Catherine Rankovic

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

Apr 27

Silence as a Tool in Poetry

Missouri Writers' Guild annual conference was last weekend in Chesterfield, well-organized with very good speakers and fantastic attendance including writers from neighboring states as far away as Arizona who came to talk to the editors and agents. I volunteered to "shepherd" speaker Walter Bargen, first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2010), author of 14 poetry books, and attended both his seminars including the fascinating "Silence in Poetry," a topic I'd never considered in any depth. Here are some of his valuable insights into silence in poetry, each worth a ponder:
  • The difference between poetry and prose is silence.
  • Every poem is written on a backdrop of silence.
  • The poem is packaged in silence.
  • Rap is poetry that is afraid of silence.
  • Silence is not monolithic; there are different kinds.
  • Between every written word there is silence.
  • Learning how to break lines is learning how to handle silence.

Apr 18

The Idea Box

ideaboxA former student had a carpenter husband who made this graceful box, and she brought it to me in thanks for the class, and it's gorgeously made and I love it. But what to put in it?

For a long time I kept writing ideas for poems on passing scraps of paper, would lose them, and then lose the chance to write the poem, because the moment of conception, if not captured, never returns. I have actually gotten out of the shower to write down a fleeting idea, or stopped in the middle of a block, put down my things and got out some paper and a pen, and recommend this -- taking your ideas THIS seriously. respecting them THIS much -- to everyone who writes. I've written ideas on post-its and the backs of business cards and the strangest paper scraps. And when I want an idea I go to the idea box and poke around. Today's scrap, a recently inscribed one, said "Polite Applause." So I drafted a poem about polite applause. Yesterday's pick from the idea box was "Hostas." I got partway through it and finished it today. There's a scrap in there that says "Diana Cancer," as in "Her mother's Diana Cancer," and that idea needs to be thought out, but I think it's a good one. Oh, these scraps say all sorts of things, such as "A dinosaur bit me" and "bare metal." They needn't make sense. They're seeds of a poem. The idea box is my best way to keep intact ideas that need to wait.
Apr 15

If You Don't Come to My Reading, I Won't Come To Yours, Etc.

I sometimes do not feel up to attending a literary reading, and if I am not up for it I can't enjoy the event. If there were a live feed I would tune in. But I can't be there because of work, tiredness, weather, a second round-trip commute to the city when I was just there that morning, previous commitments, and so on. But what I never do is "boycott" a reading because the readers "didn't come to my reading, so I won't go to theirs." Being there is certainly a show of support for the readers and for the literary community. But not being there is not declaring non-support. I have no right to expect specific people and get bent out of shape if they aren't there, even if they promised to be. Even if I have a new book out and they should buy it. Even if they are friends of long standing. That I have the privilege of reading, and that anybody at all is there, should be experienced as an honor. And if the crowd is small -- well, am I there to nourish my ego, or to nourish the audience? I am there by grace and should be gracious as possible, and my focus should be on literature, not me.

A few "take attendance" at their readings, and micromanage their own attendance as if it were a game. Sure, a reading is a social event, and I like to see a crowd and familiar faces, and to chat and gab and catch up, and I know about give and take. But to hear that someone is "hurt" because so-and-so did not show up, or that he or she deliberately avoids events or book-buying until the score is evened -- well, that's a Christmas-card attitude. Either you send holiday cards because you like people and want to send good wishes for their holidays -- or you send cards to see if you'll get one in return, and if not, that's instant Memory Hole. At that point it's not about love anymore.
Apr 09

Deleting the Unfinished Work

Like empty storefronts, the hollow bodies of unfinished poems haunt me. I hoped to finish them all someday. I have in fact waited years to finish them and have indeed finished a few at long last, after tussling and struggling and workshopping. But many others remain to haunt me. I'm tired of facing them. I want a fresh start. So I began thinking of deleting them. All the unfinished. To make room for more poems.

In fact I've started deleting. I asked advice about this, and was told, "Copy down the good lines you wrote before you delete. You might be able to use those good lines in other poems." In the larger scheme of things, what are my 100 or so unfinished poems but monuments to vanity and neglect? Is that what I want around me right now? Don't think so.
Apr 03

Poems About the Past

Assessing my accumulation of poems, thinking most of them bad, wondering why most of the good ones among them haven't been published, I think I hit on why:

The poems are about the past!

Yes, indeed! From Captain Kangaroo to grape soda, to partying in the '80s, to way-back school days when they gave wiggly-block IQ tests, to the thirty-year-old spools in my sewing box (a what box!?!?!), to the Thresher submarine disaster in 1963 -- they're about the past! Yes, Galway Kinnell got away with writing a book titled The Past. It's been done.

Literary editors tend to be younger these days. We know for sure their screeners are very young. Remember how we used to glaze over when the old folks told us about Fibber McGee and Molly, etc.? How wonderful for us to remember the Sinclair dinosaur or the Gemini space program! And how incomprehensible and irrelevant to the young!

I've been writing poems that are like memoirs! A poem ain't a memoir!

I know "you write what you have to write," but I hope to consciously write more about the present and future. Thank you to Adrienne Rich, whom I now see kept her poetic focus on the present and future -- risky, in the way writing about the past is not.
Apr 02

A. Rich vs. the Literary Equivalent of Boned, Skinned, Chicken Breasts

The work of Adrienne Rich, her prose and poetry, led me to books by Andrea Dworkin, Judy Grahn, H.D., Louise Bogan, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Eleanor Ross Taylor and many more: Good and great poets who didn't catch on, are shunned in institutions, because these poets' work is "tainted" by anger, or by politics critical of the system, by what they had to say. The present world prefers the shimmering, the ineffable, the duende, the amusing. Poems we write hoping they are tickets into the system. Poems that are the literary equivalent of boned, skinned chicken breasts. Maybe she left a key somewhere as to where  poetry can go next.

I and my friends at one time read Rich's works like scripture, but tired of Rich's politics when they weren't just about women anymore. I tried to read later books of her poems, but after Time's Power, they embarrassed me. Their politics were hemispheric and inclusive. Even she didn't sound convinced of them. But still to this day I read her prose with admiration. She was a poet who was also a thinker. When it was first published, there was nothing like he book Of Woman Born. There was no essay like "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."

She's gone. There's nobody I can think of who can take her place. What will happen? Here's a quotation posted by playwright Joan Lipkin on Facebook. Worth re-reading:

"Whatever is unnamed, un-depicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language–this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable."- Adrienne Rich
Mar 14

Ten Reasons to Sleep With a Poet

An earlier form of the "Ten Reasons Not to Sleep with a Poet" screed was circulating even before the Internet, but the amusing hepcat literary site TheRumpus.net, maybe thinking it new, has it online, and among all the responses that said "Here's the 11th reason not to do it" "the 12th reason" was this beautiful rejoinder by "Grey," whose real name is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and who gave me permission to post it here. Not for everyone, it's an antidote to cynicism and a hymn to the way poets can love.

Ten Reasons TO Sleep with a Poet

  1. If they were raised without religion, their use of imagery and metaphor will be straightforward; they will call you simple, endearing names like, “honey” and “dear.” If they were raised in some fundamentalist religion, you will sense the pain and anguish in the depth of their eyes and experience the back and forth of the dogmatic right/wrong hold from which their heart is still trying to get out from underneath; you will excuse this because of the ways in which they often make you feel holy.
  2. They will sigh softly in their sleep when they wake up intermittently and realize that you are lying next to them and express this satisfaction and elation through whispers that slightly resemble their waking voices. This sound will echo in your ears as you are moving through your day.
  3. In bed, they will say things like, I want you to fuck me with your huge cock, which said by anyone else might seem crass and disgusting, but it does nothing but turn you on more and you are even sure that this might be a line from a more radical poem on the politics of queer sex that they have written.
  4. They will listen deeply to everything that you say, and at the beginning you might wonder if they are really listening, and then two weeks later they recite the exact thing you said and this is both a little embarrassing (did I really say that?) and wonderful at the same time.
  5. They help you believe that you, too, are really a poet. They sometimes (obnoxiously) rephrase observations that you make about simple, mundane things to point out the beauty so much so that when you are alone and notice something simple, you can imagine what they might say about the way the jade plant in your living room leans slightly forward to take in all of the sun that it can.
  6. They imprint your life with small details that drive you crazy and that you never realized you had room for before, like the way they describe the line from your hipbone to your chest, which they describe over and over again as “open.” They notice how you slouch in your chair when you are angry and tuck your thumbs into your fists when you are feeling anxious.
  7. They will laugh with a sense of joy that feels pure. They tear up at sunsets. They have loved deeply, over and over again.
  8. Their preferred form of communication is (clearly) the written word, and they will send you emails and texts with lines from their favorite books of poetry. They leave you notes in the morning written on napkins, wrappers, and bits of paper you had lying around.
  9. Sleeping with a poet will set a new precedence in the act of gift-giving and celebrating holidays (especially birthdays) from there on out. They will give you gifts they have made themselves or buy you something you never directly asked for but happened to mention one day, like when you told the story about longing to play catch with your older brother growing up and then they bought you your own glove for Christmas. Or they will write bits of Rumi on the pots of houseplants they give you and say things in cards, like: “You were in my dream last night. I don’t remember the whole of it, but you kissed me. The potency of the sensation was incredible—even in a dream. And when I woke up, I still felt the kiss in my body.” 
  10. Nothing will ever be just what it is. Getting brunch will be a reason to write a joint poem on a napkin together, each of you authoring alternating lines. Reading to one another from your favorite books will take the place of meals because you will forget that you are hungry, a walk in the spring will be full of wind and smells and colors and tastes and textures that you never imagined before, especially not before you slept with a poet.
Mar 05

The Surprise Package of Life

The Feb. 28 "Giving Voice" poetry concert, "a chapbook you could hear," was well attended (beyond my hopes) and begot lots of ideas: "You should do this every year," someone suggested. But, better, I suggested to some poets that they set poems in their chapbooks or books for choral reading, and that would be a great way to promote the poetry and therefore their books. All they need to do is to create an arrangement, set a date, get a venue and then some good people game to read. Gratifying.

Then on Thursday I get called by an MTV producer in New York. They are filming a "The Real World" episode about a young first-time self-published St. Louis author, Joel Ehrlichman, marketing his book with his ex-girlfriend's help. They'd heard I was an editor. Would I read his book, Gateway, and give my opinion on camera? Legal tangles quashed filming at Wash U, so the author and crew ended up at my house Sunday with their lights and two cameras: one focused on the author and his girlfriend and one on me. As a first book it's a good effort, but it's the common drugs-and-degradation story that young people feel compelled to tell. All young writers write these things, but back in my day we didn't have the technology to publish them (thank you, God). Now and then a drug novel like Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, or Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries makes a hit. But I think the drug novel market is saturated and his good effort is going to have a hard time. Told him I was eager to read his second book. The MTV Segment airs in April, I was told. Gratified again.

Wake up this morning with to email message from Cerise Press (I'd heard of them) saying my book Meet Me made their list of Editors' Favorites. Gratified again. But wait, there's more....an interview with me published on David Alan Lucas's blog, "Coffee with David." It was an honor to be asked.

Have I now reached the "survivor stage," like, say W.S. Merwin or May Sarton, where I matter just because I'm still alive?

Feb 19

I Have a Dream for Writers

Feb. 18, 2012

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the lowest point in the history of American writers.

Two score and nine years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, gave a speech known as “I Have a Dream.” A great statesman and great writer, he spoke of another American who had lived a hundred years before, also a great statesman and great writer. Their speeches and writings are read and studied to this day and remain beacons of light and hope for millions in America and the world.

But the tragic fact is that the American writer of our time lives on a mental diet of worry, doubts, and wishful thinking. While new communications outlets multiply, the professional writer, journalist and creative writer live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, saying they have no work, they can’t make themselves work, that there is no point in writing. Fifty years later, writing seems to have lost its power to move the writer or the reader, and writers languish in the corners of American society, which gladly lets them languish there. So I have come here to discuss our appalling condition.

In a sense I have come here to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it was later agreed that among these rights was the right to a free public education that would allow the nation’s citizens to read and understand the nation’s basic documents and discover all the rights, the history and the literature they were heir to.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation to ensure public literacy and reasonable mastery of written language, America has given public education a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that every school district is too short of funds to have good schools and enough teachers to teach reading and writing. We refuse to believe that every newspaper and magazine and employer is too short of funds to pay writers what they are worth. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in those great vaults that hold plenty of money for entertainers, politicians, the insurance industry, the oil industry, the defense industry, and drug companies, none of which could function without writers to put words in their mouths or on their websites.

So we have come to cash this check -- the check that will give all citizens upon demand the education they were promised. We have also come to this hallowed spot, the printed page, to remind America that the matter is fiercely urgent. America’s schools produce masses of functional illiterates and dropouts, and their school boards tell us nothing further can be done. Some enroll in America’s colleges, in which I taught for twenty-five years, where technical, business, or athletic skills are favored over learning how to write and speak. Teachers of college composition find their students painfully unsure about their writing skills, and unable and ashamed to communicate their needs. Teachers are expected to give inflated grades to students who cannot write a coherent paragraph in their native language, students who might, if given a grade of C, try to get the teacher dismissed or start shooting.

Those who never learn to read and write well are slaves--but not to those who do read and write well, because those two almost never meet. They are slaves to those who ensure that those two will never meet by demeaning both and instilling in them contempt for one another.

Writers, this is no time to engage in the luxury of saying “Writers can’t ever make a living,” or “Only chumps pay for content,” or “People don’t read anymore,” and resign ourselves to doing something less. Now is the time to see the doors of opportunity opening to all who are gifted with writing ability, disciplined and driven to follow it as an honorable profession. Writers, it is your choice whether you write to inform, educate, inspire or entertain, but never should it be your choice to mislead. One day you must account to God or to yourself for what you did with your gift. You are fate’s finest instrument.

Writers, contradict those who say that mastery of the English language is an indulgence or a privilege or very common. It is not. Literacy is the right on which all other rights depend. The powerful of America know this, and that is why they shut their doors against you and will you not to thrive. You have heard about the power of the pen. Significantly, that phrase declines to identify the source of power as the one who holds and guides the pen. You may be poor. You may be unhappy. You might not even write very well. But you should never be deterred or ashamed or afraid to act because it might result in error. You and your fellow writers are a source of power and light, kin to Lincoln and King. Take courage during this time that literacy is low, joblessness is high, and the publishing industry is in chaos. It looks bad. Yet this is the moment to act because you can only do better.

It is fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the writer at this important juncture between printed and digital communication. The year 2012 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope writers will now be contented to blog and tweet will have a rude awakening as the nation continues business as usual. One day the hunger for knowledge and understanding, so basic to humankind, will outgrow the pleasure of passing one's time unencumbered by the thought process. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America when the pleasure of mindlessness wears off like silverplate on brass, when more Americans than in 1963 are homeless, jobless and don’t have enough to eat.

But there is something I must say to my fellow American writers who stand on the threshold peeking into the halls of power, wondering if we can market our way in. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and cynicism. Let us reject hucksterism and cheap shortcuts to "getting known" when our goal should be work of such quality that employers and readers will seek us out.

We must always conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not be lulled into passive acceptance of industry norms and the social opprobrium directed at us. Again and again we must rise and meet institutional exploitation and poor-mouthing with soul force and confidence. If we can't get published we now have cheap and free means to publish ourselves. Our marvelous new militancy must not lead us to distrust the publishing or communications industries, and academia, because many of us depend on them to make meager livings as freelancers, adjuncts, temporaries, and contract workers. It is our fault. It is our fault because we agreed to write for nothing and the next writer and the next were asked to write for nothing. We have defaulted on our own self-respect and should not be surprised that we receive little respect in return. We believe that businesses, editors, agents and institutions control our destiny. Their destiny is indeed tied up with ours. But understand that it is not we who depend on them; the truth is that they are dependent on us, and not just for manuscripts and money but for our creative ideas and our capacity to inspire.

And as we begin to walk, supporting the tottering publishing industry that was once so eager to shut us out that it refused unagented submissions or works that challenged the views of their stockholders, we must pledge to look at one another and understand that a writer is not a lone figure in an ivory tower, as that great American myth would have it, but part of a vast community growing vaster--although they call us the unknowns, the unpublished, the unemployed, the unwanted. We can never be satisfied as long as there is a talented writer too poorly educated to fulfill his or her potential, or a talented writer who thinks that survival depends on work corrosive to the spirit. Writing is our mission and our service to humanity. There is nothing wrong with it or with us. We will not be satisfied until a writer can be a writer. We will fight for the independence of literature. We will demand value for our labor. We will not be satisfied with less and will use every instrument to achieve it. We will not be bought by sponsors. We will not be embedded. We will not sell ourselves short. We will not allow ourselves and our profession to be demeaned and disparaged. We are fate’s finest instruments. We are truth's finest instruments. We are not less than those those who lie down at night saying, "Thank heaven that no one in America wrote or read the truth today."

I am not unmindful that some of you have become writers out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your dedication to truth left you persecuted and brutalized. You have weathered censorship and exile and depression and death threats. You have suffered for your creativity. All writers have been told that unearned suffering can be redemptive, a kind of honor. It is your choice to decide whether that is true and what your suffering accomplishes. The citizens of the United States of America are guaranteed freedom to write and publish, perhaps without honor, but also without retribution. We are proud of this. And we intend this day to take advantage of it, and to reclaim honor for our profession, if not for ourselves then for the writers of the future, who will have to be bolder than we were.

Writers who cannot concede a need to act should go back to scouring Writer’s Digest and attending conferences on using social media to market and promote themselves until they can admit that those petty, discomfiting tactics almost never work.

I have a dream that writers one day will not be judged not by whom they know but by what they do and how well they do it.

I have a dream that one day children will sit down together, read the same news or the same novel, and assume the freedom to assess, discuss and act on their reading and to write about it.

I have a dream that one day our news industry will be transformed into an instrument of truth and justice.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that writers will one day will not brawl for a slot on the bestseller list or on the faculty, but as colleagues will dedicate a portion of themselves to the advancement not only of their own interests but that of the whole profession.

I have a dream that American writers will one day value themselves not because they won prizes but because each writer, whether journalist, novelist, poet, letter-writer, scholar, or student performs a service to humanity, a service of perception, of a kind no one else ever born will ever give.

This is my hope. This is the faith with which I return to my writing. Have this faith and with me hew out of the mountain of despair a landmark of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform a nation and a profession in desperate need of transformation. With this faith we should study together, struggle together, support one another, stand up for our rights together, knowing we are fate’s finest instruments and our fate begins now.
Jan 28

What You Get from Your Job

Under "professional experience" please add:
  • Used now-historic computers and witnessed fascinating new technological developments
  • Made best friends with officemates
  • Witnessed dramatic business moments
  • Felt kinship with co-workers, especially if they were going through a rough patch
  • Experienced dramatic moments in business communication

Such as? How about the tiime the whole staff excused itself, one by one, in midafternoon thanks to a massive snowstorm. I was web editor and could not leave until I got the official word that the company's evening events were to be cancelled because that needed to be posted online. One boss and I remained, waiting for the word, knowing the big boss never liked to cancel anything for any reason. Outside the snow fell thickly and traffic crawled. Darkness fell. We waited. Finally the word came and I posted it on our most-trafficked pages and was bundled up and just about to leave when my boss said the cancellation did not show up on our website. Our postings had a history of lag time, on and off. I had measured it and it was always about 50 minutes and IT said they couldn't fix it, that it was a problem in our open-source software. Users would come to the site to confirm cancellation, and until I was sure they could see it, I would not leave. But in this case I showed the boss how to back out of his browser and then hard refresh. There it was. Then I fought my way to a friend's house because there was no way I could make the drive home.