By Stella Backhouse



Reviewing poetry is such a joy. To be invited into someone else’s mind, to be shown their experience of life, how they have interpreted it and what it has taught them is a privilege I never tire of. But writing reviews does raise questions – sometimes in social media discussions, sometimes in my own mind. Below, I try to answer some of them. I’m always interested to know what readers think of the reviews. Do they tell you what you want to know? Are they pitched at the right level? Are they too safe? Feedback on this article and/or the reviews themselves is very welcome.



You always focus more on the collection’s themes and how the poet deals with them, than on telling us what you actually think of the collection. Is that a cop out?

It’s pragmatic. As well as the website and magazine, Here Comes Everyone also runs performance poetry nights with published poets as headline acts. I would not wish to jeopardise this vital strand of Coventry’s cultural life by writing reviews that threatened the relationship between Here Comes Everyone and potential headline poets or their publishers. I’m sorry if people think that compromises me. But even if it weren’t the case, it would never be my job to tell readers what to like. I give an overview of the themes and type of poetry found in the collection under review. It’s then up to readers to decide if this one’s for them.



But if you never say a collection is ‘bad’ even if it is bad, is that really helping poetry? Or your readers?

I rarely – no, make that ‘never’ – think a collection is ‘bad’. All collections are to some extent a baring of the poet’s soul; I respect anyone who is brave enough to do that and it’s another reason I would never do a hatchet job. That’s not the same as saying that collections never have problems. They do. They may be too long; they may be too monotonous; they may betray unspoken assumptions that some readers could find offensive; they may be so hard to understand that I’m tempted to chuck in the towel and go and look at pictures of kittens instead. I’m happy to flag up all these issues. But many of them are as much about poor editing as they are about poor poetry.



So, would you say that editing is as important as poetry?

I’m not an editor, so if you are, feel free to disagree – but I do believe that the role of the editor is to be the reader’s advocate. It’s up to the editor to point out to the poet that – for example – they don’t have to include every thought they’ve ever had on their chosen subject, that they’ve included too many poems that are too similar, that readers won’t understand their references or will be distracted by perceived contradictions. I’ve seen collections where it’s obvious that the poet and/or editor has completely lost sight of the reader – but if you don’t produce something readers want to read, what’s the point?



You say editors should point out when readers won’t understand references. But doesn’t too much explanation risk ‘spoon-feeding’ the reader or denying them the challenge of interpreting work in their own way?

Reading poetry requires interpretive effort; readers should expect that. A successful collection finds the sweet spot between giving the reader enough to do to confer a sense of satisfaction when they have ‘understood’ the poetry (on whatever terms) or connected with it emotionally; and giving them so much to do that they just give up. The place where the sweet spot falls can vary, however. Experimental poetry enthusiasts will be prepared to do more work; general readers may be prepared to do more work for established classics like The Waste Land. As a reviewer, one of my tasks is perhaps to convince readers to do more work on a collection than they might otherwise have done because the rewards will be worth it.

But – let’s be realistic – however interesting their work, few of the poets I review will be the next T.S. Eliot. If they want to extend their readership beyond the poetry circuit (do they?), they need to introduce themselves, tell readers what they are about. That’s why I’m in favour of forewords (and/or notes). I don’t mean line-by-line exegesis down to the granular level. Just general themes and inspirations. Advice on how to read the poems, maybe. Think of it as the poet gently nudging the sweet spot to meet the reader as they set out, doing the first steps of the journey for them. As a reader, I appreciate that. And knowing I’ve been set off on the right road, I feel safer to explore the side-streets by myself.



How obscure is too obscure?

his might seem paradoxical, but the most obscure references of all – the ones that come from the poet’s life and have significance for them alone – are the ones that fascinate me most; we all have similar personal reference points in our own lives, so I view them in that context. On the other hand, the fragmentation of modern culture means the range of wider cultural references available to writers is now so vast that no reader can be familiar with all of them. Does being forced to Google something mid-read ruin the experience? Or is the ubiquity of Google a liberation that means obscure references can be sprinkled about with a clear conscience? It’s a modern poetry dilemma.

Of course, as an instinctively cerebral reader, it’s possible I obsess about ‘meaning’ too much. It’s fine for the reader not to understand every poem; mystery and ambiguity are often what attract us to poetry in the first place, and make us return to poems to re-read and ponder. It’s also good to enjoy poetry at face value, for its form, language or the mood it evokes. Maybe my reviews don’t pay enough attention to that. But while I do see plenty of collections that speak for themselves, I’m just as frequently confronted with poetry I don’t understand at all. All that does is make me feel that the problem is me, that I must be stupid; and I have to wonder, is this really the outcome the poet wanted?



As a white, able-bodied, older cishetero female, is there some poetry you feel unqualified to review?

No – but I make the caveat that I’m answering this question in terms of general-readership collections. In the case of specialist publications clearly aimed at defined groups of which I am not a member, I might answer differently (and I would add: I don’t have a problem with that). The mission of poetry is to unite, not to divide. When I read a collection about the experiences of someone who is not ‘like me’, it’s because I want to understand and relate to them. The poet who knowingly loads their work with unexplained references to sub-cultures to which I have no access, just leaves me feeling excluded. And that’s not what poetry is for.



Do you think too much poetry is being published?

I don’t know how many copies the average small-publisher collection shifts. I’m pretty sure that only a small percentage of what I review will still be read in ten years’ time. One observation I would offer is that identity is not the pre-eminent issue confronting our age. Climate catastrophe, inequality, the impacts of big tech – these are potentially existential threats to all of us, irrespective of identity. Yet from the collections I see you’d never know it, because for every one in which they are present even as subsidiary themes, I read three, four or even more that are wholly about identity. I’m not saying identity isn’t important – obviously it is, and poetry is a powerful vehicle for sharing testimony, calling out injustice and revealing hidden truth. But is it this much more important than everything else put together? I’m not sure.



Tell us a trick of the trade?

“The poet has presented a deeply personal vision” is a polite way of saying “I don’t know what the f*** this poet is going on about”.