A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Small Press Poetry Reviews

Last week I posted my impressions and analysis of Pink Balloon Band’s “Tomorrow We Sleep” E.P. The article stirred up a bit of discussion with many admirable PBB’s supporters, which is a good sign. It not only shows the strength of PBB’s fanbase but it gives me some hope that General Thad has a place in the Kosciusko County art scene. However, in a place as small as Kosciusko County, criticism walks a fine line. On the one hand, it can create counter-productive discord within our very small artistic community. On the other, it can lead us to over-praise mediocre art simply because we are friends with the artists. GT hopes to find a balance between honest criticism and encouraging exchange.

So, In light of the Pink Balloon Band discussion, I’ve decided to republish the following relevant article from the Fall 2007 issue of a short-lived Northern Indiana small press literary magazine entitled Fight These Bastards. The article, Steve Henn’s “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Small Press Poetry Reviews”, critiques amateur and small press critics for overly embellishing artists and inadequately analyzing their poetry. It provides important observations of localized, underground art communities and it is something that we need to consider before we praise or defame the art of Kosciusko County.

My thanks goes out Steve Henn for letting me republish it here. “A Reasonable Guide…” was first printed in Issue # 5 of Fight These Bastards in Fall 2007.

Andrew Morris, June 5th 2012

A Reasonable Guide To Horrible Small Press Poetry Reviews

By Steve Henn

When a reviewer says a poet…                              he means…

Writes from the gut                                                            the poet doesn’t revise

Has a proletarian consciousness                                  the poet writes a lot of Damn-the-Man poems

Is in the school of Bukowski                                           is not as good as Bukowski

is yet another Bukowski clone                              I’m a reviewer with an MFA who’s pissed                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       that a drunk who never took a                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       creative writing class in his life outsells                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      me and 98% of my MFA peers

has a razor-sharp wit                                                a) compares Bush to Osama Bin Laden

–                                                                                  b) casts Jesus as a homosexual

–                                                                                  c) F-bombs rock!

When a reviewer says…                                                 he means…

You must buy this book!                                             a) My friend’s book is really neat.

–                                                                             b) I’m too lazy to offer any real critique.

–                                                                                  c) This actually is a great book, but I     –                                                              say that about everything, so I have no credibility 

It’s time to bring up the obvious. Reviews don’t sell books. People might be reading little magazines like Small Press Review, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting online or to the post office in hordes to buy any of the books they read about. In fact, if my experience as an editor and a poet indicates anything, it indicates that personal effort on the part of the poet sells chaps and books – doing readings, sending out email announcements, sending out postcards, hawking your chaps at open mics . . . so what good are reviews, anyway?

If small press poetry reviews have any value, they do not have value as promotional items. In most cases, they don’t translate into lots of sales. They are valuable as criticism. In fact, the more the reviewer is willing to critique the poems, the more value the review has for the poet and for the reader of the review, not to mention the reviewer. Out with fluff. Out with buy this book because it reminds me of the sixties. Out with meaningless and questionable praise-heavy reviews from review writers who do nothing but praise every new book that comes by.

I use the word critique mainly in the sense of examination. I’m not suggesting reviewers drag every book that comes across their desk through the mud. Examine the poet’s choices. Question the poet’s use of cliché. Question the poet’s tendency to arrive at the quick and easy conclusion, or, conversely, to use fresh language to take the reader places they didn’t expect to go to. Place the poems in the reviewed book in the context of poetic history, or in the context of one of a variety of theories on what poetry is, ought to be, ought to do. Allow the poems to enter into a conversation with other poets, other poetic theorists, and, where you feel it is justified, be willing to suggest where the poems fall short – or where they excel.

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