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.

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.

Playing Moneyball with Poetry

Two Hollywood people I like, Steven Soderbergh and Brad Pitt, had teamed up to film a baseball movie I’d actually pay to see (well, rent at least) — but it was axed at the last minute by the studio.  And I really mean last-minute — the film crew was on its way, and they’d already built a replica of the Oakland Coliseum in Phoenix.  There’s a great article about A’s GM Billy Beane and  “Moneyball” the movie over on ESPN.com.  It’s  shame, I would have loved to see Pitt as Beane, and Soderbergh’s blend of fiction and reality — real players playing themselves, documentary footage thrown in.  Damn you, Columbia Pictures!

It got me thinking about how I try to run Rattle on Moneyball principles. Not directly, but maybe incidentally — it’s been years since I read Moneyball, and all Beane really did was introduce common sense into a field where testosterone prevailed.  It’s more incidence than influence.

Here’s the gist:  Billy Beane, a failed ballplayer himself, took over the front office of the Oakland A’s in 1998.  The second team in what should be a one-team town (the Bay Area is only the 13th largest population center in the country, and 9 of the cities above it only have one team), the A’s don’t generate enough revenue to afford signing star players.  Teams like the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox have two to three times their payroll, which is always one of the smallest in the league.  So the only way the A’s can compete is by recognizing and pursuing undervalued commodities.

Ten years ago, baseball was still in the statistical dark ages, with thinkers like Bill James looking from the outside in.  For over a century, scoreboards had been listing batting average, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases, as if those were the most important metrics of a good ballplayer — and salaries responded accordingly.  But there are a lot of external influences that go into those stats that a player doesn’t control — the size of his home park, the strength of his lineup, and even chance itself.  Beane recognized that there were better measures of a player’s worth that weren’t overvalued by the market.  If he could find players, for example, with low batting averages, but who drew a lot of walks and so still reached base, he could sign them cheaply, relative to their true value — could sign a whole team of them, and so compete with the rich organizations, despite his small payroll.

And that’s exactly what he did, entering each season with one of the poorest teams in baseball, and then still making the playoffs.  His success spread throughout the league, and in 2003 Michael Lewis wrote a book about him called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

When it comes to poetry publishing, Rattle really is an organization much like the Oakland A’s.  We’re a major league team, no doubt, but our budget pales in comparison to the big franchises.  We have a staff of two and spend one-fifth to one-tenth of what the big institutionally and pharmaceutically backed magazines do.  The only way we can compete with them is by recognizing and utilizing the traditionally undervalued commodities.  These include:

  • Customer service. We received 780 email entries to the Rattle Poetry Prize over the weekend, and I personally checked each file and confirmed that it met our requirements.  I’ve also got this blog, where I make everything we do transparent, I’m very accessible and friendly by email, and so on.  Poetry magazine could easily hire some extra staff to do that, but you’d be talking to an intern, not an editor — and I think there’s value in that.
  • The daily blog. We’re still one of the few to recognize the value of the blog format, and how beautiful the medium is for poetry.  Over 1,000 people log in to read our poem of the day every day.  Other magazines have great websites, far superior in design to ours, but they don’t provide this steady flow of new content.
  • Lesser-known poets. This is the big one, our version of On Base Percentage.  Unless you have some nice writing credentials, your chances of having a poem published in one of the big journals is pretty slim.  But credentials don’t make any one poem any better — well-known poets might write better poems on average, but there are plenty of great poems written by poets you’ve never heard of.  And there are thousands of poets you’ve never heard of, chomping at the bit.  So while Poetry magazine acts like the white shark, and gives birth to a few fully developed Pulitzer prize-winning man-eaters, Rattle makes like a frog, letting the fittest survive from two million tadpoles.  So in the end we get a magazine that reads just as well, if not better than Poetry, but without the same kind of big-name-clout.  We sign the Jack Custs of the world, instead of Alex Rodriguez — they’ll both hit their share of home runs, but Cust will do it for $20 million less, even if he does set the major league record for strikeouts in the process.

And poetry readers want lesser-known poets.  I think that’s the principle that the big franchises haven’t caught on to yet.  Almost all poetry readers are writers themselves — far more important than a few big names on the cover is the sense of fairness and equity in a magazine.   I think poetry fans want to read the best poems they can, regardless of reputation.  Poetry might acknowledge it with an asterisk next to newbees in their bio section, but they haven’t embraced poetic democracy like we have.  They still list the over-priced all stars on the cover, and they don’t encourage submitters like we do.  And that’s fine, they can afford to set their own values.  But Rattle is small-market; we can’t.

It didn’t take long after the publication of Moneyball for Beane’s strategy to spread across the league.  The Red Sox hired Bill James and won a world series.  On Base Percentage is no longer the undervalued metric — the market flipped, and Beane is building a new team around the fast, athletic defenders that are now the best value to be found for cheap.

The same is sure to happen to us — eventually the rest of the league will catch on, and we’ll lose our edge in friendliness and accessibility, and maybe our democratic philosophy will even spread.  Either we’ll find a new niche, or fade to the back of the pack.

The problem is, I really believe in our niche — I want to focus on friendliness, I want to support as many poetic voices as possible — so maybe we’re destined to fade.  We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

Poetry Is Not a Racket

War is a racket. … Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
–Major General Smedley Butler,
War Is a Racket, 1935

It’s no revelation to say that we’re a culture obsessed with money.  That we can’t do anything unless someone makes a profit.  Money corrupts everything it shouldn’t:  healthcare, politics, adoptions, war…  Sometimes I’m surprised there’s no one outside picketing the Postal Service.  (DHL and FedEx do it better, right?  So what if it costs $8 to send a postcard…)

But you can’t make money writing poetry.  And I’m thankful for it.  Our poverty keeps us pure.

Of course, plenty of people make money in poetry, greasing the gears of the machine so we can keep cranking out poets and books and magazines.  Teachers get paid to teach.  I get paid to run a magazine, which contrary to popular belief, consists mostly of correspondence, database maintenance, advertising, accounting, and web and graphic design.  Every once in a while I have to write the introduction to a tribute section, or a little blurb about our contest winner — and I hate that.  It might take an hour or two, so for two hours out of fifty a week, everyone once in a while, I get paid to write about poetry.  But most of the time I’m a clerk with a fancy title, either tracking files or shipping and receiving.  Megan and I might read more poetry than anyone, but we also lick more stamps.

When it comes to writing, though, there is only the writing.  No one writes poetry for any reason other than that they love to do it — or at least loved it at one time, and hope to love again.  Maybe they love it for the discovery or for the meditation, or just for the empowering feeling of having a voice in the world — even with the most self-important of motivations, the love is pure; the goal is self-contained within the poem.  It’s work for no profit other than the work itself.

I think about this every time I hear poets lamenting the fact that there’s no money in this — if only there were more grants, if only poetry books sold like novels and you could make a living just writing…  Of course that would be great for the successful few, but think of what we’d lose.  All these voices speaking their own truth.  There woudn’t be any more real poetry in the average bookstore, there’d be sections for mystery collections, horror, Harry Potter, and Chick Lit.  We’d have to worry about agents and contracts and copyright infringement…  No thanks.

It’s that last that got me thinking about this again.  Recently I made the mistake of posting a copyrighted photograph without crediting the artist.  The comparative in poetry would be to have a poem of mine republished on the internet somewhere without my name one it.  The truth is, I don’t think I’d mind.  Of course I’d prefer to be listed as the author, and I’d be upset if the poem was attributed to someone else — plagiarism is still a sin.  But any negative feelings would be balanced by the honor of finding some random stranger who appreciates my work.

The difference in reaction has nothing to do with personalities, but rather, is inherent in the medium itself.  Photographs have a real-world value.  Whether you’re taking stock photos, journalism, or fine art photography, it’s possible that you might sell those images for a meaningful amount of money.  Poetry has no tangible value, so copyright infringement isn’t all that important.

I’ll give another example.  Two summers ago, in our slam issue, Rattle published Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.” (If you click that link you can listen to it, and I highly recommend you do.)  Years before we published the poem, it had already become a meme among educators — even my aunt, a retired high school math teacher who never reads poetry, recognized that poem.  But interestingly, the poem was often passed around without mention of Taylor’s name, so that several people wrote to us claiming that the poem was plagiarized.  When I mentioned this to Taylor later, he didn’t seem bothered in the least.  He had a message, and he was happy that it was getting out.

When you add money into the mix, things change out of necessity.  When it’s really a livelihood at stake, we have to be more serious.  And it effects some corners of poetry, too.  Within that same slam issue is a piece by the only poet who ever denied our request to put audio of a poem online.  He said it would be alright if we streamed the recording, but he didn’t want the mp3 to be downloadable, because it appears on a CD he recently released.  Since I don’t know how to do that, I wasn’t able to post the poem.  But I understood completely — I’d never want to damage someone’s livelihood.

That’s why I’m happy that there’s rarely any money in poetry.  A poem is only as serious as a poem is — gravely, intangibly, irrevocably serious at times, completely unserious at others.  True to nothing the poet, questionable to nothing but itself.  Poetry is not a racket.  It’s a hobby, a passion, an obsession, a calling.  Free to anyone with a pen and time to think; free to anyone with a library card and time to think on.  It’s entertainment, comfort, catharsis, epiphany — but never currency.  And there’s value in that.

A Struggling Poet

Several people have commented recently on the subtitle of this blog: “Poetry Editor and Struggling Poet.”  Tim, they say, how can you possibly be a struggling poet when you have a book that’s just been published by a good press and a full-time job in the poetry industry?  Or as G. Tod Slone puts it, “Why would you be a ‘struggling poet’? Hell, the machine is paying you a salary, isn’t it?”

Obviously that tag isn’t referring to money — anyone who’s seen my gut lately knows I’m not struggling to eat.  If I cared about material wealth I wouldn’t be here — I graduated at the top of my class and could easily be a molecular biologist at some pharmaceutical company pulling down six figures right now — but that doesn’t mean I’m starving.

I’m not struggling at my career, either.  American Fractal is doing as well as a first book of poetry can be expected to (sold three copies this week, wow!), and Rattle is growing fast and furious.  The age of 30 is breathing down my neck, but it isn’t here yet, and already I’m feeling pretty cozy in this niche.

What I’m struggling with is poetry itself.  I haven’t written a poem in three months.  In the last 18 months I might have written a half dozen.  It’s been two years since my book was accepted for publication.  It’s been two years since I’ve submitted work to another magazine.  It’s been two years since I’ve cared to.

I still love good poetry, and I still love the meditative process through which good poetry is composed.  I still think poetry is an incredibly meaningful part of the human experience — I think it’s endemic to the way our minds work, as important an evolutionary tool as the opposable thumb.  It’s poetry that not only helps us communicate new ideas, but lets us form new ideas in the first place; it’s through poetry that we experience the nuances of the world.  Simple language produces simple thoughts.  Poetry is banned in 1984 for a reason.  Poetry is a garden for reflection, contemplation, awareness, empathy — all the things that are missing or deficient in this modern life.

And yet poetry as an industry is just as ridiculous as any other industry.  Just as much a game: CVs, MFAs, bios, blogs, open mics, cover letters, conferences, colonies, grants, awards, networking, politicking, policing…  I don’t care if you’re an academic poet, a street poet, or an underground poet.  I don’t care if you’re the Poet Laureate or the Poet Lariat or the poet Harriet, who has a 160 poems in four different themes in a three-ring binder on her desk.  It’s all a joke.  It’s an egotistical, megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, back scratching, crotch-stroking, fist pumping joke.  When I see a bio listing 104 “credits,” including Poetry and Triquarterly and the New England Review, I don’t think, Wow, that’s a real poet.  I think, Wow, that’s a lot of postage.  When I see the same poet reading the same poem over and over again to the same audience at every open mic in town, there’s no room to wonder about the transaction — the only one gaining something is you, gaining a captive audience for content that wouldn’t hold up through a dinner conversation.

You want fame, you want attention, you want respect.  That’s all the game is about.  It’s 28,000 submitters and 2,800 subscribers.  It’s an audience of 30 at a poetry reading, and 20 of them thinking only about the poem they’ll read when the host calls their name.  It’s a new book every four years because that’s what tenure calls for.  And every faction, from the most amateur to the most erudite, thinks they’re the one that’s doing it right.  It’s all the same silly enterprise.

Yes, you’re all poets.  But only because we’re all poets — every human being is a poet from birth.  We live in language, we enjoy language, we use language in interesting ways.  Only 10% of us are writing poetry, but 100% of us should be.  That’s what really matters.  Good poetry isn’t about linebreaks or imagery or avoiding cliches.  It’s not about books or applause or MFAs.  It’s about having a genuine fucking experience within language.  If you have an actual experience writing the poem, I will have an actual experience reading the poem, and we’ll all be better off for it.  If you aren’t doing that, then I don’t want anything to do with you.  We might as well be talking about the weather, or sports, or Dancing with the Stars.

And if you want to learn how to write poetry, if you want to teach it, then teach how to have a meditative experience within language.  Don’t workshop me, don’t writers’ group me, don’t line-edit the vapid into mediocrity.  If it’s not a genuine experience, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  I’ve had a handful of teachers who have taught poetry the right way, sometimes without even knowing it, but so many others who are nothing more than foremen at a plastic factory.  I’ll love the former forever, but I’m done with the latter and all the empty molds they spawn.

When I call myself a struggling poet, it’s because I’m struggling with how poetry is treated, how poetry acts.  But I had a revelation last night:  I’m done with it.  I’m done with taking this industry so seriously just because everyone else does.  I’m done pretending Best American Poetry matters.  I’m done pretending 200 people reading my poem in some journal is better than the 200 people who would read it if I posted it on this blog.  I’m done with trying to be successful.

All that matters is the actual poetry.  All that matters are the real poets, who actually exist as real poets for the hour or two that they’re living within a real poem.  All that matters are the actual people, who actually enjoy reading real poems. All that matters is the joy of creating them.

That’s how I felt five years ago.  And five years ago I didn’t consider myself a “struggling poet.”