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.”

Poetry Publishing for the 21st Century

An Idea I Will Never Use, So If You Want It It’s Yours

If I was running an online-only poetry journal, I would completely ditch the “issue” model that magazines have been operating under for the last 300 years, and publish continuously, in a blog-style format.* Hopefully with enough publishable content to add a new poem every weekday. The main beef I have with online literary magazines is that they don’t embrace their own technology — they try to make the journal seem as much like a print journal as possible. They even have cover art, and call it cover art, even though they don’t actually have a cover.

I was looking at this list of the Top 50 literary journals online (always sad to see Rattle not listed), and I can’t find one that’s really ditched the old-fashion issue model.  The only exceptions seem to be print magazines that are using their websites as a supplement (like we do).  What do the online-only journals gain by doing things the way publishers have always been forced to do them in print?  The only reason you bundle a magazine into regular issues is because bundling content makes the printing and shipping of those issues cheaper.  Even with fewer pages, every new press run would increase your production costs by at least 50%.  And that’s the only reason things are published the way they’ve always been.  All we had in the past was paper.

In shackling themselves to the limitations of the printing press, all the e-zines accomplish is appeasing consumer expectation.  Poetry readers are used to receiving their verse in monthly or quarterly increments, and the quarterly issues avoid rocking the boat.

But this is the Information Age.  All the knowledge in the world is available at our fingertips, 24-hours a day — who wants to wait three months for the next installment?  What’s more, with our attention spans always shrinking, who wants to sit down and read an entire issue of an online magazine all at once?  Society has changed — it’s become quantized; we want to consume incrementally, at the speed of light.  And poetry fits perfectly into this new world, packed into small but profound doses that often fit on a single computer screen.

Moreover, poetry’s best publicity has always been word-of-mouth.  We don’t have advertising dollars, let alone a valid economic model for distribution.  What Napster did to the music industry could never happen to poetry — that genie has been out of the bottle for 10,000 years.  Bootlegging a poem?  That’s just called recitation.  Now when you read a poem that really moves you, you can forward it to a friend, you can post it to your Facebook, you can StumbleUpon it, you can Twitter it.  It seems natural to share poetry, because that’s what poetry is naturally for — and the social networking world is an ideal fit.

If I were starting a small press, I would publish continuously as well, and treat it like a book-of-the-month club.  Who needs bookstores?  You can buy our books individually online, but you can also subscribe to the press, and recieve a new title every month — no one has time to read books anymore, but isn’t 30 days perfect for digging into a good book of poetry?  Read a poem every night before bed, or keep your monthly poetry book by the toilet in place of Time Magazine.  We don’t have to worry about the marketability of individual authors, or focus so much on arranging readings where 10 people might show up — our audience is already there, book after book, and so we only have to worry about marketing ourselves as a single unit, and publishing the best books.

Anyone who makes a larger, tax-deductable donation to the press receives a subscription to the press, too.  Why subscribe when you can support, and get the tax write-off?

But it doesn’t end there.  All books are published as e-books as well, and anyone who subscribes to the press gets unfettered access to all of the poetry online.  And the website includes a member forum where everyone across the country can log in and discuss the poetry book of the month, including a new poem from the book, posted blog-like every day.  Maybe the author joins in to answer questions, or provides audio or video readings of the work.  Maybe we even find a communal way to select some of the forthcoming titles.  So the press becomes not just a press, but an active literary community.  And the more interactive that community becomes, the more we take advantage of social networking.  Since the site is an integral part of the experience, there will be a good amount of traffic, and we can use Google Ads to help offset some of the costs.

Would you pay, say, $100 per year for 12 books of poetry to arrive in your mailbox, and an online community of friends to discuss them with?  I would, and I’m a cheap bastard.  1,000 subscribers at that rate would pay all of our production costs.  2,000 would pay for a good chunk of staff salary, and we’d probably be less reliant on donations than any other small press in the country.

We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift, and poetry deserves to take advantage of it.  Almost overnight, the world has become globally and continuously interactive.  There’s no reason to perpetuate the distribution systems that evolved in an environment that no longer exists.

I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but when football coaches move their players up from higher levels — high school kids moving to college, college kids turning pro — they often try to convert them toward “bigger” positions:  cornerbacks become free safeties, free safeties become strong safeties, strong safeties become middle linebackers, and so on.  You can add muscle in the weight room, but you can’t add speed, so as the environment becomes more challenging, as the game gets faster and faster, there’s no other choice.

This is what poetry publishing has to do if we want it to stay competitive.  Small presses need to operate more like magazines, magazines more like newspapers, and newspapers going out of print altogether.  That’s the way we have to adapt if we want to thrive.  Because a college free safety with 4.9 speed is going to get burned on the deep ball every time.

NOTE: See some followup points here.

__________

* See the two magazines I run, Rattle, of course, and the online-only Found Poetry Project.  I could have easily made either using the issue model, but why on earth would I want to?

Batting Average on Balls in Play

The party last night was great — I’m not a party person, but we made it out alive, without crying in a corner or spilling beer on a rare book, so chalk it up as a win.  I didn’t think to bring a camera, so there will be no pictures, unless Red Hen posts them on Facebook, but there was a good turnout, a merry atmosphere, plenty of interesting small talk, free wine, good music…  Just an overall nice night.

I wasn’t really thinking of the party as a place to sell books, more just a place to show them off, but we sold well, too — as many copies as we sell in two days at the AWP.  Everywhere I go with a selection of issues, it’s the same.  With a list of interviews and features like these, the magazine sells itself. (Which is good, because I’m no salesman.)

I was talking to someone about acceptance rates — a topic which often comes up in settings like this — and it occurred to me how poetic success works a lot like baseball.  A few years ago I used baseball as a metaphor to lament the lack of an amateur/professional split within the poetry world: no one thinks they have to be a major leaguer to have fun taking hacks at the batting cage, but for some reason the idea of being an amateur poet and having fun in the same way with words strikes us as embarrassing.  In wishing poetry acted more like baseball, I didn’t realize a way that it already does.

Baseball’s often been called a game of failure.  If you fail 70% of the time, that means you’re a .300 hitter, which is what everyone strives for — fail 70% of the time for 20 years and you might make it into the Hall of Fame.  What’s more, there’s not a whole lot of difference between a .300 hitter going to the all star game, and a .200 hitter headed back to the minor leagues.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but there’s a scene in Bull Durham, where Crash explains that the difference between him and a major league hitter is one bloop single a week.  And it’s true.  Ty Cobb holds the record for the highest career batting average, at .367 (meaning he failed to get a hit 63.3% of the time).  The record for lowest career batting average is Bill Bergan’s .179 (82.1% failure) a century ago.  In a season of 600 at bats, the difference between Cobb’s high and Bergan’s low would be 113 hits — 4 hits a week, and you’re playing every day.

How does this relate to poetry?  Well, I was in an online community a few years ago that focused on tracking submissions — everyone posted their acceptances and rejections in a friendly and supportive environment.  Poets of all ages and publication histories.  The shocking result was that everyone had an acceptance rate somewhere between 5% and 30%, and most were very close to the mean 15%.  You’d think poets with books published and tenure-track teaching jobs and literary connections would run circles around the high school seniors in AP English, but you’d be wrong.  The difference on average was only a couple hits a month — so the best indicator of success wasn’t how big your bio was, or even how good your poems seemed to be, but rather simply how often you submit.

There’s a relatively new principal that baseball purists haven’t accepted yet, but statisticians like Tangotiger have demonstrated repeatedly.  Once a baseball is hit into play, there’s nothing the batter can do, really, to change the outcome.  A batter can effect the number of balls not hit into play, by striking out (bad) or hitting home runs (good), but once you hit the ball where someone can catch it, the only thing you’ve got left is chance.  This is counter-intuitive, because some batters hit the ball harder than others, and it seems obvious that hard line drives are more difficult to catch than pop-ups, but statistically, that difference is negligible.  So if you take a player’s batting average and subtract out the at bats that became home runs or strikeouts, you get a stat called Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which amounts to a measure of how lucky you’ve been.  If you’re BABIP is higher than the league-average, you can count yourself lucky, and nothing more.  And since we all know that there’s no such thing as luck, other than a human’s interpretation of chance, we know that your luck isn’t going to last.

What I’d like to posit here is that the same principal applies to submissions of poetry.  Sure, the quality of the poems seems like it should matter, but poetic taste is so subjective that once you drop your envelope into the mailbox, success is entirely out of your control, and is nothing more than a chance display of an editor’s whim.  If you’re well-known and frequently published, some editors will publish you for that reason alone (you hit a home run), and some editors will ignore you unless you have a nice CV (you strikeout).  But removing those factors, everyone has the same BABIP.  Or at the least (and yes, it’s depressing to say this), the actual quality of the writing is statistically negligible.

As a poetry editor, this is a very difficult concept to accept — reading submissions, it seems very obvious which poems deserve to be published and which don’t.  But the counter-intuitive evidence is very strong.  Not only do we have the statistics from my online group, but there’s also the universal experience of having editors choose the “worst” poem from a packet as the one they’d like to publish.  This happens to everyone, and happens to me all the time — when I put together a submission packet, I including at least one “golden” poem that I really love, and then fill out the remaining 5 or so selections with dreck from the indifferent bin.  And as often as not, when acceptance letters come, it’s for the dreck.  Removing my own subjective editorial opinion from the equation, there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to another editor’s taste.

I can’t come to my conclusion without mentioning one potential caveat — there is an inherent normalizing factor within any body of acceptance data.  Poets who have had more success are naturally going to shoot increasingly higher on the ladder of “prestigious markets.”  Once you’ve published a good number of poems, you no longer bother sending work to magazines you’ve never heard of — you start submitting to the heavy hitters and nowhere else, which lowers your acceptance rate.  Conversely, novice submitters tend to submit more often to the fledgling journals, where their odds are going to be higher.

But so what?  I’d argue that what’s really being normalized are your home run and strikeout rates.  When I submit poems to the Podunk Review (Googled to make sure that’s just a hypothetical journal so as not to offend anyone), I say I’m the editor of Rattle and they say, “Wow!”  I hit a home run at the Podunk.  I submit the same packet to Poetry, say I’m the editor of Rattle, and they say, “So?”  I strike out in the bigger market.  No matter where I send the poems, my BABIP is the same.

And that’s the lesson here.  Your BABIP is always going to be the same; you’re going to fail 85% of the time, more or less, and that’s part of the game.  If you enjoy the game, play it — and keep playing it.  You’ll never get a hit unless you keep stepping up to the plate.

You Must Submit

sub⋅mit

1. to give over or yield to the power or authority of another (often used reflexively).
2. to subject to some kind of treatment or influence.
3. to present for the approval, consideration, or decision of another or others: to submit a plan; to submit an application.
4. to state or urge with deference; suggest or propose (usually fol. by a clause): I submit that full proof should be required.

From the moment I was introduced to the literary industry — which was only about six years ago, actually — I’ve been disappointed with the terminology we use to describe it.  Are writers really “submitters,” waiting patiently for “acceptance” or “rejection”?  I don’t know about you, but I’m not a submissive, and I don’t see publication as a way to feel accepted.

Many editors, myself included, do linguistic back-flips to try to avoid this terminology.  “Thank you for letting us consider your work.”  “Unfortunately we’ve decided to return your work.” And so on — anything to avoid submission and rejection.

Of course, those words are technically accurate.  Accept comes through Old French from the Latin acceptare, “to take willingly,” a modification of the root capare, “to take.” Reject comes from the Latin rejectus, “to throw back,” a combination of re- (“back”) and jacere (“to throw”).  When we accept a poem, we really are “taking it willingly,” and when we reject a poem, to say we’re “throwing it back” would be a little unkind, but true.  (Maybe we could say “handing it back,” to be gentler.)

Submit is a little more problematic.  The original meaning in English, circa 1374, was “to place (oneself) under the control of another.”  The root is the Latin mittere (“let go, send”), with the prefix sub- (“under”), and it really had all of the degrading connotations that we think of today: “to yield, lower, let down, put under, reduce.”  It wasn’t until 1560 that it started being used for our purpose, “to refer to another for consideration.” (All of these etymologies come from etymonline.com.)

Of course, there are still five centuries of linguistic history between us and the Elizabethians, so maybe we should just accept it?

I don’t think so.  Even if acceptance, rejection, and submission are literally true, there are still all those connotations behind them — and as poets, aren’t we supposed to be even more aware than most of the emotional impact of certain words?

Acceptance is tied both to the psychological need for approval, and a spiritual/religious state of mind.  We’re supposed to accept God’s will, accept those things we can’t change, and so on.  To ask someone for acceptance has powerful implications on both levels — some psychologists have argued that acceptance is the primary goal of the social mind.  Rejection is the opposite side of the same coin, and so just as powerful a term.

When it comes to submission, I can’t help thinking of BDSM lifestyles, and the implication that editors are sadistic and somehow enjoy punishing writers, “stripping” them of their acceptance.  As with all these words, it works as a metaphor — who hasn’t felt masochistic while being rejected by The New Yorker over and over again, and always coming back for more?

But to use it as more than just a metaphor, to make it the sum total of this process we’re all involved in, is harsh and misleading.  If we’re slaves to anything, as Sapir and Whorf tell us, it’s to the words we use.  The word submission tangles the editorial process up in a hierarchy of dominance.  Acceptance and rejection make our decisions seem more significant than they actually are.

Magazines are just looking for poems they’ll want to publish, and it’s no more authoritative or deeply important than that.   So I think it’s time to improve the terminology we use to describe this thing we do.  Any suggestions?