The Art of the Book Review, By Stan Sanvel Rubin

by Jun 30, 2020

Earlier this year, we began to mull over the idea of highlighting the creative process of our poetry and CNF book reviewers, Stan Sanvel Rubin and Barrie Jean Borich. We wanted to devote a space to allow these long time reviewers and contributors the opportunity to share with our readers what the “essay review” means to them and why they enjoy working with Water~Stone Review

This is a special two-part post. Our first post featured Barrie Jean Borich. This post was written by Stan Sanvel Rubin. 

The privilege of writing long-form reviews for this excellent national magazine comes with a sense of personal responsibility. I’m a well-published poet myself, taught poetry at all levels for years, directed writing programs and a poetry archive, published dozens of interviews (and one book collection) with poets, co-edited a small press, and have been active in a national literary life. I’m working on my own new collection. I think I understand the risks, struggle, disappointment and joy from inside as well as from without. There’s never been a time when poets, with our perennial sense of exile, have flourished so well in America. But we’re not sure of our place. Reviews are part of this conversation. I look for the poetry that just might endure. If I can help it do that, that’s a bonus.

Years ago, I wrote professional film reviews, and enjoyed doing it, but the 1-5 star rating system that goes with that genre is wholly inappropriate to poetry. Reviewing involves evaluation, but I do not want my sensibility to pose as the ultimate judge. The keys for me are connection and context. I see my role as an intermediary and illuminator, connecting poets to audiences, making connections between poems within a book, connecting books to one another, so they can be rich and interesting to potential readers, rather than in competition.

First of all, I try to establish a larger context—a cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical issue—that expands the frame of consideration. A sense of history is part of this. The challenge is not to narrow my focus to books that are obviously similar, but the opposite: to embrace very diverse poets, to reveal the individual facets of each as well as what holds a specific collection together. This fairly complicated mission puts special weight on the selection process. I want there to be a lively mix in the final review. Nothing is determined in advance, regardless of fame and awards. I spend most of the year finding, seeking, and stumbling across new and recent titles that seem interesting for any reason at all. I end up with a small mountain of books by poets of diverse backgrounds and aesthetics. There are innumerable colored tabs sticking out like flags marking individual poems. I look for poets whose names, and sometimes presses, are unknown to me as well as the familiar, and usually introduce something of their biography with their work (I’ve had the distinct pleasure of writing about first books from small presses that went on to major national awards). I spend months skimming, reading, and re-reading, paring the pile down until I have a final set of several dozen that have taken hold of my mind or imagination. I sit and start writing my thoughts on these by hand on long legal pads before beginning a draft on the computer. The chosen books may have little or nothing in common, but each is a notable achievement in shaped language. They change and teach me. I hope to communicate that in a way that’s intellectually stimulating and maybe even entertaining.

As I write this, the overwhelming context for everyone is the pandemic-induced crisis and shutdown of national life that may never return to “normal.” With the time lag built into an annual review, we’ll know more by the time the next issue appears. My new review begins by taking up how, after the initial shock and disruption, poets and artists began to develop and invent new forms of connectedness– and maybe new ways for our poetry to matter. But this doesn’t mean the books I discuss necessarily will be about illness or healing, technology or crisis. Poetry works in the private, internal, and deep way of art as well as the assertive, communal, often loudly political way that is so American. The endless churn and enlargement of our culture is fascinating to me. We’re all part of it.


Stan Sanvel Rubin is the author of four collections of poetry, including There. Here. and Hidden Sequel, winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Book Prize. His work has been published in such journals as The Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Ascent, and Poetry Northwest. His interviews with poets have been widely published. He is the founding director of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). He has also served as the Director of the Brockport Writers Forum and Videotape Library (SUNY), a multi-faceted literary arts program. He lives on the northern Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.

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