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Three poems in Sixfold and What That Is

David Ruekberg 0

Yippee, three of my “little coffin” poems are up at Sixfold, an online journal that has a unique publication model. Founded by former Crazyhorse editor Garrett Doherty, Sixfold doesn’t select work for publication the way any other publisher that I know of does.

Those of you who are writers know how arduous it is to get published these days. The field is crowded. Thanks to the Internet there are more places publishing fiction and poetry than ever, but it seems that there are also more writers seeking to get published, probably due to the ease of submitting, and to the so-called “proliferation” of MFA programs.[1]

I’ve written a bit about my process for sending out poems in “Five Poems Up at Bloom,” so I won’t repeat all that here. But one mysterious part of the other end of the process is how work gets chosen for publication. Somewhere behind the emerald curtain of the coveted journal is a staff of readers who select from the slush pile what will see the light of day and what dies in the recycling bin. One hopes that the readers’ standards are high, that their choices are objective, and that only the best work gets published.

But what constitutes “best” and how realistic is it for every human being to be completely “objective”? I’m pretty sure even the most scrupulous editors are susceptible to taste, and to some extent that’s okay. That’s why we writers are expected to become familiar with the publications we’re submitting to, in order to gauge their “aesthetic.” But you know the old saw, de gustibus non est disputandum (“there’s no accounting for taste”).

Many of us writers know that the front line of readers who encounter our work are often undergraduates. Not that young folks aren’t capable of refined judgments of good writing. In fact, I’m often in awe/jealous of many contemporary college students for how well-read and perspicacious they are. Then again, I remember myself in college, and how far I’ve traveled since then in terms of my perspective on what makes good writing, both in terms of craft and content. And the milieu in which they read is different as well. They’re not looking for the next William Stafford or Sylvia Plath. They’re post-Postmodern, focused on identity, more skeptical of the canon than ever.

Doherty has attempted with Sixfold to create an ultimately democratic selection process. He has sidestepped the problem of a staff of volunteer or minimally compensated readers and their slightly better compensated editors who know better than their readers. Work is chosen for Sixfold by its readers; more precisely, work is chosen by the writers submitting fiction and poetry.

Here’s how it works. You go to the website, upload six of your best poems or one short story, and pay a five dollar entry fee. The fee goes towards prizes for the “best” short story and poem, and presumably towards publication costs and compensation for the editor.[2] Then you are randomly grouped with five other writers, and you rate their work by rank by a given deadline. Six poems, six writers: hence the name “Sixfold.” But your manuscript is read by many more than six people. Doherty’s explains it all:

In round 1, 6 writer-voters compare your manuscript (and everyone else’s) to 5 other manuscripts, rank-voting them as Best, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th. (Each manuscript is compared to 30 others by 6 different readers.) Each manuscript’s voting score average is averaged and compared to all others, and then the highest-voted one-third of manuscripts advances to the next round. Round 2 manuscripts go on to receive 18 readers and 90 comparisons, and the highest-voted one-third advances to round 3. Round 3 manuscripts receive 54 readers and 270 comparisons. Each manuscript completing round 3 is read and rank-voted by 78 different writer-voters, with a grand total of 390 comparisons to other manuscripts. (https://www.sixfold.org/howitworks.html)

It sounds flawless, but I’ll offer three caveats to excited potential submitters.

First, your readers are other writers, some of whom may be desperate to become published and burst from anonymity into full-fledged acclaim as the next Hemingway or Robert Frost. But desire is not a prerequisite to talent. It’s probable that the readers ranking your work are even more susceptible to taste than journal readers who have been vetted by editors with a proven track record. It’s possible that their idea of a good poem is a step above a Hallmark greeting card. It’s possible that they don’t even read your poems, or don’t read them carefully, although they’re expected to leave comments justifying their ranking. (I doubt that all of these comments are assessed by an editor for integrity, but maybe they are.)

Second, you are at the mercy of your readers understanding the process. In my case, I don’t think they all did. When I read some of the comments on my work, it appeared that some of the readers got the ranking system backwards. A “1” is supposed to be the highest, and “6” the lowest. But when I compared positive or negative comments to the scores, it was clear that a few readers got them backwards, which affected my total score.

Fortunately, I was saved by another anomaly: if fewer than four people vote on your manuscript, you automatically advance to the next round, rather than being punished by lazy readers. In my case, in the first round only one person voted on my work, and she gave me a 4. (Really, 29 people did not bother to rate me?) After the final round I ended up placing 15th, the cut-off for publication.  In fact, in the final round my average was the best among the other contenders for the $1,000 prize: 2.65 out of 6. But because my scores in the first two rounds were 4 or above, I placed last.

Let me not crow about my excellence too soon: several of the readers were confused about the scoring system, scoring me high when they meant to score low, and vice versa. More about that in a bit.

Finally, speaking of lazy readers, don’t submit here if you’re one of those. It’s a good deal of work. I tend to be a little obsessive with feedback and left extensive comments, generally about 300-500 words per submission. I guess it’s the English teacher in me. Several readers gave me similar comments, but most offered about 150 words or fewer, sometimes just a couple of sentences, occasionally nothing.

Another benefit of this approach is that you can get some helpful feedback from these comments. Even if it stings, I appreciate thoughtful and sincere feedback. It helps make me a better writer. For example, one reader wrote, “A part of me wants to suggest there is too much here, tighten it up, but then again, I do like what is there, even though they run a little long.” That’s always a valid criticism when assessing poetry, and others have made the same comments on my “little coffins” in workshop. A legitimate concern is whether or not I’m padding lines to make them adhere to the constraints of the form. Reviewers have worried that, as difficult as it is to compose in this form, it would be harder for me make revisions, but I assured them that, as I had worked hard to get my ideas into the right number of characters once, I could do it again. This is the same problem one faces when writing a conventional sonnet or syllabic verse, so it’s not that unique.

Sometimes the feedback is not so helpful. For instance, “You touch on some poignant themes and truths here, and you use strong imagery. I feel you’re not quite letting go, perhaps a bit self-conscious. Could you explore your inner world deeper, without thinking about the reader too much?” The last point is worth considering, although it is important to think about the reader. That’s where craft comes in. But what does the reader mean by “letting go”? I’ve worked hard to move away from my poetry being a form of vomiting my personal issues onto paper, trying to craft my concerns into a form that is both specific and has a universal application.

Another commented, “I really tried to be open-minded about your experiment, but these poems are impossible to read. My eyes kept crossing, trying to follow a line without slipping into the one just above or below. It’s like a cruel optometry test!” It makes me wonder how this reader handles reading fiction or the news.

As I mentioned earlier, then there’s the issue of understanding how the ranking works, which really just requires reading the directions. One reader wrote a very long positive comment, beginning, “Wow. This is amazing, first of all, your format and your overall concept of little coffins, which fascinates me…” and ending “Incredible thought process you have going on there! I wish you the very best of luck in the contest. You deserve recognition.” And then she gave me a 6, the bottom of the heap.

Another meant to rank me lowest because he said I hadn’t adhered to the page limit of six pages of poems. In fact, the guidelines state a maximum of five poems of up to ten pages.[3] Although I thought Doherty’s instructions were clear enough, perhaps some people just aren’t good at reading them. Does the same problem exist with submission readers for other publications? One hopes not. But maybe. I’ve heard several writers (and even editors) say they’ve submitted the same pieces to the same publications in different years, and a piece that was rejected during one submission cycle was accepted during another, simply because it was read by a different reader it in the first round of cuts.

Well, there you have it. If you’re a writer seeking to be published, and you’re willing to suffer possible misinterpretation and misunderstanding of guidelines by amateur readers, it might be worth your time to check out this venue for your work. If you do make the cut, Doherty publishes your work in several formats: on the Sixfold website, in print, and in various electronic formats (PDF, e-pub, Kindle). You might even have a shot at the $1,000 prize. In fact, I had read and rated the work of the winner in my round, Winter 2022. I had ranked it rather low, and my top vote had been on the poems of the thirteenth place writer. As Rosanne Rosanadana used to say, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” Which is just another way of saying de gustibus non est disputandum.

[1] The term “proliferation” is a popular descriptor for the increasing number of MFA programs in the US, but I appreciate Sonja Livingston’s defense in the Guardian article: “’I love the idea that so many people want to make art,” she said. “I don’t worry about too many artists in the world.’”

[2] I have no qualms paying five dollars to support this venture, especially considering all the work Doherty does to organize this process, get the finished product into a handsome printed and electronic form, and fund the website. Not to mention the bi-annual prizes in two categories. There’s no advertising on the website or in the journal.

[3] Fortunately, it worked out, because the reader also mistook the ranking system and gave me a 1 instead of a 6. She later realized her error and made the effort to apologize by contacting me through my website. The damage was done, but in my favor. In this instance.

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