Oh Contrarian

On Sunday, I sat on a panel of editors talking about “How to Stand Out in a Slush Pile.”  Whenever I do these things, I can’t help feeling like an arrogant iconoclast.  Like the class show-off, asleep with his feet on the desk, because he breezed through another mid-term exam.  That was me in high school and college, though, so maybe that’s just me.

The rest of the panel was a quintessential group of editors — well-meaning, selfless, committed people — but I find myself disagreeing with almost everything they say, right down to the very nature of what a literary magazine should be.  Other editors never say they like chatty cover letters, they never recognize the importance of the internet, they revere the established literary order, rather than approach it skeptically.  There are many exceptions, of course, which is why they’re worth pointing out (praising the decisions of the Poetry Foundation, for example), but the old guard is an old guard, and for the most part, I think they’re wrong.

Rather than talk about the panel, though, I thought I’d turn back to the always-useful CLMP Directory (if you care enough about the business of poetry to be reading this blog, you really should at least flip through a copy at the library sometime).  Scattered throughout the book are interviews with editors, each asking the same dozen or so questions.  Since they didn’t ask to interview me, I’ve never answered them before;  I figure now’s as good a time as any.  Maybe I’ll get in the next issue.  What I’ll do is quote from a typical editor’s answer, and then explain how I’d disagree.

Do you have any cover letter advice?

Definitely: keep it short and to the point… You may include a brief bio note (professional, not cute — or at least in the style of the notes in that particular publication), but more than that may do more harm than good, sometimes revealing more than you intend to…
–Margaret D. Bauer, Editor, North Carolina Literary Review

Editors always say this, and it’s perplexing to me.  If I read 50 cover letters a day, and they’re all short and to the point, using the same form paragraph, I’m not going to read them — so why even include one?  For the most part, despite all the submitters’ hand-wringing and editors’ admonitions, I just don’t pay attention to cover letters whatsoever.  I skim them to see if there are any specific questions, and if they have a personality and the poet is funny or friendly or freaky or smug, I think, “Well isn’t this person funny or friendly or freaky or smug!”  But how does that have anything to do with the poems they sent?

The same thing applies to bios.  Yeah, sometimes people write whole paragraphs about their cats, and that’s sad.  Sometimes people list all 160 of their publication “credits,” and that’s obnoxious — but we publish obnoxious people all the time, why should I care?  I’m not inviting them to my house for dinner or adopting one of their arthritic cats; I’m printing their poem inside a stack of perfect-bound papers.  Most of the people we publish never meet me outside of a letter or two.  I don’t have to like you — and even if I do like you, I trust my sense of objectivity enough that it holds no sway.

To go even further, I don’t understand why it’s assumed one should include a bio in the first place.  If you read Rattle‘s guidelines, you might notice that we don’t really ask for one.  Yet they always come, because it’s standard procedure, because when typical editors tell you that your publication history doesn’t matter, it’s B.S.  There’s always a steady stream of posturing about how only the writing really matters — but if that were true, bios would only be requested after the fact.

What do you look for in a submission?

I would guess most editors would answer this question in much the same, vague way.  We look for work that is exciting, dynamic, and fresh.  We want excellent prose and images that surprise. … Finally, we look for what we’ve come to call the “pop-up factor.”  I finish reading a piece, I pop-up out of my chair, find the first person I can, and say, “Oh my god, you’ve got to read this!”
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

She’s right that this is a very difficult question to answer without being vague, but my answer is technically (at least) specific — I want a poem to be memorable.  I want to be walking through my day and spontaneously think of something I read in Rattle five years ago.  That’s no easy task, reading 50,000 poems one year, and having any of them live in your heart to the next.  But that’s the challenge.  And I don’t think the prose has to be sparkling or the images startling to achieve that — transformation can come in any register, from any poet, on any subject, in any style.  And does.

That is a vague answer, though.

How are submissions processed at your magazine?

Even though we reject 95% of what we read, we read eagerly. We are incapable of disrespecting the slush pile (even when we experience a long run of bad material) because we have learned that the slush pile, like the world at large, contains surprises.  Some of our best material came in the mail, unbidden.  Once that happens, you, as an editor, are forever altered; you will always see the possibilities of submissions, no matter how grinding that reading can sometimes be.
–Marc Smirnoff, Editor and Founder, Oxford American

Well, if we only rejected 95% of what we read, each issue would be 2,500 pages long.  And if only “some” of our best material came in the mail, unbidden, we’d be publishing an awful lot of blank pages.  For me, the slush pile doesn’t just contain surprises — the slush pile is the entire enterprise.  I’m trying to build an active community of participating poets, and that means everyone who submits is a part of the community.  There is no VIP entrance straight to the balcony.  Everyone who comes here has to knock, and it’s our job to answer the door every time.

I think this is the fundamental difference between my view and the common view.  Reading submissions is, indeed, like panning for gold (a common metaphor), but to me the stream is more important than the gold itself.  The gold is always there; it’s the water that gives you life.

Do you have a favorite unsolicited submission discovery or anecdote?

This may be contrary to popular belief, but we don’t solicit often.  Because of The Southern Review‘s history and stature (and because we pay our authors), we really don’t have to.  The daily mail contains work from some of this country’s most important writers.  On one day, I received poems from Charles Simic and Mary Oliver. But that should in no way discourage new writers. Our greatest joy is finding writers whose work has not yet reached a wide audience.
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

If you take a look at the Winter 2009 issue of The Southern Review, you’ll notice that both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver are there in the table of contents.  I’m sure those poems did come in the mail, unsolicited, as I’m sure does most of the work in the magazine — and let me say, too, that it’s a wonderful production full of fine writing, and one of the magazines I admire.  But there are two kinds of solicitations, I think — when we use that word, we’re usually referring to the active process of asking a poet directly if they have some work to share.  Most often, I assume, there’s the implication that the editor might look at the work and ultimately say no, even though it was requested.  Of course they rarely so no, but they could say no — fine.  In a typical magazine, these kind of solicitations seem to account for about 20% of the work in an issue.  Some entries in the CLMP Directory list that self-reported figure, and 20% seems to be the average.

But in addition to that, I think, is an unspoken Godfatheresque “offer-too-good-to-refuse” solicitation, wherein the editor, upon receiving poems from both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver on the same day, ends up publishing poems by Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  Every single time.   This is just a hunch, because there’s very little evidence one way or the other — editors don’t talk about poets that they rejected; to do so would be offensive, if not unethical.

I won’t tell you who, either, but I’ve rejected my share of well-known poets, and I can guess from some of their reactions that it doesn’t happen to them often.  Some are gracious and understanding, but many of them get pissed.  They write back telling you how many awards they’ve won, and how worthless your opinion is, and then they never send you new work ever again.  They see you at a conference years later and act like it never happened, because maybe they forgot, or maybe they want to prove to you how little that interaction really meant to them.

Now, I love both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  In all honesty, they’re two of my favorite poets.  But when I read their books, I can’t turn off my editor’s cap, and I know that I’d only want to publish maybe 1 in 10 of their poems in Rattle.  Sometimes the poems only work in the context of the book, sometimes they’re on topics or in styles that we’re tired of, and sometimes they’re just not interesting poems.  So if both Simic and Oliver sent us poems on the same day, the odds of them both appearing in our next issue wouldn’t be very high.  (And if you two are reading this, feel free to test me!)

There’s an idea that’s pretty ubiquitous throughout the literary world, that having names like Mary Oliver and Charles Simic on your back cover helps you sell copies.  But I really don’t think people read literary magazines to see big names — I think what sells copies is a consistent and fair editorial process, and poems that are memorable.

If I were answering this question, I do have a favorite anecdote.  Again, I don’t want to reveal the poet’s name, because the story might be embarrassing for him.  But there’s one poet who sent us a submission every month for years, and had been doing so long before I joined the staff at Rattle.  He was always friendly, but eternally persistent.  And then with submission #45 — after showing us almost 200 poems — he sent one that I absolutely loved.  I really wish I could tell you which it is, because I was so happy to publish it, but I won’t even hint. Sorry.

What advice do you have for first time submitters?

For crying out loud, read the magazine you are submitting to. … Guess what?  Editors aren’t interested in pieces that falls outside of their interests and inclinations.  Luckily for freelance writers, editors are predictable beasts.  To find out all about their secret and hidden loves and hates all you need to do is scour their magazines.
–Marc Smirnoff, Founder and Editor, Oxford American

This statement is everywhere, and usually accompanied by a plea for subscriptions.  I do think it’s important to read a magazine’s guidelines, because certain rules do have important administrative implications.  For example, because of our email system, it’s really important that subject lines are unique, so we ask that people include their name, rather than just “Rattle Submission.”  I’m not the Soup Nazi — it just makes it much easier to organize 50 submissions a day.

But I couldn’t care less whether or not you read Rattle first, and the last thing I want you to do is read the magazine and send us poems that sound similar to pieces we’ve already published.  Why the hell would we want t repeat ourselves?

Contrary to Marc’s statement, I’m particularly interested in pieces that fall outside of my own personal tastes.  If you really want to be manipulative, the best way to get into Rattle is to write a cover letter that says, “I’ve read a few issues and didn’t see any of ____ kind of poetry.”  I want the magazine to be eclectic, and the quickest route to a guilt-trip is to point out my own blind spots. Getting past them, and imagining how a poem will effect a reader other than oneself is the biggest challenge for any editor.  I can use all the help I can get.

If literary magazines ever get unstuck from the mud of cultural irrelevance, editors are going to need to change the typical mindset.  Journals aren’t tabloids or glamor magazines or Sports Illustrated, and they never will be.  They’re not objects of consumption; they’re organisms of involvement.  They shouldn’t be disseminated from a mountaintop, but rather grown from the ground.  Poetry isn’t spread; it’s cultivated.  Slush isn’t slush; it’s soil.

Open Letter to the Poetry Foundation

Dear Poetry Foundation and/or Christian Wiman:

Does this count as an open letter, if I never actually send it to you?  I probably won’t, which means you’ll probably never read this — but that’s fine.  If you read this you might reply, and then I’d have to think about replying to your reply.  I’m not the corresponding type; I’m the lazy type.  But I read your editorial on remembering Ruth Lilly in the March issue of your magazine, and I was moved to say something somewhere, so it might as well be here.

What I want to say is this:  I think you’re doing a hell of a job.  You Christian, you Don, Fred, Valerie, Gina, Christina.  John Barr and the board, everyone who works on Poetryfoundation.org.

You’re rich now, so it’s not cool to say this, but I love the Poetry Foundation.  You received an unfathomably large gift 8 years ago, and have done nothing since but work tirelessly putting it to good use.  As a fellow poetry editor, I’m in awe of the outcome — you’ve taken on all the tasks I would have, given the resources, and completed them with a constant sense of elegance and enthusiasm.

Poetry Magazine is tasteful and timely, beautiful in production, and as relevant as a literary journal can be.  Somehow the mood manages to be both austere and inviting, and the discussion at the back of each issue is as interesting as the poetry itself.  I don’t always enjoy the poems you publish — in fact, I probably like less than half — but I’m always left with the sense that you do — that your motives are pure and your selections non-political.  And that’s all you can ask of a literary endeavor.  Tastes are subjective, but tastefulness isn’t, and you’re tasteful.

To top it off, you’ve made the outwardly generous, inwardly smart decision to give it all away online, for free.  In this age of advancing technology, many editors fail to embrace change, and finally render themselves irrelevant.  Your 30,000 subscribers is proof that there will always be a place for poetry as a physical object, and that digital media can enhance the experience at the same time as it expands readership.

Speaking of which, Poetryfoundation.org has become not only the best home for poetry online, but one of the best sites on the internet.  Aesthetically, it somehow manages a rich presentation, without feeling cluttered.  It’s as attractive as it is functional, and makes the most of new media.  The Harriot Blog is a perfect use of the format and the Poetry Tool is an amazing resource.

To sum, the Poetry Foundation has done everything I wish I could do, and has done it better than I could have imagined.  And I’m good.  I don’t settle for second-best, and I don’t find very much to be worthy of praise.  But I’m grateful for the Poetry Foundation, as a reader of poetry, and as an editor of a smaller journal — you provide the perfect, invincible foil for me to struggle against.  Rattle will never catch up to you in circulation or relevance, we can only hope to move closer, so I’ll always have a Sisyphian task to toil on.

So it saddens me to see that you’re still receiving these jealous criticisms, 8 years later.  When you first received the $200 million bequest, the rest of the poetry world was full of quiet — and sometimes vocal — condemnation.  I don’t talk to other editors very often, and still I can think of many occasions where some would complain about the “fairness” of Ruth Lilly’s generosity.  Couldn’t she have done better by giving $200,000 each to a thousand different poetry organizations around the country?  She could have given the money to libraries, so that every community in the U.S. would have one shelf dedicated to contemporary poetry.  Giving that much money to one small group of poets is obscene.

And that’s just what’s said over beer at the AWP.  As Christian Wiman describes in his editorial, the mainstream media — even without the envy — has been no more kind.  “Willy Nilly Lilly” is just one ugly headline.  “The Moneyed Muse” by Dana Goodyear is what stands out for me — the irony of a magazine like The New Yorker, who uses poetry as nothing more than a token badge of high-brow credibility, criticizing a foundation devoted solely to verse was astounding.

Wiman displays much of his own grace in only defending Ruth Lilly, who turned a life of solitude and depression into one of the largest philanthropic gifts in history.  But the Poetry Foundation deserves defending as well.  Ruth Lilly inherited her wealth, and spent the end of her life finding good ways to give it away.  The Poetry Foundation inherited a portion of that, and is now working hard to do the same.

What more could we ask of either of you?


Falafel Salad Soup

Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000. This is due partly to a shift in our culture from a society that believed in hierarchy to one that believes in a level playing field. This is good—to a point. The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it.
–Ted Genoways in Mother Jones

I know I shouldn’t pen a post at 3am after spending the last 4 hours reading submissions, but (as much as I like VQR) this month-old quote made me throw up in my mouth just now.  It’s the continuation of a viral meme that’s been spun ad nauseam for the last two decades, and I think can be traced directly to Dana Gioia and his ubiquitous essay “Can Poetry Matter?”  In a 1991 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Gioia was just the first to break out of what must have been an academic quarantine, bemoaning the sheer volume of creative writing students produced by the university programs in public, rather than behind the closed doors of faculty parties.

If you read about poetry, instead of just reading the poetry, then you’ve heard this paranoia already:  Oh no, there are 200 graduate writing programs.  Oh no, that means there are 20,000 certified poets graduating every decade.  How will the publishing structure manage, how will I ever keep up, how will anyone ever notice me at the top of such a redundant, self-aggrandizing pile of custom-molded electric meat?  Genoways is talking about literary fiction in the quote above, but all viruses evolve — Hepatitis is up to G.

Rattle has actually published one such mutation, an essay on the supersaturation of poetry book contests by David Alpaugh in e.5 (download the PDF), and I liked that because it was well-written and provocative, and seemed to break new ground for the epidemic.  I also appreciated how kind he was to those who run the system he was criticizing — articulating very clearly their good intentions.

So obviously I don’t mind folks writing about the overwhelming volume of literary writers at work today — I like a good debate, and there’s nothing to debate if no one takes a strong position.  But I think their complaints stem entirely from a localized elitist paranoia, and a broader illusion of grandeur.  And nothing I’ve read demonstrates that better than the Genoways quote above.

When he compares the volume of submissions 80 years ago to that of today, what he’s saying is that those 500 submissions were somehow better than that 15,000 he sees now — better on average, certainly, but also in the final published product:  Fiction can’t be dying if it was never alive in the first place.  How is the product of 500 submissions better than the product of 30 times as many?  Well, those 500 submissions came from real writers, of course, not the wannabes that try to peddle their inferior wares today!  They were coming from Huxley, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Mann…

This might seem to make sense — but we have no perspective when it comes to literary history.  When considered objectively, the study of literature is akin to idol worship — we focus on the greatest works of the “great writers,” as if their careers weren’t also full of flops.  Unless they die too young for the full biopic to play itself out, they have periods of illumination and innovation, only to flounder for years trying to recapture that magic.  I won’t name names, because that would be mean, but the examples are countless.  If you’re reading an Ernest Hemingway novel, it does not necessarily follow that you’re reading a great novel — or even good novel.   (Okay, so I named one name.)

The idol fallacy appears over and over again in editing a poetry magazine.  I can’t tell you the big names of some the poets I’ve rejected, but it happens over and over again.  Big names can give you great poetry, but they can also give you pretty lousy poetry.  Knowing this, and seeing it happen time and again, the idea of 500 submissions from “real” writers outperforming 15,000 unknowns isn’t really plausible.  Unless you’re paying too much attention to what’s in a name.

What’s more, this “golden age” theory also assumes that the previous system did a good job at finding the best work — simply because we have a set of work that we call the best.  How do we know that the esteemed editors of Faber & Faber didn’t pass up a better poet to publish Phillip Larkin?  Maybe there was a better Phillip Larkin out there that went unnoticed — if there was, we’d never know about it.  So much of historical publishing has been clique and kin and strange coincidence.  If Plath or Sexton hadn’t attended Lowell’s workshop, can we be sure we’d know the names Sexton and Plath?  Would “Howl” have been as successful without the forward from William Carlos Williams, who had met the young Ginsberg when he was a boy?  Maybe.  But it’s also possible that there’s another poem on a shelf somewhere that could have been “Howl”, had the poet been more memorable in person.

As soon as we start to revere the writer over the writing, literature becomes a cult of personality.  We crown these gods and pretend there could be no other.  And I think that’s the real problem with literary publishing.  That’s the reason why so many literary journals are so unreadable — when the poet laureate sends a poem, it’s hard not to publish that poem.  I love Kay Ryan so I’ll pick on her — when was the last time she’s had her work rejected?  Who says No to Billy Collins?  And the same applies, to an increasingly lesser extent, to every award and publishing credit ever listed.  “Well she was nominated for the Pulitzer, maybe I’m missing something…”

Think of literature, not as a ladder or a mountain, but as a dome — the higher you climb, the easier the climb becomes.

But that’s not even what upsets me about Genoways’ quote.  That’s just a truth that few acknowledge.  The second half is what has me tasting chickpea — “not everyone can be a doctor…”

There’s so much wrong with that part of the quote that I’m hesitant to even address it all.  There’s the obvious arrogance that comes with being on a board that certifies — you’re a doctor if he says you’re a doctor, if your prose is “sterling” enough that he wants to read it.  It might be possible to weasel out of that implication, but Genoways is a literary editor, speaking about literary editing.  He’s the one that has to put up with 15,000 quacks and snake oil salesmen.  He’s the decider.

But beyond the tone, Genoways is just wrong in principle.  Not everyone can be a doctor, sure, but anyone can learn CPR and then maybe — not likely, but maybe — use it to save a life.  Not everyone can be a professional athlete, but anyone can be an amateur and have an enriching experience on the field.

In another essay that just came out, “The New Math of Poetry,” David Alpaugh uses the analogy of a golfer:

[T]here’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders. None of the golfers who end up on the green with Tiger Woods…

It’s true that no amateur golfer will ever be able to compete with Tiger Woods.  But some amateur, somewhere in the country, hit a hole-in-one yesterday.  And Tiger Woods (if he played a round) probably didn’t.  If my goal is to find as many holes-in-one as I can, I very well might be better off looking at 15,000 amateur rounds of golf, rather than 500 pro rounds.  The only question is how much better the pros are — but no matter what that ratio is, there’s always a critical mass of amateur golfers that, taken together, will hit more perfect shots than those 500 pros.

As a literary editor, it’s my job to find as many great poems as I can.  And the definition of a great poem is really simple:  Poems that have the power to effect the lives of some of the people who read them.  Every poem we publish doesn’t have to be memorable and moving for everyone — but it has to be memorable or moving for someone, some kind of person who represents a subset of our readership.  The easy part is finding poems that move me — the hard part is imagining how a poem that I don’t care for might move someone else.

Every year we choose a winner for the Rattle Poetry Prize, and every year we get feedback — about 5 people love it for every person who hates it, but no poem pleases everyone.  We chose a lyric poem last year, and some wrote in to complain that it was too imagistic and detached.  We chose a narrative poem this year, and some people wrote in to complain that it wasn’t lyrical enough.  Seeing outside of the boundaries of personal taste is the challenge for an editor — but the task is just to create as many positive experiences as possible.

And the best way to do that is to read as many poems as possible and ignore the names at the top.  Because the names really don’t matter much, beyond name-recognition.  A poetry magazine is not a tabloid.  Their covers aren’t sprawled across the checkout stands of America.  No one buys a poetry magazine because of names on the back cover.   What really matters is brand loyalty — readers don’t come to us for any individual poet, they come to us for the collective body of poets that form an issue of Rattle.  They come because, when our editors say, “You might like this,” more often than not they do.

Or they don’t.  And then they don’t read us.  And that’s fine — it just means I need to be doing a better job thinking outside of my own personal aesthetic.

This is my main point:  Anyone who complains that too many people are writing today — whether it’s poetry or fiction or blogs — just isn’t doing their job.  Their job as an editor, or their job as a reader.  Because the more people who are writing, the more quality work gets produced.  You just have to find it.  Reading through 15,000 submissions might be a pain in the ass, but it’s your job.  If you run a magazine, that’s what you owe your subscribers — that’s the service you’re providing.

And if you’re a reader of literature, then it’s your job to find writers you like, and editors you tend to agree with.  Because they’re out there.  Out there in a greater abundance than any time in history.  And that’s always a good thing, no matter how far the hand-wringing contagion spreads.

Ignorance as an Asset

I’ve always had a mild disdain for the literary industry.  I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, but I can trace it as far back as my second semester of college, at which point I’d already realized that I preferred working with phonemes to working with phosphates, but was still resistant to declaring an English major.  Why major in English when you can just read and write on your own, while learning about biochemistry and abnormal psychology?  Isn’t it better to gain experience and knowledge about things that really exist?  When I dissect a pig fetus, its internal organs are real.  When I dissect a literary character, her motivations are not.

That must be my main problem with the way academia treats literature.  I don’t understand what the point is.  If I make an argument about what a book means, I can’t be wrong.  I can’t be right either.  Books mean different things to different people at different times; experience is subjective, cultural ideologies are transient.  If there is any truth value whatsoever to a literary argument, it has to fall back to authorial intent — and in that case, we’d be studying history, digging through crumbling letters and analyzing informative childhood experiences, focusing on surrounding events and social memes.

Sometimes literature does that…but if it did that as often as it should, it would be part of the history department.  More often than not, literature is an argument for the sake of argument, an exercise that hones the skill of argumentation, and nothing more.  It’s a great skill to have — rational analysis and persuasive communication.  If that’s your argument for the validity of an English major, I can’t complain.  But if your argument that “Reality as Retrospective Hypothesis: The Role of Time and Memory in the Work of Samuel Beckett” (that was my senior thesis) has any value at all, good luck.

To this day, I don’t know why I decided to switch my major to English.  As well as it’s worked out for me, it seems like nothing more than laziness — a low tolerance for the tediousness of lab work.

After I graduated, I worked as an overnight counselor at a group home, and it was my most productive writing period to date.  Most of the other creative writers in my undergraduate program headed off to MFAs, and I just rolled my eyes.  What a waste of resources.  I’d never stoop so low.

Then I fell ass-backward into this job at Rattle, which it turns out seems made for me.  Even more than the poetry — it’s true — I love the challenge of all these diverse tasks and responsibilities that fall into my lap.  Designing ads, balancing budgets, building websites, lugging boxes of books, interviewing poets, writing blogs, designing covers, selecting content, proofreading, mail-merging, corresponding…

The whole time I’ve still been worried about “stooping so low.”  I didn’t want to get an MFA.  I didn’t want to become an insider, who knows all the other editors and all the poets and all the judges.  I guess I was worrying about catching the plague of pointlessness — the virus that values the artist over art.  The writing is what matters — the way you feel after reading or writing a good poem.   The way a great book can change your life.  It’s not the analytical essay or the Pulitzer Prize or the minor celebrity.  It’s not publishing 187 poems and 8 books.  I’ve always been worried about becoming an industry insider, and losing perspective.

Moreover, the magazine I edit aims to be the exact opposite of all that.  Rattle is supposed to be bringing poetry back to the people who simply love reading and writing it.  We had a tagline in an ad series a while ago that we still use: “It doesn’t take a scholar to be moved by the written word.”  And that’s what Rattle has to always strive to embody.  But how do you manage that with an editor who is forced to spend 50+ hours each week working in the poetry industry, who spends all day every day thinking about little else?  It was a legitimate concern.  Reading so much poetry, would we start publishing the obscure and inaccessible — or even worse, the trendy?  Would you lose the wonderful feeling a normal person gets reading a great poem?

I felt like I had to shut myself away from the poetry world as much as possible.  I don’t go to many events that aren’t my own, I don’t mingle at conferences or sit on many panels.  I don’t try to correspond with other editors, or any of the famous poets we publish.  I tried — maybe not hard — but I tried, to stay ignorant.

What I never imagined was that ignorance doesn’t take any effort at all.

As Rattle has grown, my day has become so full of submissions to read, orders to fill, updates to log, artists to query, letters to answer, and on and on, that I really have no time to be an insider.  I don’t know how anyone does.  I read far more literature when I worked at the group home.  I only subscribed to a few lit mags, but I read them cover to cover, and read many more online.  I went to the library once a week and brought home a stack of books.  I constantly consumed literature, and people always read what I wrote — there was an online community that I participated in, so I always had feedback and a small audience.

Now when I write, if I do, it just stays in a file on my computer.  I just counted up the number of poetry collections I read last year — a clean dozen.  That’s probably more than the average reader of books, but less than the average reader of poetry.  And I haven’t read a single issue of a literary magazine.  We receive dozens of them on exchange, and all I do is flip through each of them, looking at layouts and who they’re publishing, and a bunch of editorial minutia that few probably notice — but I don’t read a thing.  And those are the same magazines we’ve always been getting.  I don’t know what the best magazines in print are these days, let alone what great things have come up online.  I’m utterly clueless.

We’re receiving 50 submissions a day at this point.  That’s over 200 poems a day.  Then there are essays, reviews, columns for the e-issues, interviews.  And emails emails emails.  There’s just so much to read for work, when am I ever going to read for pleasure?

So I came to the realization last night that there’s really no need to worry.  My ignorance will always be an asset.  Many of you poets will always be better-read and more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the poetry world than I am.   And that’s good for Rattle.  I don’t know Dick from Harry (isn’t that an expression?), so when I read your work, all it’s being judged against is the other work we’ve been getting.  The poems we publish will always be accessible to most.

That’s all I read, that’s all I know.  The end.

Funny on Paper

As someone who isn’t very funny — I have a good sense of humor and laugh often, but lack the social skills to tell a good joke — I’m always amazed at how easy it is to be funny on stage (at least when the situation doesn’t demand it).  I was at a poetry reading Monday night, and found myself telling a story about my mother watching a clip of me on YouTube.  Of course, I embellished a bit to maximize the entertainment value, as humans are wont to do, mingling in my wife’s common critique in a way she’ll probably call Freudian, but the gist is true.  I said something like this:

I did a reading a few weeks ago, that the host filmed and put up on YouTube.  My mom still has dial-up, so couldn’t watch it at home, and when she tried to watch it at her office, she realized her computer didn’t have any speakers.  So, like any loving mother, she watched the whole poetry reading with no sound.  For 30 minutes.   Needless to say, I now have a full list of all my nervous ticks and poor postures.  So if you see me putting my free hand in a pocket or oddly leaning to one side, smack me with a ruler or something.

Did you just laugh out loud?   The 40 or so people in the audience did.  It’s definitely an amusing story, worthy of a affectionate smile at least, but I bet very few people reading this let out a soft snort, let alone a chuckle loud enough that an office-mate had to look up over the cubicle wall.   And it’s not like the 40-or-so people at Village Books on Monday were freaks with a hair-trigger funnybone.  Laughter is infectious — it’s evolutionarily encoded, a still-useful tribal bonding mechanism from the caveman days.

A few years ago Megan and I went to see Mary Oliver in Santa Barbara.  Aside from the National Poetry Slam, it’s still the largest literary audience I’ve ever been a part of — almost 1,000 in attendance.  Mary read her poems of simple nature and grace, and in between each one, no matter what she said, the audience would laugh.   It got to the point where she seemed to be testing how low the comedic bar could go, how little it would take, until finally she gave up and said, “For some reason everything I say is funny.”   The audience laughed.

A poetry reading might be the easiest place in the world to become  a comedian.  Mary wasn’t even trying to be funny, in fact, she seemed slightly horrified.  There’s something unique, I think, that happens at a poetry reading, a perfect storm of haha.  Poetry is the most empathetic of all mediums — a poet speaks and manipulates your own inner voice; she uses you as the canvas.  I think when we encounter a poet on stage, we relate so much that the experience becomes slightly uncomfortable — and for many that translates into a nervous giggle, which then spreads through the crowd like an instantaneous meme.

Moreover, poems themselves are fundamentally funny — in one of my favorite essays on poetry, Kay Ryan points out that “Ha!” and “Ah!” are really manifestations of the same thing.  They’re both spontaneous reactions to emotional/psychological surprise — an “impossible pang,” as she puts it.  As poets, we’re often hoping for those quiet awe-struck gasps, a trickle of soft “Ahs” at a the end or in the middle of a poem.  But I think that reaction is so close to it’s sibling that we just as often get the “Ha!” instead.  The audience doesn’t really know what to do, but we know we feel something strange bubbling up from our gut.  And so we laugh.

The effect is like a hurricane forming — an empathetic unease in relation to the poet depresses the room; all that moisture swirls and condenses around the kernel of surprise that’s fundamental to poetry, and then rapidly expands over the warm waters of an infectious laugh track.  Is that analogy ridiculous enough to be funny?

Anyway, a poet walks on stage to a comic’s dream — the audience is primed to laugh, almost desperate to release that communal, emotional energy.

And I haven’t even gotten to the fact yet that most of comedy is in the timing, and all those non-verbal cues that can’t be expressed on paper.  My story above was probably more funny for the look on my face, and the pause before the slightly deadpan semi-punch line, “For 30 minutes.”  On paper you don’t get the pause, unless I add some white space, but white space would also take the attention away from the scene and remind you that you’re reading something on paper.  And even then you’d miss the goofy look on my face.

My favorite comedian is probably George Carlin.  I love his bit on religion, about the invisible man in the sky who has a special place for you full of fire and misery where you’ll scream ceaselessly for all eternity — “but he loves you!”  I can fall out of my chair laughing at that on his HBO special.  Even reading the transcript makes me chuckle now, and I can hear it in his voice, with his well-timed, pious, one-legged bow.

But here’s the transcript of a bit I’m not familiar with — similar topic, but to me just words on a page (don’t watch the YouTube clip at that link until after you read some of the text:

Here is my problem with the ten commandments — why exactly are there 10?

You simply do not need ten. The list of ten commandments was artificially and deliberately inflated to get it up to ten. Here’s what happened:

About 5,000 years ago a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to try to figure out how to control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so they announced that God had given them some commandments, up on a mountain, when no one was around.

Well let me ask you this — when they were making this shit up, why did they pick 10? Why not 9 or 11? I’ll tell you why — because 10 sound official. Ten sounds important! Ten is the basis for the decimal system, it’s a decade, it’s a psychologically satisfying number (the top ten, the ten most wanted, the ten best dressed). So having ten commandments was really a marketing decision!

Read that to yourself, without doing an internal George Carlin impersonation, and it’s kind of funny — more funny than my anecdote above — but I’m not laughing out loud.  Not even close.

The point here is obvious, and you knew it before you started reading this post:  Being funny on paper is a hell of a lot harder than being funny on stage.  Let alone being funny on stage at a poetry venue that’s primed for laughter.

In fact, being funny on paper might be the hardest thing a poet can ever try to do.

And to make matters worse, poets are tricked into a false sense of their own comedic ability by an always-encouraging audience.

The summer issue of Rattle is going to feature a tribute to humor, and so far this seems to be the most difficult tribute yet.  Three weeks before the deadline we have 14 poems slated to appear, with our target somewhere in the 20s.  I think we’ll make it, but only because of an unprecedented volume of humor-related submissions.  Recent tributes have all been fairly restrictive — you had to be an African American, or a sonneteer, or a rancher, and so on.  This is the first special section we’ve had in years that’s actually open to anybody — any poet in the world can take a shot at being funny.  And thank god for that, because we really need the volume, with such a low success rate.

So how do funny poems actually work?  Well, the same way serious poems work — there’s just, I think, less room for error:

  1. An authentic voice, with a nuanced sense of rhythm and diction, lets a reader hear the “George Carlin” in their head.
  2. Using line breaks to manipulate pacing and provide a sense of timing.
  3. A strong narrative to make the scene engrossing.
  4. Startling images, surprising juxtapositions and turns of phrase — that’s what a punch line really is, and on paper you have to get it perfect.

That’s the problem with humor on the page — every element has to be perfect.  Because, the opposite of what hapepns on stage, the situation is working entirely against the poet.  We read alone, in the comfort of our own chair, with the expectation that the work should be compelling.  There’s no nervous laughter and no echo-chamber to amplify it.  No voice, no timing, no exaggerated facial expressions or pantomimes.

It’s just words on a page, and the poet’s ability to manipulate the way you experience them.  Which makes me really appreciate the poets who manage to consistently pull it off, the Parkers and Collinses of the world.

If you’d like to try your hand at being funny on the page, the deadline for submissions is February 1st.  Go here for more info.