Catherine Rankovic

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

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.

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