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!
While reading Cornelius Eady’s newest chapbook, The War Against the Obvious (Jacar Press, 2018), the audience must ask: “Is it jazz? Is it blues? Is it poetry?” The answer to all three is a resounding yes.
Using the artful anaphora and rhythmic refrains common to musical innovators like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Eady weaves words into meter reminiscent of Langston Hughes. In other places, he allows his diction to parallel the beats and melodic play of jazz master Thelonious Monk, with scats of phrases punctuated by drum-beat white space. Line and stanza breaks equally reinforce sometimes-staccato prosody. The overall effect is at once enlivening and enlightening.
Eady has previously professed a love for 45 rpm records, and while reading this chapbook, one can detect a distinct connection between the small vinyls of yesteryear and the lyric professions of certain poems in the 34-page collection. Single-page pieces like “I’m a Fool to Love You” (a title borrowed from Billie Holiday) resonate with the static and scratch of bygone, glorious audio:
“Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,
Some type of supernatural creature.
My mother would tell you, if she could,
About her life with my father,
A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.
She would tell you about the choices
A young black woman faces.”
And so begins an adventure into a bittersweet past, one akin to those heard in the brass lamentations of saxophones. The volume of poems is both light and dark, still and moving. With serious, dire poems like “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” eventually giving way to happy pieces like “White Socks” (a rollicking commentary on fashion) and “The White Couch,” a narrative poem displaying a vignette of humorous everyday life and concluding the book with a smile.
The collection is also home to one of the most powerful closing lines I’ve ever read (no hyperbole here):
“Like cellophane beneath a match.” This concluding simile comes from the poem “Aerial Ballet,” and to truly understand its impact, one must have context (buy the chapbook). But please believe me when I say that, as far as endings go, this one is perfect. It’s worth picking up a copy of the book if only to fall under the spell of this single piece.
In addition, Eady pays homage to the influence of AM radio in his past through the universality of his words. In another era, AM radio stations played a little bit of everything. A rock song may be followed by something classical or country, and in the same way, The War Against the Obvious combines influences to produce a collection that is relatable to a broad demographic. Just as music reaches into a primal, limbic space within us, so too do Eady’s poems. Like the watermarked music notes behind them, these lines and stanzas rise and fall with intentional spontaneity.
After reading The War Against the Obvious, one would assume that a musical album download included with it would continue its sonorous tradition of jazz or blues, or maybe a combination of both. But true to its title, the chapbook is supplemented by the unexpected (spoilers ahead): The audio collection, accessed by using a link on an included bookmark, whisks the listener into the world of Irish ballad, bluegrass, and folk-rock. Hanging Out with Ms. Sparkle features words and music by Eady, but it is made complete by vocals from the poet and Concetta Abbate, percussion from Sebastian Sanchez, and accompaniment including acoustic and electric guitars and the unmistakable sound of mountain dulcimer, all played by Eady himself. Charlie Rauh lends his electric guitar skills to track 6, and Paulo Fazio assisted with arrangements. Sanchez also served as mix engineer for the collection, which includes a tribute to Zora Neale Hurston entitled “Ward of the State” — a worthwhile listen. The lyrics of the songs are poetry themselves, and although there are places where one can tell that this project was done by individual artists with ordinary technology, the mixture of strings, voices, and drums creates an ear-pleasing experience. It is a surprising and eclectic blend that makes for a good morning coffee-drinking soundtrack.
The War Against the Obvious and its supplemental album would make a fine addition to anyone’s library, but it will especially speak to fans of history, diverse music, and strong imagery. For these reasons, it is my pleasure to recommend both this reading and this listening. You will not be disappointed.
You may view a full description and order this volume from the publisher here.
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.
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.
April has certainly been less than “the cruelest month” this year. I’ve had some pieces published, spent some time with excellent poets, and with spring has come that sense of hope and relief. Soon, my boys will be out of school, and summer will press its Floridian heat upon us, urging us to the community pool and the beach. But for now, I’d like to spend the last little bit of a great month celebrating a victory or two:
1.) Deep South magazine, a publication that has been friendly to my work since its very beginnings, recently published “My Grandfather’s Exhibit,” a newer piece of mine that deals with a subject very dear to me:
I’d appreciate folks visiting the link and hitting “like” or offering a comment, if you can spare the time. The editor loves for people to interact with content, and maybe this piece will inspire a few memories of your own. I’ll also share the audio version below:
2.) Alternating Current Press, who publishes a great online journal called The Coil, recently awarded an ekphrastic piece of mine in its Daguerrotyped competition. Using the photo provided from them, I put together a piece celebrating the contributions of women during the mid-20th Century:
Here again is an audio version for those who prefer to both hear and read works:
I also have some pieces forthcoming in other venues that I’ll announce as I’m able. I hope that National Poetry Month has treated you well, reader, and that as the year progresses, poetry will continue to be a valuable part of your everyday life.
I like April. Spring has fully sprung here in Florida, school is wrapping up for the kiddos, and of course, it’s National Poetry Month. One would think that an entire month devoted to my chosen genre would come with joy and excitement exclusively, but to be honest, this month is a bit of a double-edged sword. Like Black History Month and Women’s History Month before it, National Poetry Month comes with an insidious underlying assumption: Here’s this highly specialized thing that we should give a month to, but nothing further.
Sure, that’s never stated outright, but ask around your “ordinary” friends, and you’ll find out that while April’s set-aside status for poetry is honoring, it is also limiting. There are so many worthwhile organizations that engage the masses with messages of poems and poets during April, that once it’s over, many individuals breathe a collective sigh of relief: “Oh thank goodness. Now I don’t have to think about poetry anymore.”
Of course, this attitude is detrimental to my genre. Ideally, poetry should be given equal footing with its prose brothers, fiction and nonfiction. But walk into any bookstore and you’ll see the truth of American perceptions: one meager, disorganized shelf that contains Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and a bunch of old dead (though respectable) poets. The physical space is a symbol for average people’s notions of how poetry should be treated — included, but severely limited.
And it is this limitation that National Poetry Month has unfortunately come to represent: “OK, here’s a month where we can pay lip service to a genre that many people hate because it requires them to think. Then we can move on with business as usual.” Poetry is having to wage the same war for recognition that various people groups have had to fight before. Have “history months” of various stripes helped that endeavor? Perhaps. In American schools, we see more emphasis on diverse histories as opposed to the whitewashed versions of yesteryear. And those histories are especially highlighted during months that are set aside for their recognition.
In some respects, however, specialized “months” for things are like the handicapped parking spaces of the calendar. It’s an unpleasant, abrasive truth, but think about it: Because certain subjects are considered less “able” than others, they are condescendingly given their own little segregated portions of the year. Do those spaces help? Certainly. But along with them often comes an inherent, regrettable attitude of alienated superiority from unaffected others. And it is this attitude we must fight to change, for poetry, for people, and for the future.
The great beauty of poetry is that it fits nicely into any other subject: Science, Math, Geography, Languages, History, and the list goes on. Name a subject, and there’s poetry that pertains to it. But so long as we confine poetry to 30 days out of the year, we are continuing to insinuate that it’s a members-only establishment.
Like the history of African-Americans, women, and other previously overlooked groups, poetry likewise must move beyond the borders of its designated (assigned?) month. Thankfully, there are plenty of organizations and individuals ensuring that such an evolution happens. We see poetry on public transportation, in areas of mass transit, on billboards, and in more everyday venues. This kind of proliferation is definitely necessary.
Poets and lovers of the written word, we cannot comfort our consciences with the idea that the Poetry Foundation or The Academy of American Poets will dual-handedly raise poetry to a place of prominence in our culture’s collective psyche. All of us, every individual, must raise our voices and our verses beyond April. Let us begin today.