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.