With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”
Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.
Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.
Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.
Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.
My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.
So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.
Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…
I recently spent 16 days in the city of Lisbon, Portugal as part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. Having had enough time to process everything I encountered there, I’ve come to some conclusions. There’s a lot that towns and cities can learn from looking at the Lisbon model. I’d like to highlight a few of the things that Lisbon is doing right, and offer some possible applications for other cities in the process:
- Art and History are everywhere. No matter where you go in the city of Lisbon, there’s a reminder that it is filled with the ghosts of great figures. From statues in central plazas to museums throughout the city, Lisbon is constantly telling visitors that its past is worth exploring. In addition, the beautiful tiles that accentuate buildings and make up the myriad sidewalks add to the city’s aesthetics and artistry. Tile is nearly synonymous with Lisbon, and its artisans use this medium incredibly.
- Guests are received warmly, and are therefore eager to return. My wife and boys and I had a local family we didn’t even know help us with our heavy luggage all the way from the metro station to our apartment (a long and mostly uphill hike). This family asked nothing in return, and offered us their phone number should we need other help while in the city. Residents: Doing your part to make out-of-towners feel welcome will produce returns! The warmth of Lisbonites in nearly every venue made the city hospitable, a home away from home.
- Lisbon capitalizes on its celebrities. Every city has a few key figures who have done well in a variety of areas — whether they’re Olympic athletes, known scholars or authors, or other headline-makers, “celebrities” come in a variety of forms. For Lisbon, writers like Fernando Pessoa, Luis Vaz de Camoes, and other literary minds comprise the majority of their well-known figures. In small towns like the one where I was brought up, Tom McEwen (a sports columnist), Dr. Leffy Carlton (a noted physician), and Myrtie Strickland (a lifelong local educator) were considered “celebrities.” Giving these people their place in the sun, much like Lisbon does with Pessoa and Camoes, establishes a sense of local pride and accomplishment.
- Not only are bookstores not dead, they are vital to a thriving community culture. Bookstores, or Livrarias as they are known in Portuguese, are instrumental in stimulating and nurturing the intellectual life of Lisbon. They are also ubiquitous. No matter what street you’re on, you’re within walking distance of a bookstore there. Most evenings, you can find a reading, an author event, a book signing, or another similar engagement taking place at one or more of the livrarias. The oldest bookstore in the world, now known as Bertrand, is also found in Lisbon, and its history contributes to the city’s overall sense of modern antiquity.
- Having a community trademark helps perpetuate an image. For Lisbon, the aforementioned tiles are its signature. For smaller cities, maybe it’s a natural feature like lakes, certain plants, or mountains. But no matter what a place chooses for its associated image, it’s important for leaders to brand their location using what it’s known for best. Even if you’re “the caladium capital of the world” like Lake Placid, Florida, or “the city of oaks and azaleas” like nearby Bartow, every place has something special to claim.
Certainly, there are other things that Lisbon does right. In our little apartment every evening, we could hear music from the local plazas wafting in through our open windows. Sometimes, there was big-band era brass, while other nights gave us Fado (the “Portuguese Blues,” as some incorrectly call it). Occasionally, an Avett-Brothers-style folk band singing in Portuguese would lend us their talents. But no matter the type of music, it was a comfort. Even without air conditioning, our little rental place was inviting and cool each night, thanks in part to the sounds of local musicians.
I suppose some of Lisbon’s success would be hard to imitate elsewhere. But every city, every town, every area has its own fair share of history, beauty, and culture to share with others. In the end, that sharing attracts visitors, and municipalities could do far worse than to follow the example set by Lisbon.
As a much younger writer, I once composed a short story based upon one hunting trip I took with my grandfather. On that trip, I shot a young jake (turkey) with almost no beard, and moments later, a huge flock of larger turkeys came strutting by, including one with an earth-dragging beard. As hunting camp guests, we were limited to one bird, and these bigger ones had long spikes on their legs and weighed nearly double what my quarry did. The point of the story was supposed to be “good things come to those who wait,” but in retrospect, the amateur creative nonfiction probably missed its mark.
I thought back on that story today, though, as I received an acceptance for my manuscript Middle Class American Proverb. The book is an 85-page collection of poems based upon rural life in old Florida and its highs and lows, among other topics. Understand: I graduated from the MFA program at University of Tampa in January, and since that time, I’ve been waiting for a publisher to accept this hard-worked collection of poems which I produced as my creative thesis. I had widely submitted it long before I graduated, starting last fall. It’s been entered into contests, shopped around to academic and small presses around the country, and generally plastered everywhere I could find a spot for it in the literary community.
Many of my fellow writers wait far longer than just a few months to receive those magic words, “Your manuscript has been accepted.” In today’s market especially, poetry is not a big seller, as it is purchased mostly by other poets, literary critics, and academics. To get a volume of poetry accepted by a press, even a small one, is a near-miraculous feat. Making the process worse is that seemingly interminable period between submission and the yea or nay of publishers. As the old song says, waiting is the hardest part. Indeed.
Now, as the manuscript has found a home and the edits begin, I can breathe a little easier. Colleges and universities smile more favorably on applicants with a book or two under their belt, and the old notion of “publish or perish” still thrives at serious institutions around the country. I am incredibly grateful to my publisher, Negative Capability Press of Mobile, Alabama, for their interest in and attention to what I consider my masterpiece (thus far).
It is incredibly gratifying when editors and publishers recognize the labor and serious thought that you as an artist have invested into a work. And certainly this collection, by far, has received the best parts of my work and creativity. As the edits fall into place and the book comes to life from its manuscript form, I can hardly wait to see it emerge as the book I’ve always dreamed it to be. The process, I know, will be long. It will require the patience of a seasoned turkey hunter — or maybe that of a more experienced writer. Either way, I’m ready. This time, the first offer is one worth taking. Bigger “birds” might be out there, but this one is just right.
Earlier this year, I ran a series of posts regarding the subject of epiphanies and how those revelations visit upon us as writers and artists. For a complement to that series, here is my last post for 2013:
Christmas at our house is a time of family togetherness. Therefore, it is also a time of remembrance. Yes, we observe all the religious aspects of the holiday — we have our nativity scene out, we read Luke 2, and our gifts to one another are given in recognition of that Greatest Gift of All — Jesus Christ.
Aside from the religious meanings of this season for us, however, Christmas is secondarily a time when we recall family celebrations from years past. When I was very small, we spent Christmas Eve at my Aunt Doty’s house. Her “secret-recipe” chicken and dumplings were the festive highlight of the bountiful food table, and her modest living room was filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and visitors.
Today, my mother carries on that legacy of Christmas Eve at her own home. The scene is similar, and mom has even managed to figure out the hush-hush chicken and dumplings recipe. As a poet, I am grateful to have grown up in an environment where traditions, gatherings, and shared time played such a major pivotal role. Reflections on our family’s celebrations often drive my work, even if the pieces aren’t completely autobiographical.
As artists, when we think back on holidays past, be they Christmas or others, we find ourselves in the environments that have meant (and still mean) the most to us. As you go about your end-of-year errands, showing up at office parties and well-wishing others, take some time to think back on those past seasons of life. Reflection is still a prime epiphany-generator, and this time of year often provokes remembrance in the strongest ways possible. Merry Christmas, readers, and a very Happy New Year.
Admittedly, I used the title phrase recently in a poem about a couple who wanted to build a new house. This set me thinking, however, about some of those small things I do to “signal” to myself that I am officially writing. I use a hot beverage, a particular location, and a few technological idiosyncrasies to get my brain in “writing mode.” This post explains those weird little habits that tell my brain it’s time to go poet.
If I’m writing during daylight hours, I usually have a cup of coffee in the mug pictured above. It’s thick ceramic, and there’s no telling how many years I’ve had it, but it serves as one of my neurological cues for writing. If it’s night, then maybe I’ll opt for decaf or some kind of tea, but I must have access to some hot drink in the mug you see here.
Secondly, I write in my “quiet room.” I think I have enough posts on that little subject, however. I have one desk for drafts, which I write by hand, and another desk for computer writing; that is, final drafts that make their way into my little PC. My computer, though, has given me a number of quirks that I never would have considered without technology: I begin by setting my margin at the 2 inch mark, for example. If the poem later deserves different formatting, then that can happen. But for the initial go-round, 2 inches is the magic setting for effective starts. I also insist on 12 point Times New Roman font. Yes, it’s old school, but it’s also clean and widely demanded by editors at respected journals.
All these little rituals verify to my mind that my unique brand of creating is happening. I enjoy the regularity and routine of these seemingly insignificant customs; if I changed them, I’d probably miss them, honestly. We never know how much our writing depends upon a couple of inches and a warm mug. And as the old country expression goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Until next time, loyal readers, enjoy your odd and inexplicable habits. They might be more important than you know.
Having just returned from my next-to-last MFA residency, I’ve had time to give some thought to the future of print books. At University of Tampa’s Book Arts Studio, I was given the opportunity to physically assemble a print book — in this case, a reprint of T.S. Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Our class learned the folding, punching, and binding techniques that go into the creation of a holdable text.
There exists a great hue and cry in publishing right now, as small and independent booksellers continue to bemoan the e-giants’ monopoly over popular reading (see prior posts for more on this topic). As humans reach for their devices rather than paper, bookstore owners and publishers alike begin biting their nails.
Here’s something, though, that has gone largely unconsidered: Bibliophiles of every generation enjoy the feeling associated with reading. When a book is especially well-produced — its cover embossed, its spine ridged, its pages delightful to turn — that experience becomes a large part of readers’ motives. They want to engage that part of their brains that makes connections with things touched rather than simply seen. For these tactile-kinesthetic learners (Gardner, 1983), reading is a complete sensory immersion, not merely a placing of text in the mind’s coffers.
I think back to my childhood, when my sister used to climb our old barn door and recline on the barn roof with her worn copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The escape and engagement of those moments became something that has stayed with her forever. Part of the book’s mental and emotional perseverance resides within the format of the book she selected, and of course the “getaway” it provided. Had we owned e-readers at the time (long, long ago), I do not believe that the text would have been as meaningful. It would have become just another series of letter impressions, relegated to the same mental vault as USA Today headlines.
I admit it — I have an e-reader or two. I’ve even published my own 2005 print volume in the Kindle format. But when I want to read for pleasure and not just information, inevitably I turn toward traditional print books. I’ve tried reading poetry in the electronic format; it loses the organic intimacy that a print text elicits. Reading, for those who seek to enjoy it, needs to be a complete set of sensations, not just fonts hitting retinas. And it is precisely these touch-influenced readers who truly want to “suck out all the marrow” of a book. They may be print’s salvation in an age of expedient electronics. The future will tell.
Last night, I was privileged to attend Writer’s Harvest 2012, an event at University of South Florida. People paid $5 at the door, or brought three canned goods to help feed the hungry. In exchange, listeners and participants got to hear readings from the likes of Jeff Parker and poet Traci Brimhall. The hall where the event was being held was standing-room only. Of course, this was in Tampa, where the literary arts have a pretty loyal following.
In smaller towns like mine, poetry readings are generally greeted by a handful of patrons who feel an “obligation” to support writing and culture in general. That being said, these “few but proud” gatherings have their own unique benefits. For one, small gatherings allow greater intimacy with the work presented. The poet can speak about the writing and be understood well, and usually, the readings are far more personal. Addressing a hall full of 500 people might be a rush, but it loses some of its closeness. Both the work and the artist are “drowned out” somewhat by the environment.
Comparing venues and styles of presentation caused me to think a little about the up-and-comers (like yours truly) who have to fight for their space in the limelight. Library and coffeehouse readings are great, and having a loyal little flock appreciate your work is nice. But at the end of the day, making the small time is exactly that — small. We poets are not unlike aspiring country crooners: Like them, we have to “pay our dues” in the dives and the honky-tonks of literature — the shabby cafes and tiny conference rooms where a handfull of people can begin to spread the word.
There are no backlit marquees or laser-printed fliers proclaiming the greatness of the small-town writer. This is why so many scribblers migrate to locales like New York City, where, with any luck, one’s work can be heard and experienced by larger crowds and potential game-changers for one’s writing career. However, throwing fate to a place populated by similar dreamers and doers has its own hazards. All of the old “fish bowl” cliches have some element of truth; one can be a big fish in a small pond or a smaller fish in a larger pond. It depends on your desires.
Personally, I would prefer not to be a fish at all. I write because I like to, I read because I love the music of language, and I appreciate people who appreciate my work. Whether that’s a crowd of 5 or 5,000, I’m simply happy to be the attended voice. Yes, I’d like one day to move beyond “the small time,” but for now, with my situation in life, I’ll take the sporadic applause of a few over the ovations of masses. There’s time for both yet.
Here’s the thing about writing regional poems: you have to be careful.
As a native of Florida (and of the South, no matter what some folks may say), I find that an awful lot of my work takes on the dialect, the idioms, and the culture of our southeastern United States. However, that gift of geographic identity is a double-edged sword.
It becomes very easy to cross over from the easy grace and subtle lilt of Southern verse to something that is pure cornpone. When I find my work sounding like bad country music, I know it’s time to drop back and rethink. I’ve always been a firm believer in central metaphors — those comparisons that build poems from the outset. However, when those metaphors are already overdone (sunsets=symphonies, etc.), then it’s time to step away from the work for a while and allow the creative juices to do their job.
The South has a far too dynamic history to be denegrated by bad poetry. There are already enough cheesy lines about Mama’s Cookin’ and Daddy’s Workin’ without more people contributing to the drivel. Certainly, food and labor are staples of life here in the American South, but expressing those same sad sentiments in echoed cliches does nothing for literature or culture.
To my fellow Southern Writers, I urge you (as I urge myself) to examine and edit closely. Much like hard-core evangelicals’ “WWJD” bracelets, I would ask a similar and perhaps slightly blasphemous question of our work: What would Robert Penn Warren think? You could replace the name here with the exemplary Southern poet of your choice: Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Rodney Jones, whomever. But in the end, if our work doesn’t measure up to the high standard set before us, we’re just wasting our ink.