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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life, poetry, writers, writing

In Praise of Being “Mainstream”

The Cast of


As a kid growing up in the 80s, my television family was the Seavers, not the Cleavers. Every boy my age wanted to be Kirk Cameron (Mike Seaver of Growing Pains), or maybe Michael J. Fox, who played Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. Shows like these made it seem cool to be like those families and their kids, for certain.

In today’s literary community, aspiring toward a more traditional type of success has been replaced by a phobia about being “too mainstream.” I was reading an article just the other day by a respected author who lamented that her life was “becoming too mainstream,” which she defined by tasks like going to the grocery store, washing dishes, and tending to the relationships beneath her roof.

Sadly, being responsible and attempting to live a reasonable, self-sufficient life are both ideas that have been denigrated by various media in recent years. The notions that we should work ethically, raise a family, seek advancement in a single field, and aspire toward something greater than self-satisfaction are frowned upon by a vocal minority. There are those, after all, who believe such ideas to be too old-fashioned, too whitebread, or too puritanical for the twenty-first century.

But this isn’t a political post. I’m here to defend the value of the mainstream in our literature, specifically. There is beauty in the common, after all, and while socio-cultural activists may be trying their hardest to redefine what constitutes “the norm,” Joe and Jane Average still know that their lives — complete with light bills, plumbing repairs, and runny noses — have wonder, merit, and poetry in their seemingly mundane routines. Eschewing the everyday limits the scope and reach of our literature.

What’s more, by omitting mainstream details, artists portray a fallacious picture of what our world is really like: Rather than giving readers honest visions of life, many are seeking shock value, or perhaps some abstract, inauthentic version of their environment. In the end, both of these motives generate lies — creative, occasionally beautiful lies, perhaps, but lies nonetheless. While I’m no Realist (artistically speaking), I also don’t believe that writers should fear the mainstream. Give us the sidewalk cracks, the wasps and overdue notices in the mailbox, the wiffle ball stuck in the backyard oak tree. There is poetry in all these things, and there is life.

Being mainstream, by the way, isn’t all that bad, you’ll find. Parenthood and the obligations of marriage, career, and family life remain sources of great inspiration, just as they did in prior generations. Maybe it’s not new, it’s not avant-garde, and it’s not the “artist thing to do.” But I’ll take it any day over the exotic or the crazy. To be clear, I’m not saying “mainstreaming” is for everyone. However, I am saying that in going about the business of writing, we as authors should not be scared of that which seems standard. For it is the run-of-the-mill that yields the exceptional, the original, and the special. And that, writers, is what we’re after — the diamond in the rough, the pearl inside the oyster, and the rainbow out of the gray. Without the ordinary, there can be no extraordinary.

poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

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!

poetry, Uncategorized

Shhh….Don’t tell anyone

Loyal blog subscribers, I have a secret for you: Today you can order your pre-release copy of my newest book, Middle Class American Proverb. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/Middle-Class-American-Proverb-Davis/dp/0942544129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1414094131&sr=8-1&keywords=Middle+Class+American+Proverb

This is the definitive Florida poetry collection I’ve been writing about. Get your copy today!

johndaviscover (3)

poetry, Uncategorized

Advancing the Literary Arts, One Step at a Time

hiker

My family and I attended the Central Avenue Arts Festival downtown today. The booths were plentiful and colorful, with media ranging from stained glass to metal, oil-on-canvas to photography. All were dazzlingly amazing. The weather was breezy, and displays included pottery making (my two sons got to make pinch pots) and an entire “kids’ corner” devoted to letting children make and do. 

Amid these other booths, there was one gentleman attempting to sell his self-published children’s books. They were on display, and people were occasionally stopping by, flipping pages and admiring them. But in comparison to the other booths, the lone book vendor lacked the sparkle and flair that other artists generated with their wares.

Certainly it wasn’t the author’s fault — his medium was simply more “subdued” than the flashier arts around him. Sometimes those of us in the literary realm find ourselves struggling with this same perception: Why should patrons trouble their minds with words when a picture will provide instant gratification? Understandably, the average consumer wants to be aesthetically pleased. Poetry appeals to all of the senses, but the reader has to work to receive its pleasure. Paintings, sculptures, or photographs, while potentially meaning-heavy, can be appreciated even by those who aren’t seeking an artist’s purpose or vision. To delve into language, however, requires cognitive investment. And so the struggle continues: How do writers (and poets especially) reach a want-it-now, get-it-now society?

One way is to increase awareness. When people know authors and poets, they are more likely to direct their attention toward the written word.  Every city, town, and county has someone pursuing the writing life, and some are better known than others. About two years ago, I posted an interview I had with Mildred Greear, a North Georgia poet whose work is known regionally, and who was a friend to Byron Herbert Reese, a well-known poet of historic import. The folks in Mildred’s part of the world love her work and support it, not because they are among the literati or the poetry elite, but because, well…it’s Mildred. And to support poetry is to support her and everything she represents: a distinct geography, history, and set of ideals rolled into one. In an age where many are crying for audiences to “separate the work from the artist” and similar notions, people near Sautee-Nacoochee, GA are doing the opposite, and it works. One great ambassador for verse can make all the difference. Some of the customers who have bought Mildred’s work might not even read poems, but they see her volumes as a near-biblical necessity. If you’re living there, you need some Greear poetry on the family bookshelf.

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

My hope as a younger, still-emerging poet is to serve as that same kind of ambassador. Rather than being the “quiet booth” in the arts community, I hope that my literary contributions (large and small alike) help make my community a better place in much the same way Mildred’s efforts have. The more people understand the vitality of poetry and other literary arts, the more a culture thrives. And with that thriving culture, communities build understanding and mutual respect, as well.

If you support writers and artists, especially in your community, please allow me to thank you. Likewise, if you haven’t seen what kinds of creative minds are at work in your part of the world, I encourage you to do so. Attend gallery openings, public readings, book signings, and the range of other available cultural outlets that your town or city has to offer. And if you don’t find any, make one of your own — it may feel like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness, but as any good Bible scholar can tell you, those lone voices are often the most relevant. It may sound trite, but you really can make an impact for good.

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphany #5: The Emersonian Epiphany

emerson You knew it had to show up sooner or later, reader. What better way to conclude a series on epiphanies than with the one thing that has inspired countless poets over centuries? Nature, when all else fails, returns us to our basest and most earnest humanity. In nature, we find a little of what has motivated all those poets who have come before us. Moreover, who can resist the mesmerizing wonder of a spider repairing a dew-dropped web, or a leaf reflecting with the orange of seasonal light? Nature, for certain, holds both scientific mysteries and spiritual inspiration, even for the most adamant cynic.

Why else would so many poets “go for a walk” when words fail them? Why is it that, when we wish to “escape” our civilized routines, we inevitably turn to remote greener locales as our getaway? Yes, the view in wilderness is different from our common existence, but there’s also a matter of instinct at work here: As living, breathing organisms, we have an inchoate desire to connect with the raw and unmodified elements of a more primal, unspoiled world. I know. Some of you are shaking your heads, yelling “Just give me my Ritz-Carlton, my Starbucks, my iPhone and my Land Rover!” That’s okay. Deny it all you want, metropolitan, but deep within you, beyond that glossy, technology-loving veneer, you too have a drive to connect with nature. We all do.

Poets, of course, have historically been more susceptible to this drive than others less sensitive. Every crackle of a branch, every rustle of a leaf, every soft flit in the brush is amplified to the artist, and so, nature becomes a sense-heightening experience. This fact drives the plethora of residencies, fellowships, and conferences held in splendorous locations amid mountains, forests, lakes, and canyons. Knowing full well that artists, and especially poets, cannot resist the draw of God’s inimitable creation, organizers and program developers often choose serene vistas for optimum imagination engagement. It just makes sense.

The writer’s versions of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau embodied the Naturalist aesthetic, and in so doing, fathered a movement followed even today. We can look at formalists, modernists, post-modernists, Language poets, or the broad spectrum of other “schools” that exist out there, but within each one, there is influence that stems from the natural world, no matter how slight. Some may justify this influence by stating the obvious: The world is all around us; of course it’s going to drive artistic work! True, but in a world dominated by steel, circuits, satellites, and fiber optics, why would we continue to devote our attentions to things less shiny, less electronic, or less progressive? You, reader, know why. Whether you believe evolution and adaptation are to credit, or whether you believe in a more supernatural cause, the truth is undeniable — nature is as much a part of us as our flesh, our blood, our very DNA. To get outside our limited perspective, we must literally and figuratively get outdoors.

As I draw this series to a close, I would ask my followers and readers to respond to one simple question: What is it that gives you revelation? How do you generate or receive epiphanies of your own? Your thoughts and comments, as always, are appreciated. And until next time, get outside!

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies: A new blog entry series

brick All of us have them: Those ingenious revelations that visit us in a state of reverie, near-sleep, or near-awake. The problem comes for many of us when we decide to leverage our big revolutionary ideas in an approachable way for others. Epiphanies, elusive and sometimes seemingly divine, can be a source of pleasure or torture, depending on how we use them.

For the next several blog posts, I plan to highlight different types of epiphanies, and then present one way of leveraging them into applicable plans or products, especially from a writing standpoint. To begin, let’s look at one type of epiphany that regularly strikes the poetic mind: the analogy epiphany.

In this revelation, the poet or thinker is suddenly and shockingly aware of a similarity or relationship between two previously alien things. Usually, the two items in question are comprised of one concrete, tangible thing and one abstraction. For instance, when Robert Burns realized his love was a red, red rose, his writing documented that epiphany. Many may say that this thought lacked originality, as poets had been symbolizing love with roses for centuries. Often though, our own epiphanies are far from original as well. When we begin speaking in similes and metaphors about two previously disparate ideas, you can bet that an analogy epiphany is hard at work forming itself. Our “aha” moments need not escape us, however.

When the analogy epiphany strikes me, my first choice is to dissect the relationship between the two things using a plain, ordinary T-chart. You know the kind: Two columns created by one vertical line intersecting a shorter horizontal line toward the top. One topic goes on the left at the top, one topic goes on the right. From there, I’m able to list qualities, characteristics, and descriptors of the two things and see their similarities and differences with parallel acuity. Sure, this may seem elementary — a Venn Diagram or another instrument may work just as well for visual organization. But by having the two ideas side by side, I’m able to begin a larger process. About five or ten minutes into listing qualities, first lines begin to form inside my mind. I write these down. Maybe I’ll use them, maybe not. More often than not, refined versions of these first lines work their way into my poetry somehow.The two items often create a central metaphor around which the larger piece is built.

By examining relationships between tangentially connected things, the wheels and cogs of the mind begin to naturally create points of commonality that were previously unexplored. These connections are the creators of poetry, as well as products and plans in the business world. The more receptive we become to our analogy epiphanies, the better our world will be. Creators and connectors, keep your minds wide open. More epiphanies to follow.