life, teaching, writing

The Literary Scoutmaster

Photo by Bryce Carithers on Pexels.com

When I was the age of my current students, I was busy finishing up the requirements for Eagle Scout. I genuinely enjoyed scouting, mostly because the things I learned there were hands-on, useful, and seemed to have real-life application. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that one of my very first jobs was camp counselor, teaching younger boys how to safely and accurately shoot both rifles and shotguns. Scouting was good to me, and it gave me skills I use and teach even now when I take my sons camping, fishing, skeet shooting, hiking, or kayaking, among other activities.

Admittedly, the Boy Scouts of America is not what it used to be. Over the years, the organization has made a series of egregious missteps that have caused me not to place my sons in a troop, and I’ve largely cut all ties with the BSA. But this isn’t a political post, nor is it one intended to defend or prosecute “Scouting USA” as they now prefer to be called. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon how my present teaching experience embodies what was valuable within a former version of scouting: Practical guidance and retainable learning through meaningful relationships and memorable experiences.

I teach at an all-boys high school. Every day, I get to walk into my classroom and impart subject matter I love to young men who are eager to start the first chapters of their “real lives” beyond secondary education. Like tying a square knot or administering first aid, the skills I provide (reading a text more deeply, writing a clear sentence, etc.) are ones that will follow my pupils the rest of their lives if they’re wise enough to grasp this opportunity.

And I do all I can to ensure that my subject matter is imparted in a tangible, relatable way. We don’t just sit in rows and uniformly parrot back the rules of reading and writing; we investigate texts and tear sentences apart to see what makes them work (or not). I choose material that the boys will find engaging so as not to lose their focus. I show them that poetry, an oft-dreaded element of high school English, can be cool. They earn metaphorical “merit badges” in matters like fiction, nonfiction, composition, rhetoric, and critical analysis. And throughout all this, I lean into their experiences.

They write about their lives, their parents, their worries, and their friends. They give presentations about how they share traits with certain characters we’ve encountered. They read paragraphs with highlighters like navigators would read maps with compasses. And they build essays and compositions as a camper might carefully structure his log-cabin fire lay: each piece discerningly placed atop the other until the warmth and light reach optimal climax.

These boys remind me of a better chapter and give me hope for our cultural future. While all around us, young men give in to so many negative influences, I prefer to think that my small part in shaping my students will in some way brighten tomorrow through integrity and knowledge. I know that some of them will make bad choices just as certain scouts in my troop did. But if a small-town poet can reach into the minds of enough youth with lingering lessons about words and ideas, I will have succeeded. When my students enter the world beyond our campus, I know they will have heeded, even adopted, a certain old motto that remains in my heart: Be Prepared.

life, teaching, writing

COVID-19 Finally Hits Home

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As the rest of the country celebrates the “end in sight” for coronavirus, my family gets to encounter a new challenge from it. Earlier this month, on the fifth to be exact (my late stepdad’s birthday, as luck would have it), I was informed that my university was laying me off with no prospective date for rehire or return. After four and a half years of teaching, writing, and positively impacting the lives of adult learners, a virus ended my job. The explanation: Student enrollment declined, admissions decreased, and retention was lower because of COVID-19. Cutbacks had to be made, and I was one of them. Other faculty members had rank and seniority, so here we are. One chapter abruptly ended.

If you’ve learned anything from my previous posts, however, it’s probably this: I am uniquely blessed with an ability to bounce back from obstacles in darn-near record time. The same day my layoff took effect, I received a phone call from a private school near my home. The principal requested that I come teach for them in the 2021-2022 school year, and I gladly accepted. The terms were good, and the environment is ideal for my unique brand of literary pedagogy. Granted, I’ll have a few months to “struggle” before my new gig takes effect, but there is hope waiting at the end of summer.

My situation is far better than some others. There are people who have no idea when or if they’ll return to work, and I’m sensitive to that. In the meantime, though, I’m devoting myself to grand plans for the school year yet to come. Part of this grand plan involves getting my students certain supplies I’d like them to have in the year ahead. Here is where you come in, dear reader:

I’m going to be teaching high school English to roughly 85 students. As part of this assignment, I’d like each of my students to have a Rocketbook reusable notebook. For those unfamiliar, a Rocketbook allows the user to simply wipe off previous writings after they’ve been used, submitted, or captured via phone or tablet. What does this mean? A single Rocketbook will last my students all year and enable us to do project work, interactive literature circles, and a wide variety of other tasks that plain paper and pen just won’t. Students can even submit their handwritten items to different email inboxes, making grading and organization a breeze.

How can you help with this endeavor? I’ve set up a fundraiser for this initiative here: https://adoptaclassroom.force.com/donors/s/designation/a1m0y000003oycDAAQ/john-davis

Any assistance that you can provide is much, much appreciated. Even if COVID-19 threw me a curveball, I intend to throw one right back at it by resuming excellent instruction as soon as possible. Your contribution will allow my kids to thrive and grow in the brighter days ahead. Thanks for reading and thanks for giving!

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, 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, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

E.B. and Me

One of the essays I most love to teach is  “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White. In that short essay, White recounts lake trips he took with his father each summer, and he tells the reader about his own encounter with his son at the same lake. Throughout the essay, he sees his father in himself, and he sees himself in his son. The essay is full of vivid imagery (as one would expect from the author of Charlotte’s Web), and it muses fondly without straying into rank sentimentality. 

Last weekend, my wife, sons, and I went back to a lake house where I spent some summer days in my own youth. Much like White, I got to see history repeating itself. My boys discovered the joy of diving off a dock, feeling the white sand of the lake bottom against bare feet,  collapsing at night in the pleasant exertion of a day spent swimming, swinging from a rope swing, and soaking in Florida sunlight.

But there were differences, too. For one, my experiences at the lake house were usually large family affairs, surrounded by countless cousins and massive amounts of home-cooked food. People were busy skiing and knee-boarding, and it was hard to find a place that was not already occupied by beloved others. As much as I revel in the memories of those large family gatherings, this past weekend had several advantages over the bigger productions of my boyhood.

We were able to connect to one another in meaningful ways since it was only us. We played card games, watched a movie or two, and the rest of the time was spent on the lake or engaged in some form of relaxation. My sons used light-up swords to “duel” each other in the evening outside. We made memories. We conversed. We escaped.

And while part of me longs for the days of yesteryear, complete with now-departed family members and the squirt-gun spirit of boyish mischief, another part is deeply satisfied with this present — a time when I as a father can watch my sons discover the new-old joys of a near-summer day on the lake, one complete with colder morning water that warms gradually throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

I get it now, E.B. I’ve stepped into your shoes a little. I’ve felt the creep of age slowly maturing me from descendant into ancestor, and I’m okay with that. One day my boys will undoubtedly have similar feelings as generations continue to unfold. It’s the way things are meant to be.

 

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…

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“God Wanted You to be a Poet:” Conversations with my Mother

 

pen writing gold ink
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.