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.

LATFoB

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Haven’t been posting lately, too busy being busy and important, as my wife would say.  The only way I’m going to keep posting here is if I start to ignore the fact that what I’m posting is mindless muck at the bottom of my brain, so let’s hop to it.

I spent all day Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  Big annual shindig sprawling across the fairly gorgeous UCLA campus.  60,000 blokes and 600,000 books.  I couldn’t believe that UCLA would think to have guided tours for prospective students this weekend, but there they were, the first voice I heard some frat guy telling a group of skittish teens which academic building has the most luxurious bathrooms (natural science, he knows by experience, and he really did emphasize the word experience for some reason).

My plan was this: soak up a touch of verse at the poetry stage, hang around my book at Red Hen’s tent hoping to talk someone into buying it, and then sitting for my scheduled two hours at the USC tent praying that someone buys at least one copy of a book, so I can leave without the ignomony of having nothing to not return.  More on that later — it can be our tension-building cliffhanger:  Will Tim sell a single book at the LATFoB? Sit tight through this commercial break and we’ll find out!

The poets ran the gamut, but I won’t be naming names.  If the poets themselves aren’t disappointing, the crowd always is — every year the poetry stage is tucked away in a back corner, in the patio behind some library, carefully hidden around a corner behind the first aid tent.  Prose is featured on a half-dozen stages, all of them packed.  Poetry draws a handful of listeners, huddling near the exits, few of them lasting through a single full set.  What came first, the chicken or the egg?  If an energetic poet shouts from a loading dock, does it make a sound?

After soaking up some marginalization (whatever the source), I wandered over to the Red Hen Press tent, strategically placed across from the main stage.  I spent about 2 hours there, and I’d guess 20 people stopped to talk in that entire time.  A couple bought books (not mine).  The whole time we get to watch the headliners:  Tori Spelling with a book about her mother (actual title: sTORI Telling).  Winnie Cooper says math doesn’t suck.  Alyssa Milano pitches her book about baseball, which has nothing to do with her new sports clothing line, I swear.   Bob Barker proves he’s still alive.   Keep your poets spade or neutered.

Those were really the stars of the book festival.  I have no idea if Entertainment Tonight now dominates the publishing industry, or if this is an LA thing — I’ve never been to a major book festival anywhere else.  (AWP is only major for English majors.)

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Oh, and I forgot to mention another star across the way — the Wheel of Luck.  I didn’t catch the name of the publisher, but they had a wheel you could spin to win some free plastic junk with their logo on it.  A tote bag, a stuffed animal, a bookmark, etc.  The line snaked itself all the way back to the food court, where patience was tempted by the wafting odor of $10 hot dogs.  That’s one of the reasons I didn’t get a good look at Tori Spelling (the other being that I wasn’t looking) — at one point the publisher ran out of plastic junk, and dust was flying from the stampede.

Finally it was time for my “signing” at the USC tent.  I was scheduled to sit there for the first of my two hours with Aram Saroyan, my professor from last fall, and was looking forward to some decent small talk, but for some reason he didn’t show.  Instead, I got to talk to Syd Fields, who’s kind of a screenwriting guru, so that worked out in the end.  He’s got a new book out about tapping your subconscious as a writer, which in theory looks interesting.  But then he left to see Ray Bradbury, and I was all alone again.

When you’re at a real literary venue, AWP and smaller, there’s a kind of sales flow chart that develops — Are you a poet?  What do you like or not like about it?  Well we’re the book for you.  And so on.  But I swear, at the LATFoB, you say the word poetry and it’s like you just asked them to push the big red button on a suspicious package.  They mostly just run.  I got a few people to take flyers for the poetry prize or my business card with a promise to check out the website, but you can tell they’re just appeasing the terrorists, hoping to make it out safe.

So did I accomplish my dream of selling one book?

After two hours with Red Hen and one at USC, Joanne was walking by on sore feet, saw the chair next to me, and asked if she could sit down.  Imagine my shock to find that she actually reads poetry!  What are the odds??  We had a good chat, and as she was decompressing, she picked up a copy of American Fractal, and then bought it!   Thanks Joanne, you’re my #1 (and only) fan!

Seriously, what a relief to sell a book, and not have to return all 12 copies USC brought.  And to top it off, she’s a good photographer, and worked the miracle of taking the two decent candid shots of me you see above, not making a goofy or scrunchy face.

I wasn’t planning on making a post about the Festival, because I hate to complain without finding some glimmer of optimism — luckily (or unluckily) for you, I was bailed out at the end.

The Beaded Curtain

I’m proud to announce that my lovely wife and Rattle‘s assistant editor Megan O’Reilly Green’s chapbook, The Beaded Curtain, is now available for preorder from Spire Press.  We don’t have any cover shots or blurbs yet — frankly, we’re surprised to learn that it’s coming out in June(?); we were thinking it’d probably be the fall.  But I can tell you that, in all honesty and with a bit of jealousy, that her collection of poems is better than mine — more thematically tight and polished, each poem fitting like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle.

We don’t have a book description yet, either, but I’d call it something like an agnostic’s journey through the carnival of spirituality.  All the bright lights and laughter, a new claim on truth in each tent.  A culmination of her time spent at the new-age oasis that is Evergreen State College, The Beaded Curtain is the best of poetry — an answer-seeking introspection, set to the music of images and moments.

I don’t talk about my personal life much on this blog (and I never know whether or not I should start), but Megan and I knew each other as poets before we knew each other as people, and I’m very happy to see her finally put a collection into print.  I argued that she should add another dozen poems and make it a full-length, but she refuses to fluff, so there is no fluff.

You can read two poems from the book on Rattle.com.

The perfect-bound, black and white chapbook is part of a series of seven, including two by regular Rattle contributors, Michelle Battiste and Maureen Alsop.  The pre-publication sale is a packaged deal — buy all seven books for just $25 — which I think is a great marketing strategy, as well as a really good deal…that’s less than $4 a book!  So order now; I promise you won’t regret it.

O Stapleman, My Stapleman

ruggieriThe best teacher I ever had died yesterday. 66, cancer. He was a legend in our little suburb, the kind of teacher that teenagers tell their younger siblings stories about, and then those siblings grow up and realize that all of the stories are actually true. If he caught you with a cheat sheet, he’d proofread it, correct any errors and slip it back where he found it.  If you were doodling in class, he’d pull his tie up onto his forehead like a bandanna, yell out “Staple Man!” in a trademarked rising inflection, and then proceed to staple all of your folders together, and all your papers in them. When my first beard failed into muttonchops he started calling me Thoreau. He threw erasers at us and we love him for it.

But it was Anthony Ruggieri who taught me to actually enjoy Hamlet and Grapes of Wrath, and that writing essays can be fun if you stay facetious.  He didn’t care what I wrote, as long as I wrote it well, and made a reasoned argument, and so I started writing essays about things like occult zoophilia in Tess of the Durbervilles (apparently she had a thing for the cows), the more absurd the more he liked them.

It never occurred to me that I might like writing before I took his AP English class.  Even then, as with all of Ruggieri’s tricks, his real methods were subtle — he was like an illusionist, all flashes and bangs and bawdy humor, then suddenly the assistant is sawed in half.  Every week, without really talking about it, he wrote some phrase on the wall as a writing prompt.  All you had to do was write something about it, and you got an extra credit point.  It didn’t matter what you wrote; it could be three sentences, it could be handwritten in the hall on your way to class.  I wasn’t an English person — science and math were my strengths — but I was competitive as hell, and I liked getting 127% as a quarterly grade, so I did them every week.  I’m still not sure when that assignment turned from something I half-assed for the easy credit into something I loved doing every Thursday night before it was due — but that’s where the poetry seed was planted.  If it wasn’t for Ruggieri, who knows where I’d be right now.  It probably wouldn’t have been here, with a blog and a poetry mag.  I probably wouldn’t even have met me poet-wife.

And we didn’t even have a special relationship, Ruggieri and I — his memory looms this large in thousands of lives.  His obituary page is already full of comments, many from names I know, that I haven’t seen in years, others who were students when I was still in diapers.  What more could you want from a life?  More time, I guess.

As I started growing into a literary-type, I tried to contact him a few times — when I switched from a biochemistry major to English, I swung by the high school and learned that he’d just retired.  After I started working for Rattle, I called the school, asking for his address, so I could send him some copies, but they wouldn’t give it out, and wouldn’t forward a package.  He wasn’t listed in the phone book.   As American Fractal neared its release date, I put out a few new queries, trying get in touch through a friend of a friend, that sort of thing.  But I’ve been dragging my feet, really, not going to too much trouble, and now it’s too late.  Our fearful trip is done.

When I took the AP exam in the spring, he told everyone in our class that he would punch me if I didn’t get a 5, and part of me believed him.  By the time we got our scores, and I found out I only got a 4, school was over, and I never saw him again — except in his car on election day, a kind of phantom leaving the parking lot as I was entering to vote for the first time, of all things.   So now I guess I’ll never know for sure.

Almost Cured of Misogyny, Still Have a Cough

31coverReally brief as-promised follow-up to “The Gender Question.”  I spent the weekend doing the layout for the summer issue, so our contributors are now finalized.

The count: 46 men, 40 women = 46.7%F

Still leaning male, but Rattle #31 is more female than our 45% ten-issue-average, and we’ve bucked the disturbing trend of Gender Climate Change — apparently the recent spike in testosterone was due to random fluctuations in solar iridescence and the earth’s magnetic field, not men-made.

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An even briefer follow-up to last week’s post — three days after “Death and Tacos” went viral, so did Brian Trimboli’s “Things My Son Should Know After I’ve Died.”  Thanks to the pair, we’ve been cruising along at 10,000 visitors a day and pushing the MySQL server the limit all the time, to the point where pages aren’t always loading in the middle of the day.  Checking Alexa.com, we were the 89,000th most popular website in the world last week, running neck-and-neck with PoetryFoundation.org and Poems.com.  Of course, this can’t keep up, but it sure is fun while it lasts.

And the best part is, most of these visitors are not regular consumers of poetry — maybe we’re earning some new converts.