Please enjoy the video poem above as we seek serenity, equanimity, and stability in this troubled time. Faith and peace to all.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my “travel fast,” explaining how 2020 would be a year in which I would abstain from literary workshops, conferences, seminars, or retreats. My plan has been (and continues to be) allowing connection with my family to motivate and inspire new writing. Well, God sure has an interesting sense of humor:
“What’s that, son? You want to spend more time with your family? POOF! Here you go. I will enable you to work from home, school your sons at home, worship at home, give poetry workshops from home, exercise at home, and….let’s see…pretty much anything else you want to do — it’s going to have to happen within the four walls of your house. You’re welcome.”
Lest anyone think I’m making light of coronavirus, let me say that I’m not. I know that people are dying. I know that many are ill in ways they’ve never been before. And I know that a global pandemic is nothing to laugh about. We in the US are blessed to have largely first-world concerns that sound an awful lot like whining to those less fortunate. That being said, the situations we find ourselves in as locked-down Americans deserve a moment or two of levity.
Thus far, my boys, my wife, and I have: 1.) Put together jigsaw puzzles, 2.) Played countless rounds of Uno, Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit, 3.) Gone for hikes in the remote area near the creek, 4.) Ridden our bikes a couple of miles a day, and 5.) attended “online church,” an experience that has really expanded our definition of “sacred.”
But throughout all this, the discoveries we’ve made have been meaningful: My oldest son, a budding TikTok celebrity whose following is somewhere around 45,000, has been entertaining us with his theatrical abilities. He randomly performs stand-up routines, imitations, and monologues. My youngest son, the future architect/lawyer/billionaire, has been learning to code and has had extensive video conversations with his favorite cousin who shares much of his personality and interests. These two have their own “secret detective agency” and hatch plans via Facetime. Much of their dialogue has been inspired by the book series The Mysterious Benedict Society.
The hero during our isolation has been my wife: A healthcare worker, she goes to her clinic day after day, exposing herself to potential infection so that people can receive the care they need, now and anytime. When she returns in the evenings, she immediately showers and sanitizes to protect all of us. About a week ago, a known COVID-19 infected patient coughed near her. We’ve been watching and waiting ever since. Nothing so far, thankfully, but…the risk is always there. To exacerbate her situation, she’s also recovering from surgery that she had about three weeks ago. Without going into graphic detail, the operation was moderately invasive. Nonetheless, she presses on. She is our resident saint and our honored queen.
Our afternoons have been the most remarkable feature of this weird time: I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with the boys. We each have a copy of the text, and via Audible, we have Tim Robbins reading the book to us. We follow along, pause to discuss and reflect, and analyze the book’s characters, plot, tone, and other details. Supplementing this study, we’ve watched old episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, a t.v. show based upon the great author’s exhilarating short stories (see YouTube). The boys find commonalities between the novel we’ve been reading and the smaller bite-sized narratives on screen. This has given rise to discussions of our present society and culture, as one might imagine. It’s also allowed us to practice some amateur psychology on the characters Bradbury invented. My oldest son developed a five-step treatment plan for Mildred (Montag’s wife in the novel), for example.
Will this quarantine generate poems? Probably. I don’t plan to write about all the kinds of things that have occurred to so many others — how this moment demonstrates our universal humanity, how politics are utterly futile in times like these, how the family unit remains the foundation of our society. These big ideas, while true, will undoubtedly be overdone, and frankly, poems that are written with an agenda in mind rarely succeed as art.
No, my poems that will spring from this strange point in history will probably dwell upon subjects like those I mentioned before — the heroism of my wife, the creativity of my sons, the little day-to-day tasks and events that are breaks from our non-coronavirus life routines. Crisis, despite its horrors, is a rescue from the mundane. It shakes us from our civilized, programmed, humdrum existences into realization of our human fragility. For all of us, this epiphany has been, perhaps, the most monumental lesson.
I never intended for this blog entry to become a gratitude journal, and yet, as I look back over it, it certainly has leaned in that direction. There’s much to be thankful for, and that’s undoubtedly another lesson of this period. As we inhabit the most intimate spaces of our lives with those we hold closest, we re-learn the value of connection. We are reminded that, if everything else perished, our interpersonal bonds would matter most. Hold your dear ones tight, embrace the temporary inconveniences, and soon enough, we will all look back on this historical hiccup a little wiser, a little better.
“I feel like a friend has died,” I told someone today. The news came by email: The MFA program that helped make me the poet I have become will be closing. In an announcement with all the usual logistical wording, the interim director of University of Tampa’s MFA program, a man I admire and deeply appreciate, relayed the somber message. The alumni Facebook page lit up with equal parts horror, shock, and grief. How do we say goodbye to something that has so profoundly impacted us, not just as writers, but as human beings?
I’m just old-school enough to try to process this tragedy with a blog post. Some of my fellow grads will probably pen deep and artful poetry and creative prose, but the old newspaper reporter in me reaches for something a bit more journalistic. So here are the facts:
Without the UT MFA program, I never would have:
— Written three of my four books of poetry
— Studied under brilliant people like Erica Dawson, Peter Meinke, and Sandra Beasley
— Gone to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016; Amherst, Massachusetts in 2015; or Santa Fe in 2013
— Been hired to lead poetry workshops in the northwoods of Wisconsin last summer
— Gotten a job as a college professor, which later led to a higher ed leadership position
— Met many of the good friends I still contact and share news with
— Hosted a guest author series for three of the schools I’ve served
— Networked with influential figures in the literary community who helped me greatly
— Made permanent happy memories at places like the Dali Museum and Ybor City
— Learned what it smells like inside the minarets of Plant Hall
I’m sure there are other “never-would-haves” that exist, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. I think of all the good that classes and workshops there have done. I think of the people whose lives, like mine, would be radically different had they never attended. I think of the great and meaningful conversations that occurred in unexpected places. And I do not fail to consider an apparent irony: So many of our seminars and craft lectures were held in classrooms at the school of business.
Now we hear that business is the very killer of our program. Higher education is changing, they say. People don’t want to learn for the sake of learning; they want a pathway to a job, and it better pay well. Who cares about literature, culture, and liberal arts tradition? Well, I do. And I know a bunch of people who agree with me.
We will shed our tears in private and move on with our literary lives, knowing well that we wouldn’t even have such existences had it not been for the University of Tampa MFA program. Like all deaths, this one will never leave us. We will simply adjust to being without as one does after the departure of a beloved. And this program and its people are dearly, dearly beloved.
Some poets tend to speak of their families as obligations that prevent true creativity. There are fellowships aimed at helping parent-poets escape their roles as mom or dad and focus exclusively on “the work,” whatever that might be. But as one who spent two weeks in 2019 away from my wife and sons, let me tell you what I’ve discovered:
It is only amid the adventures of family life that true poetry is created. The rearing of children, the complexities of marriage, and the shared experiences that go with both produce the stuff of great writing. This isn’t some pseudo-inspirational fluff; it is truth found through living.
In my workplace, I’m fortunate to be given generous vacation time every year. I could spend those hours communing with nature, hearing other writers, discussing the intricacies of composition, or…I could make memories for my family at home or away. Whether we go to the beach, the mountains, or even Lisbon, Portugal (see prior posts), the time we spend will forge moments ingrained in our history. And to me, building fond recollections for my wife and sons trumps circular conversations about craft or melancholy publishing panels.
Certainly, solitude has its place in the life of a writer. It serves as a kind of social fast, and science tells us that fasting is an important component in our human lives. But for sheer generative power, nothing holds a candle to family time. All the prompt-riddled workshops and cliche-filled seminars can’t compare to seeing one’s offspring make the realizations that accompany maturing. To watch the generational cycles continue, to spend time in earnest dialogue with loved ones — these are the elements of inspiration.
For my writer friends who are attending name-brand conferences or literary events this year, I wish you all the best. Have fun hearing from people whose limited celebrity is often greater than their wisdom. I hope you listen to a line during a reading that sparks your innovation. I hope you network with folks you’ve long admired. And I hope you don’t come back empty-handed.
I resolve this year, this 2020, to be present in daily life with my family. I resolve to observe every detail, absorb every minute, and allow my literary endeavors to follow my role as husband and father, not the other way around. I have a new manuscript that’s out there, and hopefully this will be its year. But even if it isn’t, my greater hope is that the impressions I leave on the lives of those closest to me will be indelible. As Robert Penn Warren once said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” It’s 2020, and it’s time to go live it.
If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.
Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.
The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.
Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.
Lots of talk has recently surrounded the subject of fasting. There’s intermittent fasting, carb fasting, even social media fasting (which I’ve done and enjoyed, frankly). For the past month, I’ve been engaged in another sort of fast — one intended to decrease my stress levels and simultaneously give me more time to create: The Submissions Fast.
You heard that right: For the last 22 days, I have not submitted any of my poetic work to any publisher or contest, large or small. “Why would a working poet do this?” you might ask. Here’s my answer…
I noticed about a month ago that my Submittable queue had grown to more than 30 submissions that were either “received” or “in progress.” This meant that publishers had my latest works in hand at a variety of venues. Some places looking at my poems were competitions, some were magazines I respected, and still others were small operations seeking poems for other purposes.
Whatever their mission, these diverse outlets were all considering some incarnation of my best 10 or 12 recently written poems (some in series of five, some in series of three, and others looking at just one, depending on guidelines and needs). These potential publishers were giving their editorial eye to essentially the same material. I knew it was time to lay off. I’m a fan of simultaneous submissions, but there comes a time when the business of writing must give way to the art of it.
And so, for the last several weeks, I’ve reined in my usual desire to submit, submit, submit. I’m letting these poems “rest” while I write, teach, and focus on other endeavors. When I see one of the ubiquitous calls for submissions, I ignore it and keep moving to other unrelated items. Doing so is hard; for decades now, I’ve lived under the expectation that “being a poet means putting your work out into the world” by submitting it. But at some point, enough is enough.
Despite my earnest desire to send off a packet of my poetry to a new journal or contest I see advertised, I’ve endured and persevered, and the results have been unexpected. I find myself gravitating more toward creative nonfiction as opposed to crafting new poems. Maybe it started as a way of coping with submission-loss: “If I’m writing and submitting stuff in a different genre, it doesn’t count.” Like the addict who insists a different brand of the same substance is exempt from restriction, I convinced myself that putting prose in front of editors was not (is not) like submitting poetry.
Writing reflectively about this decision demonstrates its fallacy, of course. Turning work in to potential publishers and getting that hope-driven dopamine rush is the same, no matter what kind of writing is involved. So, I’m just going to call those nonfiction submissions “cheat days” like certain diets would allow. That’s a reasonable justification, right?
The other effect that not submitting has had on me is a certain calm. No longer do I feel the need to frantically check the progress indicators on my present submissions, and no longer do I obsess over which editor might be viewing which work at what time. Leaving my work to do its thing is much like planting seeds. I know I have to wait for these little efforts to produce or fail. Stressing over them is a futile decision that induces unnecessary anxiety.
There’s plenty in my life to fret about without adding more to the menu. Submitting can be a rewarding learning experience. But when it gets out of hand, like anything else, it’s time to exercise some control. Doing so has allowed my mind to explore other avenues and relieve itself of a fetter that shouldn’t exist.
Maybe some of those 30 places will say yes. Many, I’m certain, will say no (my acceptance rate tells me so). But in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. Putting my work out there is supposed to be the enjoyable part of this literary life. When it becomes the opposite, stopping is the solution.
If this post had a soundtrack, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here’s why: Yesterday my writing received an acceptance from a literary journal I’ve wanted my work to appear in for years. The poems they accepted had previously received favorable rejections (you know the kind: “We found much to admire, but…”). Everything I’ve ever learned from workshops, seminars, and personal experience told me that these pieces had quality. Nonetheless, they had been turned down several times. In fact, one of them was more than a year old and had yet to find a home.
I began to worry: Was my literary taste-o-meter just that far off? Was I overlooking some flagrant error that everybody else could see? What was the matter? The truth was, the poems were as good as I had thought (oh-so modestly), but other factors were at play. Space considerations, editor fatigue, and a whole host of other circumstances can often keep excellent poems out of journals’ pages, and it’s critical to remember just exactly how subjective the literary business is — All. The. Time.
Whatever previous editors’ reasons for turning these poems down, I kept on submitting them to respectable magazines and venues, knowing that somebody was going to appreciate them sooner or later. That persistence paid off, and no matter what well-meaning writing teachers may tell you, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more than stubbornness or grit to get work accepted — there also has to be merit, value, and a certain amount of good fortune involved. This fact isn’t meant to discourage; it’s just what I’ve found to be true.
This latest acceptance also came at a time when I needed it most. For the past several months, I’ve been on a real rejection streak…so much so that I was reaching the dreaded point of asking, “Should I even continue?” Instead, I exhaled a quick “Thank You Lord” upon receiving this “yes” email, interpreting it as some assurance that I’m still using my talent well.
Just when you think you’re about done, something good happens to reaffirm your path. Sometimes believing in the worth of your own work is the answer. Have faith in the good things you produce, and keep putting them out there. Encouragement is waiting.
I’ve never mastered it. The rant, the screed, the protest — they’re all mysteries to me, even to this day. Oh sure, I’ve written plenty of poems about things that made me mad; one even took third place in the 2012 Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest sponsored by the Studios of Key West. “The Words I Hate and Why” was a poem that had a certain “slit-your-throat-before-you-know-it” quality. It made people go “ooh” painfully at the end, and it caused them to wince in empathy for the poem’s speaker. The piece certainly accomplished its aim: It hurt the person it was intended to hurt, almost irreparably so. This damage may be one reason I don’t typically write “angry” poems. Their cost is just too great.
Recently, I had a mentor look over a few works of mine dealing with issues that I can get pretty passionate about. His advice: “At some point, John, you’re just going to have to come right out and say, ‘I’m pissed off about this.'” Trouble was, I was being artful and allegorical about anger. It’s an old habit and one I’ve tried to break, but when it comes to writing stuff that riles me up, I prefer to be subtle rather than overly didactic. There’s already too much bad poetry written from irrational, spewing minds.
Even when I was in the MFA program, prior mentors encouraged me to unleash the acerbic wit, the well-timed pejorative, or the harsh critique. My upbringing sometimes prevents such invective, however. Every time I’ve been angry and acted on it, by word or by deed, regret has inevitably followed. To use my poetry to launch malice or hostility into this world would be a mistake. Don’t we have enough of those things already?
Just today, I drafted a poem that responded to some pseudo-political drivel penned by another poet who shall remain nameless. My reply poem is deft. It is cuttingly and cunningly crafted. And more than likely, I will wad it up and throw it out by the end of the week. To allow someone else’s poorly informed and warped worldview to infect me with stress is to let that someone else win. They’ve had their (poorly wrought, dogmatic) say, and they will forever be able to look back on that waste of phonemes. But I don’t have to react…not with words, not with time, not even with further thought. Do I protest too much? Maybe. But let’s pretend it’s over, anyway. Life’s too short.
I intend to keep writing about those themes, people, and ideas that have merit and worth — “Whatsoever things are lovely,” to borrow a phrase from Paul. This doesn’t mean I’m going to be Pollyanna about the darkness in the world or matters that deserve righteous indignation. But it does mean that I will continue finding other catharses besides poetry. If you want to read some angry tirades, you’ll just have to look elsewhere. Sorry Not Sorry.
Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.
Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”
Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.
These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.
However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.
Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.
Not long ago, I assumed a new title within my organization. The new position involves thinking more like a manager and less like a classroom educator. This move has been a pretty big cognitive shift for someone who spent the last 15 years worrying about lesson planning, gradebook updates, project-based learning, community partnerships, and the latest instructional technology.
These days, the kinds of questions I’m asking are concerned with the bigger picture beyond the classroom: How is our organization performing? Are our customers being served in the optimal way? Who in our group needs help, and how might I provide it? Is our policy what it ought to be? What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT)?
To the literary-minded among you, I apologize. All this business talk is probably anathema to your very existence. But as one to whom it was equally foreign, I’ve had to adapt, and this change has made me think of another arena where business is sometimes perceived as the dark side: Poetry.
Yes, we poets would like to simply write our words and have them immediately recognized for their greatness and their beauty, but that’s not how it works. There is the sometimes-disgruntling submissions process, the signing of publishing contracts, the concern over rights and what constitutes “previously published,” and a million other little entanglements of the commercial or legal sort. Poets have to be business people, too. But so often we dread and disparage it.
Here’s a little secret: The business part can be as fun as the creative part. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but seriously, equal to the joy of a finished, polished poem is the hope felt when the “submit” button is pressed. Granted, sometimes that hope is dashed when rejection comes (and it does, more often than not), but the endorphins and dopamine produced while being an efficient, organized professional can rival those elicited by a really great line or stanza. The pleasures of logic and reason simply come from a different part of the brain than we creatives regularly use.
Moreover, when your “management” has paid off, it definitely makes the tedium worth it. Those hours spent on fellowship applications, the eye-wearying process of figuring out which works to submit to a particular contest, and the seemingly interminable wait for a magazine’s answer are all rewarded when the reply is a sweet-sounding yes.
When the answer is no, though, it can make you wonder why you bothered at all. I’ve been there: “Why did I wait six months for a reply from Magazine X (who won’t accept simultaneous submissions) when I could have sent these same poems to Magazine Y, who certainly would have accepted them?” or “I can’t believe I went through all the trouble of filling out that ream of documents for an award I didn’t even get.” Yep, I know the feeling. Disheartening, to say the least.
But trust me when I say that the occasional affirmative reply outweighs the saddening (and more regular) negative ones. As I’ve mentioned before, poetry has taken me to places — literal, geographic locations — I never would have seen on my own. But none of those journeys would have occurred if I hadn’t mustered up the left-brained moxie to apply, submit, or propose. And doing those parts, however contrary to my nature, made possible both memories and poems, rich rewards of their own sort.
Don’t fear the paperwork. Don’t call it bureaucracy. No matter how much we disdain them, the processes and the logistics that lead to literary opportunities are necessary, and the sooner we get friendly with them, the more successful we will become. Why not start today?