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…
I’ve got a new project amid all this quarantining and social distancing, and I hope you’ll give it a listen!
The Metacreative Podcast is intended to help people rouse their inspiration to write, create, and produce. This first episode details a process that has long worked for me: Socratic Journaling. It also includes a couple of really stellar poems that might help loosen some of your own reflections, which can also drive inspiration. Find The Metacreative Podcast here:
“I feel like a friend has died,” I told someone today. The news came by email: The MFA program that helped make me the poet I have become will be closing. In an announcement with all the usual logistical wording, the interim director of University of Tampa’s MFA program, a man I admire and deeply appreciate, relayed the somber message. The alumni Facebook page lit up with equal parts horror, shock, and grief. How do we say goodbye to something that has so profoundly impacted us, not just as writers, but as human beings?
I’m just old-school enough to try to process this tragedy with a blog post. Some of my fellow grads will probably pen deep and artful poetry and creative prose, but the old newspaper reporter in me reaches for something a bit more journalistic. So here are the facts:
Without the UT MFA program, I never would have:
— Written three of my four books of poetry
— Studied under brilliant people like Erica Dawson, Peter Meinke, and Sandra Beasley
— Gone to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016; Amherst, Massachusetts in 2015; or Santa Fe in 2013
— Been hired to lead poetry workshops in the northwoods of Wisconsin last summer
— Gotten a job as a college professor, which later led to a higher ed leadership position
— Met many of the good friends I still contact and share news with
— Hosted a guest author series for three of the schools I’ve served
— Networked with influential figures in the literary community who helped me greatly
— Made permanent happy memories at places like the Dali Museum and Ybor City
— Learned what it smells like inside the minarets of Plant Hall
I’m sure there are other “never-would-haves” that exist, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. I think of all the good that classes and workshops there have done. I think of the people whose lives, like mine, would be radically different had they never attended. I think of the great and meaningful conversations that occurred in unexpected places. And I do not fail to consider an apparent irony: So many of our seminars and craft lectures were held in classrooms at the school of business.
Now we hear that business is the very killer of our program. Higher education is changing, they say. People don’t want to learn for the sake of learning; they want a pathway to a job, and it better pay well. Who cares about literature, culture, and liberal arts tradition? Well, I do. And I know a bunch of people who agree with me.
We will shed our tears in private and move on with our literary lives, knowing well that we wouldn’t even have such existences had it not been for the University of Tampa MFA program. Like all deaths, this one will never leave us. We will simply adjust to being without as one does after the departure of a beloved. And this program and its people are dearly, dearly beloved.
Some poets tend to speak of their families as obligations that prevent true creativity. There are fellowships aimed at helping parent-poets escape their roles as mom or dad and focus exclusively on “the work,” whatever that might be. But as one who spent two weeks in 2019 away from my wife and sons, let me tell you what I’ve discovered:
It is only amid the adventures of family life that true poetry is created. The rearing of children, the complexities of marriage, and the shared experiences that go with both produce the stuff of great writing. This isn’t some pseudo-inspirational fluff; it is truth found through living.
In my workplace, I’m fortunate to be given generous vacation time every year. I could spend those hours communing with nature, hearing other writers, discussing the intricacies of composition, or…I could make memories for my family at home or away. Whether we go to the beach, the mountains, or even Lisbon, Portugal (see prior posts), the time we spend will forge moments ingrained in our history. And to me, building fond recollections for my wife and sons trumps circular conversations about craft or melancholy publishing panels.
Certainly, solitude has its place in the life of a writer. It serves as a kind of social fast, and science tells us that fasting is an important component in our human lives. But for sheer generative power, nothing holds a candle to family time. All the prompt-riddled workshops and cliche-filled seminars can’t compare to seeing one’s offspring make the realizations that accompany maturing. To watch the generational cycles continue, to spend time in earnest dialogue with loved ones — these are the elements of inspiration.
For my writer friends who are attending name-brand conferences or literary events this year, I wish you all the best. Have fun hearing from people whose limited celebrity is often greater than their wisdom. I hope you listen to a line during a reading that sparks your innovation. I hope you network with folks you’ve long admired. And I hope you don’t come back empty-handed.
I resolve this year, this 2020, to be present in daily life with my family. I resolve to observe every detail, absorb every minute, and allow my literary endeavors to follow my role as husband and father, not the other way around. I have a new manuscript that’s out there, and hopefully this will be its year. But even if it isn’t, my greater hope is that the impressions I leave on the lives of those closest to me will be indelible. As Robert Penn Warren once said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” It’s 2020, and it’s time to go live it.
If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.
Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.
The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.
Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.
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.
If this post had a soundtrack, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here’s why: Yesterday my writing received an acceptance from a literary journal I’ve wanted my work to appear in for years. The poems they accepted had previously received favorable rejections (you know the kind: “We found much to admire, but…”). Everything I’ve ever learned from workshops, seminars, and personal experience told me that these pieces had quality. Nonetheless, they had been turned down several times. In fact, one of them was more than a year old and had yet to find a home.
I began to worry: Was my literary taste-o-meter just that far off? Was I overlooking some flagrant error that everybody else could see? What was the matter? The truth was, the poems were as good as I had thought (oh-so modestly), but other factors were at play. Space considerations, editor fatigue, and a whole host of other circumstances can often keep excellent poems out of journals’ pages, and it’s critical to remember just exactly how subjective the literary business is — All. The. Time.
Whatever previous editors’ reasons for turning these poems down, I kept on submitting them to respectable magazines and venues, knowing that somebody was going to appreciate them sooner or later. That persistence paid off, and no matter what well-meaning writing teachers may tell you, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more than stubbornness or grit to get work accepted — there also has to be merit, value, and a certain amount of good fortune involved. This fact isn’t meant to discourage; it’s just what I’ve found to be true.
This latest acceptance also came at a time when I needed it most. For the past several months, I’ve been on a real rejection streak…so much so that I was reaching the dreaded point of asking, “Should I even continue?” Instead, I exhaled a quick “Thank You Lord” upon receiving this “yes” email, interpreting it as some assurance that I’m still using my talent well.
Just when you think you’re about done, something good happens to reaffirm your path. Sometimes believing in the worth of your own work is the answer. Have faith in the good things you produce, and keep putting them out there. Encouragement is waiting.
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.
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.