Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Incredible Growing Poem: Tim Green on the Rattle Poetry Prize

Earlier this month, just after I’d chided the editors of Rattle a bit for choosing so many long, narrative poems as finalists for their $5,000 Poetry Prize, I got an e-mail from Rattle’s editor, Tim Green. Tim had read my blog (reminder to bloggers out there—people do read these things), and he wanted to set the record straight.

My complaint had been that, while most of the 15 finalists were good poems, they seemed to show a Rattle bias toward long, stream-of-consciousness poems with complete sentences and proselike structure. Where, I asked, were the tight little sonnets, the scattershot experimental works, and the short, pared-down poems?

Tim, gracious as always, told me exactly where those short poems and concise sonnets were: They were somewhere out there in the world, but not in Rattle’s mailbox. A strange phenomenon’s been happening, he said, ever since Rattle made their prize a hefty $5,000: Fewer and fewer poets have been sending him short poems, even though he’s a big fan of brevity. He also likes unobtrusive formal verse and rhyme—and he hardly ever gets poems like that, either. There’s a misconception out there, he said, that only a long poem has a chance at winning that $5,000 prize. And then the phenomenon feeds on itself: Because Rattle receives so many long, narrative poems these days, the editors tend to pick long ones as finalists for the prize—because that’s what they’ve got to pick from. And then readers see the finalists, notice that they’re long and narrative, and then those readers send their long, narrative poems. The result, Tim said, has been a gigantic snowball effect: “I can probably count on my fingers and toes the number of poems—out of 6,000—that featured regular meter and rhyme. Short lyrics were the same.… People assume that I don’t like anything that isn’t narrative free verse. Not true at all!” Next year, he said, he’d like to see more variety in the competition, and he wants to get the word out. So, dear poets, there’s your cue: If you like to play the prize ponies, send him your best—and don’t worry if your poems don’t look like the winners of the past.

This exchange reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with the editor of another journal that sponsored a poetry prize. One year, this editor told me, it came down to two poems: one long-ish elegy and a short, cynical little poem. He was pulling for the short poem, but the rest of the editorial board voted him down and went with the longer one, deeming it—and I quote him here—“more contestlike.” That phrase has stuck in my head ever since, and for years I thought of it every time I entered a contest. But honestly, sending long poems to constests was no better a system than betting on football teams based on the color of their uniforms; it worked once in a while, but most of the time, not so much.

Still, it’s not unusual to see a long poem win a prize—as far as I can see, it happens a lot. And if you can work in death, childrearing and/or Alzheimer’s, your chances are even better. I’m being a little facetious, but sometimes it just feels that way. Still, Tim’s e-mail reminded me of something I often lose track of in this dog-eat-poem world: We poets should ignore the trends and stick to writing what we think is good, and we should send out what we think is best. Trying to match the perceived trends of the day is usually a losing proposition, and our poetry suffers for it. Your work is your own hothouse flower, growing exotic and unique in your own particular corner of the world. Nobody can write what you write, and that uniqueness is what makes it yours, what makes it valuable. That’s what the world needs, not just another echo of Mary Oliver or Billy Collins or Matthew Dickman, much as we love them and are influenced by them. Here’s to breaking the mold, again and again.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. I just read your poem Sunnyvale and must say it gave me a jolt with respects to my own writing. In that I have found myself writing to those perceived trends, maybe not for competitions though I have looked at previous winners of competitions and as you say it is the longer poems that appear to win the prize...usually written in similar styles year after year. Anyway, that said, today I will take a good look at myself as a writer and try to be something more than an echo.