When I was a younger man, I desperately wanted to be the next Ernest Hemingway of poetry: a rugged outdoorsman and adventurer extraordinaire who happened to scribble meaningful words. I think every writer goes through that phase sooner or later. George Saunders, for example, regularly confesses to a time in his life when he was striving for his prose to mimic that of “Papa.”
I haven’t fought any bulls or driven any ambulances overseas, and surprisingly enough, even though I reside in the Sunshine State, I have never landed a giant blue marlin (or any other large saltwater fish, for that matter). However, once in a great while, I encounter an opportunity that combines Hemingway’s two great loves: travel (usually in natural settings) and writing.
Such was the case in 2016, when I spent 16 days in Lisbon, Portugal. From the food to the language to the music to the memorable landmarks, that city and its surrounding areas made me feel like the reincarnation of some Lost Generation member — enjoying the days and nights in a European setting, chatting casually about artistic concerns with like-minded others. Even now, certain Lisboan influences still enter my work from time to time.
And this summer presents a similar (though more domestic) opportunity. For one week in early summer, I will be attending a writer’s retreat in the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee. The natural splendor of the area combined with solitude should produce some favorable results. My plan is to work on poetry for half the week and prose for the other half, but we’ll see what the muses have in mind. I have two manuscripts in the works, and there’s no telling where creative isolation may lead.
Another perhaps more Hemingway-esque event that I’ll be helping lead this summer can be found at the Marywood Writers Retreat in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. While there in July, I’ll be leading poetry workshops and also serving as an unofficial fishing guide — A “fish with the poet” event has been planned, and, having never fished in Wisconsin previously, I’m excited by the prospect. Granted, I’ve caught plenty of bass, bluegill, sunfish, catfish, and other freshwater species south of the Mason-Dixon, but that’s a whole other world, from what I’ve been told. (Note to anglers — please feel free to drop good fishing advice in the comments section below if you’ve got it. I’ll trade you my “best” poetry advice.)
But whether I’m reeling in the big one or attempting to pen a masterpiece, I am hopeful that the spirit of Hemingway — the spirit that seizes the world by its lapels — will work its magic. And I hope that you too, reader, will find joy and inspiration as warmer months finally arrive. To good times and good writing: Cheers!
Rather than talking about resolutions, goals, or similar subjects, I thought I’d highlight a few things that definitely won’t make a difference to your success as a writer in the 365 days ahead. Here we go:
1.) STUFF — I love fountain pens. I am particularly fond of Waterman pens from the City of Lights, Paris. When you write with a Waterman pen, it feels like history and beauty are both surging from the nib. No, I’m not being compensated to say this. Regular followers of this blog know I’m enamored with these products. But I am not so infatuated that I cannot write with anything else.
Thinking that a certain desk accessory will make you a better writer is the beginning of counterproductive hours. Yes, it’s nice to have lovely things from Levenger or other high-end bookish vendors, but at the end of the day, tools are only as good as the person using them. Stuff, no matter how cool it seems, will not magically transform you into an author.
2.) BEVERAGES — Whether it’s coffee or alcohol, the old stereotype is that writers need their liquid fix. Stories are abundant about Hemingway and his beloved whiskey, and certainly other canonized voices are made more endearing by tales of their imbibing. “Write drunk, edit sober,” the old (alleged) quote goes, but no writer worth his or her salt follows that maxim. Writing and editing both require clear thinking, and even too much caffeine can inhibit that process.
I’ll never forget the time I was on a writing streak and consumed three huge cistern-sized mugs of coffee in the process. My heart raced, my brain surged and buzzed, and my breathing became erratically elevated. Something like a panic attack ensued, and I learned the value of moderation the hard way. Today I drink coffee with a bit more care and deliberation. Drinks don’t make you more writerly — if anything, they get in the way.
3.) WARDROBE — Along the same lines as “stuff,” certain clothing choices also don’t make one a writer. Not too many decades ago, the fashion at poetry readings consisted of a black turtleneck and accompanying black beret. This ensemble, the thought went, demonstrated one’s cognitive and emotional “depth,” whatever that meant. Today we’ve eschewed the theatrics of such a “poet’s uniform,” but even now, if one isn’t dressing in a non-conformist way, there are some who assume from such superficial measures that one isn’t a “real writer.” Forget them.
Dress how you dress. I tell my students: There is no greater conformity than non-conformity because, well, you’re different just like everybody else. Assuming that eccentric clothing is going to get you a better platform for your work or more notice from key figures in the literary community is a bit condescending, as well. The assumption made is that people are too stupid to notice your words, and therefore, there must be some kind of gimmick to draw their attention. If your words are good enough, they’ll speak for themselves. No amazing technicolor dreamcoat is necessary.
4.) TECHNOLOGY — Sure, having a social media presence and a few high-tech toys can be helpful. But please don’t assume that your new iThing is going to mystically transmogrify you into Kafka overnight. Your cute photos on Instagram, your witty observation on Facebook, your wry humor on Twitter — all these make zero impact on your actual writing. It’s fine to create a persona online, but at the end of the day, the words you write will define you, not the keyboard or device you typed them on.
One of the finest poets I know (who also serves as editor of a well-regarded literary journal) uses her Twitter account to track her success at running. She posts her times and distances, and very little else. She tweets few literary observations, even fewer politics. I respect a literary human who refrains from leveraging social media to advance her writing or publishing endeavors. It goes against the grain of common practice and demonstrates a level of confidence that exudes cool.
5.) OTHER WRITERS — At one point in my writing journey, I assumed that hanging around great minds would result in some kind of artistic osmosis. And while it’s fun and engaging to be around people with similar likes, I learned not to expect “networking” to be my golden ticket. So much time is spent at events like AWP pressing the flesh and engaging in awkward literary politics; that time would be better spent pressing ink into a legal pad or notebook. Not to minimize the importance of sharpening the saw (Stephen Covey’s term), but breathing the somewhat rarefied air of writing workshops, seminars, groups, and conferences does no good unless motivation and productivity result. The rest is just so much window-dressing.
Don’t expect mentors or friends with lit-cred to pave your way to success (however you may define that term). One’s own writing must do the heavy lifting. In business, friends in high places are essential, and to a certain extent, writing is business. But the thought that name-dropping will somehow result in acclaim or acceptance is fallacy at its finest. Aside from patting oneself on the back, mentioning famous friends or prestigious places serves little purpose. Classy writers just don’t do it unless they’re specifically asked.
I’m sure I could come up with other matters that won’t make one a writer, but these five points are a pretty good start. As we unwrap a new year like a gift, let us put words on the page and clarity in our minds. My mantra will be a quote from the great William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” Happy 2019!
As a creative writer, I’ve done some pretty weird things to try to force epiphanies upon myself. Consider my sophomore year at the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College, 1995-1996. Around this time, I took an American Literature class under Prof. Wesley Ryals. His course was challenging; he expected you to read copious amounts of writing outside of class, and when you arrived, he would hold deep discussions of the work, leaving those who hadn’t read (yours truly included) in the proverbial dark.
So I began reluctantly reading. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the syllabus, and I began to understand symbolism. Suddenly everything around me came to life with underlying potential — trees meant life and growth and progress, the sky above me foreshadowed the day ahead, and a million other everyday images I’d previously ignored glowed with further implications. We read other canonized authors like Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and my “literary x-ray vision” for the world around me strengthened.
Right about this same time, I started seeking out spots on campus from which to write. I’d always dabbled in poetry and prose, but now, with this new heightened awareness, I felt especially motivated. I chose a bench somewhere near the freshman girls’ dorms and wrote about a dead white-barked tree covered in brown-black birds. The piece was awful, consisting of faulty formalism with heavy-handed rhyme and meter, but it was editable anyway.
I visited the balcony of the Student Life Center. It was supposed to be closed for repairs, but what are “keep out” signs to young men but invitations? From there, I looked out over Lake Hollingsworth at night, and took particular interest in the radio towers blinking their “dim, consistent red” while cars “looped a pool of silent black.” Egad. I think on these excerpts now and shudder, but they were a starting point. I began to conclude that, so long as I could get elevated enough or secluded enough, artistic revelation would follow.
And so I began frequenting the outdoor stairwells of Edge Hall, where education and religion classes were held (still are). In the evenings, the hustling spirits of the day were left there, but no one visited. Notepad in lap, I wrote about the rain and the wind, the hollow echoes of hard, narrow places. Sometimes the experience was good, but most of the time, I was trying too hard to squeeze the blood of inspiration from my turnip-brain. I’d leave with a legal pad full of sophomoric observations, and occasionally I’d return to them later and pick out some small detail that generated poetry. A few years after I graduated with my B.A., two FSC-inspired pieces would be included in Cantilevers, the school’s literary magazine, and one of them would win — get this — the Wesley Ryals Creative Writing Award.
What I learned from all this nomadic writing, though, was that a writer cannot prescribe himself a place for creativity. As my mentor Erica Dawson once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), you don’t just sit down somewhere and think Today I will write a poem about X. Epiphanies are elusive things, and placing yourself in solitude may help foster them, but there’s no assurance.
As a 19-year-old questing after sagacity, I never would have guessed that I would return to FSC years later to attain my first master’s degree in education, let alone that I would do so inside the very building where I’d written those stairwell stanzas. If someone had told me I’d complete that graduate program with a 4.0 GPA, I would have scoffed, considering my undergrad grades. Likewise, if some guru had said I’d have an MFA and eventually teach the very works that inspired me, I probably would have laughed.
But if some soothsayer had said, “Years from now, you will look out from the third floor of the Roux Library and still be inspired to write poetry,” I would have believed. Florida Southern continues to be a place of inspiration for me. I’ve been honored to adjunct-teach there a few times, but mostly, I like to return to the campus to see with older eyes that which I could not have seen earlier — genius under its eaves, history written into every column, and beauty in the youthful interactions of those with a whole future ahead of them. Such a place embodies potential, and potential is where revelation thrives.
My 7-year-old niece loves the barn roof at my late grandparents’ place, and so do I. Over the years, it has been a point of inspiration poetically, agriculturally, and even spiritually. Many of my poems got their start from the apex of this barn roof.
When I was 13, I used to climb up there with a copy of Robert Frost’s work, and, as I looked across our orange grove, I felt like I was joining an elite fraternity of farmer-poets. True, Frost was all apples and I am all oranges, but the shared identity — being one who tends the land and the pen simultaneously — was hard to miss, even in confused adolescence.
As pickers mounted their cypress ladders in harvesting season, I would read “After Apple Picking.” As angelic wings of clouds framed citrus-colored sunsets, I would read “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” And as I learned increasingly hard manual tasks from my grandfather, I would read “Out, Out –” and grow thankful that buzz saws were not part of our chores.
Here was both my escape and my entrapment: a getaway from mundane conversations about inches of rainfall or someone’s new calf, but a place so filled with poetry that it immediately addicted me to lines and stanzas, imagery and form. In years ahead, when I would need to consider serious decisions, I would return to the peak of the barn roof. Clarity would soon follow.
And when my grandparents would pass away one by one, the barn roof would lift me in my grief to the view and the calling that they both had left me: An orange grove that demanded words as well as work. I knew I could offer both, thanks to their dedicated teaching and a healthy dose of self-education.
The relationship between agriculture and artistry has always been complex; at times, I’ve felt as though my craft has made far less difference than the sweaty endeavors of sod-busting Florida Crackers before me. Several of my poems over the years have chronicled and wrestled with the issues of “real work” versus the abstract emotional toil of arranging the best words in the best order.
Despite this occasional internal turmoil, when I return to the barn roof with members of the next generation — my sons, nieces, and nephews — the questions of my work’s validity vanish. If another child can find the imaginative space that once inspired me and love it as deeply as I have, none of that other trivia really matters.
Theodore Roethke once said, “Live in a perpetual great astonishment.” Even today, when I ascend the barn roof using my family’s “secret” route, I am awestruck at its summit. No photograph, no video, no second-hand representation of its vista can fully achieve the effect it has on me. But the look on a child’s face (or a well-written poem) comes pretty close.
The barn roof remains a place that holds: It both supports me and keeps me. Its infinite perspective, its promise of serenity, and its ability to diminish the unimportant continue to call me. It represents heritage, reflection, and insight. It is home.
Lately I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve had lots of work accepted by various journals and venues, and it’s caused me to think about how the cycles of rejections and acceptances are much like the growth and disappearance of our moon.
Rejections are like the waning: They incrementally diminish the brightness of literary optimism. Each “no” is a small fraction of blackness eating away at the visibility of our hope.
But acceptances are nothing like the moon’s waxing (for me, anyway). Instead of a gradual accretion of luminosity, an acceptance is like the whole moon suddenly lit up, brighter and bigger than science could reasonably explain. Whatever darkness may have accumulated is swept away with a single “We would like to publish…”
Ancient adages tell us that planting on a growing moon gives us a better harvest. The Old Farmer’s Almanac tracks moon cycles for just such purposes. My grandparents believed that getting your haircut during a waxing moon meant that the hair would grow back faster. Better wait until the waning to get a trim.
Maybe these pieces of lore have relevance for writers, too: How many Adrienne Rich poems mention the moon, for example? How much more inspired are we by the bright glowing orb in the sky than by the fading slender smile of its counterpart? Perhaps this line of thought is stretching logic a bit, but let’s be honest: The earth’s gravitational pull, the tides, and the other forces of nature around us bear more influence on our artistic motivation than we care to admit.
And when that motivation, that muse, whispers words to us that we lovingly bring to the page, we hope that soon, our lunacy will be rewarded. A bright yellow moon will hang in the sky of our minds, lit fully and immediately by a single glorious word: Yes.
Poets tend to view age a little differently from most people: We measure our years in publications, gatherings (literary and not), and in Eliot’s case, even coffee spoons. I had some real reservations about being 41 over the past year. After all, could there be a less consequential age? Friends and family make such a big deal out of 40 that its successor seems like an anticlimax.
For me, 41 was fairly quiet, but I did get to inch a little closer to bigger goals and dreams. I wrote a creative writing course for my college which was adopted institution-wide (even in China and Latin America), I wrote some pretty decent poetry that got published in places I liked, and I moved to a new home in a friendly neighborhood just miles away from scenic woods with a creek.
Maybe the creek has been the most monumental of all “41” discoveries. It has given me the chance to spend time with my boys making memories that are genuine. There are vines hanging over the creek that are strong enough for both sons to swing on, a tree bridge, and of course, all the other nature-based sights and sounds that go with a small flowing body of water: fish, snakes, raccoons, and even an occasional bobcat. It’s a place that is magical for many reasons.
I suppose, however, that what I appreciate most about the creek is its authenticity. Unlike theme parks, movie theaters, or tourist traps, the creek is a place where my boys can allow their imaginations to determine their adventures. There are no lines, no prescribed rides or experiences, no Hollywood artifice. At the creek, we are kept company by red-tailed hawks rather than costumed characters, and we are guided not by slick brochures or fake technology, but by the soft currents that flow through Florida forests and boyish ambitions.
At different times, I’ve watched my sons become pirates, jungle explorers, and even characters from various novels. Recently, I helped both boys create flutter-mills like the one mentioned in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Rawlings used the flutter-mill as a symbol of passing time and a foreshadowing of coming maturity, and never have those ideas held such weight in my own mind. Middle age reminds one that things are halfway over, and you better get busy making your difference.
Maybe my difference won’t be measured in ink. Maybe it will be measured in creek water and sons’ laughter. Either way, I’m satisfied. If 42 is anything like 41, I’m looking forward to it. There are still plenty of things I’d like to accomplish both professionally and personally, but the 40s are also much like a hammock stretched in the middle of one’s chronology — yes, there are visible fixed points at both ends, but as long as I’m here in the middle of leaving a legacy, I might as well enjoy the sway of the breeze, the sky above, and the soft rhythms that make life enjoyable. Happy birthday to me.
Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?
The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.
But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.
Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.
We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.
I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.
Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.