life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Seeking the Wright Inspiration

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A classroom inside Edge Hall, where I earned my first Master’s degree.

As a creative writer, I’ve done some pretty weird things to try to force epiphanies upon myself. Consider my sophomore year at the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College, 1995-1996. Around this time, I took an American Literature class under Prof. Wesley Ryals. His course was challenging; he expected you to read copious amounts of writing outside of class, and when you arrived, he would hold deep discussions of the work, leaving those who hadn’t read (yours truly included) in the proverbial dark.

So I began reluctantly reading. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the syllabus, and I began to understand symbolism. Suddenly everything around me came to life with underlying potential — trees meant life and growth and progress, the sky above me foreshadowed the day ahead, and a million other everyday images I’d previously ignored glowed with further implications. We read other canonized authors like Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and my “literary x-ray vision” for the world around me strengthened.

Right about this same time, I started seeking out spots on campus from which to write. I’d always dabbled in poetry and prose, but now, with this new heightened awareness, I felt especially motivated. I chose a bench somewhere near the freshman girls’ dorms and wrote about a dead white-barked tree covered in brown-black birds. The piece was awful, consisting of faulty formalism with heavy-handed rhyme and meter, but it was editable anyway.

I visited the balcony of the Student Life Center. It was supposed to be closed for repairs, but what are “keep out” signs to young men but invitations? From there, I looked out over Lake Hollingsworth at night, and took particular interest in the radio towers blinking their “dim, consistent red” while cars “looped a pool of silent black.” Egad. I think on these excerpts now and shudder, but they were a starting point. I began to conclude that, so long as I could get elevated enough or secluded enough, artistic revelation would follow.

And so I began frequenting the outdoor stairwells of Edge Hall, where education and religion classes were held (still are). In the evenings, the hustling spirits of the day were left there, but no one visited. Notepad in lap, I wrote about the rain and the wind, the hollow echoes of hard, narrow places. Sometimes the experience was good, but most of the time, I was trying too hard to squeeze the blood of inspiration from my turnip-brain. I’d leave with a legal pad full of sophomoric observations, and occasionally I’d return to them later and pick out some small detail that generated poetry. A few years after I graduated with my B.A., two FSC-inspired pieces would be included in Cantilevers, the school’s literary magazine, and one of them would win — get this — the Wesley Ryals Creative Writing Award.

What I learned from all this nomadic writing, though, was that a writer cannot prescribe himself a place for creativity. As my mentor Erica Dawson once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), you don’t just sit down somewhere and think Today I will write a poem about X. Epiphanies are elusive things, and placing yourself in solitude may help foster them, but there’s no assurance.

As a 19-year-old questing after sagacity, I never would have guessed that I would return to FSC years later to attain my first master’s degree in education, let alone that I would do so inside the very building where I’d written those stairwell stanzas. If someone had told me I’d complete that graduate program with a 4.0 GPA, I would have scoffed, considering my undergrad grades. Likewise, if some guru had said I’d have an MFA and eventually teach the very works that inspired me, I probably would have laughed.

But if some soothsayer had said, “Years from now, you will look out from the third floor of the Roux Library and still be inspired to write poetry,” I would have believed. Florida Southern continues to be a place of inspiration for me. I’ve been honored to adjunct-teach there a few times, but mostly, I like to return to the campus to see with older eyes that which I could not have seen earlier — genius under its eaves, history written into every column, and beauty in the youthful interactions of those with a whole future ahead of them. Such a place embodies potential, and potential is where revelation thrives.

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

The Obligatory Pre-AWP Blog Post

It took long enough, but AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has finally come to Tampa. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be reading, learning, and buddying around with some of the finest literary minds in our nation and beyond. Lots of writers have documented their social anxieties and their expectations about AWP in their blogs, even going so far as to provide their packing list and playlists for the occasion.

I think I’ll take a different approach: Insofar as this is my first AWP, I have virtually no preconceived notions about “elevator pitches” or slick networking. No, I’m a poet, and as such, I’m relieved of some of the burdens shouldered by my brethren in prose. I don’t really have an agenda, per se, or some product I’m trying to get discovered. To an extent, this commerce-less status of mine has its advantages: I can show up, enjoy the events, and calmly peruse the book fair and other areas with the placidity of a sunning turtle.

If I happen across some of my literary heroes, great. If I bump into representatives of prestigious programs or fellowships, likewise. But honestly, I am quite content these days. From a literary-life standpoint, I’m satisfied: I have a sweet little teaching gig at a college that pays well, I have time to pursue my writing endeavors, and in my new home, I even have a writing room overlooking a pond. I guess I could thirst for a Pulitzer or worry myself sick over who got published where and who won what award, but to what avail? Nah, just partaking in the craft is my mode these days. Write a little, submit a little, let the chips fall where they may. It has taken me 30 years, but I’ve learned that the best things come to those with peace and balance. And friends, I’ve got peace and balance to spare.

So, if this post seems a little capricious or even cocksure, it’s not because I’m apathetic or egomaniacal, it’s just that I’m settled. AWP or no, I know I will return to my house at the end of everything, kiss my wife, hug my boys, and go on writing. Sure, there are stories about people who met agents or editors there and had their lives changed, but my aims are not quite so grandiose. I want to see my friends, read my work, have a good time, and learn a few things along the way. That’s not too much to ask. Because once all the banners come down and the convention center empties, life will resume with its bills to pay, its mouths to feed, and its little moments of inspiration. And I will keep seizing those moments with serenity and equanimity; ink will flow, lines will live, and poetry will continue.

In the meantime, I’ll take in the hubbub of AWP with the fascination of a kid at the state fair. No, I haven’t developed a “plan,” as so many guides indicate I should, and I haven’t visited Walmart to pick up the “mandatory” supplies. I’m local, after all, and if I need something, it’s maybe half an hour to my place. So, thank you to all those diligent souls who have tirelessly composed epistles and listicles in preparation for this event. But I think I’ll just ride this wave in to shore like Floridians do. And if I miss out on “the main attraction” or “the big deal,” so be it. This isn’t life or death, and on Monday, there will be students to teach and poems to write. Chill out, my literary comrades; this is Tampa. We take things easy here.

life, teaching, Uncategorized

The Value and Relevance of Home

EmilyHouseIf you have been following this blog for the last few days (or longer), you know about my campaign to help save one of my brightest students and her mom from the homeless shelter this holiday season. In running this one-man show, I have had to give a lot of thought to the psychology and meaning that the word “home” generates.

After all, we are in the midst of a holiday season rife with songs about the joys and pleasures of being at home, whether it’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” or “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” In our greatest literature, home is portrayed as that point of both psychological and physical relief: When a character is at home, he or she is at rest, completely at ease, and ideally, right with the world.

Of course, there are plenty of homes in literature where the above is not true, whether it’s in short stories like Aryn Kyle’s “Allegiance,” or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” or whether it’s in longer novels (see multiple works by Stephen King or any other author who capitalizes on family dysfunction).

But even when an author or character comes from a home with “chronic angers” (Hayden) or faults and fissures (Poe), home as a concept still resonates with the expectation of peace. When that expectation is unfulfilled, conflict results.

But what about the nomad? The archetypal wanderer may fill our minds with romantic notions, but in reality, the soul without a home is oppressed. Such is the case with my student and her mother. Life at the shelter is not so different from jail: No visitors beyond the lobby, curfew is 6 p.m., and countless other restrictions give families the impression that they are not so much being housed as confined. That’s no way to spend Christmas.

As our minds fill with warm images and remembrances of home, may we all realize in this season that there are many wonderful, intelligent, and moral people without such a place. Let us give so that others may know the comfort and joy that our seasonal carols promise. Once again, here’s the link to donate:

https://www.gofundme.com/save-my-student-from-homelessness

 

 

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

Calling All Writers: HELP

 

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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:

https://www.gofundme.com/save-my-student-from-homelessness

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):

Hard Inheritance

Middle Class American Proverb

The Boys of Men

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!

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

On Losing One’s Touch

howtoholdapen1Recently 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.

 

life, poetry, teaching, writers, writing

On Exploring Other People’s Homes

window on the world
The view from my current home, which has inspired so many poems.

My wife and I are trying to find our next house. I’ve been driving a 140-mile round trip to work since September of last year, when I accepted a position teaching college English and Literature in Clearwater. I love the job, and she just accepted a position in a doctor’s office over there, as well. This, of course, has necessitated a lot of house-hunting.

I’m not a firm believer in new-age spirituality or that kind of thing, but I do think it’s interesting when you walk into a potential new home and pick up the energies that the last people left behind. In divorce homes, you can feel the tension and anxiety. In foreclosures, you can feel the dread, the sleeplessness, and occasionally the hatred. In homes that have been well-loved, you can sense that, too.

All this house-hunting and its associated investigations have brought me back to my reporter days, when I had to enter crime scenes and disaster scenarios: Every time, there was some kind of toxicity in the environment. It came not from the smells of violence or destruction — it was intangible. I am grateful that the homes my wife and I have entered so far have been free from that same toxicity, even if the air feels tense or unhappy.

And in addition, going into so many houses makes fertile ground for poetry. The way others live is a fascinating and often striking subject, and no doubt these forays into real estate will result in some creative work as time elapses.  For now, though, we continue to go about the nuts-and-bolts processes of home buying and selling. The whole transition is the stuff of literature, and here’s hoping that the eventual words will do justice to the experience.

P.S.: Realtors, financiers, and other business-types, please don’t contact me via this site peddling your wares. We’re already well taken care of. Thanks for respecting our wishes.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

A Farewell Book Launch

cover-for-adIn one week, I will be launching my latest collection, Hard Inheritance, at one of our city’s nicest art galleries. It is bittersweet, as this will be both the first and last book launch I hold here. I’ve loved my current city for 17 years, but this summer, my family and I will be moving to the west coast of Florida. My newest university teaching gig is a 70-mile drive from my present home, and making a 140-mile round trip daily is simply infeasible. By spring break, we plan to put our house on the market, and hopefully by summer, we will be in a new house in the Tampa Bay area. Timing, the market, and other factors will determine how quickly all this occurs, of course.

In the meantime, I’m excited to offer this new book, much of which has been inspired by our city, to the people of Winter Haven. My cover artist, a Winter Haven native herself, will be on hand to sign copies of the book with me, and invitees include people who have been supportive of my craft over the years that I’ve resided here. In many ways, this book launch is a fond goodbye to a place that has been kind to me and my family. The time I’ve spent here hasn’t been perfect — the same is true anywhere called home — but it has been inspirational.

Winter Haven’s people, its lakes, its nature, and its history have all woven themselves into my poems at different points along my artistic journey. I’ll miss all that over on the west coast, but there will be fertile material for writing there, as well. I’ve enjoyed seeing the vast salt water every day as I cross the Courtney Campbell Causeway or the Howard Frankland Bridge, and I feel certain that soon enough, my writing will take on a flavor that is more beach-driven. My hope is not to become one of those poets who creates trite rhymes about the sea, but rather, one who allows the environment to speak in its own way. Certainly that has happened here among the lakes of Winter Haven.

My wife’s family lives in Winter Haven, and doubtless we will be returning to visit often, especially during the summers. And yes, it will be a while yet before we’re out of the area. But this book launch allows me to reflect upon and salute a place that has been meaningful. The future is uncertain but hopeful, and it wouldn’t be possible without history. So, Winter Haven, a place of history, beauty, and opportunity, this book launch is for you. Best wishes.