life, poetry, publishing, writing

On Winning and Losing in Literary Life

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Recently, I was honored to receive a lovely recognition: The Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. The contest, hosted by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Library in North Carolina, was judged by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, who read my first-place poem during a Zoom-based awards ceremony earlier this week. You can read about the award and view my poem here: https://thelanierlibrary.org/upcoming-events/sidney-lanier-poetry/

I am thrilled and excited by this achievement, just as I was when I was a poetry “newbie” seeking to stake my claim in the literary landscape of our country. I know the prize probably won’t make national headlines or secure me a six-figure advance on a book deal from Norton, but every time my work manages to get a little attention, it’s a nice reminder that I’m doing something right. I’m sure it’s the same for artists or creators of any type.

Lots of novice poets get very intense about winning contests; they pay obscene entry fees, look for legitimate-sounding competitions that promise “publication” or big monetary awards, and they think that if only they can win, their struggle for literary acclaim will at last be over. I know this because I did it, too. Truth is, there’s always a bigger award. Even Pulitzer and Nobel winners will tell you: Once you’ve got the thing, you’ve got it. You take it for granted after a while, even as rising writers grit their teeth and sweat over such matters, grinding their pencil leads into ugly nubs or mercilessly pounding their poor, abused keyboards.

This isn’t to say that awards don’t matter; certainly there are some that can ensure future prosperity and opportunity for those of us in writer-land. But to fret over which prize we might win or lose? That’s a surefire way to inhibit creative flow. The author banging out words with a mindset fixated on ribbons or trophies is a typesetter, not a writer. “If I just arrange these artfully glamorous adjectives in a certain way, I can be sure to impress the judges,” they tell themselves, all the while sacrificing authenticity.

There are those who will say that art should never be about competition, that the two notions are diametrically opposed. They say that there can be no truly fair criteria for contests since artistic taste is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so forth. I won’t go so far as to endorse their argument. For as long as humans have existed, we have competed, even in abstract matters. To throw away literary contests would be a foolish refusal to acknowledge our humanity. But that doesn’t mean we need to prioritize contests over the truer, nobler task of creating. Writers write, above all else. In the words of Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.”

The other truth that new writers are sometimes unprepared for is the extraordinary number of losses one must endure for each win. Every time a poet or prose writer achieves some prize, you can bet that there are huge strings and stacks of losing entries that preceded victory. Even my friends who are considered “name-brand” poets acknowledge that losing is a far larger part of lit-biz than winning. The old adage about “taking your lumps” is as true in writing as it is in sports, performance, or business. Everybody pays their dues.

I neither discourage nor encourage entry into poetry contests. I think that each person must decide whether such an act is worth the time, resources, and effort invested. For some, competition is a motivator, and for others, it means anxiety. In a culture that embraces the idea “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” there remain individuals who are happier refraining from shooting altogether. Good for them; not entering is as much a willful act as entering.

For those of us who keep submitting our stuff to competitions large and small, keeping a balanced perspective is crucial. I appreciate the recognition of this latest award, and I’m honored by it, as well. And like so many other people, I like to win. However, I’ve also done this long enough to know that achievement and accomplishment only happen via work. And the work must go on.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

How We Begin Making a Better Year — NOW

Greeting 2021 before it Arrives…Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

What can we do to ensure that 2021 isn’t just a 2020 redux? There are plenty of actions that have nothing at all to do with masks, social distance, or near-obsessive handwashing. Supporting those who create and facilitate culture and helping nonprofits that have suffered are just a couple of ways we can begin the return to something like normal.

Small presses and their authors have been profoundly and negatively affected by the COVID pandemic. Cancelled author events, fewer sales opportunities, and closed venues have all created major deficits for those who keep original thought alive and well. Yes, even your loyal host has been impacted. It isn’t often I use my website and blog for overt sales messages, but you know the old saying about desperate times…

https://negativecapability.storenvy.com/products/10446729-middle-class-american-proverb

A purchase or two of this book (visit the link above) will help begin the restoration. It may seem like a strange bit of logic to prescribe buying poetry to overcome a crisis like this one, but here’s the truth: A moment spent reading poetry is a moment spent without present worries. Poetry transports us to a different place and time mentally. It can allow us to breathe air unencumbered by danger, visit maskless friends and neighbors, and feel genuinely connected in ways we’ve so sorely missed. If you’re seeking that connectedness, poetry (and especially THIS poetry) is the answer.

Next, consider year-end giving to a worthy nonprofit. Arts nonprofits have faced an especially horrible setback. The small cultural center where I give workshops has had to reduce programming and opportunities while moving most events online. While this isn’t terribly different than businesses and schools “going virtual,” moving to the online platform completely negated the famous hands-on approach that Firehouse Cultural Arts Center classes are famous for. As we begin to mitigate the damage of 2020, I would ask that you give generously to this cause. The link to do so is below:

Please give here and help out an organization vital to our area. Donations are tax deductible, as FCC is a 501c(3) charity.

If we are to do better and see a light at the end of this terrible tunnel, we must begin by supporting those causes and ideas that would ordinarily receive our favor. Helping writers, small presses, and arts nonprofits is a great way to start overcoming a bleak period.

Victory hinges on so many things: precautions, herd immunity, and even an eventual cure. But if we desire to regain that missing piece of shared human experience, we should prove that with actions: Contributing to the humanities rolls out the welcome mat to a new, brighter, and healthier era. Please purchase and give today. A new year awaits.

life, poetry, publishing, writing

How to make a Poet’s Christmas Happier

johndaviscover (3)

Middle Class American Proverb

This book is what I would call my magnum opus — It is the most complete representation of my work. Its poems range from the formal to the comical and all points in between. If you love Old Florida, boyhood mischief, and well-crafted poetry about real people and places, this is the book for you. Literary enough for English majors, but practical enough for the rest of us, too. A great gift for the reader in your life.

$15.00

Dear Santa,

What I really want for Christmas this year is for people to purchase my 2014 collection, Middle Class American Proverb. It’s a great way for them to prepare for my forthcoming collection which I haven’t announced yet (hint, hint). I know a lot of my friends and family already have Middle Class American Proverb, but it would be great if some more strangers (friends I haven’t met) would buy this book. I’d also be elated if some of my loyal readers bought this collection for their own friends or family members. If they buy it from some other website, they’ll have to pay nearly $20 for it (or more!), but if they get it directly from me, I can make them a deal and get it to them for only $15.

It’s been a tough year, Santa. COVID-19 and other major crises have hit us hard. We could all use a little something extra in our stocking, and if you’ll just get a few people to purchase this book of mine, I’d be incredibly grateful. You know I don’t like asking people for money. So here’s hoping that you can make this one wish come true; I’m counting on you, big guy.

A very, very, very good boy,

John

life, poetry, teaching, writing

Personas I’ve Known, Part Two: The Brooding Academic

If you read my post from earlier this week, you know that my recent writing of persona poetry has caused me to think more closely about some of the identities I’ve adopted over the years. Today I’m taking a look at another one — the stereotypical professor.

Fancy degrees in hand; time to stonily condescend to some college kids.

There was a time in my academic career that I believed I had to fit a certain mold (and a pretty old one at that): the sweater-wearing, overtly studious, and incredibly stodgy pedagogue. You know the type — that old, bald white guy who has breathed too deeply the rarefied air of higher education too long and is now utterly disconnected from average reality. Let’s call him Professor Highenmighty.

A far cry from “Bubba” of last post’s fame, this guy was so deeply impressed by his own credentials that he conducted class as if he were Socrates and Jesus rolled into one. Listen up, mere peons, for the fount of all knowledge is about to spew forth. Have you not noticed my scholarly looking attire? Have you not observed my air of sophisticated erudition? You should.

Granted, I’d done pretty well for myself. Not everyone from my humble beginnings secures two graduate-level degrees, publishes books of poetry, or wins hoity-toity literary awards. Still, I had no real justification for becoming Professor Highenmighty — I had just fulfilled the potential that people nearest me knew I had all along, and what’s more, I had done so later than I should have. Nonetheless, here I was — Mister Intellectual, ready to look indifferently down my nose at lesser mortals, and that meant just about everybody in my usual sphere. What an ass.

What got rid of Professor Highenmighty? As is usually the case, an encounter with someone (or several someones) smarter. Comeuppance is usually the cure for excessive ego, and this time was no different:

My day job was teaching impressively gifted kids in high school the various facets of creative writing. These students were smarter, more talented, and more motivated than I ever could have been at their age. I was stunned by their intelligence, and their regular demonstrations of innovation and originality were a reminder of the shiftless sloth I’d been. When I was their age, I had specialized in invisibility. In contrast, they put their brilliance on display daily, secure in their giftedness and their place as young artists. Some of their poise was certainly artificial, but still, their native ability was undeniable. Outsmarted by teenagers, Professor Highenmighty quickly became a thing of the past. Humility, thy name is youth.

If this were a fable or a folk tale, I suppose a moral or a lesson would go here at the end. Like all accomplishments, degrees gather dust. After a while, they’re taken for granted, and it’s perfectly possible to become an educated idiot. Maya Angelou is quoted as having said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I think that’s a good line to take away from this post. As I prepare for the next stage in my career and learning, I’ll do my best to keep Professor Highenmighty extinct. After all, there’s always somebody smarter.

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Personas I’ve Known: Becoming “Bubba”

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of persona poetry — that magical brand of literary method acting wherein I adopt the voice and features of another person (or animal, or tree, or whatever) and write poems from their perspectives. It’s a lot of fun, wearing a mask of sorts, and I can see why my oldest son so badly wants to be a theater major in college.

But this walking about in others’ skin has had another effect on me. It has caused me to reflect upon times in my life where I’ve decided on identities that were, shall we say, less than authentic. As an undergraduate, I occupied the “poor, dumb country boy” role quite well. This persona gave my professors the impression I was a small-town hick that couldn’t possibly pass their classes. In some cases, it gave me an easy out when a class required too much effort on my part: “Dr. Willard, I’m sorry, but I’m just a poor, dumb country boy, and I don’t get a thing about physical science. Can I just get my D and go?” Other times, I loved shocking professors who’d jumped to conclusions. Sometimes I made A’s, and other times I’d posit something into class discussion that was unexpectedly profound or showed great insight. Their facial expressions were dumbstruck and priceless, and this was part of the thrill.

Occasionally, it’s good to be “Bubba.”

My parents and grandparents would have been horrified by this acting on my part; they’d reared me to be genteel, cultured, refined, and above all, honest. I’d had a great deal of training despite my rural roots, from piano and classical guitar lessons to extensive travel opportunities. I knew all too well which fork to use at formal dinners and how to comport myself in a variety of diverse social circumstances. So for me to effect this ill-bred image was anathema to my upbringing. Like so many kids in college, I was finding myself by being anyone but myself. “Bubba” had it better and easier — nobody expected him to do much, and when he did, he was more heavily rewarded than his peers whose intelligence was taken for granted.

The habit of playing the poor, dumb country boy followed me into my young professional life, though. He became a scapegoat for my errors (or early adulthood laziness) in much the same way that my imaginary friends in childhood had. Couldn’t find the location of the press conference? “Bubba” to the rescue — he (I) was just too ignorant to locate it. Didn’t hand in a lesson plan? Well, in Hardup County, we never knew nothin’ bout no lesson plans or gradebooks. And so forth. I became so adept at this performance that slowly, almost unnoticeably, my persona was taking over. I began to chew tobacco, thicken my dialect, and walk with a gait that could only be described as an aimless amble. “Bubba” was consuming me.

This persona worked fairly well until I earned too many degrees. People generally stop believing you’re a backwater hillbilly once you’ve acquired a certain level of education. It’s hard to get labeled a redneck when multiple graduate-level diplomas are hanging on the wall behind you. So I’ve had to retire him, especially now, as I begin applying to doctoral programs. Sorry, Bubba, you’ll have to be put out to pasture, to use one of your colloquialisms. Thanks for your service, but like an outgrown security blanket, you need to be packed up. I’m closing the lid on the trunk of my personal history, and hopefully the stale cedar air will be too much for you. It’s time to live earnestly.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Writing the Living

There once was a famous poet (Robert Penn Warren, I think) who said something like, “Poetry is found in the living of life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing there, but I’m doing so to make a point.

Recently, like so many other people in this weird time, I was furloughed from my full-time university teaching job. I have another three weeks or so before the furlough is supposed to be over, and even that expectation may prove false — who knows?

In the meantime, I’ve been devoting myself to other endeavors: my podcast, for example, or the Skillshare classes I create. But this past weekend, as my in-laws took my sons for a sleepover, my wife and I undertook a different venture: Kayaking.

Kayak1

If you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy. I camp, fish, shoot sporting clays, and generally enjoy being in nature. But kayaking makes your mind different every time you go.

About this time last year, I was serving as a faculty member at the Word and Community writing retreat in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. While there, I kayaked almost daily. I’d set out at dawn and cross Trout Lake, visiting a small island in the middle of it. Some days the wind made the lake choppy, and staying stable was challenging. Other days, the water was like glass, the paddling was easy, and the big-windowed houses on shore seemed to smile at my presence there as loons sounded their cries in the distance.

That kayaking was different from the trip I took this weekend. For one thing, while at last year’s retreat, my mind was in a very “literary” place, and it was busy seeking inspiration (almost artificially) in minute details and newfound sensations brought on by foreign geography. Inspiration was found, but only when I allowed my mind to relax and stop trying to force poetry from every ripple in the water.

In contrast, this weekend was less about the literary and more about escape — Getting away from my stalled professional life, from my pessimism, and yes, even from my poetry. As much as I love writing, it has the propensity to consume me, too.

Kayak2

But what does all this have to do with Warren’s quote, you may ask? Kayaking is perhaps one of the best examples to demonstrate that writers need to go and do, not just write. The canonized masters of the 20th Century weren’t just sitting in their studies, thinking lofty thoughts and scribbling philosophical diatribes — they were men and women of action, and through those actions, they found literature.

Even if no immediate epiphanies arise from an activity, it is the living of life, not the recording of it, that counts. So often in our present, we think of travel and events in regards to their photographic potential. How will this trip or this exercise look on social media? Maybe it’s time we started enjoying things simply for their essence again. Rather than speculating about what kind of poem, story, essay, or photograph something will create, can we just live? Because I can promise you, if Warren is right (and I believe he is), inspiration will come to us. When our minds are clear and our worries are fewer, the words will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a new day ahead. Let’s seize it.

Kayak3

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.

So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.

Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…

poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

What’s your process?

abstract blackboard bulb chalk
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I give readings, seminars, and workshops, I’m sometimes asked what my “process” is for writing a poem. That’s been pretty hard to elucidate until now. I just put together a new for-fun class on Skillshare here: Skillshare Poetry Class

In this course, I take students through the process of writing a poem. We begin with inspiration and how it gets generated, and then we proceed all the way through to the final, publishable draft of a poem. If you’re interested, I’d really love for you to join and be my “student.”

I’d also really like to see the poems that you create as a result of this class — Who knows? Maybe the next “Dover Beach” will happen thanks to this little endeavor…

poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Taking to Audio: The Metacreative Podcast, Episode One

metacreative

I’ve got a new project amid all this quarantining and social distancing, and I hope you’ll give it a listen!

The Metacreative Podcast is intended to help people rouse their inspiration to write, create, and produce. This first episode details a process that has long worked for me: Socratic Journaling. It also includes a couple of really stellar poems that might help loosen some of your own reflections, which can also drive inspiration. Find The Metacreative Podcast here:

The Metacreative Podcast: Episode One

Thanks for your support as I try out this new venture. I hope it results in some great work as we stay alone together in this strange time. Happy Listening!