Audience Participation

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.

The Democratization of Literature

If you look at the Greek plays, they’re really good. And there’s just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that’s the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don’t care whether it’s art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don’t think so.
–Cormac McCarthy in
The Wall Street Journal

I love people who think this way, furturists who ponder and project, and maybe that’s why I love Cormac McCarthy’s fiction (that and his beautifully bare prose).  The interview is full of this kind of speculation and well-worth a read, but it’s as bleak as you’d imagine from the guy who wrote The Road and Blood Meridian, and I think he’s wrong about the effects of volume on art.  Like most members of an old guard bemoaning change, he fails to see that change as transformed through the lens of the paradigm shift that comes with it.

The same kind of talk abounds about the media, as the old giants slowly die.  I’ve had long talks with a friend of mine who’s worried about the effects of social networking and Wikipedia — if there’s no authority to fact-check, no New York Times or Encyclopedia Britannica, how will future generations ever know what’s true?  My response is always the same: Past generations only thought they knew what was true, which is much more dangerous, much less accurate, than being perpetually skeptical.  When Walter Cronkite tells you it’s true, it’s true, and few bother to dig deeper.  As news itself becomes increasingly independent, where there was once one reporter, “there’s going to be millions of them.”  The truth becomes a collective truth, and a collective is almost impossible to corrupt.  If one report lies, you can fact-check it yourself against a million other reports, and the lie won’t stand for long.  I see the future of news as a combination of Indymedia and Wikipedia — user-generated news, edited continuously, vetted by the users themselves. Maybe that’s already starting with Google Wave, but it’s still too new to really know how it’s going to work.

The democratization of media.  It looks like a big mess now, but so did democracy to the monarchs of Europe.  Let the people rule themselves, with no king to oversee the big picture!?  My god, what chaos!  And there is chaos — but out of that chaos emerges incorruptible order.  The Wisdom of Crowds, the flocking of birds, fuzzy logic, quantum computers.  If there’s a theme to the scientific of the last 30 years, it might be that chaos is a harnessable power.  But the domino of political democracy, and the relative peace and prosperity it brings, has been showing us that for two centuries.

McCarthy’s fears about the future of literature are the same as the loyalists in Europe, or those who worry about the effects of social media.  As with so many things, the paradigm is shifting from an authoritarian model to a democratic model.  No longer will the editors and publisher and critics be the ones telling us what’s good.  With a million novels being published every year, no critic or award committee will ever be able to read them all.  He assumes that, with no ruling agency to tell us what’s worth reading, we’ll all read different books — no one work will be able to reverberate across a culture, because the sheer volume of all those books will turn them into white nose, the whole cancelling out all individual parts. With no unifying literature, the will be no “literature,” just a million people, reading a million different things.

What he fails to see is the power of “we.”  Under the old model of publishing, individual readers can be seen as mostly discrete units — word of mouth is important, but it was always one mouth to one ear, one reader at a time.  It’s easy to see how at that speed of communication, a large volume of information quickly overwhelms the system.  But what he doesn’t see is that we’re no longer one mouth to one ear — we’re one mouth to a million ears, and all those ears have mouths that are talking.  If you watch birds flock or bees swarm or fish in a school, there is no leader, but the groups still move as a group, and get where they need to go.  And they make decisions more quickly and effectively than they would with a single leader and a chain of command, because every individual has the power to temporarily be a leader.

We can already see readers flocking on Rattle.com.  The most popular poems are read by 100 times as many people as the average poem.  And if you read the poems on that list, they’re all good poems — not the best 15 I’d pick out of the thousands we’ve published, but the top 15 we’d pick, and who’s to say my opinion is better than a collective of 40,000 others?  It’s not.

There are often times when I’m at an event and have to pick one poem from Rattle to share — for a long time I just picked one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings,” for example.  Recently, though, I’ve started using one of the collective choices.  My best sales pitch at a book fair is to simply get someone walking by to read Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.”  It was always a poem I liked, but I had no idea that it was a poem that would resonate so readily with so many people, until the people themselves told me.  And they were right.

So I’m very optimistic about the democratization of literature.  I want forever more people writing poetry, reading poetry, submitting poetry, posting poetry on their blogs, starting poetry magazines in their living rooms.  It’s going to be messy for sure, and we’ll have to beware the mediocrity of the middle — but I’m convinced that in the end, literature will be more vital for it.  It’s time to topple the ivory tower.

Twitter & the History of Poetic Utility

A few years ago I was driving to a softball tournament with a pair of microbiologists who didn’t like my taste in music (folk, for the record — and no, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke about cell division).  Shuffling through my CD case, they came across a burned disc with “To Tim, From Sally” scrawled at the top, along with a track list full of indie bands that I still can’t keep straight.

“Who’s Sally?” one of them asked.

“She’s a…fan, I guess?” I said, and explained how she’d read some of my poems in a magazine, then emailed me to ask if she could read more.  I sent her a copy of my in-progress manuscript, and then she sent me a mix-CD in exchange.

“You have fans??”

“I have three fans, maybe.”

“You have three fans??”

The conversation went on like this for the next hour, as we made our way to Palm Desert.  I couldn’t believe that they found it so interesting — these were microbiologists who do important research, publish papers, attend conferences all over the world, write letters to other microbiologists…  And in publishing my silly little poems in magazines that don’t sniff a thousand readers, I had something that they seemed strangely desperate for.  Maybe a little celebrity in this star-ful culture, maybe just a voice in the void.  There’s a romanticism to the thought of connecting with strangers, and a power to having your words echo out of the blue.  Until that moment, it never occurred to me that there’s this need to be heard in everyone — and that poets are part of a very small fraction of society that gets to have that need fulfilled.

But every day now, this becomes less and less the case.

On the long view, poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  Technology, by definition, is the steady replacement of simple tools by those more complex and efficient.  And make no mistake — poetry, at its heart, is the simplest of tools.

The first poems were mnemonic devices.  Even thousands of years before petroglyphs began evolving into proto-writing, human beings were complicated social animals, with rich spiritual lives.  Our ancestors had religions and rituals and origin myths, just as we do, and these incredibly important stories needed to be passed down to their descendants uncorrupted.  Without any tools for record-keeping, they turned to poetry, using the literary devices we’re familiar with to this day — assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme — to solidify their myths into fixed-form oral histories.  Not only does poetry allow for tremendous feats of memory, it also inhibits our natural tendency to embellish a good story.  It’s hard to add your own fraudulent details without losing the meter as you tell your tale.  Poetry was the best record they could keep.

Then came the Bronze Age (4th century BC), and with it, the beginnings of a true phonetic writing system.  For the first time in human history, spoken language could be recorded almost verbatim, and poetry became a little less important.  What had been written on breath could now be written in stone.  But still, materials were expensive and literacy levels were low.  The technology of writing remained mostly limited to the scholarly class — at times, literacy itself was a trade secret of professional scribes.  Part of the allure of a poem like The Odyssey was still that it was an exciting story that could be recited.  Poetry was still a vessel for information.

Then came Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, and even more importantly the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which made books affordable.  As literacy levels rose, an affinity for poetry remained — it’s in our blood, a crucial part of human history — but its necessity as an informational medium had been supplanted.

At the same time, verse began losing its hold on fiction, as well.  Written prose — the novel — became the new vessel for story, eliminating the need for the epic poems of writers like Homer, Chaucer, and Spenser.  The new epics would be written in paragraphs, not lines — why bother with rhythm and rhyme, if there’s no need to memorize?  Why bother putting your words on the tongue of the world when your books can fill the libraries of forever?

With another pair of uses stripped away, poetry remained entertaining.  We love language — the sound of two words next to each other, the shape of a phrase in our mouth.  We evolved to love it; it’s written into the structure of the brain.  Music provided a similar — and sometimes superior — aural pleasure, but the only music was live music.  In the absence of a band and your own ability to play the fiddle, there was poetry, which had a monopoly on the private, acoustic experience.

Then came the phonograph.

But poems were still intensely imagistic, kindling to the fire of the mind’s eye!

Then came movies.

But you can’t take a movie to the beach!

Portable radios.

On a train, on a plane!

Walkmans, CDs, iPods…

The history poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  From every place that poetry draws its importance comes a new technology to replace it.

And here is a new use — over the last 50 years, the rise of the lit rag industry, hundreds of journals then becoming thousands with the ease of the internet, giving tens of thousands of poets their own voice in the void, and the possibility of developing a handful of strangers who call themselves fans.  A little bit of celebrity for everyone, in a society obsessed with celebrity.

And here comes a new technology — Twitter — to replace it.  With a Twitter account, you can pretend to be your old dead cat and generate hundreds of “followers.”  You can just tweet about your life, and if you’re funny or lucky enough, reach thousands.  My favorite is God, who shares the most banal of messages with 33,000 people, pretending the whole time to be — you guessed it — God.  And who wouldn’t want to know that God is “Seeing the Pixies again in Denver on Monday”?

Of course, this just a continuation of social networking technology — a journey from blogs to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter.  But there’s something about this last step that feels final.  I think it’s the simplicity of it, the ease of signing up and watching your readership rise.  Blogs have to be both interesting and well-written to be popular with strangers.  Twitter can be neither — the medium is often the message…and sometimes it’s as simple as being the first to stake out a good handle.

Thinking back on those ballplaying microbiologists, they could easily have Twitter accounts themselves, and then my three fans would sound exactly as pathetic as it actually is.  And it’s only a matter of time.

Where does that leave poetry?  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think poetry is still important, both as a mind-tool, and as a social barometer.  Will it be long until we develop technologies to replace those uses as well?  When the phramaceutical companies develop prescription mood pills, and the hyper-net allows for total information awareness and empathy, what will we be left with?  Will poets be nothing more than flat-earthers and civil war reenactors — a cadre of Luddites refusing to let go the tools of the old world?  Or will poetry always find a smaller niche to escape to, as it always has, to have its place?

The Importance of Poetry

When I was a freshman in college I took my first poetry class, and my father started referring to me as “the poet,” like an epithet.  Even then I had no interest in being a poet — I had a passing interest in writing fiction, mostly as a hobby, and thought I’d minor in creative writing — but it was chemistry that interested me, visions of designing drugs to keep people healthy, researching the origins of life, using organics as fine tools for the first time in human history…  Writing was just a game, an outlet for excess creative energy, as important to my psychological well-being as a diary, maybe, but no more meaningful to the rest of the world than a stack of journals locked in someone’s dresser drawer.

Even as the excitement of the natural sciences evaporated into the tedium of lab work and the rote memorization of randomly assigned terms, it took a long time to allow myself to believe that writing could be important — that art could ever trump intellect, and that a life spent in pursuit of such ephemeral nonsense could be fulfilling.  That life seemed selfish; it was a waste the time and talent.  A poem never helped provide someone with clean drinking water, could never be used as a fuel to replace hydrocarbons or as a vaccine to cure disease.  As much as I preferred my English classes, it took a lot of soul-searching before I was able to accept that I did.

What the hell is the point?

Long before I even knew of Rattle, Alan grew tired of devoting space at the back of each issue for a list of publishing credits.  Maybe these kinds of bios made sense before Al Gore invented the internet (and he really kind of did) — but nowadays if you read a poem you love and want to find more of a poet’s work, all you have to do is Google.  So instead of 10 pages of wasted space, Alan began asking a simple question instead:  Why write poetry?

These contributor notes are a treasure-trove of solutions to my undergraduate conundrum.  What’s probably the most common answer, that writing is a compulsion — “I write because I must!” — doesn’t really help much, unless you have that compulsion, too.  And besides, compulsiveness is no excuse — when people are compelled to violence or addiction we try to cure them.  With so many people writing because they must, maybe we should just start a support group…

Others claim to write for immortality (“So my work will outlive me!”), to get laid, or to change the world — and it was this last one that I latched onto first.  This is still a world of full of suffering.  We have the technology to provide food, shelter, and clothing to every human alive, and yet we don’t.  We’re always at war, we’re always stealing and cheating and dehumanizing each other.  80% of the world is still ensnared in the myths of their ancestors, searching for a meaning to life that is outside of the only life they’ll ever have.

There were two quotes I kept coming back to.  I gave my copy of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my brother a couple years ago, so I have to paraphrase, but Robert Pirsig writes something like, “All over the world, scientists are working hard to extend our lives — but none of them bother to ask why.”  And then there’s Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Why is always more important to a consciousness than how, and I began to see science as the how and art as the why.  What value is there in living a longer life, if it’s lived poorly?  If I could dedicate a writing life to the ideals of collectivity and kindness, if I could help illuminate the interdependency of individuals and the moral power of self-created meaning, then I could do more good than the invention of a million pain killers.

It was that grand idea that allowed me to take poetry seriously, and cleared a path which led me here on a Friday afternoon, a stack of books on the editor’s desk to my left, still pondering the importance of poetry.

But over the last 5+ years of working in poetry full-time (and then some), I’ve gradually come to a new understanding:  Poems don’t do doodley-squat.

No matter how naive you want to think I’m being, no matter how hard you resist this fact, it remains a fact.  Everyone points to “Howl” as the most influential poem of the 20th century, talks about how it distilled the sentiment of an entire generation — but the ’60s would have happened without “Howl.”  The world will end not with a bang, but a wimper, and we didn’t really need Eliot to point that out.  Maybe a few of us are a bit more bold because of Frost, more persistent, but “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods…”  are more slogans than a poems.

Moreover, no one even reads poetry.  Rattle has thousands of subscribers, and only a handful of them don’t have at least a few poems in a folder on their computer that they’d like to have us publish.  Our favorite nemesis G. Tod Slone likes to mock lit mags as one big circle-jerk — and he’s right!  We’re only talking to each other here.  No one just reads poetry; we write it, too.  And writing it is mostly what we really care about.  So even if a poem could effect change, who is out there be effected?

If you want to change the world, don’t write a poem, write a chant and stage a protest (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).  Be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, build a house.  Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an animal clinic.  The value of any poem, or book of poems, or school of poets, is so overblown — by people like you and me and MFAs and AWPs — as to be delusional.

But that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t important.  Poems themselves are inconsequential, but poetry — as an activity, as a mindset — is central to all that is important.  The pursuit of poetry is the distillation of that critical Why — it’s what we live for, what can “make us bear any how.”

Poetry isn’t a career, or a passion, or a form of entertainment.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s an entire doctrineless philosophy that we reconfigure into each of those things.  To engage in poetry, whether reading or writing, is to practice an enriching attentiveness.  To practice poetry is to pluck detail from the surrounding world — to see things more clearly, to recognize beauty, to experience pain, to struggle to connect.  Because the writer uses the reader’s inner voice as a medium, poetry is fundamentally empathetic.  We see through another’s eyes, wear another’s shoes.  Poetry is cathartic.  And who needs a prayer or a trance — poetry has your daily meditation built right in.

The cliche is the tortured poet — the melodramatic outsider with half a head in the oven.  But what I see is a subset of society that’s more alive, that experiences life more fully.  Poets tend to have good marriages, raise bright kids, spend time thinking of and doing things for people other than themselves.  There are exceptions, of course, but I have direct contact with a huge number of poets, and I can say with confidence that we’re more happy and functional and productive than the whole.

And it’s not because some poem taught us how to act.  It’s not because we have any special talents, or more education, or better genes than everyone else.  It’s because our thoughtfulness has been turned on and tuned in.  A better life is simply a function of a more present awareness.

I’m not saying that poetry is the only way to be engaged — we can use science or sports or motorcycle maintenance to the same ends.  But poetry is a great way — maybe the best way — to get there, because it operates on so many levels of consciousness, and because language is so central to the structure of the mind itself.

So over the past few years, I’ve come to see the practice of poetry as a kind of barometer for the health of a society.  I’ve come to see Utopia as a world where everyone writes poetry — I think that in such a world we’d be done with racism and sexism and classism, selfishness and greed.  There would be no torture or war.  How could you torture someone empathetically?  How could you fight with someone whose experiences you’ve shared?

And so I’ve also come to see it as my mission, and a worthy mission, to get as many people writing poetry as possible.  That’s why I encourage everyone to keep writing and submitting, and never tell them to wait three months or close a reading period.  It’s not that the publication matters, but that the lifestyle matters, that there’s an expanding community of poets out there doing what we do and sharing with each other this life-enhancing, collective of concentration.

To me, what you write is inconsequential, or just the frosting on the cake.  Just write it.  That’s the cake.

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.