG (Fool’s Gold), you get a bit narky, especially if you’ve spent a very long time standing in a cold stream with your 14” heavy gauge steel pan (although these days, you can get plastic gold pans). It is this emotion that sometimes leads to impatience on the part of reviewers. But they should know better.

And ideally, there is some gold. It is what the PPP is looking for and it is what the PUS (Poet Under Scrutiny) is looking for too. And it is invariably highly interesting and worthy of drawing attention to, because no one bit of Po Go is like any other bit. So the PPP reviewer tries to learn what makes it what it is, tries phenomenally hard, because if we could only learn the secret, we could replicate it. But by and large, all that can be learned (though this is not to be sneezed at) is something about technique, or occasionally something about lack of it. This is only one of the reasons why poetry is amazing.

And sometimes, that which is indubitably gold to one PPP is dross to another, which is also part of the fun. “What is aught but as ’tis valued,” as Troilus says to Hector (of Cressida).

Speaking of which, a number of Cressidas volunteered their services as Sphinx reviewers last week. I am delighted.


I must think there is one, because I’ve been writing them for well over two decades.

I must think there is one, because I’ve been writing them for well over two decades.

Many writers and many (but not all) publishers are keen to get work reviewed, and as widely as possible, often on the principle (apparently) that all publicity is good publicity.

Certainly when a book is widely reviewed, one has the impression the work is being read and talked about. That can encourage people to join the conversation (which entails reading the book—hurrah!).

Poetry books are meant to be read, are they not? What else are they for? And having been read, there is necessarily a response.

There are many ways of communicating that response, though. The friends and acquaintances of the poet can talk to the author, send her charming letters, post appreciative notes on her FaceBook wall.

Those who don’t know the poet personally can talk to each other, mutter at reading groups, confer in conferences, natter at chatterfests.

But poetry is a difficult art. It demands (and often rewards) close reading and re-reading. It is literature. It requires a response in kind.

A poetry review offers that response, in writing, and does this artfully. A well-written response to a book of poems can be, in itself, a minor art form. It is not an easy thing to write, not easy to articulate the effect some poems have had. Countless factors come into it, not least a haunting feeling of inadequacy—perhaps because of not understanding the poems, or not picking up the references, or not knowing how to make sense of the levels of form and meaning. Sometimes a reviewer has to put the need to ‘make sense’ to one side, to read in ways she has never previously considered. As I said, poetry is a difficult art.

Nevertheless, some collections of poems stimulate wonderful responses. I have ordered many a book after reading a review—not because the review was strongly approving but because I wanted to see for myself what the poems were doing.

Most reviews of poetry are written by poets. I don’t believe only poets can write poetry reviews but I do think anyone practising this strange art (poetry, no less) should be thinking intelligently not only about what they themselves are doing in the small hours but also what their peers are up to—and I think they should attempt to articulate some of that.

Ah but . . . reviews can lead to clashes and consternation, especially in the age of instant online interaction. In terms of roles, the reviewer, inside her small review page, can say precisely what she wants. The poet cannot answer back. The reviewer is, therefore, in a position of apparent power.

If it is a position of power, it is a vulnerable one. Once a review is published, the author of that review really has stuck her neck out. She has put her mouth where the melée is. No worries if the response to the poems is broadly consistent with what others are saying (there is strength in numbers, and this may help explain the consistency often established in reviews of prize-winning volumes). If, however, the response in the review is radically different from the common crowd, it can be the reviewer who looks silly. Or foolishly brave.

Sometimes poets are upset by reviews. Critical comments about their work feel personal—of course they do. Sometimes they sound personal too (I said reviews can be a minor art form, but they can also be a minor disaster) and once published, it is too late. The neck is out there. The poet is upset. The tweets are twittering.

Many actors choose not to read reviews of plays. Poets can do the same. Or—they can inhabit the attire they have chosen for themselves—words. Words are a means of communication. Communication invites a response. Indeed, without that response, the communication hasn’t occurred.

So writing reviews, organizing reviews, publishing reviews—this is the other side of the process—a necessary and under-appreciated side. It could do with a bit more nurturing (who would pay for an Arvon course on review writing?) but perhaps the dedication creates its own school of honour.

Reviewer wanted. No remuneration (for the most part), no kudos, no ‘how to’ books, no tuition, no annual dinner. Opportunities to misquote, misread, make mistakes and enemies. Apply in writing, enclosing CV, to. . . .

Applicants are still far more likely to be male than female, though (in my Sphinx experience) female reviewers are more likely to return reviews on time and far less likely to abscond. What does that say about us?

[More female reviewers are needed for the next Sphinx review round, which is about to commence. High-risk sports, they say, are increasingly popular. Contact nell@happenstancepress.com if you feel like sticking your neck out.]


. . . evidently a LOT. So far as we know, no-one has yet selected “because of the wonderful reviews” as their top reason for purchasing a poetry magazine.

. . . evidently a LOT. So far as we know, no-one has yet selected “because of the wonderful reviews” as their top reason for purchasing a poetry magazine.

Some poetry magazines can, and do, easily solve this problem by not having any reviews at all. Others have minuscule two-liners. But still there’s the issue that too many of the reviews so often deplored are written by men. Those of you following the current Magma thread “Are literary publications biased against women?” will know all about this.

Knowing all about this, poets frequently complain that their books don’t get reviews, even by men. Or that the single review they got was horribly biassed or badly written.

Badly written? Obviously this website seeks to apply a corrective by offering three well-written reviews of each poetry pamphlet we see. Many Sphinx reviewers are women, although I am nervous about counting the precise gender distribution.

But whatever their distribution gender-wise, Sphinx reviewers are required not to sound authoritative. They give a personal response, in an accessible style. They are, like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner, “one of three”.

But one of three or not, a still harder task falls on their shoulders, and it’s all my fault. I’m concerned about the degree to which the language of blurb and cliché is entering reviews, the last place on earth where these manifestations should find a home. So I have a list of proscribed phrases, and it keeps getting longer.

It keeps getting longer because editors are ornery and unreasonable people, and I am one of them. And sometimes my reviewers, quite naturally, react edgily (“edgy” is officially out of bounds but I can break my own rules). George Simmers, editor of Snakeskin, and occasional Sphinx reviewer, fell upon my latest guidelines and instantly rustled up a review, in verse form, using almost all the phrases he will never use in a Sphinx review. He also makes use of the word “beige”, the colour voted most unpopular in the United Kingdom in 2002. You can read it in his blog here.

A new set of reviews will be on the Sphinx part of the website imminently, as well as an interview with two of the redoubtable guys (I’m trying to avoid the word “men” but they are) behind Pighog Press.

(If you happen to be a man, and read this, please don’t worry about your gender. In the end, the balance, in poetry reviews as well as much else, will probably adjust dramatically in favour of the gentle sex and then just a little positive discrimination will get you back on your feet in no time.)

ps Here is my current ‘to be avoided’ list:

début collection

eagerly awaited (by whom???)

any description of one poet in terms of another by making up an adjective from that poet’s name eg Larkinesque & Eliotian

the new Peter Reading (or any other poet’s name)

shows promise (patronising with faint praise)

a new voice

one to watch

upcoming poet (or worse – ‘up and coming’)

literary terms that general readers struggle with (e.g parataxis, synecdoche, metonymy)

at the height of his/her powers

emerging poet

important poet

sui generis

risk-taking, taking risks (unless you’re going to be very precise about what you see as risky or have tongue firmly in cheek)

beware of ‘edgy’ –  which is starting to become the new ‘risk-taking’ –  and ‘spiritual’

metaphorical domain

exciting new talent

demotic idiom

and please no ‘epiphanies’