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.

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.

An Empathetic Farewell to Unpopular 2016

last-day-imageSo many of my friends have been cheering on the parting of 2016, thankful that it is about to fade into oblivion. As these last few hours tick by, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for a year in history. But 2016 has elicited that response from me, strangely enough. I feel that 2016 has been like that unpopular kid in class that everybody liked to pick on: easy prey because of difference. I, for one, kind of enjoyed 2016 — not necessarily for political or cultural reasons, but for its more personal milestones:

My fourth book (and by far my best to date), Hard Inheritance, received publication on December 5, and I have been honored by its critical reception. It was good to see a new book of poetry out there, and as 2017 waits just a few hours away, I fully anticipate that it will be a great year for my latest collection.

I received an incredible new full-time position teaching English and Literature at the university level, a long-time goal of mine. The job itself is both rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and I’m the happiest (professionally) I’ve been in a long time. My students make teaching a joy and privilege. That’s a sentiment I thought I’d lost, and now it’s back, thanks to the events of 2016.

Both of my sons have done well in different areas this year. My oldest son discovered a love for basketball, while my younger son has continued to develop himself academically and artistically in the new Montessori school both boys attend. My wife has continued to enjoy her work in the medical field, and my family life has been good, to say the least. My fortieth birthday meant a big trip to Lisbon for all of us, a time that none of us will soon forget for its meaningful experiences.

Maybe your candidate didn’t get elected. Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe unnatural disasters befell your part of the world. But from my little corner of the planet, 2016 was more than okay. It was memorable, it was unique, and it was unpredictable. All three of these traits, while they can be negative, also give us things of beauty. And despite its occasional difficulty and ugliness, 2016 also had plenty of the positive. All we have to do is look for it.

A plea for my students

If you read these posts regularly, you know I’m not in the habit of asking for things. I believe that people read what I write because they want to receive something, not necessarily give something. But today I approach all of my site followers with a simple request.

This year, my creative writing students will be writing and making (binding) their own novellas. For that to happen, we need a bunch of supplies. In fact, more supplies than my little department budget will allow me to afford. To address this issue, I’ve started a DonorsChoose page that allows my friends, family, followers, and others to donate to this cause.

I’d deeply appreciate any donations you can offer. They don’t have to be big. In fact, if each follower of this blog gave $1, I’d reach my goal by day’s end. If you are fortunate enough to be able to give more, please do so. My student writers are incredibly gifted, and they deserve this opportunity.

Summer School

A group of my students complete a literacy project connected to short stories we’d read.

To help out these budding Hemingways, Dickinsons, and Shakespeares, please follow this link:

https://www.donorschoose.org/project/novella-notebooks/2080290/?rf=link-siteshare-2016-07-teacher-teacher_3033778&challengeid=20799041

My students thank you, I thank you, and literature’s future thanks you. Let’s make something special happen for these kids!

Catching up with a Great Mentor

peter meinkeRecently I had the privilege of driving our state’s poet laureate to and from my employer school for a special reading and appearance. Peter Meinke, author of multiple volumes of poetry and prose, professor emeritus for Eckerd College, and long-time St. Petersburg resident, was one of my mentors in University of Tampa’s MFA program, and before that, he edited my work and instructed me at other workshops around Florida. If you take a look at my book, Middle Class American Proverb, you’ll see that one of the blurbs on the back is from Peter, as well. His advice helped form my personal aesthetic, and his appreciation of forms helped give me a bigger poet’s toolbox.

Conversations with Peter are always interesting because he’s been in the literary game long enough to have stories aplenty about the teaching and writing life. He’s worked with some of the biggest and most recognizable names in the poetry community, and he’s won a plethora of awards, although he’d never brag. In many ways, Peter is what I would consider “the poet’s poet.” So to be driving this gentleman to and from his home was a real treat for an emerging writer.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about some of my recent endeavors, poetic and academic alike. I mentioned that I’d applied for a few different things (programs and such), and he replied, “You know, sometimes you get struck by lightning. Something just comes to you out of the blue when you least expect it. Somebody calls you up, and you can hardly believe it.” He talked about a few of his own such experiences, and then finished up with, “…but you have to put yourself out there.”

We chatted a while about some of the folks we both knew — where they were, how they were doing, who had vacated or filled positions here or there. It was richly rewarding to converse with someone who shared a common vocabulary and a common set of interests.

As usual, Peter’s appearance was met with applause and appreciation. Students and community members lined up for his book signing afterward, and he took pictures with several of my awe-struck pupils. The night was memorable, successful, and enjoyable for us all.

On my way back to my own home after dropping Peter off, I was filled with the hope that one day, I too could provide the gift of experience to some up-and-comer. As great as poetry is, passing its “fever” on to others is even greater. And therein lies the quiet strength of our state’s poet laureate: his legacy of learning and love of language. Might we all aspire to leave similar tracks for others to follow.

On starting small

Earlier this year, brilliant mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in a car wreck. Nash’s work and life were the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard in the early 2000s. Like many moviegoers, I too was touched and inspired by Nash’s biography (even if it was “adapted” for film). His humble West Virginia origins, his battle with personal demons, and his eventual rise to academic and economic prominence spoke to audiences everywhere.

A Beautiful Mind scene, courtesy of Universal Pictures

Martin Hansen, played by Josh Lucas in the foreground, engages in some party snobbery toward John Nash (Russell Crowe), at left.

Recently, one scene from Howard’s movie replayed in my head as I encountered a situation similar to one faced by Nash early on in the film: Upon his arrival at Princeton after receiving a substantial scholarship, Nash is confronted by Martin Hansen during a reception. Hansen indicates that he “simply assumed [Nash was] the waiter,” due to his appearance. This barbed condescension is a hallmark of the early Nash-Hansen competitive relationship as portrayed in the film.

People from small towns or rural upbringings often face this kind of slight, even today. I grew up in a town of 3,500 people. Everyone knew everyone else, and the main vocation was agriculture. So, when I eventually moved to a city of 35,000 people (and growing), I felt as though I’d made my home in a more metropolitan area. Even though the culture here is still one of welcoming and warmth (see prior posts), my city has many markers of being a larger, slightly more urban place than many of Florida’s smaller map dots.

While I was serving as a guest lecturer at an area university some months ago, a student I met had the audacity to insinuate that small to mid-sized cities are undeserving of artists in residence or poets laureate. His contention was that only large cities and crowded urban areas should pay attention to literary and arts-related matters, because, after all, creative gifts can only thrive in such a vast and populous setting. There was more “talent” to choose from, he indicated, and more educated people inhabiting the big cities.

So, let me set the record straight, if only to repudiate this student’s erroneous assumptions. Many highly educated and erudite individuals choose to be country-dwellers, suburbanites, and big city expatriates (I’d supply a list, but it would be far too long). Their decision is made not because they desire to be “bigger fish in smaller ponds,” but because they desire a truer sense of community, a safe and clean place to raise a family, or maybe because they hold dear the virtues that modestly populated areas often embrace. In the end, there are several reasons to eschew the hustle and bustle of the sky-scraped city, especially if one is an artist. Certainly, there are benefits to larger metropolises, just as there are drawbacks. And yes, arts and culture do thrive there in most cases.

However, assuming ignorance or lack of refinement exists solely in smaller towns or mid-sized cities is the height of arrogant urban imperialism. I believe that Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, and John Nash would agree, for starters. And for me, smaller places yield bigger ideas. It is not by accident that Richard Hugo encouraged poets to seek out “triggering towns” that seemed to be more tight-knit communities.

I’m not attempting to prescribe small-town living to those accustomed to bigger cities, nor am I advocating one particular mode of residency. But I do know that, for my creative purposes, small and medium places work. Those who denigrate them, somewhat ironically, need only a broader mind.

Television Appearance

So here was a first: My interview with local literati member Jane Waters-Thomas: Writers Den

Lessons learned:

  1. When doing an author interview, never resign oneself to a chair that tilts backward, making you push every ounce of your neck flesh out from under your face. The camera already adds 15 pounds; don’t make it worse with posture.
  2. Avoid using verbal fillers like “if you will” and random catch-all adjectives.
  3. Know when to SHUT UP. There’s a fine line between adding details and bloviating.
  4. Keep your eyes on the host, or on one of a few select spots around the set. Too much eye-shifting seems disingenuous.
  5. Read the text that’s in your book, even if you’ve changed it in a later, better draft. Avoid creating cognitive dissonance.

There you have it. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably lose the tie, also. But we all live and learn, I suppose. Hopefully I get another shot at TV sometime — I liked the format, and I truly appreciated the opportunity to get the word out about my writing and teaching. And now that I know what NOT to do, I’d love another shot at speaking to an audience through broadcast. Great conversations are always welcome!