Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Electronic Rights Means More Money for Authors

It sure do, honey. Check out NYT story on how upset Simon& Schuster is that one of their biggest authors (Stephen R. Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) & sequelae) has sold his electronic book rights to a company that'll give him 50 percent when people buy electronic versions of his books. You think Amazon.com taking 50 percent is outrageous? Well, Simon & Schuster would have taken 75 percent.

"Ever since electronic books emerged as a major growth market, New York’s largest publishing houses have worried that big-name authors might sign deals directly with e-book retailers or other new ventures, bypassing traditional publishers entirely." (Poor publishers; now they suffer they way WE did when THEY bypassed fairness to writers!)

I specifically claimed all electronic rights to the text of Meet Me just for that reason; and when you sign book contracts -- be a highly effective person and do the same!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Parting with Students

Dear Class:

You were beginners. A seasoned writer would sputter, "That's impossible!" if assigned in 16 weeks to produce and craft a package of 3 to 5 poems, a personal essay, and a short story. But you did it. Congratulations. I am proud of you.

Each so different, age 17 to 55, you got along beautifully because you were generous and vulnerable and imperfect -- and in order to get you that way I had to be that way first, and it was a BEAR, because those are traits I don't like to display; I never planned to become a teacher. . . I think I was sent into it so I would learn humility. Thanks for teaching me.

You wrote some freaking awesome things and you know it.

I hope there's at least one helpful thing about writing that you discovered in here that you will remember, whatever that might be.

Here's my card, and let me know how you fare and how your writing goes, and if you need a reference. I've been teaching this class for 12 years and apparently am not going anywhere, so if you need to look me up you know where I am.

Go get 'em,


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

If You Sign Your Book

If you sign your name in your book, you’ve “autographed” it. Putting a personalized note in your book, and then signing your name (example: “To Florence, best wishes, Catherine”) is called “inscribing” it.

In Meet Me (the book is coming soon) I mention that poet Jane O. Wayne said she’ll autograph but won’t inscribe her books – having once found for sale a used copy she’d inscribed to a very close friend. Picture sending a heartfelt Valentine e-mail to your love. Imagine that he or she forwards it as a Valentine to somebody else.

If you send books out into the world, these things happen. It is part of authorhood. It’s recycling. It’s all good.

I too sent an old dear friend a book inscribed to her. Now she’s selling that copy online at secondhand. Because of the inscription she’s charging rather more than double the cover price. Like, which of us should feel embarrassed?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Never Say Never

In 2001 I published in The Missouri Review an essay I'd worked on hard and liked a lot. Titled "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," it was all about Elvis Presley's recording of the song by the same name. After it was published I never heard any response; not a single comment except for jokes after I mentioned I'd written about Elvis.

Later I learned that Stanley Elkin advised writers not to try describe music; it couldn't be adequately done. And I looked at what I'd written and published to no account, and thought it a noble failure.

Well, a friend found on the Missouri Review site a college instructor's comment: "As model essays I use several examples from TMR’s [The Missouri Review's online] archives. . . .“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Catherine Rankovic is a lesson in how to describe the nearly impossible—Elvis’ phrasing and singing voice."

And then a paragraph from that essay appears in the Elvis entry in Wikiquote. I didn't put it there but I did correct the misquotations when I found it...

Maybe The King might have liked that some college professor gal took him serious... Moral of the story is, as musician Miles Davis put it: "Don't fear mistakes. There are none."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meet Me: Preview the Book

My book Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, is in production, and here's a PDF peek at what it will look like inside. I include the whole interview with poet Tess Gallagher, then in St. Louis promoting her books of poems Moon Crossing Bridge and Portable Kisses. That was in 1992, back when publishers actually sent poets on promotional tours. Tess was once my teacher, as I say in the headnote. Enjoy it -- the book has 12 more interviews: Carl Phillips, Ntozake Shange, Harper Barnes, Eddy L. Harris, Eric Pankey, more...Meet Me is now due to be published by Penultimate Press in December. Pardon me for my pride in it! You can pre-order by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Animated Poems by TextFlows

Try poems by Yeats, Dickinson or (maximum fun) "Casey at the Bat" as animated words using Textflows. Cut into bite-size pieces, the poems materialize on your screen at a readable pace that lets the words "sink in." Opinions range from "great for teaching poetry" to "it ruins the integrity of the line," and riposte, "the line is an artificial construct anyway developed by the printing industry. . ." This link comes from poets.org. At Textflows.com you can try reading textflow of Obama's inaugural address, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or The Bard.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Epi-Graph," as in "Epi-Dermis"

  • "Epi" means "on top of," as in "epidermis."
  • "Graph" means "writing."
  • An epigraph, then, is "on top of the writing."
  • The epigraph follows the title, and, like the title, its job is informational and supportive. ("Newspaper misprint for 'mammoth'.") The epigraph and its source, if it has one, and it usually does:
What do women want? -Sigmund Freud

should be set off in italic type. An epigraph should never be:
  • longer than the poem
  • better than the poem
  • unnecessary
  • unintelligible
In your entire body of work you should not have more than three or or four works topped with epigraphs. Epigraphs include dedications. ("To my student, thrown by a horse.") Epigraphs and dedications are extraneous to the works, and therefore they are weaknesses. If you have something to say, say it in the work, not in the toppings.

An epiGRAM (meaning "on top of the MESSAGE") is a short, highly crafted, pointed statement, a "quotable quote," a summary or generalization about just one topic: "Tis with our judgements as with our watches: None go just alike, yet each believes his own." -Alexander Pope.

Pope's epigram might make a good epigraph. But it's better not to rely on somebody else's work to bolster yours.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Free Software To "Kindle" on Your PC

This just in: Now you don't need "to buy a Kindle" to read e-books. Fire up Kindle on your PC or iPhone with free software. If you have an amazon.com account already it is a breeze. The software took only 5.2 MB of space:

SEATTLE--(BUSINESS WIRE, Nov. 10)--Amazon.com, Inc. today announced the availability of "Kindle for PC," a free application that lets readers around the world enjoy Kindle books on their personal computers (PC). Kindle for PC is now available as a free download to readers in over 100 countries at www.amazon.com/KindleforPC.

The U.S. Kindle Store (www.amazon.com/kindlestore) currently offers more than 360,000 books, including New Releases and 101 of 112 New York Times Bestsellers, which are typically $9.99 or less. . .

Source: amazon.com press release as appearing on BusinessWire.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Competing Readings: What to Do?

Tonight, Nov. 11, there are 3 competing literary readings, and it's a difficult choice as personal friends are involved in all of them:
  • Jennifer Kronovet, Stephanie Brown, and Heather Treseler--three acclaimed poets hailing from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Midwest--will read from their work at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Schlafly Bottleworks on 7260 Southwest Ave. in Maplewood. Admission is free.
  • Poetry, Prose and Pints Nov. 11 starting at 7:30: Come one, come all for a pint and a listen to where voice and admission are free! 419 N. Euclid in the CWE at Dressel's Pub in the Gallery Above. Readers: Jon Dressel, David Lloyd, M.K. Stallings, Julia Gordon Bramer, David Lucas, Phil Goumis. Music: Nathan Ponzar.
  • Join the Chesterfield Writers Guild for River Valley Readings the second Wednesday of every month from 7 to 8:30 pm, September through May. Enjoy a chance to mingle with fellow authors and literary enthusiasts in a casual setting. November 11, 7 - 8:30pm: Kathleen Finneran, nonfiction writer, and Shane Seely, poet. Free.
Two weeks ago I attended two readings on one night by seeing the first half of one and second half of the other; unsatisfactory on all counts. Showing up at readings is an act of support for fellow writers: I want to support them all. So organizers must meet and put their heads together. Lots of St. Louisans would love to attend each of these readings -- and should -- but if they're all scheduled on one night...!?!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day of the Droid, 11.6.09

3:45 a.m. wake. It’s 38 degrees. Fill thermos and bundle up. I have never owned a smartphone. Today I take the leap; I’m getting one. The Droid.

5:15 a.m. drive 18 miles to Verizon store.

5:40 a.m. parked in parking lot. I expected a line, but no one else is there, so I sit in the car and write comments on student papers.

6:15 a.m., middle-aged man drives into the lot and parks. He’s wearing shirtsleeves and dress pants. I correctly guess he is the Verizon store manager. I open my car door and say, “Waitin’ on a Droid.” He smiles and says, “We have ‘em.” I say, “Do I have to wait until 8:00?” He says, “Unfortunately.” At least now he knows that I am first in line.

6:30 a.m., two Verizon employees, females, arrive. Then others.

6:45 a.m., van from local AM radio station arrives with a screech, and disk jockey and engineer are allowed into the store to set themselves up. They will report on the rush for Droids.

7:00 a.m., still no one waitin’ on a Droid but me. Sun is up. I get out of car and stand next to the Verizon door. Its banner reads, “Be the first to own it. 8 a.m. 11.06.2009.” I reflect on what it means to be first.

7:20 a.m. About 12 employees and a radio disk jockey are in the store, which now has its lights on and shades raised, but doors locked. I’m still all alone in line.

7:43 a.m. I’m cold and have read through all the student papers.

8:00 a.m. I’m the first customer through the door. Two young men follow, but they head for the demo phones and not the sales desk. The manager gives me a female sales rep who talks to me. He tells her, “Any [cellphone] cover she wants, she gets free, because she was first.”

8:15 a.m. I'm glad I have a Google account because it makes the setup and tests go smoothly.

8:55 a.m., swinging a stylish Verizon bag containing my Droid and accessories, totaling $397 (before $100 mail-in rebate), I’m on my way out when the disk jockey says, “The first Droid out the door!” He asks if I’m excited. I say yes. “We’ll give you some radio love,” he says. “There she goes,” he announces, “the first Droid out the door!”

I hope my Droid will replace or obviate the “need” for an iPod/MP3, GPS, maps, voice recorder, day planner, Kindle, camera, TV, notebook, timer, watch, shopping lists, and the computer. And oh yes -- the land-line telephone.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Down with "Sesame Street"!

Sesame Street is 40 years old; it debuted on this day in 1969. I was too grown-up by then to watch the show, but my students were then being born and Sesame Street, in its supposedly fun and radical way, aimed to teach them to read and think: "edu-tainment," they called it.

I began teaching freshman composition in 1986; most of my students had been born 1968-69. Freshman comp isn't fun for anybody, but students just a few years younger than my first ones appeared to have attention spans accustomed to Sesame Street's rat-a-tat pacing (modeled on network TV's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In), and their primary concern in the classroom was entertainment. Their ideal instructors would have been singers, guitarists, bongo-players and tap-dancers, and guest stars such as Bill Cosby. Their ideal teacher was most concerned not with communication but with students' personal comfort levels and self-esteem. Over a span of about five years these ideas rose to epidemic levels. The students spoke in quips or in the disingenuous tones of children's public-television programming -- and to this day, dialogue on PBS kids' shows can drive me nuts.

I don't complain because the students in my college classroom couldn't write; most people can't and don't want to write. It worried me more that most couldn't think, except about games and sports teams.

I don't celebrate Sesame Street.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hast Seen the Galleys

Visited my publisher's office Friday. Here's where experience in designing my own self-published books comes in very handy. I saw 12 potential covers for Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis. They all featured charming St. Louis doorways and porches with chairs & wicker, with tile, with ceiling fans, with painted doors, porticos, redbud branches visible...lovely. I asked that the title be changed from script type to sans serif, because script type is famously hard to read; the designer should have known better. The title said "Meet Me" but in script it looked like, "Seet Me," or "Geet Me" -- honest! It has pretty much been decided that the book will have a darkish cover with two comfortable chairs on a porch. The scene seems to say "Meet me," or "We met and talked here."

Then today I saw the interior layout and wished to change everything about it, for my own very good reasons. I'll let you know if I win any of these rounds.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Talking with Gaye Gambell-Peterson: Wine from Creative Juices

Poet/artist Gaye Gambell-Peterson answered my questions about her new book, MYnd mAp, from Agog Press ($15). It's a very unusual collection: 14 poems paired with full-color collages.

Catherine: Is this a collection of individual poems or was it conceived as a book? When did you know you had a book?

Gaye: MYnd mAp, the book of collage + poetry, was just that, from the very moment the seed got planted. Years and years ago I had clipped out the title words when stockpiling snippets for collage-making. I lost that scrap, but the book idea stayed in a corner of my mind. I let it just be. It ripened.

This book includes 14 full-color collages. Which came first, the poems or collages? Were the poems inspired by the collages? For example, in "otHYR waters" the "baby raspberry" appears in the collage as well as the poem.

Gaye: When it was time to harvest, I listed geographic terms as poem.art titles. After that, I piled graphic bits to fit those categories. Then I wrote poems, with the appropriate collage collection spread before me. As each poem became infused with new layers of word images, I would fortify the art with more visuals. When the words written were taste-perfect, I glued down the amassed paper elements. So, you see, the process for each poetry + art set was a back-and-forth one.

Look for many repetitive components within each set. I let seven sets age for quite a while, and then quickly doubled the book as I approached my self-imposed "get real" deadline.

Catherine: In this book you make inventive use of white space, and invented variant spellings for individual words, such as "eddge," and combine them sometimes with "eccentric" capitalization such as in the poem titled "rivYr". You even use some red type along with the usual black type in "TerrORtory", my favorite poem in the book.

Gaye: One of my goals was to create a book that was unique. I am ALWAYS driven to be outside-the-box. How many ways could I do that? Spelling, space, color - one idea leads to another: wine made from my creative juices. It poured freely.

Catherine: Tell about putting this book together and printing it.

I knew I had to publish the book myself - illustrations in color would double the cost. Who, but me, would be that brave/foolhardy? Making MYnd mAp real was, and is, a complex satisfaction - beyond profit considerations.

My first poetry & art book, pale leaf floating, was so easy with editor Rebecca Ellis to guide me. Her Cherry Pie Press used Hobblebush Books to make real a lovely (if I may say so myself) volume. I queried Hobblebush and found Sid quite willing to produce this 2nd book. He was amenable about all aspects, and creative in his own right. He always found a way to do what I envisioned, and even allowed me to change my mind a couple of times. We did it all by email.

Catherine: Anything you want to add?

Gaye: Of course. Three things.

1. As a poet I often make my writings universal in their spin, but MYnd mAp is completely autobiographical. Images are very specific to my story. I make no apology for that.

2. In 2008, my mom died of a sudden illness; she was almost 99. Her death was also just weeks before Cherry Pie Press invited me to be ninth in its Midwest Women Poets Series. Since Mom ALWAYS believed I'd author a book someday, I was impelled to do two things. I dedicated my 1st book, pale leaf floating, to her. I named my publishing imprint for this 2nd book in
honor of her. Agog Press. A Grand Ole Girl she was.

3. Marketing is a whole 'nother thing - pushes me outside my comfort zone more than making a book does. For instance, it was a push (ultimately rewarded) for me to ask admired poets to write blurbs for either book.

~I will be reading from MYnd mAp at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 (with Rebecca Ellis as co-reader). Please, do be there - 7 p.m.

~During January 2010 I will exhibit the original collages used in both books - in the Gallery of the University City Public Library. Tentative date for opening reception: Friday, January 8th, 6 p.m. Check www.gayegambellpeterson.com for updates.

Catherine: Want to order Gaye's book? Here's where to write.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Brown Study

My book's not out as promised. I haven't even seen galleys yet. A disappointment, but that's print publishing. Meantime, I'm reading recent literary journals and books, to fuel the illusion that I'm moving forward even if the cherished book is stuck in production. I have been impressed by these new self-published books:

Vocal Folds (poetry) by Stephen Koritta
MYnd mAp (poetry and art) by Gaye Gambell-Peterson

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Good Quotation: "Individual Power"

"Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

"It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

"It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew."- David Brooks, The New York Times

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Publisher Seeks Novels

SWITCHGRASS Books, the fiction imprint of Northern Illinois University Press,
seeks submissions of full-length literary novels set in or about the Midwest by
authors with Midwestern ties. Mail manuscripts to Northern Illinois University
Press, Switchgrass Books, 2280 Bethany Rd., DeKalb, IL 60115. For submission
guidelines, please visit

(Looks very legit!)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Natural Bridge Literary Hour, Tues. 5-6 p.m.

I'll be the guest of Kenny Squires and Jamie Nelson, third-year MFA students at University of Missouri-St. Louis, on the campus radio station, Tuesday 5-6 p.m. The best way to listen is live on the internet at www.umslradio.com. There's a link on the page to stream it. Online it'll be crystal clear. The program is called The Natural Bridge Literary Hour, and I will talk about poetry, my new book (Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis), maybe about blogging, certainly self-publishing, and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Hopelessness of Copyright

Just returned from a panel discussion with law professor, university counsel, expert on Internet, and technical-research librarian: In short, for writers, copyright is hopeless. Because writers aren't organized like musicians, and won't be soon, the Internet (and Google's book-scanning, and office photocopying, and Amazon.com's cut of the take on your e-book, and so on) has made a morass of the laws surrounding published material and dimmed the rewards you may have expected as a writer. There are laws but few feel bound by them.

So, for best results: Write your book. Publish it yourself and own all rights. If you like, release portions of it electronically and LICENSE the material -- meaning anybody can read it or listen to it, but nobody is allowed make money from it -- with a creativecommons.org license. Take your payment in good will and prestige. Then use those to make money not from your writing but from readings, or leading classes, or becoming a small-press publisher, or serving on discussion panels, or editing, or advising, or -- get a day job.

After the panel I thought, "This sounds so hopeless," but it suddenly occured to me that this is exactly what has happened to me, and what I do.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Profanity

Recently I had a finger pointed at me for using profanity in my work. I checked my books and found three such words in a poetry book of 92 pages and three in a prose book of 239 pages. The accuser was one who uses profanity much more casually than I – but, “irregardless,” this was a lesson to me: Whenever profanity is used on paper, it draws attention and sticks in people’s minds. People remember it – out of proportion to the rest of what you’ve written. That is why, if it is used, it should be rarely and with forethought. Unlike the issue of erotic material, I know where I stand on this one, and why my stance is right.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Be Kind to Your Mind

Last night I told myself the thing I'd drafted wasn't a poem: Real poems take long stressful craft sessions, and are serious, and this one entertained me so vastly I read it aloud several times laughing. Then I invented excuses for it: "It's kind of a theater piece," or "You could work on this so it'd be in couplets and then it'd be good," & c. Told myself everything in the world except, "Hey, you just drafted a 60-line poem -- that alone is pretty great; congratulations."

Making some kind of trivial mistake ("What'd I come in here to get? Can't remember") I have been catching myself calling myself "Stupid!" "What a dodo-brain," "Nobody else would be so incompetent," etc.

Have I sat myself down today and said, "You rock! You're doing a pretty good job with your life. You are so well-read, so together, and a creative artist! What discipline, what fire," and so on? I've got a good mind. Why am I not kind to it -- as kind and generous as it has been to me?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Are You Nervous About "Selling"?

In Girl Scouts I sold the least cookies. My record low year was 6 boxes. I hated going door-to-door (it wasn't dangerous 40 years ago), feeling as if I were begging for sales; it was embarrassing, shaming, beneath me, huckstering, craven, I was "bothering people"...so not ME.

You may have the same problem thinking of selling books. Possibly at its root is a fear of rejection. Our creative imaginations can turn simple rejections into emotionally scarifying experiences. I see these possible ways out:

1. Get over it. Everybody's selling something! The worst anyone can say is No.
2. Hire a salesperson to sell ("pimp") what you've got.
3. Create a team effort with another person who is business-wise or isn't so sensitive, and learn alongside of them how to set goals, etc.
4. Believe in what you are selling, so much that you will make yourself sell.
5. Check out shrinkingvioletpromotions.blogspot.com -- "Marketing for Introverts" if you're just as afraid to "bother" your editor as you are to "bother" a book buyer!
6. Sell something else and let the book tag along. For example, become an expert in your book topic and give seminars. Offer the book at every gig.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Halfway Through a Novel?

A UK publisher is publishing half a novel -- and inviting readers to fill in the second half and send it in. Read about it here. The publisher says it's a way to discover new writing talent. Seems to me it's a way to sell out the first press run of 1500 copies (pub date Oct. 31). But suddenly it seems to me that I -- like a lot of people -- could write half a novel and maybe get a friend to write the other half. . . Team Novel Writing (Mark Twain/Charles Dudley Warner - Joseph Conrad/Ford Madox Ford) isn't new. In fact it's worked quite well.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Exposed: A Lie About Book Marketing

“A book won’t sell itself.” True or false?

False. Seems to me plenty of books sell themselves. Take The Portable Abraham Lincoln. He isn’t around to promote it, but it sells.

Ah, you say, but Lincoln was a public person, a man of great character, beautifully articulate, historic, famous, exceptional. I say, consider then a workaday trade paperback such as Letting Go: The Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years (Third Edition). A college administrator saw a need for this book, first published in 1997; it caught on; and 12 years later it still sells.

You reply: But there was a market just salivating for that book. Look then, I reply, at Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. That book (originally self-published) created its own market. Heck, it created its own industry; you can get it on audio CD, get workbooks, sequels, Morning Pages journals, and so on.

Yes, you say, but those books aren’t great literature. There’s no market for great literature. Bosh, I say. Has anybody who reads English gotten through this life without reading, somehow, To Kill a Mockingbird? At this moment it's at No. 509 on amazon.com!

Yes, you say -- but that’s a really, really good book.

I say, your book will sell itself for a long, long time if you are a public person of great character, exceptional; or if there’s an untapped market for it; or if your book can create its own market; or if it’s a really, really good book. If your book possesses none of these qualities you should keep working until it does – if you want your book to sell itself.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Don't Know the First Thing About Marketing

Now you've got a book (or chapbook) -- what do you do? I presume you want people to buy and read it. Here are the steps I'm taking with my book Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, due to be published next month. Even if your book is already published, these will help.

The Postcard: You can design and send a postcard announcing the availability of your book at ANY time in the marketing process. I'm doing it pre-publication.

1. People, libraries, and stores have to know your book is available. I designed (using a template) and bought, online, from 123print.com, 250 postcards announcing my book and a little of what it's about; pages and price; plus the ISBN and the publisher's contact information for pre-orders. Beautiful, full-color glossy postcards. 100 postcard stamps cost me $28. No, the postcards don't match the book cover, which isn't designed yet (!). I want people to anticipate the book more than I want the card to "match" the cover. That would be the ideal, but it won't happen this time; I won't wait. (Writer, never waste your time waiting for something to happen that's out of your power.) Some postcards I will hand out or post wherever writers gather.

I AM holding back the postcards until I test the publisher's online pre-ordering system. Nothing worse than publicity for a book that is not available!

Remember: You can design and send a postcard announcing the availability of your book at ANY time in the marketing process. The only requirement is the book has to be obtainable.

What, I, the WRITER, paid for this? You bet! If you want to sell your book, these days YOU, the writer, promote it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Worry" Also Means...

"To worry" is also to shred a thing into unrecognizable pieces. Poets know they can revise a poem to death. So I told myself, no, don't tear open that sealed envelope addressed to the literary journal, already stamped and packed with poems and the SASE. Do not worry them to pieces! What's done is done, and for pete's sake, let the thingies go! Yesterday finished a poem that had been unsatisfactory for two and a half years, with a good beginning and an undeveloped middle. A "continuation" of that poem existing only in draft form (or "drat form," as a misstrike told me) finally got woven into it. So many temptations to add more! add less! break the line differently! change that word!

I remember Langston Hughes quoting his teacher: "Always finish." For this one I required a deadline, August 31, to force me both to finish it and let it go.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It'll Be An Honor

I've been asked to be Keynote Speaker for the Missouri Writers Guild Conference 2010 (April 16-18 in Chesterfield). What an honor! More about this later when it is confirmed....

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Write or Die"

To draft a lot, and do it quickly, I recommend this entertaining app, "Write or Die," which will let you set your own time-period and word-count goals -- and send warnings and then a "punishment" if you aren't filling the page with writing! You may choose a "gentle" mode, a "normal" mode, and a "kamikaze" mode -- and in that last one, the "punishment" is that your document starts ERASING ITSELF -- absolutely terrifying!! Will drain the blood out of your face!

If you're one of the "I will write a novel in 30 days" people, this app could be very useful. Don't want to risk it? I recommend then watching the five-minute Write or Die YouTube video for a good-natured demonstration. Got a friend with writers' block? Pass this app on. If it makes people write, I'm for it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Insanely Low-Cost Self-Publishing

Last night attended a St. Louis Publishers Association meeting at Mira, a midtown-St. Louis digital-printing company that sustains itself on self-published books. I kid you not. Cut to the chase: Here is their pricing chart for the printing of paperbacks (pricing is per book, from a print-ready PDF file; full-color cover with gloss lamination, b/w interior and perfect [glue] binding):

Across: Book Quantity

Down: Number of pages in book




































My meaning is: Don’t be tempted, or let your friends be tempted, by a self-publisher who wants $3,000-$8,000 to publish your book. Save your money and publish it yourself. Mira and other competing printeries in the area also have design and editing services; bizcards, posters, banners, etc. are printed there too. If you are or want to be self-published (hey, poets) or small-press, the world is now your oyster.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Ideal MFA Program. . .

. . .for writers in these times, when opportunity poses challenges and challenges hold opportunities, would look something like:

4 workshops of the usual kind
2 business courses: one in business basics/personal finance, and one "running your own small business" (because that's what writers do)
2 electronic technology courses: hands-on, one with a multi-media project as a final exam
1 course in basic journalistic reportage, must pass with high grade
1 course in the psychology of the arts and the artist
1 course in Classics
1 course in publishing

At 3 credits each that's 36 credits -- and you really would be ready to be a working writer.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sylvia Plath and the Tee-Shirt

Wore this today to town and to the gym. This tee-shirt (I thought) was in bad taste on any occasion -- I mean, a depressed poet, dead by suicide -- so I owned it for two years before I finally wore it to a buncha-writers dinner party, but today it was the only clean shirt, so I wore it to town: to the Christian cafĂ© (it has wireless), to the gym, the post office, and pharmacy. The lone comment came from pharmacy technician. Squinting at the image she said, “Is that one of those shirts that they give you at high-school reunions, showing what you used to look like back in high school?” Sylvia’s my main lady, but I never expected to be mistaken for her.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

22 Poems in Two Days

The notebook exercise, done the past two Fridays, yielded first drafts of 22 poems (!!!!). There were more but I chose to transcribe only those. Got my crafting and editing work cut out for me for probably the rest of '09. So nice to have something on paper.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Split Oak Press

Split Oak Press, new in Ithaca, NY, is looking for poetry manuscripts. See the Split Oak Press website here. Thanks to Anthony Di Renzo for the tip.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Fill a Notebook in a Day

Get a one-subject notebook. Clear a day so it’s nice and quiet. Then write in the notebook all day. Draft like crazy. Try to fill the notebook in just one day. Write what you want without censoring. This ain’t for publication. See what you come up with.

I finally got around to doing this favorite exercise (in a Hello Kitty notebook). It always unearths what I’m really interested in writing about, which gets buried under “should” and “ought to,” red herrings, and imagined obligations. A friend says: “You have the problems that you want to have.” When I think of writing as a problem, I have made my own problem, haven’t I?

I invented this exercise in creative profligacy when I was 12 and a notebook cost me most of a week’s allowance. I imagined growing up and the joy of being able to buy and fill all the notebooks I wanted.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Real Simple Scam

Don't enter that Real Simple contest -- alas, here is the fine print, under Section 5, sent to me by Linda O'Connell -- you'd be giving your work away:

"In addition, by entering, Entrant grants to Sponsor a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license to edit, publish, promote, and republish at any time in the future and otherwise use Entrant’s submitted essay, along with Entrant’s name, likeness, biographical information, and any other information provided by Entrant, in any and all media for possible editorial, promotional, or advertising purposes, without further permission, notice, or compensation (except where prohibited by law)."

I am removing the "Real Simple" blog entry and retracting my encouragement for you to enter.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Frank McCourt

Twenty years ago, memoirists had to pretend they were fiction writers. And today fiction writers have to pretend they are memoirists! Readers loved the late Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes (1996), and writers must give him his props for helping, with that book, to spark the U.S.'s Creative Nonfiction Revolution. That book generated thousands of memoirs, courses in memoirs, workshops on memoirs, interest in memoirs, and programs in creative nonfiction, all since the middle 1990s. "I want to write something like Angela's Ashes." You can! And probably publish it, because Frank McCourt did.

Other bestselling memoirs too get credit for the memoir phenomenon, most frequently Mary Karr's The Liars Club, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. Earlier memoirs requiring our props and re-reads are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), Black Boy (1945), and My Brilliant Career (1901).

Nonfiction writers: Aren't you glad you live now?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The No-Contest Contest

Finally -- the "no-contest contest." Send poetry or personal essays with $15 "reading fee" and receive a critique from "S.," who offers editing services and a subscription-only e-newsletter. Yes, everybody who enters the non-contest gets a critique. Here's how it works, genuine quotations:

"Step 1 - You submit an entry and S. responds.
Step 2 - You can either keep your entry as is for the contest or revise it and resubmit for consideration in the contest before the contest deadline, August 31st. "

You now demand to know the details and the prizes. Forthwith:

"Deadline: August 31, 2009
Submit: Up to six double-spaced pages of prose or three poems. S. will respond to your work within two weeks of receiving it. [Apparently S. is not very busy.]
Entry Fee: Entry fee for subscribers is $15 and for non-subscribers it is $45 and includes a year’s subscription ($30 value) to [newsletter].

"The contest finalists will be judged by a guest editor to be announced in September and winners will be notified and published in [newsletter] (we require one time only rights) in the later fall. Winners receive a half-hour consult with S. about their writing and/or publishing questions."

This is the first "contest" I have seen OPENLY established and run by an individual for their own personal monetary profit. Others like it can't be far behind...it's one way for a writer to try to make a living.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pay the Writer -- What For?

Organization wants to set up literary contest. Doesn't know how. E-mails me. Can I tell them: how to set it up? Who the judges should be? What they should be paid? Should the contest be in poetry, fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction categories, or is all four too much? What prizes should be given? Should they be monetary? How do we winnow the entries? Advertise the contest? What should be its rules and guidelines? What's a realistic timeline for submissions? Should there be an awards ceremony?

I replied (and so should you): I will be glad to consult on this matter at my usual fee.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Prize: $2500 and Publication in Esquire

Short Story Contest
A prize of $2,500 and publication in Esquire will be given for a short story with the title “Twenty-Ten,” “An Insurrection,” or “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again.” The fiction editors will judge. Using the electronic submission system, submit a story of up to 4,000 words by August 1. There is no entry fee. Visit the Web site for complete guidelines.
Esquire, Short Story Contest, Hearst Communications, 300 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019. Camille Perri,
Fiction Editor.


Newsweek: Interview with Kay Ryan

Tip: Check out the "What to Read Now" July 13 issue of Newsweek, including an interview with Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, ("the Quiet Poet Laureate") who didn't think she could be a poet because she couldn't cut a "dramatic swath" like Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, with their mental health issues. Good read...

Friday, July 3, 2009

More Girls Than Guys

More women than men:
-take creative-writing courses and workshops.
-belong to writing groups or circles.
-belong to writers' organizations or guilds.
-enter writing contests.
-go to writers' colonies.
-serve as volunteers for writers' organizations.
-win low-level writing prizes and awards.
-teach and tutor English composition.
-buy books.
-become part-time writers for some publication.
-spend time on list-servs, bulletin boards, and blogs.

More men than women:
-publish books.
-give readings.
-head literary magazines.
-head literary organizations.
-become writers-in-residence or professors of writing.
-become full-time writers for some publication.
-have agents.
-win prestigious prizes and fellowships.
-win Pulitzer prizes.
-are well-paid for their writing.

Both men and women:
-talk a lot about the books, especially the novels and memoirs, that they're going to write.
-self-publish at about the same levels.

Just noticing.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How to Kill Your Readers

Start with any of these to kill any reader's interest in your memoir:
  • "My father..."
  • "My mother..."
  • "As a child, I..."
  • "During my childhood..."
  • "During my senior year in high school..."
  • "I finally made the painful decision to..."
  • "When Mother couldn't take care of herself any longer..."
  • "A recurring dream I have is..."
  • "My sister [brother] has always been..."
  • "I have always wondered about my..."
It doesn't matter how beautifully written and moving it is or how hard you worked on it: If your memoir doesn't open with something more inclusive than yourself and your family -- readers won't read it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I Feel a Draft Coming On

Two or three days of quietude, plus the reading of some poetry, stir me to compose drafts. It happened this past weekend for the first time in many months. I drafted 5 poems.

Per the book The Artist’s Way, I try to think of myself as a channel. Not a channel for poetry, but a channel for first drafts.

It’s the quiet and getting centered in it. It’s shutting off the ringer on the phone. It’s sleeping late enough to heal lingering tiredness, and poaching salmon and laying off the chocolate chips (straight from the bag). In short, it’s treating myself like someone whose well-being matters. It’s telling myself, when assailed by painful thoughts and distractions: “Be Kind To Your Mind.”

On second thought, I might have to credit the digital changeover on June 12, because my TV hasn’t worked since.

Writers Scare People!

Yes, we scare people! We know we're all gentle souls, and treat children kindly (you never know which of them will grow up to be a writer, and write about YOU), and you like to party & that -- but goll-lee, just let a household of non-writers know that a writer, like, a published writer, is in their midst and they will do one of two things:

1. Say Oh How Interesting and ask what kind of writing, and if it is not mystery novels or Christ-centered bestsellers like The Purpose-Drive Life, steer the conversation in another direction.
2. Feel Intimidated and say, Well, mumble, mumble, guess I will dig with my index finger through the antipasto.

Come on, people! Writers are JUST LIKE YOU. What we do is hard, like brain surgery and rocket science, yeah, but we want love just like everyone else on earth; please don't be scared of us.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Done Today

I've very little time lately between clients, work, and class prep to get to my own poems. But today I did. Finally I put a satisfactory closing line on a poem I wrote in 2006 (!) that has sat rotting unpublished because I couldn't capture that last line. Then I knocked off some changes (judicious trims) in a newer poem I've been hammering at for about four months, and now I think it's finished.

This didn't take but 45 minutes; however, I was focused. I feel good. Proud of myself.

Paging through the completed poems I saw that the best one was sent through 14 drafts; that the second-best went through 11 drafts, including one severe cutting job at draft #9, plus an extensive detailed workshop critique at draft #5. Who said writing isn't work?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Your Skills are Worth

Copyediting: $26/hr
Manuscript evaluations: $46-$51/hr
Teaching/leading a workshop: $75/hr
Writing queries: $78/hr; $200 per project
Online research: $65/hr
"Generating content": $84/hr

Info is the "average" from the 2006 Writers' Market. You'd be making more today!

Go out and charge likewise!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What Are You Worth Per Hour?

Maybe you can’t make a living wage from your fiction or poems or essays. But you CAN make money using the array of skills you employ when you do creative writing. Here are some of your skills. Not everyone can say they have them! How good are you at each of these, and how experienced? Do you know what they are worth? Can you set a price on them? That’s the first step toward getting paid.

-copyediting $_____ per hour

-evaluation of manuscripts/critical feedback $____per hour

-teaching or leading a workshop $____ per hour

-writing queries, proposals, or synopses $____per hour

-researching potential publication venues $____per hour

-navigating and gathering information from websites helpful to writers, such as litmags.org or duotrope.com, and preparing to impart this information to those who want it $____per hour

-generating “content”: writing articles for publication or the web $____per hour

Those are just some of the skills you are probably undervaluing! More later, plus actual figures you SHOULD be charging.

Thanks to Becky Ellis of the blog cherrypiepress.blogspot.com for finding litmags.org.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Want to Read Books on Your I-Phone?

Very soon a million books will be available for download, at $9.95 each, through a new app for your I-Phone. Read about it in this article from Poets & Writers online. I don't have such a phone so I will find someone who has one and who uses this app, and see if they can actually have a pleasant reading experience on that little screen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The closet door in his room opened into an enchanted land, where Polka the Giraffe led him on magical journeys, and Dunkin Bunkin (a rabbit) and Beeky (a woodpecker) had seagoing adventures and talked like 18th-century Englishmen, and their antagonist, Fantod Willie (a rat) made his living selling bubbles. . .

None of these wonderful stories was ever finished. I have the author's manuscripts. They are all about 3/4 complete.

Langston Hughes remembered a teacher who told him, "Always finish." This advice haunts me as I read these stories that almost -- could have -- made it into the world, and made it a better world.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to Compliment a Writer

"You are fierce, funny, and made of steel," someone recently told me. I agree 100 percent and find this a thrilling way to be perceived. But this got me wondering on how to compliment a writer. Good bets:

"I read your _______ and loved it!"
"Your work is fascinating."
"You're one of the best writers in town."
"I'm a fan."
"I got your book and I'm reading it."
"You really know how to write."
"Your voice is unique."
"You're an excellent writer."
"Your stuff is so much fun."
"Your stuff moves me to the core!"
"You just get better and better."

String any two of these together and you have a custom-made compliment for the next time you want to give a warm fuzzy to one of your peers.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Winning

Having entered 9 poetry contests this past spring I've placed in two of them and won the top prize from the Midwest Writing Center's regional competition -- for my "Apple Orchard" poem. They phoned me from Davenport, IA, yesterday, Saturday, and knock me over with a feather. I get $200 plus a special thing (a surprise) they send the regional winner. There's also a national winner. I chose, out of cowardice, not to enter the Center's national-level competition.

The other two honors:
  • Third place, St. Louis Poetry Center members' contest
  • Poetry in Motion, mine one of 15 poems selected to be printed on beautiful posters and placed on the are MetroLink trains. I had a poem selected in 2006 as well.
How do I feel? I'm happy; more so, I am honored. But it's odd -- the poems I sent that I thought were my best and most riotous are not among the winners. Ergo, I wonder: Is or is not the poet the best judge of his or her poetry?

Revise Yourself Raw

Gee, it’s not perfect, but I’d like it to be. Better work on it. There, that helps. But now the rest of the work has to be improved likewise. Maybe I should change the work’s tone entirely. Okay, revise line by line, sentence by sentence. . .

. . .That’s what I want to write, but what will people think of me? Better cross that stuff out. –Because people will guess that these are the true details of my private life, and oo-la-la! Sick self-display. I know better! Delete, delete.

Maybe this is really a short story. Maybe this is really a piece of creative nonfiction. Maybe this is really a poem. Maybe it’s a sonnet. Let’s try turning this into a sonnet.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Are Writers Temperamental?

Anonymous writer had two readings set up. Decided not to do them, but rather than say "I don't want to do them," picked an asinine quarrel guaranteed to short-circuit both appearances and future ones.

Anonymous writer breaks out in red spots upon hearing that she should inquire about guest teaching gigs rather than waiting (11 years & counting) for universities to seek her out. She's bitter that they don't.

Anonymous writer feels she is slighted because she is fat and black. Another sure that the problem is that he is a white male. Another feels ignored because he is over 50. Others feel pegged -- as a Jew, an Asian, a lesbian, an academic, a newbie.

Anonymous writer is crushed by a rejection, never tries to publish again.

Lots of suffering generated by their choices of truths and realities!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Scribd.com is where writers post their work for readers to download and get 80 percent of any sales. It's an alternative to Amazon.com which takes 50 percent. I've priced my poetry book, Fierce Consent, at Scribd's suggested retail of $5, in PDF format. And I'll see if my experience at Scribd.com is at all different than, or more trafficked than, lulu.com. I'm always looking for ways for writers to get more from what they do.

Read the NYT article about Scribd here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ever Want to Quit Writing?

Found this on Salon.com; adviser Carey Tennis's worthwhile answer to a letter from a self-confessed "failed" novelist, age 60, who wants to give up writing because it just doesn't pay. It caught my eye because one rarely hear about anyone "quitting writing."

That individual letter writer, who signed himself "Lost on Boulevard of Dreams" has cancer, has a disabled wife who needs him at home, so can't hold a day job, and needs money. Maybe the view is different from age 60. But I know so many happy writers 60 and over -- some just finding their voices, getting involved in projects, mastering their craft, getting happily published; publishing themselves too. But "Lost" is actually considering suicide.

The adviser's answer says writing is about having a dream. I agree, but prose writing can be jimmied to be somewhat practical. I would have suggested to the novelist a few courses in journalism or creative nonfiction so he can write saleable things. If he says, "I can't, I'm a fiction writer," I would tell him he's creating his own artificial difficulty when he's got difficulties enough.

Monday, May 18, 2009

About the War and the Holocaust

Friend Helen Eisen published a poetry chapbook about herself and her parents, survivors of the Holocaust, titled The Permeability of Memory (Cherry Pie Press). It was favorably noted, and Helen was interviewed, in the blog Writing the Holocaust. Helen says her family and their friends did not say "the Holocaust"; instead they said, "the war."

This is a point I've tried to make for years. "The Holocaust" is an insultingly reductive shorthand label that our culture finds way too convenient to use. I have had to correct careless people who equate the Holocaust with the war.

Upcoming Events

Tim Leach, one of my favorite St. Louis poets, will be reading from his work next Tues. evening, May 26, at Poetry at the Pointe on Sutton Blvd. in Maplewood, 7:00 p.m. On the same bill is poet Pam Garvey, professor at STLCC-Meramec, very accomplished younger poet. Don't hesitate to be there. That series has been very uneven, but for that evening I personally guarantee you some good poetry. Tim, a fomer showboat actor, almost never reads his work in public, for reasons too complicated for me to understand.

Then on Thursday, May 28, the Poetry in Motion winners (count 'em, 15 of them) read the poems to be posted on groovy posters on the MetroLink transit system for one year. That event will be at 6:00 p.m. at the Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater on Delmar. Look for the poems on the MetroLink and buses very soon. It's mind-bending but refreshing to see poetry in such strange, anonymous places. I wonder who first came up with the idea of posting poetry on public transit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Yes, I Knew Derek Walcott

Poet Derek Walcott is in the news, the NYT reporting 30-year-old charges of sexual harassment forcing him out of a professorship at Oxford. He was the Hurst professor I studied with at Wash U. This was 1989, before his Nobel Prize.

How gruff Walcott was. Students had to go to his special visiting-professor apartment to meet with him. He answered the door reluctantly. He said some snappish thing as I walked in. I stopped, looked him in the face and said, "You're a tyrant."

He did a double take. Immediately he dropped the tyrant act, and we had a productive discussion. Later he told me my poetry was "damn good."

Normally I wouldn't have faced down Derek Walcott, except coincidentally he shares my birthday, 23 January, and I felt as if that were a key to his personality. What else I remember: his light-blue eyes. His white girlfriend. His urge to level things. I wrote a poem that made fun of a Hawaiian bar. He urged me to rewrite it, have yet more fun, and "destroy Hawaii!"Now circumstances conspire to level him. What goes around comes around.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Your Future Holds Many Many Chapbooks

Every poet’s got a chapbook, is making one, is competing to publish one – and is showing us the future. Readers want
  • short
  • intimate
  • prettily designed
  • highly portable and
  • cheaply-had books. Chapbooks seem disposable because they seem slight; but then they’re not so disposable, because they’re usually not worth the trouble to re-sell.
Plus, I find myself picking up chapbooks from my shelf and enjoying brief readings; I do this more often than pick up full-length, hardback poetry books, some of which I begrudge reading because they cost me so much. Last full-length poetry book purchased was a 90-page paperback, $17.95, titled Enterprise, Inc. Love the poet, Chuck Sweetman. Hated the price.

Q. But will people download poetry chapbooks?

A. I think they will. I’d rather pay $9.95 and see half of that $9.95 going to the poet. Easy to make a PDF of a pretty chapbook. It'd cost nothing to add a sound file, too, so one can hear the poet read a few poems. In the chilly electronic cocoons that we're spinning for ourselves so that we can't be hurt, we're going to be craving more truth and intimacy. Poetry will fill the need.

I’d only miss getting the poet’s autograph and smile.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Big-Screen Kindle Unveiled Today

NYT reports today that Amazon.com has unveiled a larger-sized Kindle reading pod -- looks like about 8.5 x 11 inches, screen 9.7 inches -- and will sell it this summer for $489. Wisely they have realized that there's a market for BIGGER AS WELL AS smaller electronics -- you know, like those foot-long, big-button TV remotes for old people? Well, everyone gets older. . .and everyone still likes to read. . .and $489 won't get you very many brand-new hardback books. More precisely, $489 gets you 17-3/4 hardback books at $27.50 each. (And where in your house is there room for them?)

The new Kindle DISPLAYS PDFs (the Kindle 1 didn't) and holds 3,500 books.

Discussing Kindle with people, I sometimes fail to mention buyers get the "wireless" component of it free. Amazon assumes you'll make it up by downloading books. They're correct.

Friday, May 1, 2009

If You Want to Be Famous. . .

By the time you read this, Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, will be at the publisher's, in production. Curious writer friends now ask why I didn't interview THEM for the book (since it's a book of interviews with St. Louis writers). The men ask jokingly but directly. Miffed women give me reproachful looks and won't congratulate me on publishing the book.

Look, writers: If you want press, if you want to be interviewed, you will have to:

1) write something and make it available.
2) alert the media. They won't come looking for you. I know you think they should. But they're media. They have to hear buzz.
3) do some publicity on your own, such as scheduling a book launch, sending postcards, press kits or other. That may be beneath you, but it is rather like going to the bathroom -- you can't deceive yourself that you're above all that. Get a publicist if you can pay for one. College students majoring in marketing are a good option.

My interviewing-writers days are over, but remember the above, because somebody else someday is going to be seeking out and interviewing writers about their processes and secrets.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Literary Life

See the slam poet Copacetic Soul if you can. I imagined he'd be profane and hateful -- but he was funny, energetic, explosive, a rainbow of emotions, talking poetry about being an insatiable Kiss fan and wanting to paint his face up like Kiss for Halloween and his mom gently reminding him, "Son, you're black. . . " Small audience Tues eve at Pudd'nhead books, but intense listeners, including some bookstore shoppers amazed to hear actually interesting poetry. People are surprised when suit-and-heels me reads and relishes strange, frank, risque poems.

I also met event organizer and editor of the print/online mag Literal Chaos. Their next issue' theme is "Fire." Send in your fire poem or story or essay.

Wed evening the Wash U University College (evening school) students read from their work, a really nice event. Of 11 participants, 5 were my students in '08-'09. For all of them it was their first time reading to an audience. I am so proud.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book is Finished!

I finished my book of interviews just now -- the introduction was the last thing to write. After working on a draft that was drying up like plaster of Paris as I worked on it, I started fresh with a line that came to me: "I trust this book."

It happens! It can be done!

I'm thrilled, breathless, and can't wait to go back to what I was doing before -- finishing poems for another book. But before that, relax. Party and see friends. Love. Do neglected chores. Call Mom. Take up neglected pleasures. You, too! Good for our mental health! And I will actually see you very soon now.

Did I tell you I took 3rd prize in the St. Louis Poetry Center contest?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Bookstore, Red Lipstick

There's a new independent bookstore in St. Louis and someone who's been there told me it's very professional and totally hot, kind of like you and me in red lipstick. It's Pudd'n'head Books at 37 S. Old Orchard Ave. in Webster Groves, near the Ben Franklin.

National Poetry Month has kept you and me hopping to and from workshops and readings all April and I'll be on the bill at Pudd'n'head on April 28, readings starting at 7:30. After the featured poets do 10-15 minutes each, the mike is open.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finally, the Real Title

The book of interviews with St. Louis writers -- 13 in all -- has a name that the publisher and I both finally agree on. It's called Meet Me. It'll have some kind of subtitle such as "Conversations with Writers in St. Louis." I'm proud of it. You'll see it this fall. It's just the sort of book I like: full of successful-writer secrets. I negotiated for and won ownership for all the electronic rights to the text.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More Good Quotations

"Each line in a poem should be better than the last."

"Somebody smarter than I once said, 'A bad title is like a dunce-cap on a poem'."

"As poets we can't be stewards of everyone's issues, but we have to be aware of them."

"About ampersands: I asked Yusef Komunyakaa why he uses them. He says it's because he doesn't like what the word 'and' looks like."

-Gems from Adrian Matejka, critic at Sunday's St. Louis Poetry Center workshop.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Being a Fabulous Judge

Judging 23 poets was agony: There were 3 official prizes ($50, $25, $15), 4 poets who deserved those prizes, and 3 more poets quite impressive. But those "everybody wins" competitions are lame, so I did my job at Saturday's "Poetry Throwdown," arranged by the St. Louis Writers Guild, the first competition of its kind. I was the "fabulous judge," according to the Guild's p.r. Comedian Mike McGuire was the emcee, and Rebecca Carron, president of the Guild, organized the event. I hope there will be more. I'll compete.

I scored contestants on appearance (could the poet transcend it and become the spirit of poetry?), the poems (I also had hard copies to re-read), delivery, and audience response: not applause, but whether he or she could hit us in the heart, brain, or gut. First place went to Eliana Parnas, a 16-year-old who flawlessly and with good pacing read good poetry from handwritten sheets, twisting us around her little finger. Second place to Matt Freeman, who can mesmerize and lift a whole room. Third place to Marcel Toussaint, who got and held people's attention. This wasn't a "poetry slam" but a reading -- only not so "unplugged' and low-key. It was a show. The event was big fun and all St. Louis poets get props from me.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Great, Productive, and Beloved: Pick 2

An artist can be Great, Productive, and Beloved, but probably not all three at once.
  • Great and Productive: Great and Productives, later in life when there's money, may be beloved by a servile non-entity. Before then, partners, if any, feel neglected and jealous of the writer's devotion to writing (Ted Hughes, The Brontes, Flannery O'Connor, T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, Doris Lessing). Public opinion has it that "they're not very nice people."
  • Productive and Beloved: Egged on by warmth and approval, these do it all: literature, journalism, essays, poems, maybe even drama. (Stephen King, George Eliot, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Oliver, Joan Didion). The drawback: the "Great" label is rarely bestowed.
  • Beloved and Great: probably foreign or ethnic or very old; flies around the world receiving honors, giving readings to packed rooms at universities. Years may pass between books (Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, Chinua Achebe, Ko Un).
You can be the first writer on your block to be Great, Productive, and Loved. When you manage it, tell us how you did it. It is my goal.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Best" Anthologies: Their Importance

New: Two more "Best" anthologies: Best African-American Fiction and Best African-American Essays. Gerald Early, series editor, introduced them yesterday at a reading, saying he learned about African-American literature "largely through anthologies," crediting in particular the anthology Black Fire (1969). Today "Best of" anthologies are rife and writers say that "Bests" are not about what's best, it's all pop and political. Well, I've just changed my mind, not about what's best, but about anthologies.

Anthologies helped me, a clueless working-class kid, become a writer. Thirty years ago I bought paperback anthologies of black, gay, feminist,and/or leftist writers in place of expensive books by individual authors. Without anthologies, I'd never have read more Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Judy Grahn, Tillie Olsen, Susan Griffin, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker, dozens of writers living and past. Those set my reading compass for the next few crucial years, or else I may never have put the words "women" and "writer" or "women" and "politics" together. (It wasn't the way it is now.) I read them to pieces: Sisterhood is Powerful, Mountain Moving Day, To Be of Use, No More Masks, Writing Red, Women and Fiction, even one called Brewing: 20 Milwaukee Poets.

We writers may groan about anthologies, especially the annuals, but bring them on -- they're not for us, anyway. They're for people who maybe aren't being groomed to be writers, but are are going to be writers nonetheless, who will someday suddenly remember some anthology that was a landmark in their lives.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Poem by 19-Year-Old Obama


Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I'm sure he's unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he's still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He's so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don't care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I've been saving; I'm laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shrink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; 'cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop's black-framed glasses
And know he's laughing too.

-Barack Obama, 1982
(26 March 2009 in the Huffington Post.)

Monday, April 13, 2009


I promised to finish the book manuscript by April 30. A deadline is always a plus; I have almost always finished ahead of a deadline, at least 995 out of 1000 times. Back in the newsroom in Boston, the editor hung over me like a gargoyle: "Rankovic! You have 10 minutes! What's the holdup, are you writing the creation of the world? You are not James Michener! We have a news hole! We have a deadline! Nine minutes and your butt is grass! Flaherty, kick her, maybe she'll work faster!" How good to look back and think I have probably written more than 1000 pieces on a deadline.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Find Wall; Bang Head Repeatedly

A month after I began work on finding a book title, this week I really poured it on, going so far as to consult the Band Name Generator (using an appropriate variable word such as "writer," "author," "interview," "river," "central," etc.). Everyone I asked offered help; thank you kindly! I will do the same for you. And finally I think I've got it. I'll sleep on it and then tell you that I want to call it A Fine Line, subtitle Talks with Authors in St. Louis, or something like that. Do you like it?

Other titles considered: Flyover, Flyway (love the word, but it's too much like "flyweight)," Desktop Paradise, Desktop Haven, Garden of Intelligence, River Haven, St. Louis Calling, Creatives, About the Writer, Second-Floor Sunroom. . . (an architectural detail that's so very St. Louis!), Velvet Minds, many hundreds more.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Query Letter Review

A query letter is a business letter and your first contact with anyone: an agent, an editor. They are determined to discourage the riffraff; your job is to not be the riffraff. Do your best to write a sane and dignified business letter:

Name, Address and Salutation

First paragraph: Describe/summarize in your most interesting fashion the book you have finished (agents look at completed books only) or the article you plan (magazine editors will consider "pitches" for articles not yet written if yours is a good idea. Now that you've given away your idea, you must quickly...)

Second paragraph: Tell why you are the person qualified to write this. If it's your first book, don't say so. As proud as you are of your book -- and you should be! -- in the business of publishing, being a first-timer is a strike against you. Latest cool idea for first-timers: Be able to tell the agent or editor that a professional (writer, editor) has read it and declared it publishable.

Third paragraph: About the manuscript (how many words, genre, such as "a 35,000-word western romance novel"). Its working title (chances are they will not like your title, no matter what it is, so call it a working title).

Fourth paragraph: Tell, briefly, why you are querying this particular agent or publisher. Tell the truth. (Perhaps the one time in the business world when you absolutely must tell the truth and scrupulously avoid b---s---. )"I noticed that you are the agent for XX, who is my favorite romance author," or "Writer's Digest says you specialize in historical narrative nonfiction." If you're sending a snail mail, add: an SASE for your reply is enclosed.


Signature and all possible contact information: Name address phone numbers fax number email.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

You're Just a Little Piece of Software

Just as you are about to complete any big writing project -- at the 95 percent point or so -- a little piece of software may well kick in. It invades the mind of the confident writer, who begins to think:
  • I'm tired.
  • Why bother.
  • Get somebody else to freaking do this freaking work.
  • I've changed my mind.
  • Whatever I get won't be enough.
  • This project isn't worth it.
  • It's high time I started letting other people down and disappointing them.
  • Need a week off.
  • For this I gave up my social life?
  • Surrender.
I know it's just a little piece of punk-ass software and I can slap it down.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I Was Plan B - Always Say Yes

Substituted at the last minute for memoirist Kathleen Finneran at a reading at Chesterfield Arts Center Wednesday night. I'd been going there anyway to hear Kathleen. She honored me by asking. But there's nothing like hearing an audience groan when told, "Kathleen can't be here tonight." The host wisely allowed the groans to subside. Then, "Instead, we have Catherine Rankovic..."

Kathleen had phoned me at 4 p.m., could I go read there at 7 p.m. My motto is "Always say Yes." Fortunately it was a good hair day. Ran home, put on lipstick, was pleased to know that the car is ALWAYS stuffed with my books, & unsure of what material to do, I read Guilty Pleasures excerpts to hugely appreciative audience of about 25 who made me laugh too. Six years after publication I'd forgotten how good some of that book was. Sold 7 books, talked with audience -- strangers, not just friends, although 2 of me mates from Loosely Identified were there, Niki and Marilyn -- & heard some confessions ("I've always wanted to write" -- I want to hug these people!) and had a good time.

The Price of Permissions

For my upcoming book of interviews with writers (Don Finkel, Carl Phillips, Ntozake Shange, Tess Gallagher, and so on) I've had to request from the copyright holders permission to reprint samples of the authors' work. Here's how it goes in real life:

Don Finkel: Son holds the rights, and granted them free.

John N. Morris: Requires an epic nationwide search to locate the John J. Morris who is Morris's son and the copyright holder. Finally located by Washington University, Morris grants permission free.

Graywolf Press: Holder of Carl Phillips and Tess Gallagher rights. Asking to reprint one poem from each, I filed requests online. In five days comes the Carl Phillips permission, costing $30. In three weeks comes the Tess Gallagher permission, costing $150. Graywolf says this is the author's designated price. I wrote the author to ask her to give me a break, but secretly I think it's great that a woman has the nerve to charge $150 to repint one of her poems.

St. Martin's Press: It's hard to find a shorter Ntozake Shange poem that isn't part of a play, but I did, in Riding the Moon in Texas, and faxed St. Martin's Press for permission. They granted it for $50.

As a sidelight, while researching permission rights I discovered it costs $5000 to quote from the song "Hotel California," specifically the line, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." It seems that's because "you" will never be able to pay the bill.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Dare Me

Yesterday a poet named Matthew Guenette, young guy from out of town, read at Black Bear Bakery on a double bill with Rockwell Gray. Guenette is a social satirist -- currently a rare type of poet -- who knocks "things" like Katie Couric, and grocery stories so big "the aisles have storm drains." Audience laughed. I liked his work enough to buy his book Sudden Anthem (2007) from Dream Horse Press. He sold all the copies he brought.

My work also has a satirical streak and I decided in a flash to gallop out to my car, scoop my book Fierce Consent out of the trunk, run back and give it to him. I did, surprising him. I told him, "I'm doing this because we are alike. "

This was bold of me but I sensed that it was the right time and place. The day's horoscope ("there will be a small window of opportunity") and old maxims went through my head: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Would the book better off in my trunk? Hardly. I hope it'll make him laugh too.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Yusef Komunyakaa: A Question of Taste

Yusef Komunyakaa is a presence: tall and rangy, very dark-skinned, with white hair now, and a beautiful warm voice. Saw and heard him read poems last night at Wash U. as a special guest of the Callalloo conference.

I went so I could try once more to appreciate his work as others do. Komunyakaa's poetry is eclectic but no component of it fully engages me. These components include jazz, blues, vernacular speech, maleness, blackness, the segregated Deep South, and service in Vietnam. He read a poem about off-duty GIs segregating themselves in different bars, but having the same women, whose brothers it is their job to kill. Another poem described a black GI throwing himself on a grenade, thereby saving the rest of his company. Komunyakaa said such an event happened at least 14 or 15 times that he knows of, and the poem asks why. In the poem, and probably in real life, the self-martyred soldier takes over, forever after, the inner lives of those he has saved.

Komunyakaa is highly honored -- Pulitzer Prize, Chancellorship at the Academy of American Poets, and countless other awards -- but the full enjoyment of his poetry requires steps up for me that I had not prepared myself to take. Is that what taste is?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Library Secret

Secret is out; someone made me admit that all my life I have visited the space my books would occupy on library shelves. For about 25 years I pined over the 811 shelves (Dewey) and the PS books, subset 20th century (Library of Congress system), with the books of Sylvia Plath and Philip Roth so near I could feel and almost see them breathing . Ultimately my books manifested (between poet Claudia Rankine on my left, and always a different author on my right) in the 21st century. They are titled Fierce Consent and Island Universe; two pleasing names.

Now at libraries I often visit my books. One of them may be out on the town. The satisfaction is immense. It'll happen again and again, as long as I live, and even longer.

Tip: Ask your relatives and friends in other counties and states to contact the acquisitions librarians at their local public and college libraries, suggesting they acquire your book. This can often be done by filling out an online form.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creating a Title for a Book

Publisher informs me she doesn't like the working title on my book of interviews, Fame. It will have a subtitle but I worked hard to find this main title. Ideally, in my mind, a book's title should be
  • unique
  • memorable
  • short (A big marbly mouthful can work if it's fun to say, such as Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, or What Narcissism Means to Me. Nobody would have read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had it been titled Generation Y Male Discovers That Life is Hard.)
  • fun to say
  • intriguing
  • appealing (the sunny version of "intriguing")
  • convey the gist of the book
  • pleasing to the author
Publisher suggested calling it InterViews but that title doesn't meet my criteria.

My impulse is to keep my choice, but we'll brainstorm for something we agree on. I brainstormed and searched for my poetry book's title, Fierce Consent, for four solid months. The phrase was in the manuscript. The right title often hides out there.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

News: 6 Samples of Video Poetry

Poets & Writers sent me a link to six samples of "video poetry." Yes, the day has come: video poetry. Check it out. Thylias Moss, if that name rings a bell, contributed two of them.

They look like YouTube videos. The best part is the poetry, if you can hear it (some poems are barely audible). The worst part is the visuals.

Video poetry is not very good yet. It's like those 1970s paintings that include the painters' "poetry" scribbled on the canvases. Like painters who write flaky poetry, writers are using flaky video images: blurry, trippy, "haunting" or surreal. I like it best when I can watch the poet reading his poem.

I sense that video poetry, to be appealing, will have to be short. I found I couldn't wait 4 minutes and 50 seconds for a poem. I wanted my poetry fix.

"Poetry is a mere drug, Sir." --George Farquhar, 18th-century playwright

Monday, March 16, 2009

"I Have Wasted My Life"

"I'm sorry you haven't had a happy life," my mother said. She was comparing me with my sisters, all homeowners, settled, and wonderful: blond brick, gas fireplace. Then she's got the writer, for godsakes, a-comin' by with red-rimmed eyes again.

"That's not exactly true," I said. "You mean that I haven't had a normal life.

"How could I have had a normal life? I was born with a talent. I assume that meant I should use it. So I use it. Anyone or anything that tries to stop me or get in my way, I'm gone."

"That's the problem," Mom said.

I don't argue with Mom, or try to explain things. So I let her think she stung me a little. That's the price I pay for having caused her so much worry.

Thank God that writers sent quotations down through the ages to help us. There's that shocking line by poet James Wright: "I have wasted my life." What shocked people was that the line expresses not anguish, but joy. Writers understand this perfectly.