"We Just Want to Encourage and Support More and More Poets Every Year."
A Chat With Tim Green, Editor of Rattle
All literary magazines have their own path, their own genesis. Each strives to find its place and the way to reach many readers. Rattle magazine has achieved great success in the literary world in part because it publishes poems that cause “a rattle in the heart.” This interview will take you through this journal’s beginnings and more!
Interview by Connie Post
It’s wonderful that Rattle has been publishing poetry and literature since 1995. Can you tell us how Rattle started? Who were the founders of Rattle and what can you share about them that will help us understand more about your magazine and its origins?
Rattle was founded by Alan Fox, a businessman in Los Angeles. I say businessman, but he’s really a self-made Renaissance man with a lot of interests—he already had advanced degrees in law, accounting, counselling, and education, had started a real estate investment company, produced films, and even owned an ice cream chain before meeting the poet James Ragan on a cruise in the early ‘90s. Ragan rekindled an old fondness for poetry, and convinced him to get yet another degree, this time in creative writing at USC. He had a good time with that, so wanted to keep it up, and enrolled in private classes with another LA poet, Jack Grapes. Alan volunteered to put the class anthology together at the end of the course, and that was issue #1 of Rattle, a saddle-stitched chapbook photocopied at Kinko’s. The first few issues gradually expanded from the two-dozen writers in the class to past graduates of the workshops, and then Rattle eventually began taking unsolicited submissions. Every issue was funded out of Alan’s pocket, because he enjoyed doing it. He saw Rattle as the outsider’s alternative to the avant-garde, academic poetry that was predominantly being published at the time. And that’s still what Rattle is 22 years later, as the non-profit Rattle Foundation.
Your website is very well designed, laid out and easy to use. That can be difficult when a journal has a significant amount of material to make available. How is the success of your website accomplished? Who plays the largest role in keeping it maintained?
Thanks—it’s nice of you to say that, because that was the primary goal in arranging it. At this point the website has 3,117 poems, 987 audio files, and 122 separate index pages, so it’s not easy to keep it all organized and navigable. Like anything else here, it’s grown gradually and organically. I’ve been editor since 2004, and one of the first things I did was take over the website, adding poems gradually rather than in one big swoop with each issue. The website was always extensive, even then—Rattle might have been the first print literary magazine to publish the entirety of its content online, and had already been doing that for years. Our philosophy has always been to give as much away as possible; that’s the only thing we’re here for, sharing poetry, so why not share it all? But I wanted regular traffic and not just brief floods every six months, so I started adding a few new poems every Sunday night. Not too long after that, WordPress made it possible to integrate a blog into your website without much computer knowledge, so I started formatting the poems as blog posts, taking advantage of all the platform has to offer. I never know what I’m doing, but I’ve learned on the fly. I’m the only one responsible for production at Rattle. Three other editors—Alan Fox, Megan Green, and Asha Blake—read and choose poems, but I’m the only full-time employee and do everything else, including the website, for better or worse. I’m always tinkering with it, and there are always things I could be doing better.
Your website says “it shouldn’t take a scholar to be moved by the written word—great literature has something to offer everyone.” I believe this very approach is part of the reason Rattle has been such a successful magazine. Can you say more about this core value and how it runs as a thread through Rattle’s daily operations?
As I mentioned, Alan only came back to poetry later in life. He loved reading and writing poetry when he was younger, but drifted away as his career and family took center stage. When he finally returned to it later, he felt like poetry was a big club, and he wasn’t in it. He didn’t particularly want to be in it, and it didn’t particularly want him as a member—he just wanted to read poems that made him feel something, and couldn’t care less about literary cliques and trends. I think a lot of people feel that way. I know it resonated with me when I first came across Rattle myself—I couldn’t care less about literary culture or who won the latest awards. Actually, I still don’t even know who won the latest awards. And Alan knows even less than me. He’ll read a book or two by a poet before he interviews them, and usually those are the only books of poetry he’ll read that year. This is both a practicality and by design—he’s a tireless but extremely busy person, between his business, other charities, and the non-fiction books he’s written, but Alan and his wife Asha are both our ideal readers. Asha has been a journalist, news anchor, and media consultant. They’re both well-read people who enjoy art in general and poetry from time to time, but that’s it. “Poet” would be at the bottom of their list of identities, if they listed it at all. So they’re both the kind of readers that the literary world has tended to ignore, and that we want to reach. If a poem is too esoteric or academic for them to enjoy, then we know not to publish it. It’s like having our own in-house focus group. And that really is necessary, because Megan and I probably read more poems than anyone in the world outside of Don Share, so we need that balance. It’s easy to be lured by what’s unusual, and they keep us honest. Oh and Megan and I are married, too, by the way. We’re a two-family operation.
There are many facets to Rattle that I believe give it mass appeal. Your “in print” presence and on line presence penetrate the market very well. Do you find it difficult to balance both in print and on line production? Can you talk about key successes or hurdles in this area?
I don’t really think of them as separate, and from a production standpoint it’s all streamlined in the same system, which is just the mess of my computer’s desktop, conveniently located between our kitchen and bedroom. That it’s just me probably makes it easier, because I don’t have to make sense of the workflow for anyone. Once I make an issue as a PDF, I export it to an ebook, and then it’s already pretty much a website in a zip file. It takes a lot of copying and pasting and tweaking code and other boredoms. We only publish about 150 poems a year in print, and I want to have daily content, so I keep trying to find new online-only projects to fill in the gaps. But it’s just poems in folders all the way down—and the big net of the submission process to fill them up.
I enjoyed the facts section on your website. Receiving 35,000 submissions (120,000 poems) per year sounds overwhelming to say the least. It makes me think you must read 24/7. Can you tell me more about your selection process and how your response times are accomplished? How many hours do you spend reading submissions per month, individually and collectively?
Well, I work about 50 hours a week, and half of that is spent just reading. Megan works 10-15 hours a week and does nothing but read. We each pull out any poems that we like and then pitch them, basically, to Alan and Asha—they bite on about half. Those meetings are about three hours every other week, so we can add it all up: 156 hours a month, I guess. That breaks down to just over a minute per poem on average, which sounds about right. Fortunately, a lot of them are short!
How do you resolve editorial differences of opinion? Who has the final say on what goes into the magazine?
Alan has always had the final say. It’s his magazine. He actually has an ancient three-ring binder, and a copy of any poem he truly loves goes into that private binder. If he throws his head back laughing or his eyes fill up with tears, then it goes in the binder. In a way, my only job is to fill up that binder. Maybe that’s the only reason we take submissions or publish a magazine—it fills the binder. I’ve never seen him actually read from the binder, but it’s always been there above his desk, three inches thick and perpetually half-full. And maybe a dozen times a year, after reading a poem at one of our meetings, he’ll look up and say, “Make me a copy of this one.” Obviously, we publish those poems. For the rest, we just talk about them. If there’s disagreement and one of us says please, we usually publish it. If Megan and I didn’t think a poem was worth publishing, Alan and Asha would never see it. I think it’s a good system, actually.
Your acceptance rate of .2 % is the definition of the “creme del la crème” of who gets published in Rattle. On that note, what is a common reason for an immediate dismissal of a submission? Are there poems that you read and you know right away? What else can you add about your acceptance criteria?
We have a two-reader system between Megan and myself—one of us will read through everything and pull out what might have a chance, then the other will follow along and do the same, so everything ends up being read twice, by two different people. After a dozen years of this, we’re pretty much poetry reading machines. On that first read-through, all we’re doing is listening for music—poetry is the music of speech, and it’s about as difficult to hear as flipping through the dial on an old radio and finding music stations in the sea of static and talk. Music is music, and it couldn’t be more obvious. Going back to that workshop Rattle came from, Jack Grapes calls what he teaches “Method Writing.” He’s an actor by training, and models it on the philosophy of “Method Acting,” where you try to become the character you’re playing and then react spontaneously, rather than “act” the script. It’s a process of transformational embodiment; it’s a kind of letting go rather than a kind of making, the dissolution of self into something else—an authentic voice that might not necessarily be your own, but comes from someplace true. Every successful poet finds a way to do that, I think, though the strategies and styles can be completely different. Coming from a Buddhist perspective, I think of it as pratityasamutpada, an interdependently arising phenomenon. Being an actor, Jack Grapes calls it Method Writing. Alan Shapiro and Elizabeth Bishop call it the “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Whatever bit of magic it is, it can be there in an experimental list poem, or a powerful slam poem, or a royal crown of sonnets, or something simple but honest that a computer programmer writes on her lunch break. Either it’s there in a submission, like a little hum you feel, a rattle in your heart, or it’s not. So you pull out the poems that sing to you.
After that, the decisions become more difficult. Is the note something you’ve hit on before? Is it surprising in some way? Does it work against the mood of other poems you’ve been publishing recently? Is it accessible enough that a non-poet who stumbles onto it in a doctor’s office waiting room will be able to appreciate it? Is it creative enough that an MFA-grad will wish they wrote it? And then, most importantly, does it make you feel something? It’s not easy to make a stranger genuinely feel something with just a few words on a page. When it happens, you always know right away.
Rattle’s social media presence is very strong and probably one of the more prominent in the poetry social media sphere. I know you work hard to obtain and sustain social media presence. Recently, I read a post with graphs and charts about numbers, likes, trends and related information. Can you talk more about social media importance and how you’ve built that platform? How often do you analyze data?
Not as often as I used to, because I just feel so short on time these days, and it’s not something that I do intentionally. I have a science background—I always thought I’d end up a scientist and not a poetry editor. And I’ve always been a baseball fan, too, so of course I love stats and sabermetric s and read Moneyball before anyone ever thought to cast Brad Pitt as Billy Bean. Quantitative analysis is just something I’ve always found interesting, so I tend to dig into any numbers I can find. Poetry doesn’t often lend itself to hard data, but we had our own “VIDA count” years before VIDA, for example. I made a big Excel spreadsheet once breaking down submissions by state and zip code, comparing it to the Poets & Writers author database, so that I could figure out the regions where we were “underperforming.” That’s actually why we did tributes to Southern Poets and New Yorkers—those were two areas where our submission ratios were lower than expected, given the number of poets there.
Anyway, I just try to be open and honest and share as much as I can in social media. The first full-time editor of Rattle, up until 2005, was Stellasue Lee, and she did an amazing job of staying in touch with poets—both those we published and those we didn’t. She wrote personal letters in response to submissions more often than not, and removed all illusions of an ivory tower. It’s impossible to keep that up, given the volume of submissions we receive now and the number of subscribers we have, but I’ve always wanted to maintain that same spirit, and social media allows it to still feel personal, despite the growth. So I post whatever I can think to post.
I think it’s worth nothing that you accept and review feedback from social media interactions. (I don’t think that is common these days.) Can you give me an example of some changes that were made as a result of such feedback?
Well, we want Rattle to be a magazine that’s genuinely worth reading, so I want to know as much as I can about the reading experience, and please as many people as possible without sacrificing our values. Often I’ve asked for suggestions of themes, or who we should interview. For the feminist poets issue, I asked that, and everyone said Maggie Nelson, so I went and interviewed Maggie Nelson. You have to be careful not to forget that the social media demographics aren’t necessarily the same as our overall audience, but I take advantage of that when I can. I also float ideas in the same way. One thing I’m always reconsidering is our no solicitation policy. Except for the interviews, we rely entirely on unsolicited submissions, and I often wonder if maybe I should soften that a little, maybe have a slot or two in every issue for a featured poet that we seek out. We strongly believe in giving everyone a fair shake and not playing to cliques or reputation—but when we do end up publishing a poem by Billy Collins or Patricia Smith, other poets always get excited about appearing in the same issue, and it makes me think that maybe we should make it happen more often. But then I’ll mention that on social media, and the “NO!” is so resounding that it slaps me back to reality.
20,000 page views per day is extraordinary. How long did it take you to arrive at this number and is “the sky the limit”?
Rattle.com has been around for 20 years, and we were fortunate to get into the blogosphere on the ground floor, so to speak. We’ve had a daily RSS feed for a long time, and poems end up on a lot of aggregators and sidebars around the internet. More recently, we were one of the first journals to start publishing poems about current events, and that’s helped a lot, too. Everything’s been growing steadily—submissions, subscriptions, etc.—so I don’t see there being a limit yet. Knock on wood.
The Rattle Award has been going for how long? In the past few years, the cash prize was increased from a $5000 prize to a $10,000 prize. Can you tell us what went into the decision to increase the prize amount? Can you tell us about the submission for the award and how they differ from your general submissions? Do you find the quality notably different?
We doubled the award to $10,000 for its 10th anniversary, in 2016. We did it because could. The number of entries was always increasing, so the revenue it was generating was always increasing, and we got to sit around and decide how best to spend it. In the end, we decided to give it all to poets for their poems, so we doubled all of our monetary awards, and the regular payments for poems, too. $100 per poem is by no means a living wage, but it’s still important to be able to pay poets something significant for their work.
Can you say a few words about the Neil Postman Award, the Rattle Chapbook Award? Anything you’d like the audience to know that we would not know by reading the website?
The Neil Postman Award was what I should have said when you asked about listening to feedback. That was the suggestion of an anonymous reader, who is a big fan of Postman and his underappreciated role as champion of the poetic mind. That’s just fun to do—it’s fun to have a free contest, and have it be for the best metaphor, and see the creativity it encourages.
The chapbook prize is new. We were interviewing Jan Heller Levi, and she talked about winning the Walt Whitman Award, and how amazing it was to have an instant audience of 5,000 readers, as the winning book is sent to members of the Academy of American Poets. The way she described it, that really did sound amazing, and I started thinking about how we might be able to do something similar. Originally it was going to be a full-length book prize, but there are already so many of those. We’ve always loved chapbooks, though, and they never seem to get the respect they deserve—I think they’re seen as less than a “real” book, but the reality is often that they’re more intense, more digestible, and just as memorable. And as an easier to manage stepping-stone to a larger book, it also fits with our overall principals of encouraging more people to engage more in poetry. So we’re publishing these chapbooks now, and shipping them out to all 7,600 print subscribers. It’s exciting.
Your website emphasizes creating a community of poets. Can you describe the type of community Rattle seeks to create and sustain?
I went to the AWP conference last year, since it was in Los Angeles, for the first time since 2008, and it occurred to me that what we are is the opposite of the AWP. We’re a place for poetry outside of that environment. The AWP conference does a great job of promoting MFA programs, and networking, and career-building, and that’s great. This isn’t a knock on the AWP. But there are so many readers and writers of poetry who don’t want to mingle, who have no desire to be tenured professors of English, who can’t afford the plane ticket, or would feel too socially awkward to go to the conference anyway. Our favorite themed issues are always the tributes to various professions—this spring it’s civil servants. We have poets who work at the DMV, who worked for the CIA, who write poems up in towers on fire watch for the U.S. Forest Service—their poetry is just as vital and interesting and memorable as the next Poet Laureate’s, as far as we’re concerned. They deserve a place where they don’t have to play those games, where their thoughts and feelings and words are considered on their own merits, without any hierarchies or impediments. So that’s the kind of community we want to build. Professors and scholars and Pulitzer Prize winners are welcome to be a part of it, too, but we care most about the part-time, sometimes poets, who have other jobs and still find time to write and appreciate poetry because it’s good for the soul. That’s what we need more of these days.
The theme issues in Rattle remain one of the hallmarks of the printed journal. How do you come up with the ideas for the themes? How you ever found that certain themes fell short of your submission expectations? Which theme was the most popular as far as number of submissions and then number sold?
Well, we’ve already touched on two ways—sometimes I ask for suggestions, and I keep a list. Other times I notice a dearth of submissions from some sphere of poetry and try to address it through the theme. Other times I just read something that sounds interesting and makes me curious. A few years ago I read a poem by Peter Munro in Poetry magazine that I thought was great. His note at the back said that he was a fisheries scientist and hadn’t written any books. I couldn’t help but wonder about Peter Munro, what kind of writer he was, having poems in the best poetry magazine in the world, but working all day out on a boat off the coast of Alaska, rather than participating in the literary world. I wondered, too, what other kinds of scientists might secretly be writing poetry. Could we bring some of them out of the woodwork? So then we did a tribute to scientists issue.
The most popular theme, by far, though was the tribute to Japanese forms. We had about 5,000 submissions just for that theme, and it’s the only recent issue that’s on the verge of selling out its print run. We did that for the same reason we did a tribute to slam poetry back in 2007—it was another huge area of poetry that was mostly being ignored by the academic circles. Not only ignored, but looked down upon, really. Yet slam was drawing these huge crowds, and likewise so many people love haiku. I wanted to explore those genres, and treat them with respect, and also take advantage of the market inefficiencies, to bring it back to Moneyball. The audience is right there and mostly ignored—of course those issues are going to sell. Of course it helps that haiku and slam are naturally compelling, too.
“Poets Respond” is an exciting new addition to your website and strives to make current events and news “part of the poetry conversation”. I love this idea and think it truly does seek to making poetry part of our daily lives. I notice there is heavy traffic on “Poets Respond” Posts on Facebook. How much has “Poets Respond” added to website traffic? Are you pleased with its overall call and response? Anything you might change?
Those poems do tend to be the most read and shared every week, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. If poetry is going to be a meaningful part of our lives, the poems have to have meaning for our lives. We’re so instantaneously connected to all that goes on in the world these days that poetry becomes a perfect vehicle for making sense of it. And I love that other venues are publishing poems about current events now, too, places like Buzzfeed, where you wouldn’t expect to find poetry. Socially relevant, topical poetry is becoming part of the zeitgeist, and it’s great to see. When we started Poets Respond three years ago, it was just one poem every Sunday, but more and more poems have been sneaking in mid-week. I would like to keep doing more of that, but, regardless, the project is here to stay.
It’s clear that Rattle is “your baby” and you nurture it well. What hopes and dreams do you have for Rattle? Is there anything you’d like to add about Rattle that was not covered in the questions of this interview?
We just want to encourage and support more and more poets every year. In the age of information and the swamp of Facebook, with smartphones always in our hands and multiple news crawls scrolling past on CNN, poetry becomes an increasingly valuable respite from the constant, shallow stimulation—not just for the thousands of people who fall in love with poetry every year and dream of participating in that great literary discourse, but for everyone. Writing poems should be as popular as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku. That thoughtful, quiet, reflective, meditative, empathetic place we go to when we read or write a poem is the cure to so many of society’s ailments right now. Interacting with more people who are trying to articulate their experience of the world in that way is really the only goal. How to reach those who haven’t already discovered the deep satisfaction of poetry is always the hard part, but we’ll keep at it.
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 - 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review and The Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poetry awards include the Caesura Poetry Award and Second Prize in the Jack Kerouac Poetry Contest. Her Chapbook And When the Sun Drops (Finishing Line Press) won the 2012 Aurorean Editor’s Choice Award. Her first full length book Floodwater was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the 2014 Lyrebird award. She is the winner of 2016 Crab Creek Poetry Award.