November Fools & Our Selection Process

On April 1st of last spring, UC-San Diego’s communications office accidentally sent every single applicant — 46,337 of them — acceptance emails.  “We’re thrilled that you’ve been admitted to UC San Diego, and we’re showcasing our beautiful campus on Admit Day.”  A half an hour later they sent another email, saying, “Oops!”

Last night, I did the same thing on a slightly smaller scale.  Rattle just went live with a holiday promotion, where all new subscriptions receive a free copy of our slam issue, and all week I’ve been sending out mail-merged emails, letting everyone know of the deal.  As I set up the very last group I had to do — people who’ve contacted us for some reason but never subscribed, last names W through Z — I clicked on the wrong template, and accidentally sent them all rejection letters instead.

Oops!

And what a mess of confusion…  That group was full of people who had submitted poems in the past, sometimes years ago, sometimes last week — some of them who’d never submitted at all, and don’t even write poetry, but had purchased an individual copy of an issue in the last 10 years.  A few of them even had submissions open currently, which made it even more confusing.

Of course, I sent an apology 10 minutes later, and all I can do now is blush, and wipe the egg off my face.

But the responses reminded me that no one really knows what happens to submissions once they send them in.  I made a post a couple years ago, outlining our procedure for the Rattle Poetry Prize, but I’ve never thought to do the same thing for regular submissions — which is strange, because the vast majority of our time is spent logging and reading submissions. We receive 200 submissions every week of the year (and with 4 or 5 poems in each that’s almost 1,000 poems a week), and on busy periods we’ve received as many as 500.  Logging, reading, and replying alone amounts to a full time job.  Here’s how we do it.

Email Submissions

If you’ve ever sent an email submission, you know that 1-5 days later I reply with a slightly-personalized stock response:

Thanks for letting us consider some of your work. We’ll get back soon, typically takes about a month. Looking forward to the read.

Best,
Tim

I copy and paste in that reply, then add your name, and answer any questions you might have in your cover letter, or respond to anything interesting you might have said.  But for most people, cover letters are canned, and my replies are canned, too.

After I send the reply I read your poems right then.  Unlike with contest entries, where we’re contractually obligated to pick at least 11 winners, all we’re looking for with regular submissions are poems that interest us, and that we think might interest our readers.  So where contest reading is like fishing with a pole — pulling up every fish and examining it individually, giving it a specific rating — regular reading is like throwing out a net and pulling up anything that sticks.

What I really do here is just skim through the poems.  If a line or the content seems interesting to me, I reread the whole poem, but I don’t hesitate to move on at the first sign of trouble.  Any email with a poem I want to read again gets moved to a folder called “Possibilities.”  Most, probably 90%, are moved to a folder called “Submissions.”

Enter Megan.  Everything in the Submissions folder, she reads closely, line by line like I used to when the volume was low enough that I had time for that.  Megan is the last line of defense — you already had a chance to catch my eye, now you have a chance to catch hers.  Everything she doesn’t like is moved to the “To Be Rejected” folder.  Everything she likes joins the others in Possibilities.

About once week, Megan clears out To Be Rejected, and enters all the poets and their contact information into a group within our database.  (Yes, this is so we can contact you with promotional material in the future — as far as I’m concerned, an interest in being publish by Rattle implies an interest in reading Rattle, and if you don’t like it, don’t ask us to read your poems in the first place.)  When she’s done, I send them all form letters.  The whole process takes about a month, hence the “typically takes about a month” line.

This leaves us with the Possibilities.  Several times a month I open up that folder, which is full if poems that have already been read and bumped up to round 2 by either myself or Megan.  I read everything in that folder carefully, sometimes over and over again, sometimes days apart, and move poems I don’t want into “To Be Rejected” and print out those that I do.  Everything printed out goes to our monthly editorial meeting, where Megan, Alan, and I argue about which poems we should publish.  About half of the poems that make it to that meeting end up in the magazine.  Everything that doesn’t gets the form letter — and since you can’t add a PS or post-it note onto a mail-merged email, none of that is commented on individually.  Anything that makes it to the meeting but doesn’t get published gets a real email directly from me, saying which poem(s) came so close, and often why they just missed the mark.

Hard Copy Submissions

It’s uncanny — exactly half the submissions sent to us come through the mail.  This has always been the case, and I’m not sure why the breakdown is so even.  I keep expecting the number of email submissions to overtake the old fashioned route, but that never seems to happen.

I open up every submission that comes through the mail and check it for anything unusual — a weird request, an essay, a question, a subscription check, etc. — then everything gets thrown into a box.  When the box gets full, which usually takes less than a week, Megan stays home from the office and reads each one carefully, writing Yes, No, or Maybe on the back of the envelope, and sorting them accordingly.  When she’s done, I read the Yeses and Maybes myself, sometimes several times, often at a laundromat or in some waiting room.  Everything I like is sent to our next editorial meeting, everything I don’t is thrown back with the Nos.

Back at the office, the pile of Nos is filling up the top drawer of a filing cabinet, and about once a week Megan empties it out and adds those poems to a group in the database.  When she’d done I print out a large set of rejection letters.

You might have noticed that at this point I haven’t read anything but the slim percentage of what amounts to Possibilities.  So I spend the next day reading through all the poems as I match them up with their rejection letters, pulling out anything that catches my eye, to be re-read, and maybe taken to an editorial meeting (at which point, I’d toss out that rejection letter).  With hard copy submissions, I sign the rejection letters myself, and it’s easy to add any notes that seem worth including — sometimes detailed suggestions about a specific poem, sometimes just general encouragement, or a note about an upcoming special issue that the poet might want to keep an eye out for.  Then I stuff the letter back into its SASE, and drop a big box off at the post office.

Strangely, both forms of submitting get a unique kind of service that has nothing to do with the medium itself, and are only consequences of our reading process.  All email submissions receive an acknowledgment of receipt.  Hard copy submissions get no receipt, but may be commented on.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s fair, but then I ask what different does it make and stop worrying about it until it’s time to write a post about our procedure.

The Philosophy

If you’re still reading it this point, you’ve probably noticed that three editors are attacking these poems from three different angles:  I’m reading everything lightly, waiting for a good poem to ensnare my attention, and then reading it many times.  Megan’s reading everything closely once, and passing along what she finds worthy.  And Alan is only reading the cream of our crop, fresh from the field, one shot one kill.

Although it developed organically, over several editors and a period of 15 years, this result is no accident.  When you’re reading this many poems, the biggest problem is burnout.  Read too many poems too often, and they all start to sound the same — it’s surprisingly easy to lose even the sense of our own feelings; your taste buds become overwhelmed.  These three different layers of attentiveness, I think, allow for the most comprehensive and consistent judgments three people can make.

And the key is really Alan at the top.  Having never read over 1,000 poems a week, he’s confronting what we’ve chosen as an actual reader would — eager and untainted, ready to love or hate with impunity.  In the end, it’s his opinion that’s most important — not because he founded the magazine (nice as that is on the resume) — because he’s our tabula rasa, the voice of real people who don’t have to read so damn much and still do it for pleasure.

So that’s why we roll the way we roll.  I’m not sure why I’m posting this, but I think some might be curious, and I’m also wondering what you might think of it.  There are other ways we could do this, of course — hire interns, have more meetings, uses little card-paper rejection slips, and so on.  But there’s only the three of us, one full-time, one part-time, and one some-of-the-time, and given the amount of material we sift through, this is the best system I’ve found.

VIS-PO-ART and the Shimmering Verge

The forthcoming winter issue will feature an interview with Molly Peacock, and I love one of the things she talks about, which I’ll preview for you here.

PEACOCK: The shimmering verge is for me the place between two states of being or two emotional states. I opened my one-woman show by asking people to imagine a paint chip and that paint chip is green, and then I asked them to imagine another paint chip and that paint chip is blue, and then I asked them to get one greenish-blue and one blueish-green and greenish-greenish-blue and blueish-blueish-green until they can’t tell the difference; they can’t tell what color the paint chip is anymore. And that is the shimmering verge, the place where one color shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And that’s where one emotional state shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And for me, that’s where the poem occurs. And because the poem is always about the thing we don’t have words for, that’s why the poem exists, because we didn’t have words for it before. … And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is, like where the side of road exactly ends and the land begins. It’s that kind of thing—where the lake ends and the shore begins.

That might be the best description of “real” poetry that I’ve ever heard.  Poetry gives words for things we don’t have words for yet — if there were words, we wouldn’t need the poem.  That’s the problem with cliches and hallmark verse, and I suppose it’s what makes real poetry too challenging for most people — not that they couldn’t understand the shimmering verge, but that they don’t understand that this experience is what they’re looking for.

The concept deserves its own post, but it’s not going to get one.  Not much of a segue, I know, but what I want to talk about is visual poetry.

Starting a couple weeks ago we’ve added Dan Waber as a contributing editor, helping us make visual poetry a more regular part of Rattle.  Whether loving it or sounding baffled, we’ve received a huge response to last summer’s Vispo issue, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to keep that fire going.  It’s explained in a bit more detail here, but what we’re going to do is this: Dan Waber will write a column on visual poetry in every e-issue, usually focusing on a specific poem, series, or artist.  We’re also encourage black and white visual poems to be considered for the open section of our print issues.

Quite incidentally, we’ve already got two concrete poems slated to appear this winter — a shaped sonnet by Patti McCarty, and a textual flame by Paul Siegell.  We’ll also have an ekphrastic sonnet, and the photo it’s written after.  I wasn’t sure if any of these should be considered visual poems — each of them are enhanced by a visual element, but that visual element isn’t really necessary to any of them; if you just read the poems out loud, they’d still be good poems.

Since we now have a resident vispo guru, I asked Dan what he thought, and he directed me to this fun page, where he turns categorization into a quiz, listing 31 gray-area pieces, and making us decide.  Of course, which category a poem falls into will always take a back seat to the experience of the poem itself, but the human brain is basically a categorizing machine, so you can’t blame us for feeling the urge.  If you’re up to the challenge, take the quiz.

Two interesting results seem to arise.  First, the general concensus of the results for each piece seems to stablize as the quiz progresses — respondents seem to agree more often later in the series.  Dan describes the quiz as an educational tool, forcing us to make a label and so exploring that label, and this suggests that the tool actually works.  Maybe we don’t always agree what to call these things, but the more often we label them, the more confident we become in our labels.

What’s more interesting, though, is that visual poetry seems to exist as another kind of “shimmering verge” — that indescribable ground between poetry and visual art.  “And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is…”

In the same way that, I think, the shimmering verge scares fiction readers away from poetry, I think it might be the shimmering verge that scares poetry readers away from visual poetry — if you don’t know that the shimmering verge is what you’re looking for, you don’t know what to make of it, it’s unsettling.  But if you embrace the shimmering verge, then these are the poems that become most exciting.

Top 15 Poems on Rattle.com

Rattle.com as a blog is now one year old!  I thought it’d be fun to list the top 15 most-read poems since we launched the format. The number in parentheses are unique views to the poem’s individual page.  Note that views through the RSS feeds and on the main page are not recorded, so you could add a few thousand baseline “reads” to each poem.

June 26th, 2008 – June 26th, 2009

  1. Things My Son Should Know After I’ve Died” by Brian Trimboli (69,999)
  2. Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore (47,745)
  3. Telemarketer” by Brett Myhren (43,221)
  4. The Lesson” by Lynne Knight (17,921)
  5. Barcelona” by Albert Haley (5,239)
  6. Poet and Audience” by Erik Campbell (2,360)
  7. After the Bowling Stopped” by Thadra Sheridan (1,762)
  8. Mahler in New York” by Joseph Fasano (1,292)
  9. Things Rich and Multiple and Alone” by Bob Hicok (643)
  10. How to Write an Erotic Letter” by Anthony Farrington (530)
  11. Lovely Day” by Bob Hicok (512)
  12. The End and the Aim” by Ruth Bavetta (487)
  13. How She Described Her Ex-Husband…” by Martha Clarkson (425)
  14. What Teacher Make” by Taylor Mali (408)
  15. Narrow Openings” by Francesca Bell (345)

Notes:

Social networking is such a crazy multiplier effect; the top 3 probably have more page views than all the rest of the poems from this year combined.

“Mahler in New York” was first posted on New Years Day, as is our tradition for the Rattle Poetry Prize winner, but click that link and today for the first time you can hear Joseph read the poem as well.

Six of the poems include audio of the poet reading.

Bob Hicok is the only poet to appear twice.

Ruth Bavetta sports the only visual poem.

I’ll post a new list every few months, as appreciable changes appear in the rankings.

A Real Caricature

RattlebySlone

www.theamericandissident.org

Most literary editors, I think, know of G. Tod Slone, though I doubt very many readers do.  He’s the crated dog to our mailman — a constant but ineffectual yapping in our ears from some unknown location (is it Massachusetts?), always tilting at the same windmills with the same catch-phrases (“vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy!” “tenure track literati!”).  The general consensus — and Megan’s opinion, too — is that he’s not worth the paper it takes to reply to his emails.  And that’s mostly true.  But to me he’s a delightful foil — like a tertiary character on some sitcom, a lovable curmudgeon, inconsolable crank that he is.  To me he’s Newman (“Hello Newman!”).

We’ve had some vigorous debates in the past — he strapped a homeless man to a rickshaw, I changed the size tags on my skinny-jeans, you know the drill.  Actually, we published a review where he trashed Best American Poetry, because I wanted to show reviewers that it was okay to go negative, and I figured BAP could take it — but it included a false accusation that I had to retract, and then he took his contributor copy and wrote a negative review of that, which would have been fine, except it included more false accusations, and I decided we couldn’t trust him enough to publish him anymore.  So he got all huffy, and then we had a highly entertaining email exchange.  It’s all recreated here if you care (but why would you?).

You can read any of his articles or reviews or missives to get a sense of his argument, which never changes.  The poetry world is run by a bunch of academic/PC gatekeepers, too comfortable in their cushy jobs to be willing to rock the boat.  There’s a small kernel of truth to it, but also a strange loop involved where I’m never quite sure what boat needs to be rocked, other than the establishment itself.  But it is what it is, and he’s the love-child of Chatty-Cathy and the Energizer Bunny.

Anyway, the best part about G. Tod Slone is that, such a caricature himself, he publishes caricatures in his literary magazine (www.theamericandissident.org).  What artistic layering!  As soon as I saw this cartoon of The Pedestal Magazine’s John Amen, I knew I had to have one of my own.  How would he render my receding hairline and boyish good looks?  In what ridiculous setting would he place me?  The possibilities were endless, and that’s what gave me the energy required for the vigorous debate above.

It took him a year and a half, but yesterday he finally sent me the caricature you see in this post, and I have to say I’m very disappointed, on two fronts.  First of all, I’m not in it.  I assume that’s Thoreau on the mock-cover, and interestingly my high school English teacher used to call me Thoreau, because I sported that awful beard (couldn’t grow the mustache until senior year).  But I’m not going to give Slone the psychic or stalkerly credit to have known that.  So I’m not there.

What’s much worse: I see two ways to read the parody of Rattle, hinging on the “Courage Issue” label.  The “Courage” might be ironic — we think we’re being courageous, but really we’re publishing White American poetry along with a ghettoized sub-genre to justify patting ourselves on the back.  That would be an interesting critique — I don’t think it’s true, but it’s something that I worry about, and try hard not to do.

Unfortunately, that’s not the point Slone is trying to make.  I asked him.  Instead, he’s trying to say that this is what a Courage Issue would really look like:  an article about reverse-racism, a tribute to White Americans, a posthumous interview with Thoreau — and no lesbian sestinas!  Yikes.  Here’s Slone in his own words:

Yes, I thought, how unoriginal can one get with the Tribute to Afro-Amer poets and how thoroughly PC.  America seems to favor anything but raw, risky truth telling.  The scope of diversion from such truth telling is immense!  For me, it gets hackneyed to see on the front cover of every other lit mag the diversity dogma in one shape or another, as in Latina Haiku or Queer Senryu or Asian-American Poet.  So, I thought, original would be the white poet thing, knowing it just would not happen RE an est-order lit journal, which by definition would automatically be PC.  By “courage,” yes I was evidently implying that you would not have the courage to do something un-PC.  So it implies not that you SHOULD but rather that you likely NEVER WOULD.   I’m of course quite aware that the Left knee-jerk balks at the term PC and ad hominizes anyone who dares evoke it or otherwise simply suggests it exists.  And that’s sad because the left cannot grow if it does not confront its weaknesses.  PC is a real phenomenon, serving to muzzle and enforce groupthink, as opposed to individual questioning and challenging.

Rather than knee-jerk balk and ad homenize, I think I’ll just let that statement ad homenize itself.  Apparently Slone’s had this problem in the past.  As always, it looks like Megan was right — this guy isn’t even worth the LOLs he brings with him.  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

But stick around for the comments, I’m sure Slone will show up.  Rather than reply, I’d like to direct him to the post I already made, explaining why we should feature a tribute to African American poets.  Although a more succinct answer might have just been G. Tod Slone.

There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

This blog has been full of discussion lately, and I love it — it gives me things to think about (and thus post about).  In a comment thread from last week, “G the Art Spy” argued that we publish too much poetry these days — that a journal that published infrequently and was “extremely choosy” would be most successful.   I replied that there’s no such thing as great poetry — only good poetry, and it’s hard to get people to agree even on that.  A hyperbolic statement, and the ever-engaging Cafais called me out: “Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there.”

Cafais is right, of course, but I do believe it’s practically true that there’s no such thing as great poetry, at least from the standpoint of a literary magazine.  Great poems exist, but they’re so rare that it’s most effective to operate under the premise that they don’t.

Like “God,” great poems are defined by consensus.  A great poem is any poem that a vast majority of poetry readers would acknowledge to be great.  I can only think of a handful written in the last 100 years.  “Howl” and “Prufrock” certainly — probably “The Wasteland,” too, although I know several people who seem to despise it.  Plath’s “Daddy.”  Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  Maybe Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  Maybe something by Cummings, but I can’t decide which one.  The most recent I can think of are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and (I would argue) Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence.

It’s interesting to explore what these poems have in common — an epic harnessing of the contemporary zeitgeist, etc. — but that’s not the point.  The point is: look how few and far between.

As an editor, you can’t pretend that you’ll be able to publish one of these poems — you’d be publishing one poem every decade…and how would you find that one poem, if you’re not receiving any submissions or being active in the literary community?

While there are very few great poems, there are a great many good poems — poems with a strong voice and a resonant energy, that will connect with some in particular and, for them, rise to the level of greatness.  And that’s what you have to focus on.  Every issue of Rattle contains maybe a dozen poems that move me personally — the rest are poems that I think might move other readers, the goal being that no matter who reads, everyone will be able to find their dozen.  Poetry is subjective; that’s all you can hope for.

In the 15 years of Rattle, we’ve published one poem that I think has a strong case for being called great.  Donald Mace Williams’ “Wolfe” is a flawless epic, and in turning the legend of Beowulf into a critique of man’s encroachment on nature, it has a chance at ringing the bell of the current zeitgeist.  That’s why we took the unusual step of reprinting it as a chapbook.  Does it have the power to move enough people to call it great?  The odds are long, but only time will tell.

We’ve also published several poems that border on greatness.  Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.”  Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering.”  Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy.”  Salah al Hamdani’ “Baghdad, Mon Amour.”  And there are others.  But I don’t think any of them have the  universality to be called truly great — they’re great for some readers, but merely good for others.  We all have different histories and proclivities.  And that‘s what’s really great.

What I want to do, though, is ask you:  What poems do you think are great?  List as many as you can think of, and maybe we’ll make a big list.  I’d love to find some that I haven’t read yet.