Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.

Jun 15

I've Had Enough of "You" (second person singular) in Poetry

The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)

"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"

appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.

A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."

The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.

The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.

Jun 09

Two "Things" That Will Improve Your Poems and Prose

Here's an easy way to improve your poetry and prose. I've noticed that many drafts, mine and others', include "placeholder" words. We use these words so often on a normal day that we might not realize they are like empty railroad boxcars. They exist to be filled (later) with specifics and meanings. The most common of these are:
  • Something
  • Nothing
  • Anything
  • Everything
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere
  • Someone
  • Someplace
  • Somehow

If you're not careful you can end up with a line such as "Something happened and things changed," and it will sound so much like everyday speech you won't even notice it until "someone" in your workshop points it out! Especially, red-flag the word "thing" wherever you see it!

There are two "things" to do with these words (or rather, here are two suggestions for improving upon such wording when you find it):

1. Be precise; replace the vagary with the truth of the matter. Is it true that "There was nothing there"? Or was it more like, "The room had no furniture"? Was it "Somehow she got the money someplace," or "She tapped her relatives for money and borrowed from her friends"?

2.  See if you can excise the word. Example: "I will see her again sometime."

Jun 07

What's "A Rhetorical Poem"?

Rhetorical poetry in the U.S. becomes common during periods of social unrest and comes from poets standing (for the duration of the poem) for some sort of movement or viewpoint. I am a rhetorical poet. Usually in school we say "Oh it's political poetry, we don't like that." We are taught to say that there are three kinds of poetry: Lyric, narrative and epic. They forgot "rhetorical." Because we don't name rhetorical poetry, we can't see it, although when you read or teach Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," or Robert Pinsky's "The Shirt," a rhetorical poem is what you've got. It's there but unnamed. It's like eating grilled cheese and a pickle for lunch and not realizing it was a vegetarian meal. 

Rhetorical poetry is not simply writing a poem about the cause of the month. Carolyn Forche said, "To become a political poet, change your obsessions." You have to have something to say, feel it deeply, and take a stand on an issue. It helps if you're a good writer. It helps if you're part of a "we." "We" makes a poem political.

Here are some of my favorite knockout books of rhetorical poetry:

The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche (about the U.S. in El Salvador; a highly honored book for good reason)
Power Politics, Margaret Atwood (sexual politics)
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner (by U.S. soldier back from Iraq; Publisher's Weekly review begins, "The verse in this book is not good, but....timely"; sorry, PW: It's good.)
"A Woman is Talking to Death," by Judy Grahn (a single, powerful long poem, one of the great underground poems; collected in the book The Work of a Common Woman)
Crime Against Nature, Minnie Bruce Pratt (about how the poet lost custody of her sons because she's a lesbian; a book that richly deserved the award it won)
Dangerous Life, Lucia Perillo (about the threat of violence in women's lives)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen (soldier killed in World War I)

And many, many more. Yes, such poems have lyric and narrative elements. But they're also rhetorical poems. Don't leave home without them!

Jun 04

A Rare Look Inside the Writer's Cabin

Began this blog five years ago this month. It's time to expose my workspace. That's a "kneeling chair" to keep mmyworkspace2012sizedsmally back straight. However, it does place compression on the spine. So I've got this other laptop I roam around with: porch, couch, bed, motel room, coffeehouse...

How'd I get to be a tenant in a log cabin in the woods? By luck, and picturing what I wanted, and enjoying the noises of mice in the attic and raccoons snarling and fighting outside all night. I save a lot of money by not having to go to B&Bs, apply to writers' colonies, on camping trips to get back to nature, and other getaways.
May 30

University of Missouri Press on the Chopping Block

I'm sitting here with my first edition of Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (Doubleday, 1970), given to me by a boyfriend in 1975 as a joke. This was Millett's doctoral dissertation, the first to say something like, ""sex has a frequently neglected political aspect." It blew my mind. It blew the whole world apart. It's a doctoral dissertation.

It wasn't published by a university press, but it's the kind of thing that might have been if it hadn't had that incendiary title. We are now given to understand that university presses are a luxury. Even before "academic" was a rude word, very few people bought and read university press books: They are about ideas, history, culture, science, and so on, from highly specialized or unique points of view. It is easily if wrongly said that university press books are published primarily for their authors and their small academic circles. Yes, it's for their CVs, but it was also about getting air time, even a little, for facts and concepts just as valuable as any others -- some of them with the potential to explode the entire culture or a generation's thought patterns. Sure, scholarship is "heavy" reading. It does heavy lifting! Sometimes these very few readers, also teachers and/or writers, funnelled these ideas into the culture at large, down to the street level, and changed our conceptual thinking, whether the ideas themselves were right or not: Feminism. Literary theory. Gender studies. Biblical exegesis. Afrocentrism. Philosophy of language. Particle physics. That National Geographic had a political agenda. And so on. (P.S. Sexual Politics has been kept in print since the year 2000 by the University of Illinois Press.)

So a university press might look to a cost-cutter like a great luxury, although the University of Missouri Press, publishing between 25 and 50 books per year with a staff of 10 on a budget of around $400,000, was a miracle of cost-effectiveness. If they published each year only one idea or one fact that got out and got traction in our minds, an idea that got lived in, that's more than $400,000 worth of most anything else on campus will accomplish.
May 28

Blue Material

cabaretPeople said hello and I briefly replied and excused myself to the rearmost room and its rearmost booth, where I sat quietly alone and ate a mozzarella stick for fuel to get through the 25-minute reading for Chance Operations last Monday night. The Chance Operations series run by St. Louis artists/poets Tony Renner and Chris Parr just celebrated its second anniversary. I had read there before and loved it; anything goes. So I had some risky / risque poems to read, work that, shall we say, painted with a broad brush, poems that normally would not see the light of day nor be aired. I didn't do "blue" material just to do it. The poems had actual content, and I am also interested in literary expectations and the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. Also at this point I have nothing to lose and for an artist this condition is ideal.

It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!

My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
May 20

The Ten Poets on U.S. Postage Stamps

Delighted to see at tpoetsstampshe post office -- and purchase -- a set of first-class postage stamps featuring first-class 20th-century American poets: Brodsky, Brooks, Williams, Hayden, Plath, Bishop, Stevens, Levertov, Cummings and Roethke. Seems like some of them were here just yesterday -- like Denise Levertov -- and I'd rather give that space to Howard Nemerov, whose poetry I like better -- but it's a fine gallery to start with. It's a sheet of 20 but features only 10 poets. Here's the Sylvia Plath stamp we have all been waiting for. Read or re-read the early works of Gwendolyn Brooks: wonderfully gymnastic, mind-bendingly original formal poetry. Of this entire group Brooks is the most underrated.
May 14

I'd Rather Be Rejected

A contest notice said, "One overall winner will be awarded First Prize, $400 plus publication. Nine other authors and poets will each win publication."

Like everything else in publishing, terminology changes. One's manuscript was either accepted or rejected. Now, with writing contests so pervasive, if one finishes out of the money, one at least might "win" publication. It's really very nice of this contest to offer publication to nine -- a large number -- of also-rans. With a prize of publication they will surely feel like winners.

A truth is going bald here. "Winning" and "losing" was how writers always took the matter spiritually, although we said "acceptance" or "rejection." I am first to agree that "rejected" is a horrible name for the fact that an editor did not select my manuscript out of the 3,000 he received. But I'd rather my manuscript be "rejected" than have it labeled "a loser."

Do you prefer that too? You can still publish in periodicals without entering their contests. Publishers still accept "submissions"!
Apr 30

"Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry"

Perhaps you've already read this NYT article of April 29, 2012 about Afghan women who secretly phone in their poems to another woman, perhaps an older one, who dares to transcribe them. The women speak in metaphor to avoid beatings and death. If caught writing love poems it's assumed they have boyfriends, and they are beaten by their brothers. If caught writing political poems -- but they don't dare write exactly what they think. They use metaphor.

As human rights diminish, the power of poetry increases. The most oppressed people depend the most on metaphor; that is, on poetry. I believe we are looking here at a version of our own future. Perhaps mass illiteracy will mean poems are called in to somebody who's literate. Perhaps we will even bypass the writing of poems and record them ourselves, and pass the recordings on to a middleman who can keep us anonymous yet get them disseminated; or we will just stand outside of our dwellings and speak our poems and people will gather around to hear the one who dares to speak.

Poetry is serious business!
Apr 27

The 13 Most Common Errors on a Novel's First Page

Jane Friedman, e-book editor and publisher, wants to see on a novel's first page "an interesting character and the problem they face." She read a stack of opening pages aloud and told her audience at the Missouri Writers Guild conference about the red flags that tell an editor that a novel in manuscript is not yet ready to be published. She stressed that she reads at least the first 10 pages of each manuscript, but listed these as the most common first-page errors and cliches:

  • Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
  • Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
  • Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
  • Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
  • Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
  • Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
  • Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
  • Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
  • She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
  • Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
  • Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
  • Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
  • Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.

And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.