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.

What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Prizes?

Last September, I chimed in on David Alpaugh’s provocative essay, “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests.” The problem is economic — book contests are an easy way to get poets to subsidize their own publication.  You can think of it as a publishing co-op, something like Cahuenga Press, only instead of a dozen people getting together and publishing one of their books every year, a thousand people are sharing the costs, and most of them won’t live long enough to see their year in the sun. The entry fees are what pay for printing, publicity, etc.

Alpaugh points out is that this publication system is too effective — it’s become the only viable way for a press to exist, so everyone is doing it, and there are hundreds of “prize-winning” collections published every year, with no incentive for the presses to stand behind the books beyond that initial claim.  There were some points I disagreed with, but overall it was an interesting critique of the poetry publishing industry.

With American Fractal, I stuck a toe in the water, and entered maybe a dozen first book contests, before deciding to go the direct route with Red Hen Press.  It was a tough decision at the time, throwing in the towel on the pipe dream of becoming a Yale Younger Poet, but I thought that once I made it, I was done forever with contests.

Wrong.

Red Hen must have added my address to some mailing list, because now that the book is out, I’m being bombarded with calls for submissions — not for book contests, but for book prizes.  The New York Book Festival, the San Francisco Book Festival, the 2009 Beach Book Festival, and on and on.  Each “festival” or “award” is open to applications in dozens of genres, from cookbooks to poetry.  All you have to do is send a copy (or three) of your book, and the $40 entry fee.  Winning authors receive a $1,500 prize, and a flight to New York to read at their center stage.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Apparently entry fees subsidize the entire world. Wanna be a Pulitzer Prize Nominee? Go for it — you can nominate your grocery list; just send a check for $50 to Columbia University (PDF).

I always thought the Pulitzer Prize was run by a charitable foundation, a committee who surveyed books and essays and photographs, and chose the best each year.  I always thought all these state book-of-the-year awards I keep seeing in bios actually chose the best book by an author of that state, not just the best author to pony up a $50 entry fee.  Wow, was I naive.

To be fair, some book prizes are run in the open-ended way I always imagined.  There’s no nomination process for the LA Times Book Prizes — they just have a panel who picks books.  But the more I Google, the more this genuine a setup seems rare.

There are a million book prizes you’ve never heard of, and god knows how many people submitting books to them. If book contests entrants are subsidizing publication — which you can easily argue is a good thing — then one must ask, what are book prize entrants subsidizing?  Publicity?  A small stipend?  Am I missing something?

What’s worse, now I have to start deciding all over again whether or not to enter any of these.  I know I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I want to not-win because I’m not-famous, and my book’s not-all-that-special — not because I never entered.  And what about the smaller book prizes, where I might actually have a chance?  Subsidizing a bit of publicity and a small stipend is annoying, but getting some publicity and a small stipend isn’t all that bad.

Damn you.

The Best Kept Secret in the Valley

If you ever get shot or suffer heat stroke in the San Fernando Valley, the Encino Medical Center might be your best bet for a no-fuss trauma unit.  We’ve had to go a few times, and it’s always empty — which gives one the comforting impression that if there ever was an actual life-threatening situation, the doctors would turn off the Lakers game and treat you without a 4-hour wait.

There’s a sign in the waiting room that I always notice, proclaiming it “The Best Kept Secret in the Valley,” which strikes me as a strange thing to brag about.  Why would anyone want to be “kept secret” — or even worse, the unfortunate inversion, “a secret best kept”?   Wouldn’t you rather be doing something good, and have people talking about it?

Unfortunately, I think I might be at the helm of the same kind of ship.  Is Rattle the Best Kept Secret in Poetry?

Yesterday I received an email from David Lee Garrison, letting me know that his poem “Bach in the D.C. Subway,” from the current issue, will be featured in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column this fall. Congratulations to David — the column is terrific exposure, and I think the poem is perfect for it: simple in language and short enough to keep the column brief (a necessity for the project), but a poem that expands outward to show non-poetry-readers how much feeling we can cram into a few lines of text.  This will be Rattle‘s third appearance in the column, and it’s always a treat.

At the end of the note, Garrison added: “I also heard from an old college friend who saw the poem and an editor contacted me out of the blue and said he saw my poem and invited me to submit for an anthology.  A lot of people notice what you publish!”

I get this kind of response from our poets quite often, and it’s one of the most rewarding things they can say — that the feedback they get, the “fan mail” after having a poem in Rattle, is more than they’re used to experiencing.  This means not only that our issues are reaching a lot of eyes, but also that the poems are moving enough for people to go through the trouble and the slight embarrassment of writing a note to a stranger out of the blue.  A few very well-known poets have told me the same thing, and those are the comments to treasure.

At the same time, there’s always an implication of surprise in those statements — they don’t expect fan mail after publishing with us.  They think of Rattle, maybe, as one of their favorite journals to read, but they don’t seem to realize that we’re among the favorites of so many others as well.

I’ve discussed our circulation on this blog before, and it’s still surprising even to me that we rank so high — one of the top 5 poetry-focused magazines in the country, probably top 10 in all of literature.  It sure doesn’t feel like it.  The Poetry Foundation website doesn’t list us.  I can’t get a panel at the AWP for the life of me, no matter how many great poets I put on it, or how interesting the topic.  If we get any press, it’s from the underground press.  Has Rattle ever been mentioned on the pages of Poetry or APR or Poets & Writers, other than in their contest listings?  I think Poets & Writers mentioned the slam issue once, in a three-sentence paragraph in their Newsstand column.  I keep waiting for us to turn some kind of corner, but this hallway is loooong.

Does that mean I’m a bad editor, because I can’t create a literary “buzz”?  And why is it that I can’t?  What do other editors do?  More press releases?  Is it the schmoozing?  The conferences?  The soliciting famous poets?  Is it our reputation?  It’s not that we’re too young — in my short time in this business I’ve seen at least a dozen other magazines appear, generate a lot of attention, and then disappear just as quickly (what ever happened to Swink?).  It’s not that we don’t innovate — we were the first magazine to feature slam poetry with a CD, Poetry copied our visual issue 6 months later, dozens of journals now use our system for reviews…and I bet we’re one of the first to start what’s going to a huge trend of publishing a new poem every day in a blog format.

As far as I can tell, it must be my poor social skills, with a dash of our reputation.  I’m not a real go-getter.  I’m not good at making friends, and even worse at keeping them.  I couldn’t be buddy-buddy with Christian Wiman if I wanted to (as much as he seems like a really great guy).  I lack the confidence and poeto-political clout to call up the Beinecke Library archives and arrange to publish newly discovered marginalia by Langston Hughes.

I’m not a go-getter, I’m a do-it-yourselfer.  A black sheep all my life, I find myself running a black sheep poetry magazine.  Of course, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

After years of sleeping from 4am to 10am*, I recently stumbled onto an article about Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome — and lo!, there are other people who gravitate toward jobs on the nightshift or that let them keep erratic hours!  Let’s see…in my life, I’ve worked a 12-hour swing shift at Kodak, the C shift at an electronics company, as an overnight counselor at a group home, and as an editor where I’m reading submissions at 2am most nights.  Twenty-eight years and it took Wikipedia to point this out to me.

The point is, I’ve always alienated myself.  I’ve always been cold and cocky or awkward and aloof.  I have leadership skills, but don’t play well with others.  I care about people, but I lack people skills.  I have a superiority complex, an inability to make small talk, and am more likely to remember your poem than your name.  Time to accept it.

And maybe it’s time to accept that Rattle is always going to be a Best Kept Secret, too.  All those things you can say about me, you could have said about Rattle before I even got here.  So maybe I was a good choice, after all.  And maybe it doesn’t matter that I’m about to feel like a schmuck half the time as I bumble through another ignominious AWP.  We do have thousands of fans — so what if most of them think they’re the only ones?  So what if I never get invited to the prom?  That just means I can always crash it, right?

__________

* Note: It looks like I’m posting this at 8am LA-time, but really I’m fast asleep, and will be for another couple of hours. I’m writing this at 2:48am, and delaying the posting until the morning, because it seems like a better time to attract readers.