Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sphinx - a tribute

Over at Sphinx, the latest batch of pamphlet reviews is nearly complete. However, the main page carries the news that these are the last. Bearing in mind the important role that Sphinx has played in the rise of poetry chapbooks over the past few years, this is sad news, although it’s more than understandable. A quick summary of its feats soon tells us just how much time and work it must have taken up for Helena Nelson…
Sphinx started life as a paper-based publication back in 2006, a magazine dedicated to promoting poetry in pamphlet form. From 2010 onwards, it was solely published on the internet. At the beginning, it followed a typical route of one review per book. Nevertheless, its signature format of three pieces per pamphlet was adopted after Issue 10. The figures are huge: a total of 445 chapbooks have been dealt with via 864 reviews, most reviews getting 300-500 hits in the first couple of weeks alone.
I’ve been involved with the project on both sides on the fence. As a poet, I was delighted to receive critical coverage for my books from three different points of view, so Inventing Truth was reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Marcia Menter and Charlotte Gann.
As a reviewer, I really enjoyed the experience of encountering verse that I wouldn’t have read without Sphinx. There was a definite frisson every time a batch of chapbooks arrived.
I certainly learnt a lot: from the “Notes for reviewers” with its list of review clichés to be avoided (e.g. …a new voice…shows promise…deceptively simple…risk-taking…demotic…) to the editing process of each review, where any syntactic messes or semantic wobbles were sorted out. Moreover, the aim was always to strike a positive note: Criticism should be constructive. Please make it apparent this is a personal response, not Judgement Day.
One of my tenets is that a poet should also feel at home in prose, and doing reviews is a key part of that apprenticeship. In my own case, I needed to shake off academic essay writing. Sphinx helped tremendously!
There is at least still the solace that the reviews from Sphinx will remain online as a snapshot of UK poetry pamphlet publishing over the past eight years. What’s more, new features and articles will be added in the future. Already, there are historic interviews with Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt), Num Stibbe (Sylph Editions) and Leona Carpenter (Mulfran), not to mention Peter Sansom on Twenty-Five Years of the Poetry Business. A new feature by Andrew Sclater on Stewed Rhubarb has also just been posted, so it may be that the demise of the reviews will make time and space for other kinds of writing.
For the moment, why not have a look at the archive? Be warned: you might well find yourself purchasing more chapbooks as a result!

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