Apr 14

“My Poems Used to Get Published. . . But Now, Nothing”

The following is a recent  exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.


I’m looking for some advice from an expert.

I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.

So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.

Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.

If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.

Dear E.,

Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.

Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.

No accounting for tastes.

Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.

Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.

I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine


I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.

I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.

Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.

Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.


Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.

Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.

Then she slipped away

into the answer.

Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.

Dear E.,

I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:

-Don't write about writing.

-Don't write about aging.

-Don’t write about old people dying.

Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.

Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.

Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.

I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine


I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.

What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.

Dear E.,

Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.

My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”

Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine

Jun 27

Are We Feeling Better Yet?

Some contributing writers and the editors at the book launch today, 11/19, for the fabulous new anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press), edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. Book will be on Amazon.com very soon; $19.95; click here to see and order directly from the publisher, St. Louis's only nonprofit press. The book -- 21 essays, three years in the making -- will make a great holiday gift for any woman finding herself in contact with the U.S. health care hydra. In the photo, left to right: Amanda Stiebel, Cathy Luh, Janet Edwards, Corrine McAfee, Denise Bogard, Colleen McKee, Catherine Rankovic. Penultimate Press, run by Winnie Sullivan, is a nonprofit organization. Taken at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
May 22

Compromise Your Art

At the beautiful Rockhaven retreat center, during the last segment of the inaugural Women Writers Weekend, playwright Joan Lipkin presented some of her work and spoke honestly and vulnerably about honesty and vulnerability: how important it is for artists to be courageous and squelch their fears. Fears of what, she asked. Why do we back down, or back away, or suddenly remember an important appointment elsewhere? And she said there's a Cowardly Lion in us all. As she spoke, I became annoyed and then angry, realizing that regularly, almost as a matter of course, I compromised my own artistic integrity, and why the hell did I do it? And do it a lot?

Just that morning I'd told a friend that I didn't bring certain of my works to workshop, fearing to offend or embarrass. I'd tried it, and it seemed to do just that -- poem not mentioned, eyes averted. But inoffensive material didn't get the rigorous criticism I need to strengthen my work. It was a lose-lose situation. What the heck am I doing? What kind of game am I playing? "Hide the Catherine"? For what? For whom? And if it's a lose-lose, why play?

I never wanted to be that way. My seventeen-year-old self, who wanted to become a great poet, sneers at me. I tell students never to compromise (understanding that sometimes a writer has to compromise not her honesty but her manner of expression if feedback indicates that her writing is sloppy or isn't communicating what she wants it to). I want never to compromise out of fear. But it's become routine! I have secret poems I shy from showing. I tell people who see them -- warn them -- it's not me who writes them, it's an alter ego. Let's see: did Mayakovsky play that game? Rimbaud? Whitman? Did Norman Mailer? Who wants to read poetry like weak tea? Exactly who is benefiting when I shield them from the real me? Who do I think is being well served when I compromise my art?

I've been re-reading and re-working unpublished poems and feeling that each and every one is hopeless, irreparable. Of course they are -- if it isn't the real me who is writing them, but the nicer me. The Cowardly Lion version.
May 05

Where Are The Female Humorists?

Topic of the meeting was "Networking for the Writer," two hours of solid advice. Especially the part that said "Introverts, you can network online!" A guy there named Bob looked familiar. Soon I realized he was Bob Rybarczyk, the "Suburban Fringe" weekly humor columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he writes good. His stuff, mostly family humor, is really funny.

Worried that he was there to write a funny column about a meeting called "Networking for the Writer," I un-introverted myself and said hi and complimented his column and asked why he was there; I figured he wouldn't need to network. Turns out he can't get syndication or an agent, has published a P.O.D. book but wants a "legitimate publisher" (his words) and hasn't one. This is a writer with thousands of local fans and popular appeal. He isn't a journalist; he started out as a P.R. guy who happened to write amusing office e-mails. P.R. guy has to learn to network? Guess it's that old artificial difficulty.

For a while I've wondered: Where are today's female humor columnists? Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck, but she's not funny. Did the art die with Erma Bombeck? I know scores of witty women. (The presenters at the meeting were sharp, witty women: Tricia Sanders and Tricia Grissom, of coffeeandcritique.blogspot.com.) But the stakes are higher now. Women can't afford to risk sending amusing office e-mails. Caring for kids and aged parents and grumpy mates of the kind Phyllis Diller called "Fang" and I called "The Missing Link," worrying about their necks and moles and the church people, keeping at all costs menial, ill-fitting jobs, not enough sleep -- these days a woman who laughed about these things in print, or even shut her door to start writing, would get visited by Child Protective Services. Lady, if you're out there: We need you!
Mar 24

The King and I

I once went to a class led by an image consultant who told me to have my upper lipline straightened because one bow is very slightly higher than the other. He said it gave me a contemptuous expression. I was stunned, but didn't think he was lying. I just had never seen what others saw.elvisbw Later when I wrote a long essay about young Elvis I was amazed to see in him the same slight defect, which lent him his famous "sneer," although the man was not known to have sneered at anyone, and on him it looked cool. I'm thinking of this because I met for the first time today the publicist hired by the publisher of Meet Me, and she seemed to have expected a difficult encounter. I have never understood why perfect strangers assume I am cold, exacting, demanding, and severe. Oh, I admit that my gaze is like a laser beam. But the publicist couldn't know that because we had never met.

Something precedes me, and I would say "It's my work," except that on the first day of classes I frighten students who have never read a word I have written, and anyway it isn't scary work. Smiling at students more -- cheaper than plastic surgery -- and putting the class's focus on them, not me, has fixed that. Back in undergrad days my writing did precede me: People would say, "That's you? I expected a big huge Amazon" -- but that was only on campus, and those days are long gone. Or it could be "my reputation" preceding me, except that other than having on numerous occasions given blunt and ill-considered opinions -- but never to students -- and maintaining an army of flying monkeys, I cannot imagine how I earned an intimidating reputation. I think of other writer/teachers who had scary reputations: Howard Nemerov appeared to enjoy making devastating remarks. You will never hear me saying to a young poet, "Son, the problem with you is, you have a tin ear." Others were known as curmudgeons, stoners, and lechers. I am none of those.

I think part of the problem may be that I am female and one bow of my lip is slightly higher than the other, and like almost every other educated female in America I will be acceptable only after I undergo plastic surgery, or, even better, go back into the kitchen where I belong.