Sitting Down with Catherine Rankovic
Catherine Rankovic is a contributor to Walrus Publishing’s Flood Stage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets. She is the author of Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis (2010), Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments (2007), Fierce Consent and Other Poems (2005) and a co-author of Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions, and Obsessions (2003). She has published essays in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, The Progressive, and Natural Bridge and poems in Boulevard, River Styx, and 13th Moon, among many other journals. She has taught university creative-writing courses since 1989 and currently does manuscript editing and author mentoring for her own business, www.Bookeval.com.
Tell us about your background and passion for writing.
I’ve always liked books but believe my passion to write comes from being a first-generation American who, from birth, lived mostly among people who did not speak English. This left me a lot of time to wonder what they were saying and why, to study their carpets and family photos, and to imagine things. I think most writers could find in their early lives a problem related to communication. The adults around me who did speak English were obsessed with the notion of authority. Our belief that we direct our own lives by personally choosing among many options is a luxury they never had. They took orders or gave them, fearing reflection. They would not even acknowledge what was in front of them and, despite what I knew to be true, I was told to do the same, and I accepted it. The only way I could express my mixed emotions and frustrated responses without being scoffed at was to secretly write. My whole life has been about communication.
How do you describe your perspective and style?
I’m a rhetorical poet, always making some kind of point. Richard Newman said my poems are marked by “brutal honesty and painful humor,” and I agree. My poetry and prose is mostly about rules, society, and power. Seldom do those things suit me. It’s considered aggressive to criticize, satirize, or rearrange them, and I have just recently accepted this aggressiveness as a valuable rather than an unlovable and unpublishable trait. When I was just learning feminist poetry, anthologies such as Mountain Moving Day or We Become New opened vistas for me. The “humor” part goes like this: when I was 29 and in graduate school I won a poetry prize and read my poems, full of Plath-like passions and anguish, at the prize ceremony. People roared with laughter and afterward clapped me on the back, saying they hadn’t known I was so funny.
What was your first published work?
A poem in “Racine Writings,” my hometown school district’s literary showcase rag, in 1965. I wrote it when I was six. It’s very clear I was playing dumb and polite. Its last few lines are: “God made everything. / God knows everything. / I like school./ Do you like school?” Golly, how well I had been trained to mute my intelligence, a horrifying and disruptive trait in a squirty little girl. I truly liked school, but I added that last line insincerely, as a courtesy. I didn’t give a fig whether anybody else liked school.
Are you a native St. Louisan?
No, I’m from Wisconsin and have lived in Cincinnati, Boston, and Syracuse, but settled in the St. Louis area because it’s everything I want: great literary community, great universities and other chances to teach and learn, great architecture, cheap rents, and very little snow, comparatively. I love the outdoors, and Missouri has wonderfully varied natural communities and features I enjoy year-round. I was just watching nine wild turkeys in my yard.
You mentioned the “great literary community.” How has it been of value to you?
You name it and I belong. Fellow writers and their support are incredibly important to me. That is what my very fine education lacked: writer friends and mutual support for continuing to write. Without my writing group and its encouragement, I couldn’t have published my first three books. For many years I thought I was above the local literary community. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve learned so much from seminars and workshops and meetings. I try to attend one literary event, any literary event, every two weeks. That used to keep me abreast of all developments. But events, especially readings, are multiplying so that I can’t even choose which ones to attend. And, I’m interested in developing an alternative kind of reading. The step-up-to-the-mike format is so common and dull it has eclipsed the power of the poets and poems. The first question people ask about readings isn’t any longer “How’d you like the poems?” but “Who was there?”
What other interests keep you busy?
Cooking; nature study; photography; divination systems such as astrology, about which I have written extensively under a pseudonym; and boyfriends.
Any advice for writers looking to be published?