2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Math

There are two reasons I’m announcing the Rattle Poetry Prize numbers a full week later than I did last year.  First, our editorial priorities had to be adjusted to fit with Alan’s travel schedule, as he’s going to be gone for much of September.  But the bigger issue was the volume of submissions we received.  You might be surprised by how long it takes just to log them all in.  Here are the totals:

812 hardcopy entries
781 email entries
1,593 total entries

As you can see from last year’s post, this is 433 more entries than we received last year, and we blew past my goal of 1,350 with ease.  This is more than just a record total, it’s also an incredible and unexpected spike in growth rate:

Year / #entries / %change
2006 / 805 / —
2007 / 991 / +23%
2008 / 1160 / +17%
2009 / 1593 / +37%

What was the secret to this year’s success?  It’s impossible to disentangle the variables.  What’s clear is that the growth was digital.  Email submissions increased by 63%, while hardcopy submissions only rose a modest (and expected) 18%.   So I think it’s safe to assume that we don’t have our new print ads in Poetry magazine to thank, as happy to place them as I was.

A better explanation would be the positive change in our internet profile.  Just 14 months ago, Rattle.com introduced its blog-style format, and began posting a new poem or review every day.  In the time since, traffic has swelled — unique visitors per day have doubled to over 1,000, and page views per day have nearly tripled to 10,000.  As more consumers read Rattle online, our demographic shifts toward a more tech-savvy profile, and email submissions for the first time are nearly matching the hardcopy numbers.

But that’s not the whole story.  I also better-utilized email marketing this year.  In the past, we’ve sent flyers to college English departments, announcing the contest, but this year I sent emails as well, asking administrators to forward the information to their students.  I’ve also learned, from trying to publicize events, that people are natural procrastinators — rather than sending our deadline reminder out with a month to go, I waited until five days before the deadline.  As a result, half of the entries came in the last two days.

So the lesson to be inferred this year is that successfully utilizing technology is far more important than traditional means of advertising (not to mention a fraction of the cost) — which is the gospel I’ve been preaching on this blog for years.

I broke down the revenue situation last year, and you can still do the math for yourself.  The honest truth is, production costs haven’t increased much in the last 12 months, beyond the postage rate hike, which was covered by our slightly higher entry fee.  We made an extra $10,000 and get to use all of it to help offset our annual budget.  My long-term, pipedream goal is to make Rattle a fiscally solvant magazine, something unheard of in the literary world.  We’re not close to that goal, at this point, but we’re closer than we were last year. If we keep growing at this rate, a full year out of the red might actually be plausible at some point before print media disappears altogether.

That’s the good news for Rattle, and I’m not too shy to pat myself on the back.  But the bad news for you, if you entered the contest, is that the competition has gotten even tougher:

1,593 entries x 3.8 poems/entry = 6,053 estimated total poems

Obviously that’s 37% more poems than last year, and your odds of placing in the top 11 in a random draw have fallen to 0.18% (from 0.25% in 2008).  As bad as that sounds, it’s still roughly equal to the 1 in 500 odds of any given poem from a regular submission making it onto the pages of Rattle.

So when you read the winners in December, if the honorable mentions seem no stronger than the rest of the poems in the magazine, and there are a few in the open section that seem even better than the $5,000 prize winner, don’t worry — that’s exactly what should happen, statistically (if we assume the quality of a contest entry is the same as that of a regular submission, which is probably the case).  It depends on the slope of the bell curve, but the odds that the Rattle Poetry Prize winner actually is the best poem in the magazine are something like 1 in 5 (pretending we could find an objective measure).

If that sounds counter-intuitive to you, you’re not alone — it sounds weird to me, too, every time I crunch the numbers.  The contest winners won’t necessarily be the best poems in an issue — they’re simply typical of what we always publish.  So if you happen to have a poem already forthcoming in Rattle you should be kicking yourself for not entering the contest — you really might have won!

Poets Cafe Interview with Timothy Green (full)

I assumed KPFK would rather have me send listeners to their website, so I only posted a clip from this last week.  Quite the contrary, host Lois P. Jones asked if I’d post the whole thing, so it has a permanent home.  I just posted the first segment, with Peggy Dobreer.  Here’s the second, with me — about 25 minutes long. I read “Cooking Dinner,” “Playing Our Part,” “After Hopper,” “Impressionism,” and “The Body.” Talk about fractals, the theme of my book, Rattle as a rogue journal, and the importance of poetry to society.


Yesterday’s post to this blog inadvertently included a well-known, copyrighted image of Charles Bukowski and Georgia Peckham, which has since been removed.  Photo credit should have been given to Joan Levine Gannij.  Because the blog where I found the image didn’t list a credit, I didn’t either, a lazy and careless oversight that I truly regret.

There’s an old proverb, which I have to admit that I only heard recently in the movie-version of Doubt — teacher brings a pillow up to the roof and tells the student to tear it open and scatter the feathers to the wind.  A gust picks up and blows them across the countryside.  “Now I want you to gather every feather and put it back in the pillowcase,” the teachers says.  “But I can’t,” says the student, “that’s impossible, there are thousands of feathers everywhere.”

In the  proverb that’s gossip.  But it might also be copyright infringement.  Every time we use art that is unsourced, we encourage other people to do the same, in an exponentially expanding chain.  And the artist is left scrambling to put her work back in the bag — a frustrating and impossible task.  I feel awful for contributing to that, and foolish for not realizing it sooner.

There were a few other images I’ve used in the past without knowing who to credit; I’ve removed those as well, and would also like to apologize to those unnamed artists who will probably never know that I helped kick their can a little farther down the road.

Interview with Poets Cafe

Above is a 3-minute teaser from the 25-minute interview. To listen to the whole thing, visit the KPFK archive, and click on “Poetry and Culture” at noon (Wed., July 22nd). Mine is the second segment, halfway through, following an enlightening interview with local poet Peggy Debreer.

Since it’s the first time I’ve ever heard myself on the radio I thought I’d “live-blog” the queasiness.  I didn’t feel nervous at all sitting in the sound studio and talking to Lois about poetry, but now that I’m here at my desk helplessly listening to what I said three months ago, I’ve been feeling uneasy.  I can’t even remember what might have come out of my mouth!

Anyway, here’s my commentary:

  • 29:20 – First of all, I completely forgot that I was sick when we recorded this. Hear the rasp in my voice –I’m trying hard not to cough through the whole thing and sometimes failing.
  • 30:10 – So tired of my own poems. I need to write some new ones…
  • 32:10 – That bit about fractals and the mars rover is something that I had no idea I was going to say, and had never really thought of coherently until I heard myself saying it.  But the description of fractals as “getting lost in scale” actually works, which is neat.
  • 34:02 – Are my “mhmm’s” while Lois is talking annoying everyone or just me?  Shut up Tim…
  • 34:30 – Haha, I’m the Big Kahuna!
  • 35:25 – I accidentally lied about the number of submissions we receive at Rattle. It’s 50 subs/day in the busy seasons, around deadlines and new issues, but it drops to 20 when we’re slow.  The interview was recorded during a busy period, so that’s all I was thinking about.  Oops!  I still feel a little guilty about that.  100 poems every day is still a lot, right?
  • 36:30 – I don’t usually read “Playing Our Part,” it was nice that she asked for that.
  • 42:00 – The plug for my friend Erik Campbell’s book Arguments for Stillness was edited out because we couldn’t get on the same page — I thought Lois was referring to an Elizabeth Bishop quote that we’d talked about before, not Erik’s book.  Sorry Erik!
  • 43:30 – I’m sick of complaining about no respect of Rattle.  All those things are true, we are a “rogue journal” and proud of it, but I feel like a whiner going on about it.  It ties in to what I wrote on last Friday, the inanity of the game.  Who gives an f-…
  • 49:50 – “the white blood cell count for society.”  Another thing I never thought of until I said it.  Interviews are fun.
  • 51:10 – Sometimes when I read “The Body” I have to fight the urge to read in a southern accent…is that weird?

Well that was mostly pointless!  I enjoyed the interview, though, and commenting on it reduces the jitters.

Thanks to Lois P. Jones for being a great host, and KPFK for having me.  What did you all think?

Batting Average on Balls in Play

The party last night was great — I’m not a party person, but we made it out alive, without crying in a corner or spilling beer on a rare book, so chalk it up as a win.  I didn’t think to bring a camera, so there will be no pictures, unless Red Hen posts them on Facebook, but there was a good turnout, a merry atmosphere, plenty of interesting small talk, free wine, good music…  Just an overall nice night.

I wasn’t really thinking of the party as a place to sell books, more just a place to show them off, but we sold well, too — as many copies as we sell in two days at the AWP.  Everywhere I go with a selection of issues, it’s the same.  With a list of interviews and features like these, the magazine sells itself. (Which is good, because I’m no salesman.)

I was talking to someone about acceptance rates — a topic which often comes up in settings like this — and it occurred to me how poetic success works a lot like baseball.  A few years ago I used baseball as a metaphor to lament the lack of an amateur/professional split within the poetry world: no one thinks they have to be a major leaguer to have fun taking hacks at the batting cage, but for some reason the idea of being an amateur poet and having fun in the same way with words strikes us as embarrassing.  In wishing poetry acted more like baseball, I didn’t realize a way that it already does.

Baseball’s often been called a game of failure.  If you fail 70% of the time, that means you’re a .300 hitter, which is what everyone strives for — fail 70% of the time for 20 years and you might make it into the Hall of Fame.  What’s more, there’s not a whole lot of difference between a .300 hitter going to the all star game, and a .200 hitter headed back to the minor leagues.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but there’s a scene in Bull Durham, where Crash explains that the difference between him and a major league hitter is one bloop single a week.  And it’s true.  Ty Cobb holds the record for the highest career batting average, at .367 (meaning he failed to get a hit 63.3% of the time).  The record for lowest career batting average is Bill Bergan’s .179 (82.1% failure) a century ago.  In a season of 600 at bats, the difference between Cobb’s high and Bergan’s low would be 113 hits — 4 hits a week, and you’re playing every day.

How does this relate to poetry?  Well, I was in an online community a few years ago that focused on tracking submissions — everyone posted their acceptances and rejections in a friendly and supportive environment.  Poets of all ages and publication histories.  The shocking result was that everyone had an acceptance rate somewhere between 5% and 30%, and most were very close to the mean 15%.  You’d think poets with books published and tenure-track teaching jobs and literary connections would run circles around the high school seniors in AP English, but you’d be wrong.  The difference on average was only a couple hits a month — so the best indicator of success wasn’t how big your bio was, or even how good your poems seemed to be, but rather simply how often you submit.

There’s a relatively new principal that baseball purists haven’t accepted yet, but statisticians like Tangotiger have demonstrated repeatedly.  Once a baseball is hit into play, there’s nothing the batter can do, really, to change the outcome.  A batter can effect the number of balls not hit into play, by striking out (bad) or hitting home runs (good), but once you hit the ball where someone can catch it, the only thing you’ve got left is chance.  This is counter-intuitive, because some batters hit the ball harder than others, and it seems obvious that hard line drives are more difficult to catch than pop-ups, but statistically, that difference is negligible.  So if you take a player’s batting average and subtract out the at bats that became home runs or strikeouts, you get a stat called Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which amounts to a measure of how lucky you’ve been.  If you’re BABIP is higher than the league-average, you can count yourself lucky, and nothing more.  And since we all know that there’s no such thing as luck, other than a human’s interpretation of chance, we know that your luck isn’t going to last.

What I’d like to posit here is that the same principal applies to submissions of poetry.  Sure, the quality of the poems seems like it should matter, but poetic taste is so subjective that once you drop your envelope into the mailbox, success is entirely out of your control, and is nothing more than a chance display of an editor’s whim.  If you’re well-known and frequently published, some editors will publish you for that reason alone (you hit a home run), and some editors will ignore you unless you have a nice CV (you strikeout).  But removing those factors, everyone has the same BABIP.  Or at the least (and yes, it’s depressing to say this), the actual quality of the writing is statistically negligible.

As a poetry editor, this is a very difficult concept to accept — reading submissions, it seems very obvious which poems deserve to be published and which don’t.  But the counter-intuitive evidence is very strong.  Not only do we have the statistics from my online group, but there’s also the universal experience of having editors choose the “worst” poem from a packet as the one they’d like to publish.  This happens to everyone, and happens to me all the time — when I put together a submission packet, I including at least one “golden” poem that I really love, and then fill out the remaining 5 or so selections with dreck from the indifferent bin.  And as often as not, when acceptance letters come, it’s for the dreck.  Removing my own subjective editorial opinion from the equation, there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to another editor’s taste.

I can’t come to my conclusion without mentioning one potential caveat — there is an inherent normalizing factor within any body of acceptance data.  Poets who have had more success are naturally going to shoot increasingly higher on the ladder of “prestigious markets.”  Once you’ve published a good number of poems, you no longer bother sending work to magazines you’ve never heard of — you start submitting to the heavy hitters and nowhere else, which lowers your acceptance rate.  Conversely, novice submitters tend to submit more often to the fledgling journals, where their odds are going to be higher.

But so what?  I’d argue that what’s really being normalized are your home run and strikeout rates.  When I submit poems to the Podunk Review (Googled to make sure that’s just a hypothetical journal so as not to offend anyone), I say I’m the editor of Rattle and they say, “Wow!”  I hit a home run at the Podunk.  I submit the same packet to Poetry, say I’m the editor of Rattle, and they say, “So?”  I strike out in the bigger market.  No matter where I send the poems, my BABIP is the same.

And that’s the lesson here.  Your BABIP is always going to be the same; you’re going to fail 85% of the time, more or less, and that’s part of the game.  If you enjoy the game, play it — and keep playing it.  You’ll never get a hit unless you keep stepping up to the plate.