The Editors on Scout
Tell me about the creation of SCOUT. When and how and why was it conceived?
Kathleen Ossip: In September of 2013, I posted the following on my Facebook page: Uh-oh. I'm feeling like I may start a poetry review website in 2014. Talk me down? What led up to that feeling was that I'd abandoned writing reviews for a number of reasons: lack of time, of course, but also the sense that most poetry reviews I read fell into a formula that didn't comfortably allow me to engage the way I wanted to. But that left me reading books and not engaging with them, I thought, nearly deeply enough.
You can imagine what followed my impulsive post. Scads of poets began commenting, one way or another, Do it. Spencer appeared early on, saying he'd been thinking along similar lines, and maybe we should talk about it. Which we eventually did. Spencer brought to the table a pretty clear vision of the format and setup of the site as it now stands.
Spencer Short: Neither of us had any hands-on experience with this type of thing, and the nature of the site made the development a little slow—a few stops and starts with design and construction. We met periodically for drinks and to discuss progress, and we corresponded online over the course of the year to develop a staff, to work out a sense of purpose and style, and finish the design and construction. It dragged on a few months longer than we'd hoped, but we finally got it up at the beginning of February.
What makes SCOUT different from other places which review poetry on the internet?
Kathleen Ossip: From the beginning, I had in mind three qualities I felt were lacking, to varying degrees, in other review outlets for poetry books: our reviews would be smart, written in sparkling prose, and utterly open to all camps, aesthetics, and approaches.
Spencer Short: When Kathy posted her interest in starting a review site, I'd been thinking of a kind of conceptual template for doing poetry reviews online in response to what I had found online over the past few years—writing that was often incredibly smart, but also pretty clearly geared to the particulars of the poetry (and poetry review) market, and not always in ways that added value. In the end, SCOUT endeavored to take away a number of things that can get in the way of a reader's trust or faith in what the review is saying—things like the (understandable) tendency to praise our friends or criticize our enemies, to turn a review into a broader indictment of an aesthetic choice that is typically (though not always) value-neutral. Some reviews were such tours de force of style and erudition that a reader's focus drifts from the poetry that is ostensibly under review. It also seemed like the opinions in reviews too often became fodder for petty disputes, whether in comments, or on blogs, or wherever. In response to all of this, a few rules made intuitive sense: (i) no byline; (ii) no reviewing of the work the reviewer knows personally; (iii) limiting the review to 400 words with a focus on quoted text to support the points made; and (iv) that we should attempt to analyze and explain the book on the terms it sets out for itself. The last one is the most difficult—there's an implicit generosity, but that generosity can't preclude incisive criticism or the site loses credibility. In other words, at least on a conceptual level, the entire site is a response to other places which review poetry. Which isn't to say that it's a criticism of those other sites or journals; it's just our attempt to provide a specific kind of value that seemed a bit under-represented.
Why reviews, or rather why just reviews?
Kathleen Ossip: There are plenty of lit journals and small presses, resulting in an abundance of poems and poetry books. There's much less of an abundance of good reviews of all this poetry, a refrain I heard over and over in the responses to that Facebook post. Readers of poetry need thoughtful reviews to help them navigate and our idea was that we'd provide them in a consistently steady stream. So far we've been able to post three reviews a week. We hope that it'll become a daily click for our readers.
Spencer Short: I used the word "heuristic" on our ABOUT page, and I think it's a good description of our approach. When I was in law school, I became very interested in behavioral economics, and a big part of that was human decision-making under the constraint of finite resources. For me, SCOUT is an attempt to answer questions regarding the costs and benefits—the value—of formal restraint: what kind of reader-experience could we produce by focusing on doing one specific thing well, and by taking away a number of other things that may provide value but also (unavoidably) create their own costs? It's a satisficing approach, and thus intrinsically modest. Through the self-imposed restraints, we hope to produce a consistent supply of reviews that are sharp and well-written. That may sound a little wonkish. But I can be a little wonky.
Are you actively accepting reviews? What is the process for submitting reviews?
Kathleen Ossip: We aren't actively accepting reviews. We are, however, actively seeking reviewers to join our team. One of the most important features of SCOUT is our dedicated group of writers, and we ask each of them to commit to writing roughly one review a month. This stability should help make sure that the reviews will become richer, sharper, and, quite simply, better.
Spencer Short: We're actually pretty demanding of our reviewers, which is one of the reasons why we try to highlight them on the site (even if they have no specific byline). Those demands can be a little difficult on them, I'm sure, but we hope they prove rewarding in practice. Because of how heavily we edit reviews before publication, and because we require our writers to create one 400-word review a month for us, there's some preliminary sorting-out that goes on before we bring someone into the fold. That said, we're always happy to talk with those who think they'd like to be part of the project.
What other literary sites, journals, online or print, are your go-to for poems and reviews?
Kathleen Ossip: One of my favorite poetry journals, and one that's relatively under the radar, is Court Green, out of Columbia College Chicago. They do themed issues on the most interesting topics and the poems are reliably delightful, with no dead weight. Lana Turner wakes me up and keeps me honest. And I, like many readers, have been heartened by Don Share's reinvigorating vision for Poetry, seemingly with the aim of nothing less than showcasing the vastness of contemporary poetry; it's again become one of my habitual reads. Finally, I rely on the online journal At Length for the good, chunky long poems I need regular doses of.
I've considered Boston Review's reviews and review-essays the gold standard for years. And I'll read Stephen Burt on anything, wherever it appears. He's almost scarily perceptive and his writing is a dream; we're lucky to have him.
Spencer Short: There's a bit of a Rip Van Winkle-effect at work for me– about a year after I published my first and only book in 2001, I stepped away from poetry completely, and didn't keep up with journals, book publications, or websites for years. I started crawling back toward it in 2011 or so, but I still haven't caught up! I don't think that's the worst thing, in the end, for a variety of reasons. And it certainly helps that Kathy is so involved – her knowledge of people, books, and journals sort of liberates my ignorance. That said, my initial contributions to the construction of SCOUT were heavily indebted to Boston Review—I loved writing micros for them back in the early Aughts— though, to be honest, there's a little bit of Pitchfork circa 2004 to it, as well. It's easy to draw parallels between the indie music scene at that time and the explosion of publishing outlets in poetry today. The hope, I guess, is that there might be room for a poetry review site that helps negotiate that kind of publishing sprawl just as Pitchfork helped indie rock fans a decade ago.