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.