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The Kind of Poetry Reviews We Publish in Magma

Following on from the lively discussion about what kind of poetry reviews readers want, I thought I would take the opportunity, in my capacity as Magma’s Reviews Editor, to explain our own policy on reviews — and to invite you to comment.

Magma has always reviewed poetry collections. These days we receive over 300 books and pamphlets a year and, as we’re limited to about 12 books/pamphlets per issue (so 36 maximum a year), most don’t make it. Because of this, we’ve started online reviews in the Magma Newsletter and this will greatly increase the number of books/pamphlets we can review.

In each issue of Magma we review a range of collections, from the latest by well-known poets to debuts. Each review will usually include this kind of range because we think it’s important that newcomers are treated with the same detail and thoughtfulness as established poets. For this reason, reviews are normally 1500 words for three books/pamphlets allowing 500 words for each – more than many other magazines allow – so debuts and pamphlets can be reviewed at length if the reviewer wishes.

Of course, we could review more books/pamphlets more briefly, losing depth and detail but including more titles. We would be interested to know what you think about this.

If possible, we review poets who have had poems in Magma several times. And we don’t review books by dead poets, believing the living need our help more. The occasional exceptions are new translations of major works of the past, such as Don Paterson’s and Martyn Crucefix’s versions of Rilke in Magma 37.

I propose the books and pamphlets for review, but they have to be agreed by the issue’s editor, and the same goes for the choice of reviewers. Obviously I offer reviewers books/pamphlets I think will interest them. I hope they will enjoy them too because enjoyment leads to positive reviewing, but poetry is very personal and there’s no way of knowing whether a reviewer will like a particular book.

The most important thing is that our reviewers are free to write what they think. They are never given any kind of ‘steer’ and what they write is edited only for length or clarity. Their opinions stand, which I guess is the only way reviews can maintain credibility.

Blog posts have raised the question of influence: do reviewers give favourable reviews to poets they know (scratch my back…) and to poets in positions of influence so as not to harm their own prospects? At Magma reviewers aren’t asked to review books by poets I think they know and, anyway, are expected to decline to review friends.

There are two particular problems. The first is reviewing poets who are not only famous but have a great deal of influence in the UK poetry world. This arose in Magma 39 with reviews of books by Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, and Mimi Khalvati, founder of the Poetry School. How to find a reviewer uninfluenced by these poets’ eminence? The solution was to send the books to Hannah Salt, an experienced teacher and writer about past and present British poetry, but located for some years in Austria and uninfluenced by reputations. Her review was independent and, as it turned out, controversial.

The second problem is when members of the Magma Board publish. Their books/pamphlets (so far) have been reviewed by reviewers who didn’t know they were Board members and, like all other reviews, were published without amendment. If it became difficult to find a sufficiently independent reviewer, I would send the book abroad. With email there’s no reason, of course, why a reviewer shouldn’t live anywhere in the world so long as they have current knowledge of British poetry.

What Do You Think of Magma’s Reviews?

What do you think of the reviews published in Magma?

Would you prefer us to review more titles — which would mean we couldn’t discuss individual titles in such depth?

Or are you happy with our current policy? i.e. Reviewing fewer titles in greater depth in the magazine, with supplementary reviews in the Newsletter .

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This Post Has 7 Comments
  1. My response won’t be the kind you’ll want to hear, I’m sure, but I’m one of those people who buy Magma for its poetry, not its reviews. I don’t read the latter because they mean little to me unless I’ve read the poetry book being reviewed. Then it might be of interest – but how often would that be the case? More poetry and less reviews, please.

    Having said that, it’s obviously important for the writers concerned to have their work noticed in this way. Maybe reviews are mainly for them, plus librarians and specialists, rather than the general reader?

  2. Like Mr Brown above, I also tend to skip the reviews in favour of the poetry. This isn’t any reflection on the quality of Magma’s reviews, I skip them in Poetry Review too. When I see pages and pages of reviews in a poetry magazine I do feel slightly cheated.

  3. Reviews are effective or not depending on how well read the reviewer is and how much close attention they are willing to give the book under review. As reviewers receive little in recompense (some magazines pay nothing now), they must wish to review because of an authentic engagement with poetry. I frequently advise MA in Creative Writing students to read the reviews in Poetry Review, Magma, Poetry London, The North etc. not in order to play up to reviewers when they write but to discover the kind of artistic issues poets and critics debate. Like your other correspondents, I also read the poems first and the reviews second; of course, poetry itself is always more urgent than articles about poetry. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to discover what others think of the books you’re reading (and writing) and is akin to having a conversation with others who care about the work, whether you agree with them not. I don’t think we can do without this stimulus.

  4. I like reviews, so long as they are informative as well as passing judgement. I was out of poetry for a while, and reviews help me know what I missed, and what’s going on in other parts of the world. I’d like to make a case, on this basis, for including a sort of ‘best of the rest’ page of short reviews which simply mention what’s in the book, and why it might be worth looking at.
    Otherwise I’d say your policy makes the best of a very complicated job.

  5. I have never left the East Coast of the USA, so I would have no clue what is going on in poetry around the world if it weren’t for online poetry sites and book reviewers. I say, the more you can spread the word about books, the better for those of us who want to read something other than that which local bookstores deem worthy of note. After all, they don’t carry Magma, so I wouldn’t even know you existed without this site, much less be familiar with new poets outside of greater Boston who are not reviewed on the Internet.

  6. It was an excellent idea to find a reviewer based outside the UK. Far too much reviewing is sycophantic and works to police the established hierarchies. There is a disquieting amount of reviewing which doesn’t even evaluate, but is merely explicatory and evades the issue of quality altogether – which is a disservice to the reader who is not helped to choose amongst available titles. But none of this is surprising, considering that those of us who have written honestly about overrated poets come to be regarded as stubbornly negative, because our praise of emerging and underrated poets arouses less comment.

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