Timothy Green, Editor of Rattle
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Timothy Green, editor of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century. Founded in 1995, this California-based poetry journal gives two annual awards: the $5,000 Rattle Poetry Prize, deadline August 1; and the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor, a $500 prize for the best use of metaphor in a poem published in Rattle during the year. Read their mission statement here.
Timothy Green was born in Upstate New York. A Rush Rhees and Take Five Scholar at the University of Rochester, Green studied English, biochemistry, psychology, and Eastern philosophy, and worked as a technician in the Turner Lab, supporting research on mRNA binding structures. He graduated magna cum laude in 2003, earning awards from Phi Beta Kappa, the Golden Key National Honors Society, and the Academy of American Poets. For two years Green remained in Rochester, working as a group home counselor for adults with schizophrenia. In 2004, he moved to California to begin working full-time as the assistant editor, and then in 2006 the editor, of Rattle.
American Fractal is Timothy Green's first book-length collection of poetry. His poems and short stories have appeared in dozens of publications, online and in print, including The Connecticut Review, Florida Review, Fugue, Gargoyle, Los Angeles Review, Mid-American Review, Nimrod International Journal, Paterson Literary Review, and Runes. Green has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. An earlier version of American Fractal was a finalist for the New Issues Poetry Prize, and won the Phi Kappa Phi Student Recognition Award from the University of Southern California, from which he graduated with a Masters in Professional Writing in 2009. Green lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the poet Megan Green, and their daughter, Josephina.
Q: When and how was Rattle launched? How did the journal get its name?
A: Rattle began as a chapbook for one of Jack Grapes' private writing workshops here in Los Angeles. When the class decided to put together a little book of their work, as often happens at the end of workshops like these, Alan Fox, our founding editor, volunteered to do the legwork, and I think his secretary made the trip to Kinko's. That was Rattle #1. The name was what won out in a brainstorming session—Alan liked the sound of it, but it was more whim than careful consideration. When I started working on the magazine in 2004, I asked Alan what “Rattle” was, hoping to come up with some kind of logo or theme to use on the website. Was it a snake? A musical instrument? “No,” he said, “it's more of a feeling.” Good luck finding an image for that! But over the years I've come to see it as the perfect word for what good poetry does to you. Emily Dickinson said it takes the top of your head off, but she might as well have said that it rattles you. The best poetry resonates—it lodges itself somewhere in your gut, or maybe your soul, and rumbles and grumbles and buzzes in there for the rest of your life. Or maybe each poem becomes one of the little pebbles that make you the rattle. It's a good metaphor for what we're trying to do.
Q: Your subtitle is “Poetry for the 21st Century”, and your mission statement expresses the wish to liberate poetry from “obscure and esoteric” 20th century trends and return it to the people. Some of those High Modernist trends, one might say, expressed the anxiety that poetry could not be both accessible and innovative. Point us to some counter-examples from Rattle (with links to your site).
A: I'd argue that inaccessibility is just a tarp thrown over the absence of innovation. Anxiety is exactly what drives this—the fear that, once someone does understand what you wrote, they'll be bored. Not that it isn't justified—every writer understands that anxiety. Even as an editor I'm constantly fretting over whether or not we'll be able to find enough unique and interesting material to fill up an issue. Poetry's been living in English for a thousand years; thinking up something that's both genuinely original and intellectual or emotionally useful is a daunting task. And yet it happens all the time; our issues never run short. It's hard to choose examples, because I think every poem that we've ever published is innovative in some way—that's why we published it.
I haven't read everything in the world, but I do read over 100 poems a day, 365 days a year, and when you do that, new ideas might as well be written in neon. They appear like a sunbeam out of the deluge once or twice a week, and are new in all manner of ways. Some are bizarrely gripping, like Patricia Lockwood's eight-page mediation on the word “Popeye”. Others just couldn't have been written at any time other than now, like Christopher Crawford's “So Gay”, or Heather Bell's “Love Letter to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill”. One of my favorite poems tapped into the zeitgeist—I think it was a result of so many Baby Boomers having to care for their aging parents, but for several years we were receiving countless poems about nursing homes. Then Sophia Rivkin appeared with a unique and powerful honesty that did more with the subject than anything else I've seen, in “Conspiracy”. All of those are innovative understandings of the human condition. They're rare, but they're there.
Q: To elaborate on the above question: What makes a poem accessible, as opposed to esoteric? Is it form, content, narrative, emotional investment…? Can a poem be experimental yet accessible?
A: That's a good question; it might be important here to clearly define our terms. I've seen many writers and editors shy away from that word, as if it implies a kind of inferiority—the poetics of the lowest common denominator. But when I speak of accessibility, I mean that by its actual definition: the capacity to be understood. To put it another way, a poem is accessible if all of the tools necessary for its use are included within the poem itself. There are no keyholes or passwords or combination locks; the only admission price is a solid grasp of the English language, or barring that maybe just the ability to use a dictionary. If I buy a patio set that comes with 80 hex screws and an Allen wrench, and that's all I need to put the thing together, then that patio set is accessible, even if it takes me all day and a bloody knuckle. If I open up the box and find that I also need a power drill, a miter saw, and a few years of experience as a carpenter, then that patio set is not accessible.
Can a poem be experimental and also accessible? Of course! Try Shane Rhodes' “The Promises Herein Contained”, a found poem created from the text of a Canadian treaty with the indigenous people of the First Nations, shaped as the lissajous figure of the harmonics created by the word “said” as seen on audio oscilloscope. Poetry doesn't get much more experimental than that. And yet you need know nothing about Queen Elizabeth or the electrical potentials of vocal utterances to understand and appreciate what's going on in the poem. Anyone who reads the poem aloud will experience the intended effect, a kind of alien disconnect from meaning. A very brief note is included for anyone not familiar with Treaty One. That's the main result of our insistence on accessibility: We don't publish any poems that rely heavily on allusion, unless the all of the alluding can be explained in a brief note. I've always found it interesting (and oxymoronic?) that those who praise the poetry of concision also tend to love footnotes, and pages of exegesis that just defeat the purpose when you think about it. Real density isn't T.S. Eliot; it's Mike White.
Q: For the Neil Postman Award, do you have a preference for poems that develop one central metaphor, as opposed to a variety of metaphors? What are the promises and pitfalls of each form for the writer?
A: The interesting thing about an award for metaphor is that it's only when you start hunting for metaphor itself that you realize how lonely metaphor really is. In the 50,000 poems we read every year, there are always only a handful of truly fresh metaphors. Most poets employ variations or improvements on a theme—new ways of saying what's been said. But every once in a while something shows up that's so good it sounds like it has to be a cliché, and I run straight to Google to make sure it's not. God is probably a Belgian endive. A group of fashion models is “a shiny gang of scissors.” When that happens, I don't care if it's five pages of extended metaphor or a single line. We've selected both as winners.
Q: Rattle has embraced one defining aspect of the 21st century, namely electronic media. Your website features a new poem from the issue each day, also available by email, and you publish a twice-yearly electronic issue with artwork and essays. How have you used these tools and social networking sites to expand Rattle's literary community? What do you do to keep your free content from competing with print subscriptions?
A: I don't think online content really competes with print subscriptions. And even if it did, we're a nonprofit; our goal is to help poetry be an active part of people's lives. Subscriptions cost money because printing costs money; online publishing might as well be free, so it might as well be free. If everyone started exclusively reading online, we'd just stop printing. That's the beauty of being a nonprofit. Our only goal is to keep fulfilling our mission statement for as long as possible. But moreover, I think withholding content is a losing proposition; it's an archaic view of publishing that's clearly been suffocating the industry for the last ten years. More than anything else, the internet is a meme machine. You become a meme by sharing things that your audience can share, and by providing enough content that your audience reaches a kind of self-sustaining critical mass. If you're worried about your website competing with your print version, you might as well not even have a website. Or a print version.
And this theory works. There's a bit of a lag, but all of our content ends up online, and print circulation has done nothing but grow since we started doing that. I love statistics, so I track everything. If I post new poems from a certain back issue over the course of a month, sales of that issue go up ten-fold. Sometimes a reader will explain, “I loved X poem; I just had to have it in print.” People who like books will still buy books, even if digital versions are available online. Any ambivalence to print is more than made up for by the sheer volume of new readers paying attention for the first time, thanks to the online content. I have the spreadsheets to prove it.
Q: Do you have a way to track which poems are most popular on your website (forwarded, tweeted, etc.)? Why or why not? How would this affect your editorial process?
A: As I said above, I love statistics and track everything I can. Certain poems do become memes, thanks to aggregators like Reddit and StumbleUpon. The first I noticed was Brett Garcia Myhren's “Telemarketer”, which “StumbleBombed” in 2006, and received over 60,000 pageviews in one day, and about a half-million overall—most of them unique IPs. This has happened to about a dozen other poems, and I do find myself wondering what characteristics they might have in common. I like to think Brett's poem came to represent a longing for connection that so many of us feel in this anti-social era of social media. Those few massively popular poems do tend to be shorter, more accessible, and more emotional in nature—but for the most part I think the spikes are a result of random flux. Like rogue waves in the ocean. “Telemarketer” is a great poem, but so many of the poems that we publish have a similar combination of simplicity and power. Why Brett Myhren and not Dallas Wiebe's “Sunday, August 31, 2003”? I think it's chance. As an editor, you can't let these things effect your selection process; it'd be like chasing the wind. All you can do is be honest with yourself and your own reactions to the poems you read, and assume that there's an audience out there that will mostly agree.
Q: Do you think the online format affects the reading experience, such that certain types of poems are better adapted for Internet reading and sharing—not necessarily the same ones that would fare best on a printed page? Not that anyone can really forecast the future, but give it your best shot—how do you think our new media world will influence the development of poetic styles?
A: Personally, I think all poems are better in print. Online reading is too distracting, with its windows and menus and blinking cursors. Ads and graphics. Even the simplest of pages is boxed inside a browser full of buttons one might stop at any time to click. I find that I never get lost in a page online like I do in print. Paper starts with a tunnel vision, and you keep zooming in and before you know it you're actually in the book; all of your surroundings drop away and you become fully immersed in the landscape of imagination. Online reading is informational, but only print can really be experiential. It might be different for younger generations, but it's really hard for that to happen to me on a screen. Buttons are too tempting. A lot of people swear by their Kindles and more power to them—I still like books.
As for how poetry will adapt, I think we're seeing it already with the rising popularity of performance poetry. Many poets will follow that path into a future of interactive, multisensory poetic experiences—those poets will be part writer, part actor, part filmmaker, part video game designer. An ever-enlarging audience will appreciate that medium as a form of art. Others will cling to tradition, and the idea of words alone on a page having the power to do all those things on their own, in the reader's mind. They'll wonder if all this virtual reality pyrotechnics is really still poetry, and will lament the imminent death of the imagination. Neither group will be wrong in their position, and hopefully they'll be able to at least agree to disagree.
Q: Last year, your main contest was partly judged by the readers themselves. According to your website: “For the first time in 2011 the Rattle Poetry Prize winner was selected from 15 finalists by subscriber vote…Of roughly 3,000 possible voters, 680 cast ballots, and [the winning] poem earned 14.4%.” How did you decide on this judging format, and what did you discover thereby? Are the readers' tastes different from the editors'? Will this be the format for 2012 as well?
A: Like most things, it started on a whim. Every year I wonder if our readers would have chosen the same poem as we did. We never want to become stagnant, and it was the sixth year of the contest without any major changes to the guidelines, so we thought, why not…It's hard to come to any conclusions based on this small and uncontrolled sample, but the results seemed to imply that our readers were just as split as we were last year. In the past we had some very clear, unanimous winners, but as it turned out, in the year where we experimented with a reader vote, we ended up with a very evenly matched batch of finalists.
I honestly don't know which poem we would have chosen, and I'm glad that we didn't have to. We have three editors, and each of us wanted a different poem. Those three were each at the upper end of the reader vote, but who knows if we would have chosen the ultimate winner as our winner; it was too close to call for us, and the reader vote almost was, too.
Anyway, we were very happy with the interactive nature of the voting process, but not with the long delay between selecting the finalists, printing the magazine, and counting up the ballots. Our goal with the contest is to make it an exciting and rewarding experience for everyone involved, and the long wait didn't help.
So this year we compromised with what I hope will be the format from now on: The editors are going to select the $5,000 winner right away, and then the readers will select a $1,000 runner-up prize from the remaining finalists, with a vote after publication. We hope it will be the best of both worlds. Everyone who enters gets a chance to participate, but the winner will know immediately.
Q: How has publication in Rattle helped your poets build a platform for their work? Share some of your success stories.
A: Rattle is a good-sized cog in the literary machine. A nice notch on the bedpost, and people do count notches. But it's hard to take any credit for the success of the poets we've published. Literary success is about persistence and dedication. Writing and submitting and submitting and submitting, then writing some more. I don't think anyone has ever published a book or won an award because of their poem having been in Rattle. Many poems from our issues have been reprinted in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Anthology, on The Writer's Almanac, in Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry column, and so on. Poems we've published have been used in classrooms from Hawaii to Kenya, have been given framed as Christmas presents, tattooed on one reader's back. One poem was even used in an airline advertisement. They've been the title poems to countless books, the centerpieces to winning NEA grant applications, included in Pulitzer Prize-winning collections. The winners of the Rattle Poetry Prize always seem to go on vacation to Paris. The poets we publish get fan mail that encourages them to keep writing. Good things happen because good poets write good poems, and stick with it. The best help any magazine can give is just to provide some appreciative readers who encourage the poets not to give up.
Q: Tell us about some 21st century poets whose work you find exciting and memorable, particularly authors who are not yet well-known. (If their poems are in Rattle, please supply links.) What can readers learn from them?
A: It's so hard to pick out individual poets; this is the Golden Age of the not-well-known. I could list hundreds. I already mentioned Heather Bell; we've published about a half-dozen of her poems in recent years, and our readers always respond to them. I already linked to “Love Letter”, here's just plain “Love”. Here in LA, Brendan Constantine seems to be rising like a rocket. Courtney Kampa is still an undergraduate, I think, and has had three poems selected (blindly, remember) as finalists for the Rattle Poetry Prize in the last two years. Here's one. Lynne Knight should be famous. Erik Campbell should be famous. I could go on all night.
Q: Any other advice for contestants?
A: Write to please yourself first; if other people like it, think of that as a bonus. Send in what moves you the most and don't over-think things. Don't assume we don't like a certain style or subject just because we don't publish it often. We're at the mercy of what we receive; if no one sends in sonnets, we won't be publishing any sonnets, etc. We like anything that's both memorable and worth remembering. That's really our only criteria. Most importantly, don't waste your money entering if you don't think the subscription is worth the entry fee. We don't want your money; we want you to enjoy the experience of participating, even if you don't win.