It is something that I have been doing now for the best part of 2 years.
At least twice a month an envelope arrives on my doormat addressed to my pseudonym. Right at the moment I see the envelope I find more and more I am breathing a huge sigh (although not of relief). Contained within the unassuming brown packaging could be anything. Of late the contents of these envelopes has tended to be novels and fiction, but the poetry is still coming.
It is usually when I see that it is a poetry book that I have to do the most work reviewing the books. Most people who have not reviewed books before (and even some that do for websites or small circulation magazines) will forget that each book has a target demographic. Each little collection will appeal to a certain market/age range/personality type.
Of course the fact that each book will be marketed toward a certain group is great....if I'm part of that group. Of the 30 fellow reviewers I have met, it tends to be agreed that it is likely that no matter how objective one tries to be it is damn near impossible if you are at the opposite end of the spectrum to the target demographic.
Often times each book comes with a little press release that is designed to do the same job as the back-cover blurb....sell the book. I have a history of refusing to review eBooks because I don't like the things (and thus am biased) and because they don't show you the final product. The colour, typeface, back-cover blurb....they are what really sells a book. I've met a number of "reviewers" who have mistakenly tried to take these things at face value, believing that they are some indicator of contents......but I shan't discuss that here.
Now once I get past and ignore all the things that should be screaming "pick me up and buy me" I can settle down and look at the poetry. Herein lies the problem: how does one review poetry?
Personally I take the approach that good poetry will sell. I know, I know, I know right those of you who have read those words are now sharpening knives and flexing fingers over keyboards. Before you type out rebuttals think about what I have just said. Marketable books often are not the best written or the most witty and clever. Often the books that sell are those that appeal to a greater range of people and can be marketed to a clear demographic. Like it or not that is also true of poetry.
Although I loved the first poetry book I reviewed (Daydreams in Mermaid Grass), it was filled with heavy metaphor and imagery that not everyone will have understood. Does that alone make it unmarketable? No. The book was physically something that would not be overlooked on a bookshelf, but its first poem was one that literally painted another world for some readers only.
Now at this point is where the Press Release and other marketing stuff comes in. That stuff tells me who the book is aimed at. Thankfully, I don't think the book was aimed at the everyman reader and so I did not need to attack the book for its dense metaphor, just mention that not everyone would getit one first read.
Lastly, a point of contention among some reviewers: typos. Now if a book is littered with mistakes then obviously it will get slammed for this, however, I have met reviewers that will overlook 4 or fewer mistakes. It is there that 'mistakes' become a problem.....what is a mistake? If the poet intends to have a mis-spelt word, or intended to put a letter in lower-case rather than upper-case is it a mistake? Of course so many poets now tend to think that it doesn't matter. My opinion (recently) has begun to change. In very few other forms of literature is it acceptable to mis-spell or do without punctuation; why should it be so in poetry?
That said if one is reading a compilation of poets then one expects that not everyone has the same writing style and techniques. It is then down to the compiler or editor to make the choice....format everyone's work the same way and eliminate all grammatical/spelling errors, or to keep the work "as the poets provided". It is a descision that I have made and can tell you that I kept everything as the poets wrote it. It is for that reason that I don't trash compilations who take the same stance. All I've ever asked is a consistant font, size and justification on the page; which unbelievably some independents do not do!
So why, I guess might be asked, am I posting this here? Simple poets are unique in the fact that they are so difficult to review. There are so many differences of opinion, so many thoughts about poetic forms and expression that inevitably you piss someone off I just want to see what people think about reviewing poetry.
So the question I guess is how would you approach reviewing?
Would you avoid the back-page blurb and the promotional publicity material and judge just the poet's words?
Would you judge the book as a product?
Would you try to be funny?
Would you do your best to be objective?