Behind the Scenes: Rattle Poetry Prize Selection

Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, as near as may be, an island entire.
–Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice (resigned in disrepute in 1969)

I assume everyone’s heard the urban legend about the college admissions coordinator, who, maybe drunk or stoned or just sick of his life, decides that it’s too difficult to choose which applicants should fill the last few spots. Honors societies and alumni grants and GPAs to the nearest ten-thousandth decimal place swirl senseless in his head. So, late at night, he crosses the half-empty quad, climbs the library most austere stairwell in that illustrious hall, and dumps his bucket of applications over the railing. Paper packets flutter out of sight like so many hopes and dreams. He takes the elevator down to the first floor — those lucky bastards who floated farthest down get to attend the University of Wherever-You-Didn’t-Make-the-Cut.

That’s just an urban legend — we assume. But sometimes it seems like poetry contests must be judged in this way. Surely the winner’s poem couldn’t have been better than yours! Surely the editors couldn’t have read every word of the 10,000 poems that were submitted in the space of 4 weeks. Surely there was a balcony, or at least a few ignorant interns involved.

Well, I don’t want to fuel any urban legends, so here’s the whole truth about what we’re doing with your poems, now that the deadline has passed:

The first task is to log all of the entries. This means entering everyone’s name, address, and subscription information into the database, along with a unique number. We write that number on your coversheet, and on the upper corner of the first poem, stapling all the poems together, so that they can only be identified by their number. We’ve got everyone’s information in the database, and two separate piles: coversheets, and poems. Email entries are printed out and sorted in the same way, so we can’t even tell how the entries came in.

(Our old printer used a rare kind of ink — colored waxen blocks that had a unique feel — so we used to be able tell which entries we’d printed out ourselves. But that printer died last fall, and our new beast of a machine is a more standard laserjet, which ends up camouflaging the source.)

This first step is a bigger task than you might think. We’ve been logging entries continuously, since they started coming in this spring, but 50% or more procrastinators wait until the last week. Megan and I spent 8 hours today just on email entries from Thursday and Friday — Megan handling the subscriptions in the database, and myself replying with acknowledgments and printing the packets. We didn’t touch this week’s hardcopy entries, which stack about 3 feet high, and will keep rolling in for the next few days.

Once we do get everything organized and randomized, we take the five-foot stack of poems home. Megan reads first, rating every poem on a scale of 1-10, and then writing the highest score for each entry on the first page. A score of 10 here means “Prufrock” or “Howl” or “Song” — among the best handful of poems ever written. I don’t think we’ve ever been submitted a 10, contest or otherwise…it’s hard to think of more than a dozen poems in the world I’d score that high.

The first two RPP winners, and a handful of honorable mentions, have been 9’s — what we consider truly great poems, that we wouldn’t want to live without knowing. 8’s are still very good, among the best couple dozen we’ll publish in a year. 7 we’d want to publish. 6 we might consider. 5 doesn’t make us cringe. 4 does. 3 and 2 you can imagine. 1 is so bad that it’s almost good — but only almost.

As you might guess, the vast majority entries are in the 4-6 range.

By the way, I’m never going to reveal how we scored you, so don’t ask. It’s not that I don’t think you deserve to know; I don’t think it can do any good — it’s just a number, nothing constructive about it. But more, the natural inclination is to take our opinion too seriously. We’re not any kind of authority, we’re just fans of poetry who read a lot. I don’t think there is an authority on poetry, but even if there were, we’d have no claim to it. Honestly, I think that’s most of Rattle’s charm, and why our issues are so damn readable.

So Megan scores everything, and then I sort them out. Starting with the highest ranking packet, I work my way down, until it no longer seems to make any sense to keep reading. Usually that’s meant reading down through the 5’s. It’d be nice to say I read everything, but that would be stupid — we only have 6 weeks to read thousands of poems and choose a winner. The best poems deserve several close readings, and the truth is, that time would be wasted elsewhere. A good analogy is the standard optical microscope — Megan’s reading is the coarse adjustment, which first makes sense of what we’re looking at. Then I come in with the fine adjustment and try to make the image as clear as possible.

So after I’ve read the better half once or twice, I give the poems my own score, and average the two. The packets are then re-sorted according to their new scores, and we take the best 50 or so to Alan, for the finest of adjustments, so to speak. We’ll spend a weekend reading all of them out loud, talking about them, trying to figure out which we think is the best.

There’s a big difference between winning the first prize of $5,000 and receiving a $100 honorable mention, so in a lot of ways, this last step is the most nerve-wracking and difficult. There’s no way to get around taking it very seriously.

I think the three different minds, three different opinions coming from different quantitative contexts (Megan having read every poem, myself having read half, and Alan having read a comparative handful) is the ideal situation. If you haven’t edited a big project, you might not understand, but reading so many samples, it’s easy to feel muddled and indecisive — they all start to look too similar. On the other hand, reading too few, you have nothing to compare you opinion against. Good is good, but how good is it?

Once we do decide who wins, I start making phone calls — the only calls to strangers that are ever fun for me.

Anyway, this has become a long post, but I’ve entered contests before, and I’ve always been curious as to what’s really going on. Now you know. I think we’ve got a system that’s as fine-tuned and precise as possible. If we didn’t, I don’t think we’d be able to announce the winners just 6 weeks from yesterday.

5 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Rattle Poetry Prize Selection

  1. i’m sure you do a fair and honest job of selection. i have trust in you. thanks for all you do, susan ambrosino

  2. The best bit of advice I can think of: Just pat yourself on the back for entering!!!!!! Sounds kind of like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory odds…so the best thing is…in my opinion…move on to the next contest, the next submission, the next grant, whatever it is. Project, job, etc.

    Keep on keepin’ on…I knew someone who applied for a job…along with about 3,000 other people. She didn’t get it…but certainly wasn’t waiting around in the meantime to hear that she didn’t it.

    Oh well, why am I wasting time posting this, when I could be commenting on some of the fine and interesting poems on the Rattle blog. Or eating watermelon. Or doing both at the same time.

  3. I appreciate the transparency of the review/judging process, including the identity and role of the judges. Thanks very much.

  4. I second Anon 1. I (secondly) send a fist bump to Tim for the badinage and gravitas. In this, an editor to doff one’s hat to. It might be of interest to Rattle readers that I sent a gentle inquiry (so titled) to the editors of a major competition asking why they did not post name of judge and why they did not use the blind reading system. The response, with felt asperity (an intern?) was that the press has such a distinguished list, why should it NOT insist upon knowing the credentials of those who submit. The judge, not distinguished, lives in the same town as I. The first finalist, (someone not known to me in this relatively small poetry community) lives in this town. The judge teaches. The inferences your readers may draw. Rattle’s process? Outstanding. Loved the zen-zing of the urban legend.
    A fervid (perfervid) reader/subscriber.

  5. Pingback: November Fools & Our Selection Process | Timothy Green

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