Sometimes the things that seem truly lame at the time wind up making poems that have authentic resonance. Here’s a short poem (at the link above) that came about due to one of my least favorite childhood activities: arts and crafts. Enjoy!
Lots of talk has recently surrounded the subject of fasting. There’s intermittent fasting, carb fasting, even social media fasting (which I’ve done and enjoyed, frankly). For the past month, I’ve been engaged in another sort of fast — one intended to decrease my stress levels and simultaneously give me more time to create: The Submissions Fast.
You heard that right: For the last 22 days, I have not submitted any of my poetic work to any publisher or contest, large or small. “Why would a working poet do this?” you might ask. Here’s my answer…
I noticed about a month ago that my Submittable queue had grown to more than 30 submissions that were either “received” or “in progress.” This meant that publishers had my latest works in hand at a variety of venues. Some places looking at my poems were competitions, some were magazines I respected, and still others were small operations seeking poems for other purposes.
Whatever their mission, these diverse outlets were all considering some incarnation of my best 10 or 12 recently written poems (some in series of five, some in series of three, and others looking at just one, depending on guidelines and needs). These potential publishers were giving their editorial eye to essentially the same material. I knew it was time to lay off. I’m a fan of simultaneous submissions, but there comes a time when the business of writing must give way to the art of it.
And so, for the last several weeks, I’ve reined in my usual desire to submit, submit, submit. I’m letting these poems “rest” while I write, teach, and focus on other endeavors. When I see one of the ubiquitous calls for submissions, I ignore it and keep moving to other unrelated items. Doing so is hard; for decades now, I’ve lived under the expectation that “being a poet means putting your work out into the world” by submitting it. But at some point, enough is enough.
Despite my earnest desire to send off a packet of my poetry to a new journal or contest I see advertised, I’ve endured and persevered, and the results have been unexpected. I find myself gravitating more toward creative nonfiction as opposed to crafting new poems. Maybe it started as a way of coping with submission-loss: “If I’m writing and submitting stuff in a different genre, it doesn’t count.” Like the addict who insists a different brand of the same substance is exempt from restriction, I convinced myself that putting prose in front of editors was not (is not) like submitting poetry.
Writing reflectively about this decision demonstrates its fallacy, of course. Turning work in to potential publishers and getting that hope-driven dopamine rush is the same, no matter what kind of writing is involved. So, I’m just going to call those nonfiction submissions “cheat days” like certain diets would allow. That’s a reasonable justification, right?
The other effect that not submitting has had on me is a certain calm. No longer do I feel the need to frantically check the progress indicators on my present submissions, and no longer do I obsess over which editor might be viewing which work at what time. Leaving my work to do its thing is much like planting seeds. I know I have to wait for these little efforts to produce or fail. Stressing over them is a futile decision that induces unnecessary anxiety.
There’s plenty in my life to fret about without adding more to the menu. Submitting can be a rewarding learning experience. But when it gets out of hand, like anything else, it’s time to exercise some control. Doing so has allowed my mind to explore other avenues and relieve itself of a fetter that shouldn’t exist.
Maybe some of those 30 places will say yes. Many, I’m certain, will say no (my acceptance rate tells me so). But in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. Putting my work out there is supposed to be the enjoyable part of this literary life. When it becomes the opposite, stopping is the solution.
I’ve never mastered it. The rant, the screed, the protest — they’re all mysteries to me, even to this day. Oh sure, I’ve written plenty of poems about things that made me mad; one even took third place in the 2012 Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest sponsored by the Studios of Key West. “The Words I Hate and Why” was a poem that had a certain “slit-your-throat-before-you-know-it” quality. It made people go “ooh” painfully at the end, and it caused them to wince in empathy for the poem’s speaker. The piece certainly accomplished its aim: It hurt the person it was intended to hurt, almost irreparably so. This damage may be one reason I don’t typically write “angry” poems. Their cost is just too great.
Recently, I had a mentor look over a few works of mine dealing with issues that I can get pretty passionate about. His advice: “At some point, John, you’re just going to have to come right out and say, ‘I’m pissed off about this.'” Trouble was, I was being artful and allegorical about anger. It’s an old habit and one I’ve tried to break, but when it comes to writing stuff that riles me up, I prefer to be subtle rather than overly didactic. There’s already too much bad poetry written from irrational, spewing minds.
Even when I was in the MFA program, prior mentors encouraged me to unleash the acerbic wit, the well-timed pejorative, or the harsh critique. My upbringing sometimes prevents such invective, however. Every time I’ve been angry and acted on it, by word or by deed, regret has inevitably followed. To use my poetry to launch malice or hostility into this world would be a mistake. Don’t we have enough of those things already?
Just today, I drafted a poem that responded to some pseudo-political drivel penned by another poet who shall remain nameless. My reply poem is deft. It is cuttingly and cunningly crafted. And more than likely, I will wad it up and throw it out by the end of the week. To allow someone else’s poorly informed and warped worldview to infect me with stress is to let that someone else win. They’ve had their (poorly wrought, dogmatic) say, and they will forever be able to look back on that waste of phonemes. But I don’t have to react…not with words, not with time, not even with further thought. Do I protest too much? Maybe. But let’s pretend it’s over, anyway. Life’s too short.
I intend to keep writing about those themes, people, and ideas that have merit and worth — “Whatsoever things are lovely,” to borrow a phrase from Paul. This doesn’t mean I’m going to be Pollyanna about the darkness in the world or matters that deserve righteous indignation. But it does mean that I will continue finding other catharses besides poetry. If you want to read some angry tirades, you’ll just have to look elsewhere. Sorry Not Sorry.
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.
Not long ago, I assumed a new title within my organization. The new position involves thinking more like a manager and less like a classroom educator. This move has been a pretty big cognitive shift for someone who spent the last 15 years worrying about lesson planning, gradebook updates, project-based learning, community partnerships, and the latest instructional technology.
These days, the kinds of questions I’m asking are concerned with the bigger picture beyond the classroom: How is our organization performing? Are our customers being served in the optimal way? Who in our group needs help, and how might I provide it? Is our policy what it ought to be? What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT)?
To the literary-minded among you, I apologize. All this business talk is probably anathema to your very existence. But as one to whom it was equally foreign, I’ve had to adapt, and this change has made me think of another arena where business is sometimes perceived as the dark side: Poetry.
Yes, we poets would like to simply write our words and have them immediately recognized for their greatness and their beauty, but that’s not how it works. There is the sometimes-disgruntling submissions process, the signing of publishing contracts, the concern over rights and what constitutes “previously published,” and a million other little entanglements of the commercial or legal sort. Poets have to be business people, too. But so often we dread and disparage it.
Here’s a little secret: The business part can be as fun as the creative part. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but seriously, equal to the joy of a finished, polished poem is the hope felt when the “submit” button is pressed. Granted, sometimes that hope is dashed when rejection comes (and it does, more often than not), but the endorphins and dopamine produced while being an efficient, organized professional can rival those elicited by a really great line or stanza. The pleasures of logic and reason simply come from a different part of the brain than we creatives regularly use.
Moreover, when your “management” has paid off, it definitely makes the tedium worth it. Those hours spent on fellowship applications, the eye-wearying process of figuring out which works to submit to a particular contest, and the seemingly interminable wait for a magazine’s answer are all rewarded when the reply is a sweet-sounding yes.
When the answer is no, though, it can make you wonder why you bothered at all. I’ve been there: “Why did I wait six months for a reply from Magazine X (who won’t accept simultaneous submissions) when I could have sent these same poems to Magazine Y, who certainly would have accepted them?” or “I can’t believe I went through all the trouble of filling out that ream of documents for an award I didn’t even get.” Yep, I know the feeling. Disheartening, to say the least.
But trust me when I say that the occasional affirmative reply outweighs the saddening (and more regular) negative ones. As I’ve mentioned before, poetry has taken me to places — literal, geographic locations — I never would have seen on my own. But none of those journeys would have occurred if I hadn’t mustered up the left-brained moxie to apply, submit, or propose. And doing those parts, however contrary to my nature, made possible both memories and poems, rich rewards of their own sort.
Don’t fear the paperwork. Don’t call it bureaucracy. No matter how much we disdain them, the processes and the logistics that lead to literary opportunities are necessary, and the sooner we get friendly with them, the more successful we will become. Why not start today?
When I was a teen, I regularly switched the locations of furniture and wall art in my bedroom. About every four months or so, I’d grow bored of seeing things from the same point of view, and so I’d shift my bed to a different wall, my desk and chair to another corner, my bookcase to a separate location, and so forth. My poor mother never knew quite what to expect when she entered, but I’ve learned that’s par for the course when parenting any teenager, furniture-mover or not.
The thing I liked about altering my room was this: I’d come in after school, temporarily forgetting that I’d made the shifts, and I’d see my room differently for a while. Whether I was lying in bed, sitting at my desk, or occupying some other space, the room seemed like a completely new and alien space. It was great, this secure disorientation.
After some time, though, I began to run out of options. I’d put all the furniture and decor in every possible space they could be. I would have to recycle some old ideas. Even then, shifting things around made my daily routine a little more interesting. I recall waking and taking just the briefest of seconds to recollect that I’d moved things; the room wasn’t the same, at least for a short while.
Last weekend, I conjured up this memory when I decided to rearrange my study. I’ve always been a fan of looking out a window while writing, especially if the view beyond is water, be that a pond, a lake, or an ocean. But lately, the view had grown stale. I was tired of seeing the same thing, not unlike when I was a teen. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I began dragging furniture around upstairs, relocating my heavy desk, bookcase, footlocker, and large reading chair. When I was done, I’d created a whole new space with a more open feel. Ta-da! Fresh perspective. Maybe my adolescent self wasn’t such a bonehead after all.
The other result of such a shift is cleanliness. In order to rearrange, one has to clear the space in question of clutter. Despite whatever we artists might say about our right-brained, pile-generating, free-wheeling sense of organization, structure and order are (sigh) more conducive to producing good work. I think of my stepdad’s workshop when I’m situating my environment: Every screw, nut, bolt, nail, and drill bit had its own home, and while I’m no woodworker, having that kind of fastidious attention to detail is admirable.
What will come from this new arrangement? Hopefully some new poems driven by new thoughts. One can never tell, but I’m eager to see if an unfamiliar view will enhance my creativity. If I could speak to my former self, I’d say thanks for the inspiration, kid. You really were onto something.
9/11/01 gave Americans pause. We paused to mourn, we paused to reflect, and we paused to resolve. Along with that pause, though, came poetry. People needed catharsis amid crisis, and poems, no matter how good or bad, helped us. Some of the stanzas written were angry, some were sad, and others were just reaching and exploring to make sense of immense tragedy.
Americans wrote poems of every conceivable stripe. Now, as the vivid images of 9/11 turn “adult” by reaching an 18th anniversary, poetry writing has waxed and waned. There have been national events that have spurred on the creation of more poems, certainly, but the problem is one of motivation: Once the flames of inspiration have cooled, so do passions for writing.
As people accept whatever happened, be that a terrorist attack or a personal milestone, their desire to produce poems is seen as a mere whim — something brought on by extraordinary circumstances, and definitely not something to continue in “normal” times. But this line of thinking is flawed; after all, poetry has historically served as the documentation of our everyday lives in the present. Why should today be any different?
Billy Collins writes about Cheerios and the forgetfulness of old age. Tracy K. Smith writes of museums and cathedrals. Aimee Nezhukumatathil pens pieces about baked goods and auctions. Everything (literally everything) is the stuff of poetry — why should we reserve a whole genre for some special occasion, treating it like the good silver or the fine china? Life is too short to keep our words safely untarnished in credenzas of the mind; break out the good stuff and use it now! Not just for the funeral, the wedding, or the remembrance.
Eighteen years ago, more than three thousand people breathed their last. What poems passed with them? We who remain are charged with an obligation — to communicate our selves so that others may learn, recall, and understand their own humanity. The absolute best way to accomplish this task is through poetry. Don’t wait for another tragedy, another landmark in personal history, or another ceremony to strike your creative fancy. There are poems within you right now. Write about the unconsidered objects in your office, that funny thing a child does, the weather wherever you aren’t. Write about a long-forgotten item buried in a drawer. Write the smells on your daily commute. Write poems. America needs them.