Audience Participation

Every time I send out a mass email soliciting subscriptions — which is only twice a year at most — I receive a handful of responses similar to the following:

I could not help but be perplexed by an editor rejecting my work for their magazine and then pleading with me to take a subscription. It has happened more times that [sic] you might imagine. I am sure that the absurdity is not lost on you. Despite that, I wish you success with Rattle.

Often they include curses, ill-wishes, or even threats of violence, but that’s not what I’m interested in here, so I’ve chosen one of the more considerate ones.  This is from a guy named Dan, who was kind the whole time, and began our exchange with a fun note:

Thanks so much for your recent request that I purchase a subscription to Rattle. Be assured that the poet has given your request careful consideration, but he regrets to inform you that Rattle just does not suit his present literary needs. He wishes you the best of luck in finding subscribers elsewhere.

Well done, sir.

But light-hearted or mean-spirited, these responses share a common kernel that’s somewhat rational — why would I subcribe to a poetry magazine that doesn’t like my poetry?

My response is always the same — I become utterly perplexed myself.  Think of what Dan’s proposal implies — if the only people subscribing to Rattle were poets we’ve published, why would anyone want to be published in Rattle?  The only way to increase our readership would be to publish more poems, and then expand each issue to thousands of pages.  With so much paper and ink, we’d have to raise our cover price to $40 to cover the cost.  We’d be a vanity press at worst (a de facto replacement for the finally defunct scam), or a poetry collective at best.

While I think a collective magazine is an interesting idea, I don’t think we’d be getting very many submissions, or publishing quality content with any consistency.  People want to be published in Rattle because they want thousands of other people to read their poems — they don’t want to be one poet among thousands.  What are they thinking?  What do they expect us to do?

I’ve explained this situation countless times over the last five years, and I always assumed it was just sour grapes — “My poems are me, and if you don’t like them, you don’t like me, so I’m not going to like you either!”  It only just occurred to me that there might be more to the story.  That there might be a fundamental disconnect between the way I see reality and the way they see reality.

Think of any other non-literary magazine.  Or even a partial literary magazine, like The New Yorker.  I’m not going to look up their circulations numbers, but it’s something like 50,000 readers, plus a high-traffic website.  All those readers, and in any given year they might have 200 contributors.  And if I make the weak assumption that their submission base has the same ratio of members as Rattle, I can do the math and say that less than 5,000 writers send them work every year.  So, using these extremely rough numbers, it’s likely that more 90% of New Yorker readers have not submitted their own work to The New Yorker in the last year, and the vast majority of them never have.  Most people who read The New Yorker aren’t writers.  They’re not reading the fiction hoping to write like Sherman Alexie, and they’re not reading about geopolitics hoping to become an investigative reporter like Seymour Hersh.  They want to be informed and entertained, and that’s it.

This is the disconnect.  Virtually all readers of poetry are writers of poetry themselves.  Poetry isn’t a passive interest, it’s an active passion.  Rattle keeps a large database of everyone we’ve ever had contact with.  There are tens of thousands of entries in the database, and 80% of them also have the label “rejected.”  We have 3,000 subscribers, and almost every one of them has submitted their work at one time or another.  When I find a reader of poetry — any poetry, not just Rattle — who doesn’t try to write it themselves, I want to run up and shake their hand, then reach in and examine their psyche.  It’s a rare species.

As I’ve said so many times, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the entire world of poetry being exclusively participatory.  I think both reading and writing it can enrich your life, so the more that get involved the merrier.  But a lot of people still want to pretend this isn’t the case, and even more, I think, just don’t realize that it is.  If you think of a literary magazine as if it were The Nation or Vanity Fair , of course you’d be offended, as a frequent submitter being asked to subscribe — there’s a whole market of readers to solicit without having to solicit the writers who want their work published with you.

That’s just not true, though.  Poetry is a niche, and if you’re writing it, you’re one of the only ones to reading it.  Everyone is participating in this big mutual exchange of creativity — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so let’s just embrace it.

25 thoughts on “Audience Participation

  1. This reminds me of what I always hear, kind of the flipside to that logic: If you don’t like the magazine why are you submitting to it? Well, if I HATE the magazine I will not submit, that’s true, but if I only submitted to the magazines that I LOVED I would never submit anywhere. Both parties are trying to influence the other.

    I think the New Yorker probably gets a ton of those letters. And Poetry too. I know everytime I get a rejection from Poetry there will be an envelope shortly in the mailbox wanting me to subscribe (sometimes two identical letters at the same time) and while I don’t write a nasty letter to them(I am above such pettiness, ha) it does irritate me.

    I would think you’d be jaded to that kind of thing by now.

  2. POETRY buys and sells mailing lists like any big corporation — you could submit to NARRATIVE MAGAZINE and then get a letter from POETRY…and then get another letter six months later from some other magazine when POETRY turns around and sells your information again. That’s the only thing that pisses me off. I don’t want to be a bundled commodity.

    I’m really not any more jaded than I was when I started out. I’m just forever trying to figure out this racket. I like my job — reading poems, finding ones you like, and then putting together a magazine, designing websites and ads — nothing beats it. But if it wasn’t for this, I’d probably behave the same way you do, I think…just mail out my poems, because what the hell else am I going to do with them? I still think half of it is ridiculous, and I have to reconcile that with the half that enjoys it.

  3. Pingback: Poetry News For January 6, 2010 | Poetry Hut Blog

  4. Tim,

    If you remove the outliers of booze and remove the cases of late onset juvenile narcissism, usually those who handle rejection bitterly either haven’t had enough of it or haven’t yet gotten over being slighted by mama. As far as the polite response, I’m not fond of boyish cuteness.

    Hate to digress here but I really must say — that nifty little “Threesome” in #32 is remarkable. Loaned out my copy. Did the author come up with the form? Never seen anything like this and cannot find the name for this form anywhere. Do you know what he’s calling it?

  5. Rob–

    I think he calls them “Threesomes” actually. He sent us a brief essay on the form, too, which I couldn’t find a good way to use. But he has a chapbook of the Threesome poems available from SunnyOutside Press, that you can buy here:

    I have a copy, it’s a cool little chapbook.


  6. Got it on order, thanks.

    Haven’t seen the issue in weeks yet this
    clever little “Threesome” poem’s on my mind – just the thought of John doing was this one says, what that one says – twisting, negotiating, compromising can be read as both in and out of the bedroom and in the end John loves, yea he does – lucky bastard.

    Thanks again.

  7. Most especially when it comes to something as insignificant as rejections on poetry attempts.

    But, dealing with those in the stages of grief is another story all together.

    Enjoyed your “Destiny of a Cab Driver” in NYQ 65 by the way – congrats. If you strike the last line it leaves us on the images of seeing you in your hat – chained to you cab as we ascend up to the hell, that is, airport security.

    Nice job on the poem.

  8. I don’t think there should be any shame in taking rejection “bitterly”. Rejection hurts if it MATTERS to you. I guess if you are a zen buddist or something it doesn’t hurt at all. I think Tim dealt with it pretty well, I mean letters like that are not pleasant but is it really that hard to see the other side of it? I don’t think so.

    You’ve got your subscriptions up to date, Rob, that’s clear. Can I call you Rob? Thank you for the compliment, too.

    As far as Kreisel’s 3 column poems go, I’ve seen a few of them around and they get tiring after about, I don’t know, about 3 of them.

  9. In a “nutshell” – The reason we should be able to handle rejection better than most is the same reason to attempt poems and this is the same reason we really don’t have to subscribe to The New Yorker because we can read the issues in the lobby every two weeks when we visit our shrinks – in other words – most of us are really screwed up and have been rejected our entire lives. We come from places where being a cab driver is considered white collar. Poetry helps me get through much much worse than getting a little form rejection letter with a meanie request to subscribe. Rejection should motivate us and at worse give us another reason to knife out a revision.

    As far as Kriesel’s work – I’ve seen only the one memorable threesome and to be fair, if I based my opinion on just one poem – I’d never get through those journals let alone entire collections. Chapbook’s on the way though, we’ll see.
    I’ll let you know.

    Just don’t call me Jefferson – from his last post on your blog – he’s living up to the metaphor you drew of him as a pouting twelve year old girl slouching in a loveseat. Was a pretty cruel story though – you meanie.

  10. “We come from places where being a cab driver is considered white collar.” That is hilarious and right on target! I made more money driving a cab than any other job I’ve ever had! Probably 10-12 bucks an hour on average. Definitely NOT bragging about that…

    Funny that you mentioned DESTINY OF A CAB DRIVER and then Jefferson Carter. The Jefferson Carter saga continues. After calling me TWEEZER DICK on his blog MOLTEN LANGUAGE (where he also called Tim a “dick” for picking Carter’s worst poems to publish.) he then challenged me to a poetry contest. He went ahead and picked the judge so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with that, and we sent our poems to one Jamison Crabtree, mfa student poetry friend of Carter’s. I sent DESTINY and of course I lost the contest, and got a nice mfa response as to why…now I have to buy Carter’s latest book. So, there will be another story and poems that come out of this, ha ha…but the basic lesson is that I am a loser and always will be…thanks Dr. Carter!

  11. To my knowledge and for the record, we’ve never published Jefferson Carter, so if he was saying that I only pick his worst poems to publish, I’d be curious to see that. All I find is him complaining about the 2008 winner of our contest.

    The contest between you two is hilarious. I’d like to make a website called Poetry Death Match, and we could put poems head-to-head with the authors’ names redacted and a little poll at the bottom. Anyone caught soliciting votes would be disqualified. Could be a yearly tournament, grand prize winner gets a ridiculous t-shirt.

    That’s the kind of stuff I’d be doing if I didn’t have to read 150 poems and an essay every day.

  12. That is funny…He did say it, I would not make something like that up…I didn’t research it but I assumed you had published him…I’m going to write him now and clear it up…unbelievable…well I put his poem that won the “contest” on my blog and I will post all the reasoning and background behind it in days to come…if anyone’s interested…

  13. Ok, he did not claim to have published in Rattle, I was wrong there. He wrote me this:

    “M, I never said that. What I probably said was he’s never published one of my poems. I sent him what I thought were good poems, but he rejected them all. After reading the stuff he does publish in “Rattle” and especially after reading the poem that won their poetry contest two years, I don’t WANT to publish a poe m with him. I think he has crappy taste. JC”

  14. Rob, I know Mather needs constant turmoil to feel alive, and I don’t want to encourage him in either, but you need to read my
    TRUE response (on his blog) to his fantasy about my ignoring him. I really did find him masturbating in MY office; I admiot the tweezers was a fictional addition to spice up the tale. Notice the common thread in all his whining: he’s being IGNORED by conceited writers!

  15. Tim, I had fun in my contest with Mather. You SHOULD set up an online contest, a sort of sudden-death, mano a mano poem tournament. After Jamison Crabtree chose my poem, Mather of course had to tear him down (although Mather was more than willing to let Jamison judge). I’ve challenged Mather to another contest, letting him choose the judge or even asking you to judge it, but so far he’s declined in his usual rabid fashion. One difference (I hope) between me and Mather is that if someone doesn’t like my work, I don’t automatically assume he’s biased or worthless. I may dislike the person’s taste in poetry, but I won’t dismiss his dedication to promoting art that he finds inspiring. JC

  16. JC,
    I’ll get around to it later.
    Kinda preoccupied with other things, like Haiti for instance.

    You know, if you have the ability to momentarily divert your vim away from what this one says, what that one says — you may find that these organizations really wallop poetry in the legacy department:

    Don’t go, there’s no place for you – send money and supplies.

  17. You’re really too modest, Mather.

    You cannot simply say you lost or another beat you out because of a one person panel?

    I mean “Destiny of a Cab Driver” was a solid poem, not to mention, it made it through the smart and sharp eyes of a publication with an editorial board. Your placement in the issue solid, too.

    This board is a mix of backgrounds and schools and this certainly carries more weight than one MFA student.

    This will take a little professionalism out of you two:

    Why not try a contest that we can all benefit from – good poems are like good lovers because they belong to no one man.

    If you both agree you have poems that fits a certain journal – submit yours’ to a one with an editorial board and announce the winner on your blogs and allow the journal to win out also.

    Don’t paste the poems on your blogs – announce the journal and issue number.

    This would push you both to produce and submit your best work.

    I know I’d send off for the issue with the winner(s) printed and the bio simply saying something like
    “The Grand Canyon Champion 2010”

  18. Rob, even an editorial board made up of 100 Pulitzer Prize winners would not guarantee the loser’s accepting the decision as objective. I do believe if two poems meet minimum criteria for competence, then which is better truly is a matter of taste. Mather’s poem was, as you say, solid. I (and Jamison) thought mine was more original, but I would, of course. And Tim liked Mather’s poem enough to publish it whereas he hasn’t published any of mine. C’est la vie. I did appreciate Jamison’s detailed and helpful comments about both our poems, and I really liked the poem he posted for both of us to read. Although your analogy of the good poem to a slut isn’t especially enlightening, I’d agree: all good poems should be blessed. Jefferson

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