Democratizing poetry

Journal publication is dictated by a huge element of chance: who happened to read your submission, and what frame of mind were they in at the time. I don’t know how many people are involved in the decision to accept or reject a submission, but probably not too many. I’ve always suspected that name recognition plays a role—and why not? If you’re tasked with churning through a teetering slush pile, you’re bound to look for shortcuts (though as for that, I suspect that many of the poems that appear in journals were not submitted but solicited). That’s why I’ve always preferred venues with blind reading processes.

I was recently intrigued to find a new (to me, at least) journal that opens up the selection process. It’s called SixFold, and it essentially democratizes the whole thing. Participants pay a minimal fee to enter, and then read a selection of poems by other participants. The readers rank the submissions, and top ranked submissions advance to the next stage. This happens two more times, with the dwindling number of submissions being read by a growing number of reviewers. The top three receive awards, and the other finalists receive publication. I suppose this is the poetic equivalent of March Madness (OK, I don’t actually know what March Madness is—but I’m probably not far wrong).

I can see advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For example, many journals reflect the tastes of a single chief editor (or a small editorial staff), and attract an audience based on that editor’s style and reputation. There are many journals that I simply don’t submit to, because I know they would have no interest in my type of poetry. With SixFold, there really can be no overriding vision or stylistic emphasis, because the poems are selected by the collective pool of readers—and that pool is liable to change with each issue (though it may ultimately prove to be a self-selecting set). In theory, this will generate a journal that does not target a specific readership and demographic, but will appeal to the widest range of readers. It also means that a submission is less subject to the whims of a single reader—and if it’s any good, it has better odds of being recognized.

On the other hand, I’m well aware that the collective will of the people gave us our current president. So the system is not entirely foolproof.

But SixFold has another wonderful benefit: all of those readers have a chance to comment on the work. And my recent experience shows that many people take that very seriously. Usually, editorial comments on a submission amount to “we enjoyed your work, please try us again.” With SixFold, I had access to dozens of comments—often quite extensive—about my work. I found it extremely interesting to see what sort of reactions my work would engender, and a bit amusing to see the vastly different readings a poem might permit.

For example, a poem that was “tight, meaningful and very strong” to one reader was “a sentimental exercise fit for a Hallmark card” to another. About another poem, one reader wrote, “I wept when I read your poem,” while another remarked, “I know this is about something deeply personal and important to you, but it doesn’t engage the outside reader.” Another poem prompted some readers to comment, “The last line… stops you in your tracks” and “I love the ending of this one”; and yet another reader commented, “You might not need the last two lines.”

I think my favorite comment was this: “[the poem] shows you can work with rhyme without embarrassing yourself.” Well, I do set a very high bar.

The range of responses serves to illustrate my initial point: if any one of those readers had been exclusively responsible for accepting or rejecting the submission, there’s really no telling how the decision might’ve gone. With the democratized process, the general consensus tends to cancel out any fringe opinions.

SixFold was founded by Garrett Doherty, who, as editor of Crazyhorse, declined several of my poems in the past. The fact the he is now, essentially, publishing my work is itself a vindication of the process, and underscores the possibilities of a diffuse selection process. It’s not perfect —I like the idea of making a personal connection with an editor—but I suspect I submit to SixFold again in the future.