life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

How Catholicism has Impacted My Life — Even Though I’m not Catholic

crucifix on top of bible
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s been a lot of bad press about Catholicism lately, but then, there’s been bad press about pretty much anything having to do with God, religion, or faith, so that stands to reason. Anytime the media get a whiff of something potentially salacious or scandalous, it becomes a headline (I should know; I started out as a newspaper reporter many years ago). And this isn’t to excuse the egregious behaviors of offenders; victims deserve to be heard and justice deserves to be rendered in cases where horrors occurred. But I’d like to take a moment to take a look at the redeeming side of a denomination not my own.

I was born in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida the day after America’s Bicentennial. Forty-one years and three months prior to that event, my stepdad (who recently passed away) was also born there.  The lovely Catholic hospital had crucifixes in every room, and the presence of nuns was a silent reassurance to patients including my mother, who was and is a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. So, my life began as a consequence of Catholic benevolence, among other factors.

Fast-forward 10 years. I am sitting in my fifth grade class, and it is the last time school will appeal to me until I hit age 30. The reason I still semi-like school in 1986 is mostly because of my teacher, a phenomenal educator/second-mom who happened to be Catholic. Even with all my issues (and there were many), I was still treated by her as though I had rich potential for great things — musically, creatively, and academically. In her fair but compassionate eyes, she saw a student who desired attention, so she made me the “leader” of class songs. She saw a boy who was drawn to more sensitive endeavors like story writing, so she gave me time to pursue them. My school life was made more tolerable, even enjoyable, because of a Catholic educator who chose to work in a rural public school as her mission field.

Jump now to my adulthood: While attaining two graduate level degrees in subjects I actually like (education and creative writing), I attend the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a city populated by statues of St. Francis on numerous corners and where the famed Loretto Staircase is found. The workshop is run by IMAGE Journal, whose editor at that time was (and still is?) Catholic. I am attending the workshop on a scholarship, donated generously by a local Catholic family. Without their assistance, I would have been sitting at home, twiddling a number two pencil, and wishing I could be among like-minded poets.

While I’m at The Glen, I meet a charming woman who is in the process of becoming a Franciscan Sister. We chat over matters ranging from theology to literature, and we participate in workshops that refine our writing while celebrating faith. I attend a homily given by a Benedictine monk, and it makes me think deeply, reflect upon my own beliefs, and inquire further.

Another year passes, and the woman I met at The Glen is now a full-fledged Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She messages me online to tell me that America magazine (a Catholic publication) is holding a poetry contest. She thinks my work might be a good fit. I submit a little something. My poem “Skeletal Prayer” takes runner-up, and I’m elated. The news of the win comes at a time when I’m thinking about abandoning poetry altogether, so I keep going. What’s more, my financial adviser sees the poem and sends me hearty congratulations. Life is good and getting better.

And now, to the present: In 10 days, I will be presenting poetry workshops and craft talks at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Retreat Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. This invitation to teach and write is the result of meeting the aforementioned Franciscan Sister some years ago. It should be an interesting time; I’m learning what a Taize service is (since I’ll be playing a little guitar for it), and again I find myself standing at the intersection of Faith, Art, and Mystery. I can hardly wait to try my hand at this new experience.

My life has been repeatedly and favorably influenced by Catholic forces well beyond my control. As I teach my college students Flannery O’Connor short stories and draw inspiration from minds like G.K. Chesterton, I’m reminded that, even though my Protestantism may be firmly intact, it is only because of Catholicism that my birth, my education, and my literary life have been what they are. And for that truth, I am continually grateful.

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poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

The Joy of Literary Volunteerism

For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.

Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.

I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.

And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.

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

My Hemingway Summer Plan

ernest-hemingway-401493_960_720When 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!

 

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

 

cover-for-ad

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!