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.