Rachel Nix: Tim, you read nearly 100,000 poems a year for Rattle. I know this through your generously kind decline email that I may or may not have received many times. You obviously have to love poetry to invest that much attention to reading and promoting other writers. When did poetry begin to matter to you?
Timothy Green: I like poetry, but I don’t have any special love for it. It’s a cool thing that’s underappreciated in our culture, and it’s nice to be working toward fixing that. But my story is more like someone who enjoyed jogging for the endorphins being pulled aside one day and offered a job as a personal trainer—that sounds like a fun job, and so many people spend so much time sitting on their asses these days, not even realizing how much happier they’d be if they broke a sweat once in a while, so why not help them out while making a living? Poetry is like jogging for your brain, or maybe your limbic system. I like poetry about as much as I like playing pickup basketball on Wednesday nights. It’d be a shame to live without it, and I’d be a lot less healthy—but then, at the same time, it’s just pickup basketball. It only matters for its own sake, and that’s one of the beauties of it.
I think that really helps, as an editor—I’m not personally invested, so I can see things for what they are, and not for what I wish they were, or what I wish my place was within it. It’s the same for Alan Fox, who founded Rattle: He wasn’t trying to get into the Iowa Workshop and making a name for himself as a writer when he was young; he was becoming an accountant, and then a lawyer, and then a businessman. Poetry was something he enjoyed, and he wished it was easier to find the kinds of poems he liked to read, so he made a magazine. Rattle is the magazine for people like us, the layman seat at poetry’s table.
Sorry, I got side-tracked. Poetry started to matter to me the first time I wrote a poem and was surprised by it. Or maybe the first time I started working on a poem and didn’t realize four hours went by. Poetry’s a great place for meditative insight, and as an extremely rational, pragmatic person that was exciting the first time I experienced it. I was 18, caught completely by surprise, and I’ve been writing since.
RN: Given how busy you stay with reading submissions, it must be hard to find time to work on your own pieces. Do you have a schedule to allow yourself time for that or do you just break loose and work it in as inspiration comes?
TG: I didn’t have trouble balancing my own writing with my work as editor, but then I had kids, and I haven’t been good about it since. To keep the metaphor going, it used to be a hell of a lot easier to find time to jog, but I have different priorities now. I care more about reading to my daughter than writing poems—and, frankly, I care more about bringing other voices into the world than I do about my own voice. My own voice is boring; I have to listen to it all day. When I happen to have time I’ll fiddle around with words on a page, and I’ll love it, entering that space of pratityasamutpada where nothing exists except the oneness of yourself and the language … but I don’t write much and don’t publish much these days. It’s low on the totem pole.
RN: To take that previous question further – do you ever find yourself inspired by reading what others have submitted?
TG: Not really. Either the poems are completely uninspiring, or they’re so full of lyricism and wit and imagination and insight that I can’t even fathom how they were produced. Neither of those is particularly helpful when it comes to your own creativity. It swings between crippling jealousy and numbing boredom, without much in between. The best inspiration, I think, are the successful books of poetry by well-known poets, where a few of the poems are great, but most just aren’t bad, and then I think, “I could do that!” If I have some time and don’t know what to write about, I’ll read a random book that won some award, and it makes me feel like I could win one, too.
RN: You’ve been doing the legwork over at Rattle since 2006; what have you learned (as a writer) from being the editor of such an established publication? Has it altered the way you submit your own work? And where can we find your latest work?
TG: (Actually since 2004.)
Haha, you can find my latest work on the hard drive of my computer. I’ve made three submissions in the last five years: a few poems to Poetry and Prairie Schooner, and a short story to Tin House. All were unceremoniously rejected—no one is immune. Like I said, it’s a low priority at this point in my life. What I’ve learned, though, over the years, is that the real key to success is just to make it a high priority. If you keep at the submissions game, you’ll get published, and if you give up, you won’t. The most important characteristic of a successful writer is persistence. There are some wonderful writers who only lack persistence, and that’s probably the biggest shame in the business.
RN: I’d like to mention Poets Respond – it’s a fairly new feature of Rattle, but it’s grown into its intent rather quickly. What made you want to give poets an outlet to respond to current events?
TG: That’s something that always bothered me with publishing poetry—the delay. I remember in particular a great poem by Sonia Greenfield about the Sago Mine disaster in 2006. It was clearly written in that time when the mine was on CNN 24 hours a day, but it wasn’t published until five years later—four while she shopped it around, and then a year before we had room to publish it in an issue. How much more important would it have felt, if we’d been able to publish it in the midst of the crisis? How much more relevant might poetry become for mainstream society, if we could match the pace of the Digital Age?
That thought was in the back of my mind for a long time, and then came Elliott Rodger’s killing spree at UC-Santa Barbara, and Seth Abramson’s distasteful metapoetic response to it. I thought poetry should be doing better than that, so the timing felt right, and I put out a call. We got a great poem by Tria Wood and have been rolling with them since, over a year now, making poetry part of the current discourse. In the 21st century, the discourse lasts about two days—a lot of times it can’t even wait for us on Sundays.
RN: Now it’s time to get serious-ish, Tim. It’s hard to make a buck as a poet; we all know that. Rattle, however, doesn’t shy away from dropping some serious change on writers. Between paying folks for their work, the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor, and the Rattle Poetry Prize, there’s a lot of incentive to submit to your magazine. What’s your mission? Is this some sort of trick to defy the government and make sure poets, the poorest of artists, get a fair shake?
TG: Speaking of the government, we have to tell them our mission, since we’re a non-profit, and for that we settled on “to promote the practice of poetry.” This one time Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That was 2,500 years ago, the guy’s still super-famous, and everyone’s heard that quote—you’d think we’d have paid attention to it by now. Whether you’re writing unforgettable poems that will echo into eternity, or dabbling with words in your diary and praying no one will ever find it, poetry is the examined life; it’s what keeps the whole shebang worth banging.
If you really want to get serious: I think poetry is epigenetically ingrained in our collective enlightenment. We’ve had a kind of rhythmic storytelling and heightened speech ten times as long as we’ve had a written representation of it. Poetry is the most intimate connection two souls can forge—your breath becoming my breath as I read your poem, my consciousness become a brief photocopy of your consciousness. Poems are a little empathy machines, and being a part of the process of truly knowing each other makes the world a better sack to schlep around for our century before we kick it. We want to encourage people to keep at enlightenment, despite all the shinies.
RN: What journals are you a fan of? Do you have any favorite writers you want us to go stalk? We’re super into stealing others’ finds and acting as if we’ve always been a fan. Give us some names to love on, yeah?
TG: Reading 100,000 poems a year for work, I don’t get to read much for pleasure. And when I do, I don’t read poetry. Usually it’s me asking, because I’m horribly out of the loop—what are your favorite journals? As for writers, there’s no one I respect more than Patricia Smith, who is constantly evolving as a writer, but everyone knows her. Erik Campbell, Courtney Kampa, Lynne Knight, and Francesca Bell are three that I always think of, who everyone should know. Chris Anderson and Peter Munro. There are so many I could list, though.
RN: What’s your favorite book? We all have that book we kill spiders with, and then the one that’s set aside for our forever adoration. What book do you definitely never want to kill a spider with?
TG: My all-time favorite book of poetry is probably Alan Shapiro’s Song and Dance. I can’t read it without crying, and I’ve read it many times. But, as a professional poetry editor, the book I’d save from spiders more than any other is Erik Campbell’s Arguments for Stillness. If I’m ever feeling down about how little poetry matters in the grand scheme of global finance and idle distraction, I re-read that book, and it makes me feel better. After reading that book, I don’t care when five people show up to the poetry reading, because all five of us are there. “Nobody dies because of this.” Stillness is a touchstone.
RN: Since this is our Grit by the Glass issue, how about you share with us your favorite gritty poem? It can be yours or anyone else’s – but tell us why it grabbed you or if it’s yours, why you wrote it.
TG: I’ll be honest—I looked up the definition of “grittiness” before answering this. I’m a big fan of baseball and participate in some sabermetric communities where “grit” is a pejorative for false hustle and erroneous perceived value, and it’s hard to divorce that connation from the word. But when it comes to poetry, it’s all subjective, so grit can be a good thing again. I think the grittiest poet around is probably Mather Schneider, who has the dirt, the toughness, and the ambition, and if you’re friends with him on Facebook can be very grating. He drives a taxi in Tucson and tells real stories about modern life in a way that not many others manage. We publish him regularly; here’s one.
RN: Got a question for us? About the publication, the staff, what we think about the person who invented the spork?
TG: Why didn’t the spork catch on? That’s what I want to know … it’s the Esperanza of utensils. If only. Why do we suddenly need sunscreen, now that we spend so little time in the sun? Will the Mets ever score a run? If a poem is lost in the woods, will it ever be found? I won’t ask who came up with the word cahoodaloodaling, I promise I won’t.
RN: I personally love sporks, can never remember sunscreen, and am not entirely sure what kind of balls the Mets play with. A lost poem would die in the woods if I were the one to go looking for it; I can’t even navigate Wal-Mart. And yeah, that title. Ya know what happens when you get two writers a wee bit more than tipsy? They make up words. Raquel Thorne, our managing editor, and Kate Hammerich, who co-founded cahoodaloodaling, are responsible for the name. Or irresponsible? Either way, I can barely pronounce it unless I’m sober, oddly enough.
Timothy Green has worked as editor of Rattle since 2004. He holds a master’s in professional writing from USC and is author of book of poems, American Fractal (Red Hen Press). Green is director of the annual Wrightwood Literary Festival.