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 Poetry.com 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 Duotrope.com 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.

Playing Moneyball with Poetry

Two Hollywood people I like, Steven Soderbergh and Brad Pitt, had teamed up to film a baseball movie I’d actually pay to see (well, rent at least) — but it was axed at the last minute by the studio.  And I really mean last-minute — the film crew was on its way, and they’d already built a replica of the Oakland Coliseum in Phoenix.  There’s a great article about A’s GM Billy Beane and  “Moneyball” the movie over on ESPN.com.  It’s  shame, I would have loved to see Pitt as Beane, and Soderbergh’s blend of fiction and reality — real players playing themselves, documentary footage thrown in.  Damn you, Columbia Pictures!

It got me thinking about how I try to run Rattle on Moneyball principles. Not directly, but maybe incidentally — it’s been years since I read Moneyball, and all Beane really did was introduce common sense into a field where testosterone prevailed.  It’s more incidence than influence.

Here’s the gist:  Billy Beane, a failed ballplayer himself, took over the front office of the Oakland A’s in 1998.  The second team in what should be a one-team town (the Bay Area is only the 13th largest population center in the country, and 9 of the cities above it only have one team), the A’s don’t generate enough revenue to afford signing star players.  Teams like the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox have two to three times their payroll, which is always one of the smallest in the league.  So the only way the A’s can compete is by recognizing and pursuing undervalued commodities.

Ten years ago, baseball was still in the statistical dark ages, with thinkers like Bill James looking from the outside in.  For over a century, scoreboards had been listing batting average, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases, as if those were the most important metrics of a good ballplayer — and salaries responded accordingly.  But there are a lot of external influences that go into those stats that a player doesn’t control — the size of his home park, the strength of his lineup, and even chance itself.  Beane recognized that there were better measures of a player’s worth that weren’t overvalued by the market.  If he could find players, for example, with low batting averages, but who drew a lot of walks and so still reached base, he could sign them cheaply, relative to their true value — could sign a whole team of them, and so compete with the rich organizations, despite his small payroll.

And that’s exactly what he did, entering each season with one of the poorest teams in baseball, and then still making the playoffs.  His success spread throughout the league, and in 2003 Michael Lewis wrote a book about him called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

When it comes to poetry publishing, Rattle really is an organization much like the Oakland A’s.  We’re a major league team, no doubt, but our budget pales in comparison to the big franchises.  We have a staff of two and spend one-fifth to one-tenth of what the big institutionally and pharmaceutically backed magazines do.  The only way we can compete with them is by recognizing and utilizing the traditionally undervalued commodities.  These include:

  • Customer service. We received 780 email entries to the Rattle Poetry Prize over the weekend, and I personally checked each file and confirmed that it met our requirements.  I’ve also got this blog, where I make everything we do transparent, I’m very accessible and friendly by email, and so on.  Poetry magazine could easily hire some extra staff to do that, but you’d be talking to an intern, not an editor — and I think there’s value in that.
  • The daily blog. We’re still one of the few to recognize the value of the blog format, and how beautiful the medium is for poetry.  Over 1,000 people log in to read our poem of the day every day.  Other magazines have great websites, far superior in design to ours, but they don’t provide this steady flow of new content.
  • Lesser-known poets. This is the big one, our version of On Base Percentage.  Unless you have some nice writing credentials, your chances of having a poem published in one of the big journals is pretty slim.  But credentials don’t make any one poem any better — well-known poets might write better poems on average, but there are plenty of great poems written by poets you’ve never heard of.  And there are thousands of poets you’ve never heard of, chomping at the bit.  So while Poetry magazine acts like the white shark, and gives birth to a few fully developed Pulitzer prize-winning man-eaters, Rattle makes like a frog, letting the fittest survive from two million tadpoles.  So in the end we get a magazine that reads just as well, if not better than Poetry, but without the same kind of big-name-clout.  We sign the Jack Custs of the world, instead of Alex Rodriguez — they’ll both hit their share of home runs, but Cust will do it for $20 million less, even if he does set the major league record for strikeouts in the process.

And poetry readers want lesser-known poets.  I think that’s the principle that the big franchises haven’t caught on to yet.  Almost all poetry readers are writers themselves — far more important than a few big names on the cover is the sense of fairness and equity in a magazine.   I think poetry fans want to read the best poems they can, regardless of reputation.  Poetry might acknowledge it with an asterisk next to newbees in their bio section, but they haven’t embraced poetic democracy like we have.  They still list the over-priced all stars on the cover, and they don’t encourage submitters like we do.  And that’s fine, they can afford to set their own values.  But Rattle is small-market; we can’t.

It didn’t take long after the publication of Moneyball for Beane’s strategy to spread across the league.  The Red Sox hired Bill James and won a world series.  On Base Percentage is no longer the undervalued metric — the market flipped, and Beane is building a new team around the fast, athletic defenders that are now the best value to be found for cheap.

The same is sure to happen to us — eventually the rest of the league will catch on, and we’ll lose our edge in friendliness and accessibility, and maybe our democratic philosophy will even spread.  Either we’ll find a new niche, or fade to the back of the pack.

The problem is, I really believe in our niche — I want to focus on friendliness, I want to support as many poetic voices as possible — so maybe we’re destined to fade.  We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

Poetry Is Not a Racket

War is a racket. … Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
–Major General Smedley Butler,
War Is a Racket, 1935

It’s no revelation to say that we’re a culture obsessed with money.  That we can’t do anything unless someone makes a profit.  Money corrupts everything it shouldn’t:  healthcare, politics, adoptions, war…  Sometimes I’m surprised there’s no one outside picketing the Postal Service.  (DHL and FedEx do it better, right?  So what if it costs $8 to send a postcard…)

But you can’t make money writing poetry.  And I’m thankful for it.  Our poverty keeps us pure.

Of course, plenty of people make money in poetry, greasing the gears of the machine so we can keep cranking out poets and books and magazines.  Teachers get paid to teach.  I get paid to run a magazine, which contrary to popular belief, consists mostly of correspondence, database maintenance, advertising, accounting, and web and graphic design.  Every once in a while I have to write the introduction to a tribute section, or a little blurb about our contest winner — and I hate that.  It might take an hour or two, so for two hours out of fifty a week, everyone once in a while, I get paid to write about poetry.  But most of the time I’m a clerk with a fancy title, either tracking files or shipping and receiving.  Megan and I might read more poetry than anyone, but we also lick more stamps.

When it comes to writing, though, there is only the writing.  No one writes poetry for any reason other than that they love to do it — or at least loved it at one time, and hope to love again.  Maybe they love it for the discovery or for the meditation, or just for the empowering feeling of having a voice in the world — even with the most self-important of motivations, the love is pure; the goal is self-contained within the poem.  It’s work for no profit other than the work itself.

I think about this every time I hear poets lamenting the fact that there’s no money in this — if only there were more grants, if only poetry books sold like novels and you could make a living just writing…  Of course that would be great for the successful few, but think of what we’d lose.  All these voices speaking their own truth.  There woudn’t be any more real poetry in the average bookstore, there’d be sections for mystery collections, horror, Harry Potter, and Chick Lit.  We’d have to worry about agents and contracts and copyright infringement…  No thanks.

It’s that last that got me thinking about this again.  Recently I made the mistake of posting a copyrighted photograph without crediting the artist.  The comparative in poetry would be to have a poem of mine republished on the internet somewhere without my name one it.  The truth is, I don’t think I’d mind.  Of course I’d prefer to be listed as the author, and I’d be upset if the poem was attributed to someone else — plagiarism is still a sin.  But any negative feelings would be balanced by the honor of finding some random stranger who appreciates my work.

The difference in reaction has nothing to do with personalities, but rather, is inherent in the medium itself.  Photographs have a real-world value.  Whether you’re taking stock photos, journalism, or fine art photography, it’s possible that you might sell those images for a meaningful amount of money.  Poetry has no tangible value, so copyright infringement isn’t all that important.

I’ll give another example.  Two summers ago, in our slam issue, Rattle published Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.” (If you click that link you can listen to it, and I highly recommend you do.)  Years before we published the poem, it had already become a meme among educators — even my aunt, a retired high school math teacher who never reads poetry, recognized that poem.  But interestingly, the poem was often passed around without mention of Taylor’s name, so that several people wrote to us claiming that the poem was plagiarized.  When I mentioned this to Taylor later, he didn’t seem bothered in the least.  He had a message, and he was happy that it was getting out.

When you add money into the mix, things change out of necessity.  When it’s really a livelihood at stake, we have to be more serious.  And it effects some corners of poetry, too.  Within that same slam issue is a piece by the only poet who ever denied our request to put audio of a poem online.  He said it would be alright if we streamed the recording, but he didn’t want the mp3 to be downloadable, because it appears on a CD he recently released.  Since I don’t know how to do that, I wasn’t able to post the poem.  But I understood completely — I’d never want to damage someone’s livelihood.

That’s why I’m happy that there’s rarely any money in poetry.  A poem is only as serious as a poem is — gravely, intangibly, irrevocably serious at times, completely unserious at others.  True to nothing the poet, questionable to nothing but itself.  Poetry is not a racket.  It’s a hobby, a passion, an obsession, a calling.  Free to anyone with a pen and time to think; free to anyone with a library card and time to think on.  It’s entertainment, comfort, catharsis, epiphany — but never currency.  And there’s value in that.

A Struggling Poet

Several people have commented recently on the subtitle of this blog: “Poetry Editor and Struggling Poet.”  Tim, they say, how can you possibly be a struggling poet when you have a book that’s just been published by a good press and a full-time job in the poetry industry?  Or as G. Tod Slone puts it, “Why would you be a ‘struggling poet’? Hell, the machine is paying you a salary, isn’t it?”

Obviously that tag isn’t referring to money — anyone who’s seen my gut lately knows I’m not struggling to eat.  If I cared about material wealth I wouldn’t be here — I graduated at the top of my class and could easily be a molecular biologist at some pharmaceutical company pulling down six figures right now — but that doesn’t mean I’m starving.

I’m not struggling at my career, either.  American Fractal is doing as well as a first book of poetry can be expected to (sold three copies this week, wow!), and Rattle is growing fast and furious.  The age of 30 is breathing down my neck, but it isn’t here yet, and already I’m feeling pretty cozy in this niche.

What I’m struggling with is poetry itself.  I haven’t written a poem in three months.  In the last 18 months I might have written a half dozen.  It’s been two years since my book was accepted for publication.  It’s been two years since I’ve submitted work to another magazine.  It’s been two years since I’ve cared to.

I still love good poetry, and I still love the meditative process through which good poetry is composed.  I still think poetry is an incredibly meaningful part of the human experience — I think it’s endemic to the way our minds work, as important an evolutionary tool as the opposable thumb.  It’s poetry that not only helps us communicate new ideas, but lets us form new ideas in the first place; it’s through poetry that we experience the nuances of the world.  Simple language produces simple thoughts.  Poetry is banned in 1984 for a reason.  Poetry is a garden for reflection, contemplation, awareness, empathy — all the things that are missing or deficient in this modern life.

And yet poetry as an industry is just as ridiculous as any other industry.  Just as much a game: CVs, MFAs, bios, blogs, open mics, cover letters, conferences, colonies, grants, awards, networking, politicking, policing…  I don’t care if you’re an academic poet, a street poet, or an underground poet.  I don’t care if you’re the Poet Laureate or the Poet Lariat or the poet Harriet, who has a 160 poems in four different themes in a three-ring binder on her desk.  It’s all a joke.  It’s an egotistical, megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, back scratching, crotch-stroking, fist pumping joke.  When I see a bio listing 104 “credits,” including Poetry and Triquarterly and the New England Review, I don’t think, Wow, that’s a real poet.  I think, Wow, that’s a lot of postage.  When I see the same poet reading the same poem over and over again to the same audience at every open mic in town, there’s no room to wonder about the transaction — the only one gaining something is you, gaining a captive audience for content that wouldn’t hold up through a dinner conversation.

You want fame, you want attention, you want respect.  That’s all the game is about.  It’s 28,000 submitters and 2,800 subscribers.  It’s an audience of 30 at a poetry reading, and 20 of them thinking only about the poem they’ll read when the host calls their name.  It’s a new book every four years because that’s what tenure calls for.  And every faction, from the most amateur to the most erudite, thinks they’re the one that’s doing it right.  It’s all the same silly enterprise.

Yes, you’re all poets.  But only because we’re all poets — every human being is a poet from birth.  We live in language, we enjoy language, we use language in interesting ways.  Only 10% of us are writing poetry, but 100% of us should be.  That’s what really matters.  Good poetry isn’t about linebreaks or imagery or avoiding cliches.  It’s not about books or applause or MFAs.  It’s about having a genuine fucking experience within language.  If you have an actual experience writing the poem, I will have an actual experience reading the poem, and we’ll all be better off for it.  If you aren’t doing that, then I don’t want anything to do with you.  We might as well be talking about the weather, or sports, or Dancing with the Stars.

And if you want to learn how to write poetry, if you want to teach it, then teach how to have a meditative experience within language.  Don’t workshop me, don’t writers’ group me, don’t line-edit the vapid into mediocrity.  If it’s not a genuine experience, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  I’ve had a handful of teachers who have taught poetry the right way, sometimes without even knowing it, but so many others who are nothing more than foremen at a plastic factory.  I’ll love the former forever, but I’m done with the latter and all the empty molds they spawn.

When I call myself a struggling poet, it’s because I’m struggling with how poetry is treated, how poetry acts.  But I had a revelation last night:  I’m done with it.  I’m done with taking this industry so seriously just because everyone else does.  I’m done pretending Best American Poetry matters.  I’m done pretending 200 people reading my poem in some journal is better than the 200 people who would read it if I posted it on this blog.  I’m done with trying to be successful.

All that matters is the actual poetry.  All that matters are the real poets, who actually exist as real poets for the hour or two that they’re living within a real poem.  All that matters are the actual people, who actually enjoy reading real poems. All that matters is the joy of creating them.

That’s how I felt five years ago.  And five years ago I didn’t consider myself a “struggling poet.”

Notes on the Last Post

Thanks, Carol, for letting me know of a lively and relevant discussion that’s going on right now at the Eratosphere.  It focuses on an article by Sandra Beasley in the latest Poets & Writers, “From Page to Pixils,” which you’d think might have been the inspiration for yesterday’s post, but I actually hadn’t seen it yet.  Beasley offers an insightful rehash of the reasons why poets shouldn’t be afraid to publish online.

Good stuff, and I want to respond to a lot of it — but I’m out of underwear, and need to spend the next couple hours reading submissions at the laundromat.  So rather than a proper follow-up post, I’m going to throw down some random thoughts, bullet style:

<< As a response to just the first sentence of Carlin’s comment:  I was hoping folks would write in and let me know about journals that are doing interesting things online that I’m not familiar with.  I’m looking forward to checking out Open Loop Press and HarperStudio, thanks for sharing that.  Also, I have to say I regret not mentioning No Tell Motel as an online magazine that does poetry right.  They publish daily, five times a week, and focus on one poet per week.  So not only do you get your daily dose of poetry, but you also get to build a mini-relationship, a little fling, with one particular author (hence the clever title).  It’s really a great setup, and Reb publishes good work, too.

<< Both Beasley and (oops) [T]he Eratosphere folks imagine an editor being unfamiliar with a poet they’re trying to decide to publish, and then Googling them to see what else they’ve written.  This idea is just baffling to me — if I’m looking at a particular poem, what do I care what other poems that poet has written?  How on earth does it matter to the experience our readers will potentially have with that poem?  Seriously, I’m asking…

<< That said, I think what comes up when you Google a poet is very important — “managing that virtual dimension,” as Beasley puts it.  When I started writing, I was writing junk.  I never worried about my reputation or a career.  Writing was a hobby, publishing poems was fun.  So I published a lot of junk.  The funny thing is, junk in print disappears — tiny magazines are read once, by a couple hundred people, and never read again.  Junk online lasts forever.  If you Google my name, you can still find poems that I wish I hadn’t published.   When I started taking poetry more seriously, I realized that I had to do a better job of putting good work online, and I made a conscious effort to send some of my best poems to the e-zines I read.  Which is why a poem like “After Hopper” appears in Pedestal Magazine.

<< I don’t know a lot about web traffic or circulation figures, so I’m always very interested to hear other editors dropping insights into how large their audience is.  Several months ago, also in Poets & Writers, I learned that Rattle’s circulation is higher than Iowa Review and Georgia Review.  I probably mention this far too often, but, quite frankly, it made my day.  The same thing just happened online.  Beasley quotes the editor of Coconut: “”A new issue of Coconut gets about ten thousand unique page views in its first two weeks.”  Rattle.com receives 10,000 unique page views on a single bad week.  When things are going good, it’s 10,000 a day.

<< While I’m harping, try this: Go to Alexa.com and see if you can find any literary magazine that has a higher traffic ranking than Rattle.com.  If you find anything, let me know.

<< Since every poem we print appears online, publishing with us means that your work will see not only one of the top 10 (at least) print circulations of any literary venue in the country, but you’ll also find more web readers than any online magazine can offer.  We don’t pay our authors in dollars, unfortunately, but that’s not a bad reward.

<< And still Rattle gets very little publicity.  Beasley lists dozens of magazines in her article, and seems to interview several editors.  I can think of one time Rattle has been mentioned in Poets & Writers, a few sentences in an article about contests.  Another year has gone by with no Pushcart Prizes or BAP reprints.  I could whine on, but I won’t.  Instead I’ll ask Beasley to take the Google challenge.  Type “Theories of Falling,” her very good debut collection, into a search engine.  What literary journals come up on the first page?  Iowa ReviewAGNIAnti-?  Nope.  But Rattle’s review of the book is there.

<< Okay, sorry for that tangent.  In the article, Sven Bikerts of AGNI says: “”Philosophically, I’m of two minds about this. Proliferation is what every author is after. Yet too much proliferation undermines the authority and prestige of the printed material, as the poem becomes part of a flow—a generalized cultural avalanche.” I love AGNI and I love Sven, but I have no idea what he could possibly mean here.  Authority and prestige?  Is that what poets are really after?  Not an intimate and  memorable connection between the writer and a large audience?   Not having a positive effect on social lives?  You want the ivory tower?  Huh…

<< Over on the Eratosphere, Mark Allinson says: “I don’t bother submitting to them anymore. Mainly because I am convinced that only submitting poets and their immediate families will ever read them.” I beg to differ (see above).

<< Kate Benedict of Umbrella says that she would put audio poetry onto her e-zine, but that it would cost too much time and bandwidth.  The audio mixing software I bought cost $25, adding audio to a poem takes about 5 minutes, and with a hundred of mp3s in our archive and a lot of traffic, we’ve never come close to going over bandwidth.  I think our hosting costs $112/year; it’s not like we have an extensive plan.  Kate, if you see this and want some help, shoot me an email.

Well, I’d like to add more — some interesting discussion about how to engage readers, whether or not there’s a publishing ladder, and so on — but my roll of quarters calls.