One thing that keeps coming up in conversation with Gemini Ink’s director, Rosemary Catacalos, is her concern for the community.
Whether she is talking about personal memories or the goals of the literary center she’s led for the past four years, her love for San Antonio shines through. This is her home, she says, the place where her dead are buried. And this is the city she wants to serve.
“I am still tremendously excited (about her job) because few cities have this kind of resource in their midst,” she says. “We are really blessed to have Gemini Ink here and blessed to have the community support it, even though we are not a wealthy town. What I want to do is build literacy and community. Literature is not an art for those who sit and ponder on the mountaintop. It’s really about human stories — communities and their stories.”
But Catacalos is also aware that a community is seldom static, especially in the United States. She found it “fascinating” to learn not long ago that an entire group of Somalis had been airlifted out of their war-torn native land and relocated to San Antonio. There are also new Laotian and Cambodian groups here.
As a person who is herself of mixed heritage — Greek and Mexican — she seems to be naturally drawn to those interfaces of cultures that have become inevitable in modern life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this summer’s Gemini Ink literary festival revolves around the theme of home and the interaction with people who have a different home/culture.
Cleverly titled Where in the World Are We?, the 2007 fest, July 6 – 22, will allow participants to explore these issues through a range of classes taught by well-known novelists, poets, translators and journalists. In addition, there will be a “public conversation” with representatives of four different local communities led by Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, the justretired associate director for creativity and culture at the Rockefeller Foundation. Authors teaching classes include novelists David Haynes and David Treuer, poet/translator John Balaban, author Reginald Gibbons and Trinity professor Heather Sullivan.
As the artistic as well as executive director of the center, Catacalos is heavily involved in the selection of the teaching faculty both for the fest and yearround. Thanks to her national connections, she knows a lot of them personally, and she tries to keep up with others by reading as much as possible. “We try to strike an aesthetic balance,” she explains, “by exposing our patrons to all kinds of views.”
During the “school year,” Gemini has four basic programmatic components: the University Without Walls (UWW), which offers fee-based classes and free literary events; the Dramatic Reader’s Theater productions, a blend of theater and literary reading; the Autograph Series of shortterm visits by big literary guns; and the Writers in Communities (WIC), a program that sends writers into various settings — mostly involving youths — to stimulate self-expression and dialogue through the sharing of stories.
Naturally, the famous writers are the most difficult to lure here, she says, because Gemini can’t pay the fees they are accustomed to. Nevertheless, the Autograph Series has featured such stars as Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Mary Gordon, Philip Levine and Peter Matthiessen. Catacalos’ preoccupation with community has subtly altered the profile of Gemini Ink, which was incorporated in 1997 under the leadership of writer Nan Cuba. From an emphasis on serving writers, it has expanded to include a range of constituencies. So it’s hardly surprising that the WIC program has grown the most — 850 percent — since she came on board in 2003, but all programs have been affected by her vision.
UWW now features free community talks on a variety of subjects, as well as more “lifelong learning” classes designed to appeal to anyone with an intellectual curiosity. In fact, the latter courses are quite popular. One such class, taught by Trinity professor Coleen Grissom, attracts 50 people in the middle of the day. “Only two may be writers,” says the director.
“People are hungry to talk to each other about things they care about,” she adds. “And from conversation to the page is just a short step. I see them all as becoming readers. Many are already book club members. In fact, I would like to get to know book clubs in town. We could build discussions around the themes they are pursuing. In that way, the community could feed us.
“Literature is all about connecting to oneself and others. That’s why our work in the schools is so important. We want to turn the children into lifelong readers and to awaken in them a sense that they are the keepers of their own stories. If a child can learn his own story, he can honor other people’s stories. It’s about connecting them to books. It’s our responsibility to do so.”
Despite some rough patches, Gemini Ink has been connecting San Antonio to books and authors for a decade. And in this anniversary year, there is plenty to celebrate. To begin with, for an independent literary nonprofit — i.e., one not affiliated with a college — just surviving for 10 years is an accomplishment. To be also enjoying a steady growth and respect is reason to rejoice indeed.
Since 2003, the annual budget has increased from $150,000 to nearly $500,000, while the number of patrons served grew from an estimated 3,500 to a documented 5,300 in the same period. But what’s even more remarkable, the organization has received a perfect rating from the Literary Arts Panel of the Texas Commission on the Arts twice, including this year.
“We’re walking on clouds,” announced the director in her e-mail to friends and supporters.
Catacalos — whom everyone calls Rose — works out of a tiny office at Gemini Ink’s headquarters on South Presa. The day we meet for our first interview she is wearing a colorful huipil, her hair pulled back into her trademark long braid. When we show curiosity about the huipil, she tells us about her fondness for textiles.
“I have a large textiles collection. I am a textiles fanatic,” she quips. “People would say to me, ‘Oh, I like your costume,’ referring to what I wear,” she says, laughing. “One of my grandmothers was a seamstress. She was from the Yucatan, so she made me bright-colored huipiles when I was very small. I’ve noticed that if I was going to have a hard day, I would wear a red one. It’s like I have her with me. I have a lot of her jewelry,
too. I feel protected when I wear these things. That’s the grandmother that told me lots of stories while I helped her with her work.”
She has equally vivid memories of her Greek grandfather, Stratos Katakalos, the Old Man, lovingly described in her poem titled simply Katakalos. He was one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Sophia, and a family patriarch “who decided on things.” Young Rosemary was sent to Greek school “after American school,” sang in the church choir and danced Greek dances. When she was 12, Grandpa even betrothed her to his friend’s Greek nephew, but wedding plans were promptly nixed by her parents.
She eventually did get married — twice — to men of her own choosing, though she prefers not to name her first husband. The second, attorney and environmental activist Lanny Sinkin, from whom she was divorced in 1983, remains a friend, she says. For a couple of decades, Catacalos pursued a career as a journalist, poet and literature program director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, before leaving San Antonio in 1989 to immerse herself in poetry, thanks to a two-year fellowship she won from Stanford University.
“Those were two glorious years,” she recalls, “even though I had to do some freelancing on the side because California is so expensive. Denise Levertov was my mentor. There were 12 of us in the poetry program, and our only fixed obligation was to meet once a week to critique each other’s work. I got a good number of poems done.”
Catacalos’ work has appeared in national journals and anthologies, including the Best American Poetry collections of 1996 and 2002. Back in San Antonio, she had already earned acclaim for her second poetry book, Again for the First Time, which received the Texas Institute of Letters 1985 poetry prize.
Catacalos ended up staying 15 years in the Bay Area, eventually shifting her focus back to arts administration. Following her “glorious” stint at Stanford, she became the executive director of the Poetry Center/American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University for six years, a position that served as excellent preparation for her current job. Later on, she returned to Stanford as an affiliated but unpaid scholar at the Research Institute on Women and Gender.
“Though it was hard to leave the Bay Area, I always knew I was going to come back here,” she says. “I am viscerally attached to this city. There are street corners that make me weep, because of memories or stories related to those streets.” She also returned home to take care of her aging parents.
It was a happy coincidence that about that same time Nan Cuba was getting ready to leave Gemini, and Catacalos seemed like the perfect person to take over. “She was a package that included our dream list (of priorities). We were all ecstatic,” says Cuba. “And our hopes have come true.”
Catacalos put her experience to work in tightening the entire operation financially and organizationally and turned her attention to grant writing and media relations, in addition to widening the scope of the programs as noted above. As the summer activities wind down, Gemini will be preparing for the fall semester of classes and for its major fund-raising gala, INKstravaganza, in September. And there is also the issue of space. The present accommodations are bursting at the seams, and the organization must either relocate or expand its current premises. Though she has a capable staff of five, there’s no longer time for poetry writing or even literary conversations with the visiting celebrities. “When I am not at work, I think about it,” says the director. While Cuba couldn’t wait to get back to her writing, Catacalos’ ambition lies elsewhere. “I want to make literature a part of people’s daily life, everybody’s daily life, not just people who are considered literary,” she declares. “Literature is about human beings, and so is a literary center.”
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Janet Rogers