Writing is full of superstitions. There are accounts of authors who only use a certain brand of typewriter, who write only at one certain time of day, who sip only one certain brand of coffee or tea with one certain number of creams/sugars/whatevers in it.
Our rituals become nearly religious in their practice. For instance, I prefer to write the first several drafts of a poem with a fountain pen, specifically a Waterman Phileas. I like to fill its charger with ink from a bottle — the color doesn’t really matter so long as it’s not red — and then feel the flow of that ink through a golden nib onto the page of a legal pad (canary or white is of little consequence to me).
But these kinds of minute habits, while important, are more innocuous than the habits we can sometimes abuse in our actual writing. I know I have a few idiosyncrasies in my poetry, and over the years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with each of them. The excessive alliteration, the internal rhyme for no good reason other than the enjoyment of its sound, the Dickinsonian love of dashes — all these and more have been stylistic markers of my work, for better or worse.
And while my MFA program did its best to make me aware of them to the point of eschewing them, I’ve come to another understanding: All the greats have certain idiosyncrasies that critics scolded them for, but in the long run, we find those little habits endearing. Who could imagine the work of e.e. cummings with capital letters, for instance? Or who could recall the work of Ogden Nash without its insistent whimsy and child-like wordplay? The list goes on, and the remainder of this post could be comprised of famous poets’ strange diction-predilections, but there’s only so much space, and I value your time.
The point is just this — Maybe I’ll stop using those devices that I’ve loved so much and so long, fearing I may “wear them out.” Or maybe, like a comfortable sweatshirt or an old pair of jeans, I’ll keep using them. Maybe I will own them proudly. Being mindful of delicious syllables doesn’t necessarily mean obviating them. In the diet of language, our guilty pleasures can still be consumed (or employed) occasionally, so long as we know not to eat the whole metaphorical pizza. Like everything, diction is a balancing act. Too much or too little of anything can throw things into disorder or disarray. But sometimes, that kind of creative chaos is just what we need. Our little indulgences and idiosyncrasies can lead us to greater authenticity. And as literary history proves, the authentic writers survive long after they’ve passed. Here’s to a great 2018, complete with all the oddities our creative minds return to again and again.
Buy a book, save a life: Between now and Christmas, 100 percent of every sale of each of my books will go toward getting one of my poet-students and her mother out of the homeless shelter. You get good poems, and a family that desperately deserves a Merry Christmas is given a hand up. There are no losers here — If you don’t want to buy one of the books below, you may donate directly to the Save my Student from Homelessness fund:
If you would like to go the literary route and receive some poetry in exchange for your generosity, please consider purchasing any one of the books below (click the title):
Your purchase or donation is deeply appreciated. I can’t say enough good things about this student, and she and her mother are grateful for any help you can offer. Please join this effort to save a budding writer from the horrible conditions at the homeless shelter. THANK YOU!
Regular readers may recall in mid-November that I was lamenting copious recent rejections and doubting my own ability as a poet. I feared I had “lost my touch,” in essence, and I was also seeking solace in other genres, among other things. Not too long thereafter, I was contacted by a prestigious literary journal whose reading period is ongoing. I was complimented by the editor on a fine poem, and I was asked not to say anything about the acceptance until their reading period ended (which it has not). Hence, the mystery and ambiguity at this point: I’d love to tell you where and when the poem will be published, but I’ve made promises, and for now, I’m keeping them.
The lesson in all this, of course, is one I learned long ago but still occasionally forget: One’s poetic victories and losses wax and wane, and there is usually a fair balance among the wins and defeats. Inspiration doesn’t just suddenly die, and experimentation can make one’s voice more authentic, more robust. If nothing else, dabbling with other choices can help reinforce the resonance of a poet’s authentic voice — it certainly did for me.
When I stopped “messing around” with subjects, ideas, and forms that were unnatural and inorganic to my sensibilities, I was able to return to the true, the genuine, and the productive. Like Dickinson, Frost, and countless others before me, I have certain friendly forms and techniques that have served me well over the years, and while breaking from them for a time can serve as a kind of oasis, sooner or later, the trek must continue more earnestly than ever before.
My journey has been (and continues to be) one marked by the regional, the rural, and the real. These descriptors, however I may wish to alter or even abandon them, continue to define my work, as they are the sources I return to again and again, and they rarely fail me.
Place is inextricable from my diction. Every Dickinson needs her Amherst, every Frost needs his Vermont (or New Hampshire), and every Hughes, Cullen, or Hayden needs his Harlem. I need central Florida and its rhythms, its landmarks, and its people as much as I need oxygen. This land and its characteristics are infinite in their inspiration.
As the publication of this newer piece arrives, I’ll be sure to follow up here. For now, may I politely suggest a few stocking stuffers:
Hard Inheritance — My latest (2016) collection filled with the wonders and truths of agrarian life.
Middle Class American Proverb — My 2014 book that was a finalist for the Lascaux Book Prize, and which includes multiple Pushcart-nominated poems. It is also my largest collection to date, and was hailed by poets from Peter Meinke (poet laureate of Florida) to Erica Dawson (2016 Poets Prize winner, among other accolades).
The Boys of Men — A chapbook (meaning little/short collection) of poems about fatherhood, mentorship, and the bonds that link generations to one another. A good gift for the teacher, dad, or son on your list. And cheap!
Thank you, readers and lovers of poetry, for your continued support. This literary life might not be an easy road at times, but it certainly remains valuable. Onward to Christmas!
Recently 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.
While 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.
“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.