Rocking the Poetry Vote

I got an email last week from Rattle, reminding me to submit to their 2011 poetry prize.

It was different, though, than the usual contest reminders I receive. The contest is different than the usual contests I see:

…here’s the news: We’ve increased the number of paid finalists from ten to fifteen poets — each receiving $100 and publication in our winter issue. As the competition expands, more people deserve to be paid; that just makes sense.

Not only that, but for the first time this year YOU get to vote for the $5,000 winner. After selecting 15 finalists in our usual blind review, we’ll publish those poems in our winter issue, and include a ballot in the back. The winner will then be chosen by popular vote among all entrants and eligible subscribers.

Logging all those votes is going to be a massive undertaking. Are we nuts? Have we been watching too much American Idol? No…we just have faith in the ability of our readers to make the best choice possible. At Rattle we’ve always felt that everyone should have an equal say in what poetry is and what it should do, and the idea of one or three authoritarian editors judging which poem out of 8,000 deserves a huge prize doesn’t quite feel right.

So my question is: are they, in fact, nuts?

Part of me thinks, no, and here’s why:

1. I’ve been part of several literary journal contest selection processes before, and it can be a pain. Shifting the power to a vote seems like a great idea.

2. Only eligible subscribers and entrants are allowed to vote, so the decision is being handled by folks who know the journal (supposedly). It’s like briefly expanding your editorial staff.

3. Not only are the 15 finalists being selected internally, they are also being published before voting begins. From the email:

Having run this contest for five years, I’m absolutely sure that all 15 finalists will be deserving of the big prize. They always are. So I have no doubt that the winner will be the most outstanding poem that moves the greatest number of readers — and that’s what we’re always looking for in a poem, anyway.

I think that’s a great sentiment.

4. Again, theĀ  contest selection process is a pain.

But part of me also thinks, yes, they are nuts. Like they mentioned above, logging the votes in will be quite the process. And I wonder what the response will be like, both from entrants and voters. $5000 is a big prize, so I can’t imagine they’ll be short on submissions by any means. And judging by Rattle’s quality work, I can’t imagine they’ll be short on good submissions, either. But I wonder, are readers going to vote? Does the contest’s success even hinge on that fact?

If you’re interested, the 2011 Rattle Poetry Prize details are here. The deadline is August 1st.



  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I think this is a cool idea.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I got this email, too! and had very similar thoughts.

  • Amaris Amaris says:

    wow. i think its awesome that they are going to publish the top 15 no matter what. though, i would be worried about people buying votes through last minute subscriptions…

    • Marcus says:

      A subscription is $18. Figure that the cost of an envelope and stamp for each ballot comes to 50 cents. That’s $18.50 per vote, if you want to buy votes. So you could buy 270 votes and still break even.

      Their About page says they have 2,800 paid subscribers, so you could feasibly buy roughly 9% of the vote without taking a loss. That doesn’t seem like a huge margin, considering there are only 15 finalists, though it might be just enough to sway a total.

      But that’s assuming you’re willing to put up the prize money up front, before winning, in the hopes of recouping it. And also assuming you’re okay with not getting any money out of the deal since you spent it already; you’d have to do it just for the prestige. And also assuming you don’t value the time it would take to fill out all their ballots.

      So, I doubt it’ll be a problem. But that’s also assuming that all their subscribers return the ballots; I suspect their return will be half or less, which means suddenly you could buy close to 20% of the votes, if you really wanted to.

      Not trying to argue with you, Amaris, just like examining numbers.

      • Amaris Amaris says:

        I just figured that the magazine would come out ahead either way. I mean, if someone did encourage peers to buys votes, then, wow, Rattle could double/triple/whatever their income off the contest.

        I wasn’t really that worried about it, but thanks for doing all the mathematics.

    • Geneva says:

      I wondered that too, but only subscribers who have a subscription before the finalists are chosen get to vote, plus those who entered the contest.

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