On Losing One’s Touch

howtoholdapen1Recently I’ve been rejected. A lot. As in, even the Armpit of Nowhere Review won’t publish my work.

I’m a veteran writer, and as such, I’m used to getting my fair share of rejections. In looking over my Submittable queue recently, it was revealed to me that roughly 10 percent of my poetry submissions have been accepted over the years that I’ve been using the service. So, it stands to reason I’ve got a pretty thick skin — that kind of pathetically slim acceptance rate necessitates one.

But here’s the part that has me concerned: This latest round of rejections comes after a sort of evolution in my poetic style. Such diction alterations happen every once in a while — a poet decides that the old way or the old materials have grown stale, and so a few shiny new features begin to assert themselves in his or her work. Sometimes these changes can be good; other times, they denote the death-knell of the artist’s career.

My suspicions about this latest round of rejections have me speculating about possible causes. The poems themselves, by all measures of quality and integrity, are fine pieces. They are well put-together, and would receive workshop table praise from people whose voices I respect. And I understand that often, rejections are not so much a comment on one’s work as they are a byproduct of space constraints and other factors. Still, I sense the culprit must be something abstract, something subterranean.

My first suspect: Disingenuous fervor. I have written about things that I should care about (and deeply), but on a more subconscious level, I am distantly apathetic. That apathy could translate into an energy vacuum in the poems. Much like the snake-oil salesmen of old, I may be trying to muster interest in ideas about which I am (earnestly) less than enthralled. To quote Frost, “No passion in the writer, no passion in the reader.”

Suspect number two: Divergent interests. I have been spending much of my time recently pursuing excellence in other areas of my life. I’ve dabbled in nonfiction, I’ve made my teaching more robust, and I’ve even started doing a young adult novel podcast with my oldest son. More on that later. These other pursuits, while valuable, could easily be sapping the creative juice from my poetry, however, and I’m wondering about the effects of laurels from other non-poetic enterprises — are the rewards from these endeavors silencing my usual muses?

Third and final suspect: Age. I’ve found myself becoming more curmudgeonly toward the opinions of “experts” in the literary realm, and more disparaging of modern poetry. Maybe I’m becoming that weird old guy in the poetry world who yells “Get off my lawn!” to the avant-garde. I’m over 40, and let’s face it, that’s the age when a lot of poets have made their greatest contributions. I know, I know: There’s a whole cadre of people who didn’t really come onto “the scene” until their twilight years. Good for them. There’s also a vast wealth of people who were bright and shining stars in their youth, though, and for yours truly, that ship has sailed. My only “over the hill” option is to stick around and hope that perseverance pays off, as my mentors have often assured me it will.

In the meantime, I fear that one or more of the above-mentioned factors has resulted in some loss of my stylistic “touch:” the intangible characteristic that sets apart the work of memorable authors. I’d like to try reverting to my MFA-minded self — that individual who sees inspiration everywhere and burns to make people feel the pleasant vertigo of poetic rapture. I’m not sure I can find him again, or that it would be at all appropriate to do so. Perhaps these latest rejections signal that it’s time to call in the dogs and turn out the lights, as the old saying goes. The first part of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” could have been right: “…there are things that are important beyond/ all this fiddle.” I recall how the rest goes, and I draw inspiration from her conclusion, but maybe a respite of sorts is in order. Stepping back from the page could be just the thing that my writing needs; call it a brain break from heartbreak. Farewell for now, poetry. I’ll be back when I just can’t possibly stay away any longer.

 

The End of “Published Alongside”

20161017_142111.jpgWhile browsing the local library nearest my university the other day, I stumbled across one of my books neatly tucked between other collections of poetry by some very well-known names in the literary realm. I’ve always been honored to see my work juxtaposed with that of “name-brand” poets, and I’ve even caught myself saying in those brief author’s bios that lit mags make you write: “His work has been published alongside that of [well-known literary icon] in [equally well-known literary journal].” I’m going to stop doing that, and here’s why:

I’ve been around the poetry game long enough. I don’t have to “prop my work up” by saying it appeared with the poetry of somebody who receives hefty advances or well-publicized appearances. Maybe that sounds a little arrogant, even bitter, but it’s time to let my words and my craft stand on their own two feet.

Comparisons will always be inevitable — some critics have said my work reminds them of The Fugitives, while others have drawn lines to other various modernists or formalists, and that’s okay. I don’t mind being called “The Southern Robert Frost,” for example. That’s high praise.

But I feel compelled to stop invoking the names of people who have already had their turn at bat (and in most cases, hit it out of the park).  It smacks of pretension and literary snobbery at its worst, and truthfully, if I saw someone else do it, I’d be very critical. “Well LA-DEE-DA, so-and-so…Your work has ‘appeared’ beside someone else important. Big frickin’ deal.” It diminishes the credibility of the writer rather than scaffolding it. So it needs to stop, no matter how much I may admire other poet(s).

Not too terribly long ago, I stopped mentioning (in my author’s bio) my multiple Pushcart Prize nominations for this same reason. Stick around poetry long enough and write decent poems, and sooner or later, you’re bound to get a few. It’s a big deal the first time it happens — I remember the great celebration at our home when the first journal to nominate me, Deep South magazine, spread the news. But unless and until I actually win one, it’s kind of like telling people that my next-door neighbor is a movie star. I’ve had enough of hedging greatness.

My poems need to live on their own merits and be judged by their own characteristics, positive or negative. Not everybody is going to enjoy my style, but at least they won’t be conflating it with that of someone who has long since paid their dues. It’s time to stop trespassing on others’ good names. Let it begin today.

 

On Exploring Other People’s Homes

window on the world

The view from my current home, which has inspired so many poems.

My wife and I are trying to find our next house. I’ve been driving a 140-mile round trip to work since September of last year, when I accepted a position teaching college English and Literature in Clearwater. I love the job, and she just accepted a position in a doctor’s office over there, as well. This, of course, has necessitated a lot of house-hunting.

I’m not a firm believer in new-age spirituality or that kind of thing, but I do think it’s interesting when you walk into a potential new home and pick up the energies that the last people left behind. In divorce homes, you can feel the tension and anxiety. In foreclosures, you can feel the dread, the sleeplessness, and occasionally the hatred. In homes that have been well-loved, you can sense that, too.

All this house-hunting and its associated investigations have brought me back to my reporter days, when I had to enter crime scenes and disaster scenarios: Every time, there was some kind of toxicity in the environment. It came not from the smells of violence or destruction — it was intangible. I am grateful that the homes my wife and I have entered so far have been free from that same toxicity, even if the air feels tense or unhappy.

And in addition, going into so many houses makes fertile ground for poetry. The way others live is a fascinating and often striking subject, and no doubt these forays into real estate will result in some creative work as time elapses.  For now, though, we continue to go about the nuts-and-bolts processes of home buying and selling. The whole transition is the stuff of literature, and here’s hoping that the eventual words will do justice to the experience.

P.S.: Realtors, financiers, and other business-types, please don’t contact me via this site peddling your wares. We’re already well taken care of. Thanks for respecting our wishes.

The Personal Touch Still Matters

“This is a very, very fine poem. I just wanted to call you and let you know that we’ll be including it in our July issue. Thank you for sending it to us.” …And my day was made.

It isn’t every day one receives a phone call from the editor of a literary journal, especially one as busy as The American Journal of Poetry, founded and operated by Robert Nazarene (who called me) and James Wilson. Readers may recognize these two esteemed gentlemen as the former editors of MARGIE, a literary magazine that was legendary in its time for inclusion of high-quality and award-winning material.

Their July issue of AJP will include such renowned poetry giants as Mark Jarman, Alice Friman, and Tony Hoagland — and it will also include yours truly. The fact that my work is being published alongside these poets and others I deeply respect would have been enough to send me over the moon. But the fact that the editor reached out by phone, a nearly unheard-of act of kindness in the poetry realm, was the icing on the proverbial cake. His praise of my work combined with his personal interest spoke volumes about his work ethic and his dedication to an oft-underappreciated task.

So as you’re reading over the ugly remarks about editors on sites like Duotrope, bear in mind that there are still a few out there who do the task in a timely and proficient manner. Some even care enough to make phone calls, and by doing so, rekindle the fire of poetic passion beneath skeptical and world-hardened writers. Even in a time dominated by online submission trackers and digital everything, the personal touch still matters. Thank you to those gatekeepers and decision-makers who continue to do their jobs in a way that enhances the humanity of the literary community. Now more than ever, you’re needed.

 

A Farewell Book Launch

cover-for-adIn one week, I will be launching my latest collection, Hard Inheritance, at one of our city’s nicest art galleries. It is bittersweet, as this will be both the first and last book launch I hold here. I’ve loved my current city for 17 years, but this summer, my family and I will be moving to the west coast of Florida. My newest university teaching gig is a 70-mile drive from my present home, and making a 140-mile round trip daily is simply infeasible. By spring break, we plan to put our house on the market, and hopefully by summer, we will be in a new house in the Tampa Bay area. Timing, the market, and other factors will determine how quickly all this occurs, of course.

In the meantime, I’m excited to offer this new book, much of which has been inspired by our city, to the people of Winter Haven. My cover artist, a Winter Haven native herself, will be on hand to sign copies of the book with me, and invitees include people who have been supportive of my craft over the years that I’ve resided here. In many ways, this book launch is a fond goodbye to a place that has been kind to me and my family. The time I’ve spent here hasn’t been perfect — the same is true anywhere called home — but it has been inspirational.

Winter Haven’s people, its lakes, its nature, and its history have all woven themselves into my poems at different points along my artistic journey. I’ll miss all that over on the west coast, but there will be fertile material for writing there, as well. I’ve enjoyed seeing the vast salt water every day as I cross the Courtney Campbell Causeway or the Howard Frankland Bridge, and I feel certain that soon enough, my writing will take on a flavor that is more beach-driven. My hope is not to become one of those poets who creates trite rhymes about the sea, but rather, one who allows the environment to speak in its own way. Certainly that has happened here among the lakes of Winter Haven.

My wife’s family lives in Winter Haven, and doubtless we will be returning to visit often, especially during the summers. And yes, it will be a while yet before we’re out of the area. But this book launch allows me to reflect upon and salute a place that has been meaningful. The future is uncertain but hopeful, and it wouldn’t be possible without history. So, Winter Haven, a place of history, beauty, and opportunity, this book launch is for you. Best wishes.

An Empathetic Farewell to Unpopular 2016

last-day-imageSo many of my friends have been cheering on the parting of 2016, thankful that it is about to fade into oblivion. As these last few hours tick by, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for a year in history. But 2016 has elicited that response from me, strangely enough. I feel that 2016 has been like that unpopular kid in class that everybody liked to pick on: easy prey because of difference. I, for one, kind of enjoyed 2016 — not necessarily for political or cultural reasons, but for its more personal milestones:

My fourth book (and by far my best to date), Hard Inheritance, received publication on December 5, and I have been honored by its critical reception. It was good to see a new book of poetry out there, and as 2017 waits just a few hours away, I fully anticipate that it will be a great year for my latest collection.

I received an incredible new full-time position teaching English and Literature at the university level, a long-time goal of mine. The job itself is both rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and I’m the happiest (professionally) I’ve been in a long time. My students make teaching a joy and privilege. That’s a sentiment I thought I’d lost, and now it’s back, thanks to the events of 2016.

Both of my sons have done well in different areas this year. My oldest son discovered a love for basketball, while my younger son has continued to develop himself academically and artistically in the new Montessori school both boys attend. My wife has continued to enjoy her work in the medical field, and my family life has been good, to say the least. My fortieth birthday meant a big trip to Lisbon for all of us, a time that none of us will soon forget for its meaningful experiences.

Maybe your candidate didn’t get elected. Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe unnatural disasters befell your part of the world. But from my little corner of the planet, 2016 was more than okay. It was memorable, it was unique, and it was unpredictable. All three of these traits, while they can be negative, also give us things of beauty. And despite its occasional difficulty and ugliness, 2016 also had plenty of the positive. All we have to do is look for it.

How 5 became my life’s official number

handfiveAllow me to begin by saying I’m no numerologist. I do believe, however, that one day, we will all understand why the numbers in our lives intermingle and coordinate the way they do. I also believe that this overlap of figures is more than just mathematical. There is a purpose to the numbers, and it’s not just coincidental.

Here’s a good example: I was born on July 5. As a kid, I lived on Fifth Street. My stepdad was born March 5. My oldest son was born January 5. My best friend growing up had a birthday 25 days later than mine. Many of my other family members have birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates that are influenced by the number five — maybe they’re multiples or maybe the dates add up to something five-related. Perhaps that last bit is stretching the significance a little, but you get the picture.

So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when, the other day, my publisher emailed to tell me that my latest book, Hard Inheritance, had been published on the date of my grandfather’s death 12 years prior — December 5th.

To really grasp the importance of this chronological lineup, you have to know the kind of influence my grandfather had in my life. As a young child, I grew up on his citrus farm in Hardee County, a very rural community in southern central Florida. My grandfather loved me more deeply than almost any other person in my life, save my mother. He invested his time, his resources, and his wisdom in preparing me to become a hard working, honest, and thinking man.

He had flown 51 missions in World War II, and his American devotion carried well beyond his military service. He served his church as a deacon (a model I would later follow myself). He faithfully worked for the Coca-Cola Foods Division as a groves manager for decades before retiring to volunteer with my scout troop. I became an Eagle Scout because he taught me the value of persistence and perseverance; seeing a thing through to its successful end.

It only made sense to me when Hard Inheritance came out on the fifth. Of course it would, I thought, following the five-laden trail of bread crumbs throughout my life. It’s both fitting and bittersweet that this book, my best and most earnest to date, would become available to the public on a day with such meaning.

My hope now is that this volume would please him, were he still here. It celebrates the beautiful and the natural, but it also shows the events in life that leave our scars and calluses, both of which he was intensely familiar with. It celebrates Our Florida — that place that he, six generations of our ancestors, and now my children call home.

I think he’d like the history, the honesty, and the geography of this book. He’d probably laugh at the pieces he’s featured in, having forgotten an episode that seemed relatively unimportant to him, but one in which I find deeper relevance. He, too, was a “five” man, after all — born in the month of May, living to the age of 83 (subtract the two digits), and being great-grandfather to five children (3 girls by my sister, 2 boys that are mine).

Being connected to one particular number in such a vital way can sometimes be a Hard Inheritance  of its own. Rarely a day goes by when some important connection to the number 5 doesn’t crop up in my day-to-day life. Were I one to play the lottery, I sometimes think I’d buy one of those “Pick 5” tickets and just play all fives to see what happens. My statistician friends would discourage this, of course, knowing the wild improbability of winning from such a choice.

But if it’s one thing that my life has taught me, it’s that all the cold, sterile math in the world can’t explain the way that numbers work. There is no algebra, no geometry, no trigonometry or physics formula to rationalize how the figures align. And in that same logically inexplicable space, poetry lives.

Tomorrow will mark five days since my book was published. I will celebrate by watching my oldest son, number 35 on his basketball team, play his final game of the season. I will think of how proud my grandfather would be — both of my writing and my boys’ achievements. I will hope for more fives in the future. And I know that I will surely receive them.