Interview with Reviews Editor Dai George

PL: Dai, as Reviews Editor of Poetry London, how do you approach the editorial process for each issue and how do you make decisions about which books should be reviewed?

DG: I start thinking about each issue with a couple of broad, fairly enduring principles in mind: first, and foremost, that our reviews section should aspire to represent the full diversity of modern poetry and modern Britain, both in terms of the styles it covers and the people it platforms. If it turns out homogenous in any way, then I’ve failed.

Practically speaking, I start by sitting with the books that have arrived in our office over the preceding months, getting a sense of them individually and an overview of the priorities for different publishers. I try to pair books up, shifting them from pile to pile until I hit upon a combination that speaks to me (by which I mean, a combination where the books seem to speak to one another). Sometimes the link between them will be fairly simple – they’re all debut collections, for instance, or translations from a particular part of the world – but other times I’ll be aiming for something more subtle (or tenuous!). Sometimes there’s not much link at all, and that can be an honest thing to admit – poetry doesn’t happen, or get published, with any thought for such coherences, so a review that brings very different collections into proximity can turf up fresh insights and chance connections. That said, I’d have to have a good reason to put together poets from opposite ends of the career spectrum, or an avant-garde tyro and a mainstream lyric poet. You have to try to make sure that the books are given a fair chance, and won’t struggle to say their piece as the result of a careless comparison.

Once I have the books I want to cover lined up, I’ll do a quick check just to make sure that there’s diversity from issue to issue as well as internally within the new one. Unfortunately I have a bit of a blind spot with translation, for instance – I don’t read it nearly as often as I should for pleasure – so I try to make sure I’m not giving it short shrift unintentionally. I’ll also check that I’m covering as many presses as possible, and that there aren’t, say, six Carcanet titles and no Bloodaxe ones in a particular issue – though the quotas here are far from strict.

There’s an incredible amount of high-class poetry being published right now. The volume can be quite intimidating, so I’m always conscious of the responsibility that goes with turning over a review copy in my hands and deciding whether there’s a place for it in the issue.     

PL: Do you try to curate the reviews section so that the content of each issue reflects a particular focus or concern? 

DG: Not usually, though sometimes you’re aware of themes and cross-currents beginning to bubble away in the background. More common, though, is to read the pieces as they come in and be surprised (delighted!) by the unplanned resonances that emerge. Ultimately I’m at the mercy of what’s being published, but luckily poets don’t write in a vacuum – they talk to, listen to and read one another, so the poetry of a given moment will usually spark up a similar internal conversation.

Very occasionally, the focus might be more overt. In the autumn issue, for example, I published two reviews back-to-back that shone a spotlight on the diversity of contemporary Welsh poetry (both the lyric and the avant-garde). The relative invisibility of Welsh poetry at national level has long been a bugbear of mine, so I was glad to bring it into focus. There’ll be other opportunities like that, I’m sure, but the main aim should be a sort of glorious miscellany.  

PL: Do you approach critics and ask them to write about specific books and authors, or do they approach you?

DG: A bit of both, but more the former. Since my days editing Prac Crit, I’ve been slowly building up a decent contact book, which I’ve managed to add to since doing this job. By now, I hope that I’ve got a fair sense of the best critics who are out there, and what their interests would be, but it’s always going to be a work in progress. Basically, my door is open and I’d love to hear from new voices – please don’t assume I would have got in touch already if I was interested, because I’m pretty sure there’s no one I would say that about! Naturally, I have my wish list, and a roster of critics I’ll go back to – it’s important to build up an identity for the magazine over time, as well as to keep things fresh. But that wish list, and that roster, is a reflection of my own areas of knowledge and ignorance, so I need people to come and shake me awake from time to time.

On a practical level, I’d recommend that new writers get in touch with a quick introductory email (sent to dai@poetrylondon.co.uk) outlining their general interests and background. That tends to be better than a detailed or specific pitch, because chances are – alas – that books in the public domain will already be commissioned. But if you know of anything coming down the pipeline a bit, by all means suggest it.   

PL: How do you ensure variety and diversity in the reviews section, both in terms of the writers reviewed, and the critics you commission?

DG: The honest answer here is imperfectly, but I hope that we (alongside other prominent magazines, presses and prizes) are getting better. One of the obstacles to doing this perfectly is that, in advance, I can only ever make good-faith projections about people’s racial and gender identities, sexual orientation or disabilities. The full, accurate picture becomes clear when contributors file their equal opportunities forms around the time of publication. But obviously, I try to make strong, well-evidenced guesses, aiming for gender parity (including non-binary) and a figure for BAME contributors that matches the representation of that group in wider society. We’re held to a high standard on diversity, it should be said, by our Arts Council funding – so the accountability is rigorous.

I’m conscious of shortcomings in my representation of certain communities. For instance, the number of disabled contributors I’ve commissioned isn’t nearly good enough yet, so it’s a priority of mine to rectify this.

I’ll finish answering this question by paying tribute to the Ledbury Emerging Critics scheme, which has done so much to create opportunity for new critics of colour. Partnerships such as these make a huge difference, leaving editors with no excuse for exclusion. It would be great to see such schemes diversify and grow.      

PL: Can you tell us about some of your personal highlights in the spring 2020 issue?

DG: Well, I think it’s a belter! But I would say that, and always do. Probably the first thing to blow the trumpet about is that we have a wonderful interview with Danez Smith. Suji Kwock Kim is the interviewer – a great poet in her own right – and the chemistry between them is palpable. It says fascinating and important things about the role of community in poetry, and the ongoing effort to foster a poetry committed to justice, witness and celebration.

Joey Connolly’s essay, titled ‘The Benefit of the Doubt’, is equally timely and intelligent. It asks what sort of trust we owe to poems when reading them – an act it (correctly) describes as being far more important than writing. It’s difficult to be honest and self-reflective about reading culture amid the clamour of social media, and I think this piece makes a great attempt.

I admire all the reviews in the issue, and wouldn’t want to overlook anything – but maybe I can give a special shout-out to the two pieces I selected as online highlights from the print issue. The first is by Phoebe Clarke, a review of Ilya Kaminsky and Ariana Reines, and I think it’s just super-smart, rigorous and humane. It finds a way of framing those collections as exploring very different, but connected, types of spiritual – even orphic – speech, and it has a formidable hinterland of reference. The other is by Rishi Dastidar, one of the readers at our spring launch, and it’s a funny, personable but razor-sharp review of Mark Waldron, Kei Miller and Richard Osmond – a motley crew when grouped together but, again, Dastidar teases out those surprising resonances, positioning them all as offering varied responses to poetry in an age of crisis. And that’s without even mentioning Rachael Allen writing about the radical eco-poetries of Brenda Shaughnessy and Heather Phillipson! Trust me, it’s all worth a read.  

PL: What do you hope to achieve in your role as reviews editor at Poetry London? Do you have any particular ambitions for the magazine or organisation as a whole?

DG: Beyond putting out a great mag, and fulfilling the social mission I’ve spoken of at various points already, I think the only thing I could say here would be this: I hope that as reviews editor I can shape an honest, compassionate and rigorous culture of reading. I hope to create a space where poetry can be read seriously, in the depth it deserves, because too often these days it’s consumed in haste – flittering briefly across a screen, reposted and then gone. I hope that doesn’t sound too fogeyish. It’s a rich, wonderful time for poetry – absolutely a golden era – so I just want to make sure it gets the criticism it deserves.     

PL: Can you offer any advice to emerging critics hoping to have their work published in the magazine under your editorship? What are you looking for?

DG: I like close reading, always, even in the relatively small space that one has to juggle with in a magazine review (I try to allow at least 600 words per book, so it’s not too shabby). I don’t mean a starchy, line-by-line analysis; I mean a paragraph that can hone in on the pressure and pulse of a poem and explain what makes it tick. If you’re writing about a collection in 600 words, the challenge is just to find one or two moments that represent the ticking pulse of the wider book.