In basic creative writing classes, instructors often begin by telling students to consider their purpose and audience. This is good advice, mostly, since lacking a “why” or a “who” is a surefire way to write something empty. But today I wanted to take a brief minute to examine the latter of these two fundamentals and express a quick word of thanks.
You see, a poet’s audience is a funny thing. We know that most modern people would rather not trouble their brains with meaningful imagery, earnest emotions, or contemplative thinking. We press on, though, continuing to write words that have inspiration embedded into every syllable, hoping that a select few will feel the richness and depth of revelations we record. We envision a reader who takes the time to truly decode every line, every stanza. We might even daydream about how this poem would be analyzed in an English class one day. And it is these aspirations that keep us doing what we do.
You, dear reader, are a part of that audience. You are among a handful of people for whom I write poetry. Even if you only scan poems for strong or relatable moments, even if you don’t closely inspect every page of my latest book for symbolism or graduate-level literary devices, and even if you only read poetry to fulfill an imaginary cultural expectation, I still write for you, the person who cares enough about language and literature to sit down with the challenge and delight of poems. You are rare and valued, and I care what you think.
So, to all of you who have bought my book, expressed some kind words in a review at Barnes and Noble or Amazon, or passed along word to friends or family, I thank you for being part of a small but vital audience. We need more like you.
The old saying goes, “Wait long enough, and it’ll come back into fashion.” Usually, people say this about clothes and styles of different eras. But I’ve been at the writing game now long enough to notice that the same is true of literary aesthetics, especially in poetry. Presently, prose poetry and invented form/free verse hybrids seem to rule the roost, but I predict that this trend, too, will pass, and eventually, come back around.
Not too many years ago, formalism was having a rebirth of sorts. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and rondeaus were thrust from the depths of the poetry closet back into the limelight. Poets who’d previously identified as avant-garde were dusting off rhyme schemes and meters from the (gasp of dread) canon, that collection of authors so frequently lambasted for being too white, too male, too old, too…well, you get the picture. Their poetic choices were suddenly cool again, and poetry sounded something like it did in past centuries. The tweed jacket with elbow patches had emerged from a long hibernation, to use a metaphor.
Now poetry seems unsure of itself again — the aesthetic dominating pages of literary magazines is, for lack of a better label, no aesthetic at all. In several cases, there are words thrown onto a page with little regard for the reader. Many modern poems read like an inside joke that only the writer gets, and it is precisely this kind of cliquish snobbery that pushed the masses away from poems in the first place. Yes, people expect to read more deeply when they encounter poetry, but that doesn’t mean they should need an X-ray or an MRI of the poem to “get” it. Let’s provide something enjoyable for the first read as well as the second, third, or twenty-third.
Sometimes this brand of exclusivity is unintentional: Poets want to show how much they know rather than communicate a truth, a story, or a moment. The result of this “look at my knowledge” approach becomes overly philosophical, solipsistic slop that reads like something out of a dust-covered textbook in the farthest reaches of an unfrequented library. Candidly, nobody cares about self-important perspectives on the nature of life. We’re all living it, after all, and one person’s take may be appropriate for nonfiction or a driveway conversation, but it isn’t necessarily the stuff of engaging poetry. Give us instead those unforgettable images, that remarkable event, the everyday juxtapositions that fit only into a highly specialized, concise genre.
Lest the audience think I’m painting with too broad a brush here, let me say that there are plenty of splendid modern poets. Most recently, I’ve had the joy of reviewing books by Virginia Konchan and Rachel Custer, both of whom do a phenomenal job combining complex ideas with relatable language. They are neither too accessible nor too abstruse. They clearly understand the fine balance that a skilled poet must learn to strike. And despite using allusions that only a certain demographic might immediately understand, both poets supplement their unique vernacular with universal notions and sensations that are applicable to humanity at large. I appreciate that, and I’m sure other readers will, too.
I know some graduate assistant inside a prestigious MFA program may read this and think that I’m just a curmudgeon stuck in my ways, unwilling to accommodate new methods of doing. Maybe I’ve gotten resentful because my aesthetic isn’t the one that is presently popular. But the sad truth is, a good number of people will totally bypass this blog post because its title used the word “poetry,” and they’ve come to believe that they aren’t welcome when that genre is mentioned. They’re mentally wearing a plain blue oxford cloth shirt, and poetry is velour — uncomfortable, untrustworthy, and weirdly obsolete. Let me assure you, reader, that some poetry won’t rub you that way. I beg you to try on the generous, soft t-shirt provided by poets like those mentioned above. You may find that the dresser drawers of literature contain some suitable garments, even if they seem odd at first.
The title of this post is a question I often receive. Whether it’s in a writing workshop, a traditional classroom, or simply in casual conversation, people regularly inquire about the origin of creative ideas. Second only to this question is, “What do I write about if I’m not inspired?” Today’s post is an effort to answer both of these common quandaries with a single practice: Socratic Journaling.
Anyone who has spent a moment or two in school knows about the Socratic Method — that time-honored practice of invoking thought through questioning. First mastered by its namesake, Socrates, the method has served educators well over the years. And even today, we can use it to generate great ideas and to “get unstuck” in creative writing using a technique I pioneered over the course of 15 years.
Socratic Journaling works like this: A writer begins with a “big” question (ideally, this should be one that is fairly philosophical or abstract) and answers it swiftly, almost without thinking. That fast answer then leads to another question, which leads to another answer that also then gets questioned. This process repeats until the writer finds within their questions and answers a subject to write about. See the example of Socratic Journaling below to get a better idea of what this process looks like:
In the sample above, I examined the nature of a simple phrase I heard growing up: “Laying Claim.” I thought the expression was odd, and so I gave it a thorough analysis through the wringer of Socratic Journaling. The result was a poem that integrated many of these initial wonderings and supplemented them with strong imagery. Occasionally, the act of asking and answering and asking repeatedly yields something different:
Drawings, scraps of curious artifacts, and other non-text items can often wind up in the pages of a good Socratic Journal. Historical notes, scientific questions, and even the logging of sensory impressions can serve as good kindling for the fire of creativity. By asking and answering sequentially, we break the often self-imposed limitations on our inspiration. This practice represents a kind of liberation, an unmooring from the safe harbor of pragmatism, and a break from mundane normalcy.
The great American poet Theodore Roethke once advised young poets to “…live in a state of constant astonishment.” Socratic Journaling aids in this quest for seeing wonder in everyday life. As the holidays arrive, what better gift could someone give than inspiration? I have collected and published some of the biggest “starter questions” for creatives of all sorts in the workbook pictured above. To give the thinker in your life a real present, spend $10 and watch their inspiration thrive as they encounter The Socratic Journal. Not only will you be providing the recipient hours of creative engagement, you’ll also be helping out a poet and educator who has some holiday bills of his own to pay.
Obviously, I’m a big believer in Socratic Journaling, not just because it has worked for me as a creative over the years, but because it has served so many of my students so well. When young writers especially feel mental drought, this practice stimulates them back into productivity. And if it works for the young, it can work for the…shall we say, mature? Give this a try. You won’t regret it. Thinking more deeply and more creatively is an incredibly rewarding experience, and The Socratic Journal can get you there. Click the link below to get your copy:
When I was the age of my current students, I was busy finishing up the requirements for Eagle Scout. I genuinely enjoyed scouting, mostly because the things I learned there were hands-on, useful, and seemed to have real-life application. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that one of my very first jobs was camp counselor, teaching younger boys how to safely and accurately shoot both rifles and shotguns. Scouting was good to me, and it gave me skills I use and teach even now when I take my sons camping, fishing, skeet shooting, hiking, or kayaking, among other activities.
Admittedly, the Boy Scouts of America is not what it used to be. Over the years, the organization has made a series of egregious missteps that have caused me not to place my sons in a troop, and I’ve largely cut all ties with the BSA. But this isn’t a political post, nor is it one intended to defend or prosecute “Scouting USA” as they now prefer to be called. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon how my present teaching experience embodies what was valuable within a former version of scouting: Practical guidance and retainable learning through meaningful relationships and memorable experiences.
I teach at an all-boys high school. Every day, I get to walk into my classroom and impart subject matter I love to young men who are eager to start the first chapters of their “real lives” beyond secondary education. Like tying a square knot or administering first aid, the skills I provide (reading a text more deeply, writing a clear sentence, etc.) are ones that will follow my pupils the rest of their lives if they’re wise enough to grasp this opportunity.
And I do all I can to ensure that my subject matter is imparted in a tangible, relatable way. We don’t just sit in rows and uniformly parrot back the rules of reading and writing; we investigate texts and tear sentences apart to see what makes them work (or not). I choose material that the boys will find engaging so as not to lose their focus. I show them that poetry, an oft-dreaded element of high school English, can be cool. They earn metaphorical “merit badges” in matters like fiction, nonfiction, composition, rhetoric, and critical analysis. And throughout all this, I lean into their experiences.
They write about their lives, their parents, their worries, and their friends. They give presentations about how they share traits with certain characters we’ve encountered. They read paragraphs with highlighters like navigators would read maps with compasses. And they build essays and compositions as a camper might carefully structure his log-cabin fire lay: each piece discerningly placed atop the other until the warmth and light reach optimal climax.
These boys remind me of a better chapter and give me hope for our cultural future. While all around us, young men give in to so many negative influences, I prefer to think that my small part in shaping my students will in some way brighten tomorrow through integrity and knowledge. I know that some of them will make bad choices just as certain scouts in my troop did. But if a small-town poet can reach into the minds of enough youth with lingering lessons about words and ideas, I will have succeeded. When my students enter the world beyond our campus, I know they will have heeded, even adopted, a certain old motto that remains in my heart: Be Prepared.
At the age of 46, Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite, proving that lightning is an electrical discharge. Why does this matter? From my poet’s perspective, 46 seems relatively unimpressive — a sort of in-between age where people go along and get along until something better (or worse) happens. In other words, I’m pretty indifferent to turning 46 today, and I’m glad I stumbled upon the above historical fact to change my attitude.
If one of our founding fathers was still thinking, still pioneering, still researching at 46, then there’s no reason for me to slow down or “ride the year out” complacently. Even now, I have in mind a concept for my next collection of poems. The pieces I’ve written and had published lately reveal to me a common thread, and it is this common thread I intend to use as I begin to think about assembling the next book.
I am beginning research right now on a particular era in Florida history — one dominated by intriguing characters, wild landscapes, natural (and man-made) dangers, and a whole culture of its own, complete with songs, traditions, and superstitions. By the time I’m done, the poems driven by this other time and its people will be (I hope) truly original and extraordinary. I hesitate to say more since over-talking a project can often kill its spirit.
But I tell you, my readers, about this venture because on this birthday, I’m also requesting a small gift. I have set up a Patreon Page where anyone can donate to help fund the research for this important book. When you go there, you’ll learn more about the book itself, its purpose, and its potential. I sincerely hope you’ll pay a visit to the page and help make this new collection’s research possible. As many of you know, I am no longer employed by a university, which means securing research funding is up to me individually, and this is my small way of beginning that process.
Some people have said that giving through Patreon presents them with challenges, so here’s another possibility: If you read over the description of my new project there and want to give another way, you can use PayPal (@poetjohndavisjr) or Venmo (@John-Davis-1204). These other forms of donation will also be used toward my ongoing research through the Florida State Archives, the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History, and other venues.
With luck and strong support, my 46th year can be my very best. I plan to use my charge of inspiration to produce my most relevant and best-written work yet. My kite is in the air and the key is attached. Let’s see what strikes.
My publisher is exemplary. Since publishing The Places That Hold with Eastover Press in December of last year, I’ve seen my work publicized, advertised, marketed, and recognized in ways no other book of mine has ever been. Some of this positive buzz is my doing as the author, but much of it is the direct result of the good people at the press itself. I’ve recommended that the editor and publicist do a conference talk on how small presses can keep their authors satisfied and their relationships productive. That’s how good they are.
All the above being said, I feel like I’m a little spoiled. I see authors whose work I admire and respect receiving little to no support. Fellow author “Chris” wrote a splendid collection of poems a while back and published it through a small independent press that runs an annual contest with a hefty submission fee. I think the book may have been their contest winner, in fact, though it’s hard to tell from the publisher’s near-secretive presentation of the book. Today, I looked for a copy of Chris’s collection at the “big boy” bookstores online, and they have no trace of it. I’ve seen no print ads for it, heard no talk of it, and, aside from a brief and subtle mention on the publisher’s website, there’s been no noticeable promotion of it via social media or other online sources. The tough part of this invisibility is, I know this author’s work to be truly worthwhile, and if his publisher had done just a little more, we’d all be talking about his poems right now. It’s a shame.
What else? It helps to have an editor whose work ethic is similar to your own. I grew up in a rural area known for farming, and I was taught early and often the value of honest labor. Someone who didn’t put their back into their work wasn’t much account, my grandparents believed, and even though the kind of work I do today is less muscular, I remain convinced that true diligence has value. Thankfully, my publisher’s people don’t see their press as some little throwaway sideline venture for an additional revenue stream. They pour their love into it, and that translates to giving it 100 percent. Their authors (like me) reap the rewards of their commitment and devotion to good literary business practices. I suspect certain rival presses are hoping to succeed on auto-pilot, as their business model has demonstrated a lax, even indifferent, attitude toward their products and producers.
At an after-reading get-together with several writer friends recently, I heard one say, “I do almost all of my own publicity and scheduling. [The publisher] just put my work into book form and hopes I’ll do the rest.” I remained silent. I didn’t want this person to feel bad, but it was hard not to brag on my publisher. And honestly, I think my friend’s experience has been similar to that of many indie authors today: Find some publisher who accepts your work, and then prepare to do all the legwork on your own just as though you self-published. Accept whatever terms appear in the contract because literary publishing is such a subjective and tough racket. Give up; conform to the expectation of being “the poor artist.” To be fair, this friend has done Zoom readings, library gigs with similar authors, and a range of other book-related activities, but he’s had to fight tooth-and-nail to get these opportunities. A professional publisher eases that struggle, and mine has done exactly that.
When I was submitting The Places That Hold to potential publishers, there were some well-meaning acquaintances who said, “Don’t you want to go for a big-name place this time? Haven’t you published enough with these small presses?” I was flattered by their faith in my poetry, but I also had a vision in mind that excluded Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or even W.W. Norton, a big publisher renowned for their support of poets.
There were also some who advised against a “newer” press, citing statistics that independent book publishers often fold within a year or two of opening (been there, done that, know better). Eastover Press was still fledgling at that time, and these admonishers of mine worried about its sustainability. What the pearl-clutchers didn’t realize was that I knew some of the faces behind the masthead. I knew they would approach my book and their others with tenacity, quality, care, and a spirit of earnest work. My decision has paid off.
In late July, The Places That Hold will receive another award. This time, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association will be giving it a medal (I’ll know the details at the actual awards ceremony). The book has already earned one medal at the Florida Book Awards. It has been featured on podcasts, websites, and in publications large and small. And the good news keeps rolling in.
Novices: When your book is ready, trust a publisher that sees the endeavor of literature the way you do. If your work is truly remarkable, the press you decide upon will give it wings or bury it. Choose wisely.
I used to serve under a school administrator who repeatedly used the cliche, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” In fact, he kept a large wooden sign with the phrase painted on it in his office. I hate that expression now.
Tomorrow I will launch my fifth book, The Places That Hold, at the Firehouse Cultural Center in lovely small-town Ruskin, Florida, where I’ve given many poetry workshops over the years, and I find myself repeating the “first rodeo” cliche as a way to assure myself that everything will go just fine.
Book launches are always a crap shoot: You could have zero people or 100, just depending on so many other factors. This time, there’s Omicron lurking around us, a children’s parade, and a handful of competing events. Truthfully, poetry isn’t known for bringing in the masses, and I get that.
I’ve done my part — The word has been put out on social media and through other outlets, I’ve readied all the supplies, and I’ve recruited at least a few good friends to comprise an audience in case nobody else shows up. I know what I’ll be reading, wearing, and doing at the event itself. I’d like to say this is “old hat” by now, but with all transparency, putting a new book into the world with a special engagement like this always tends to be nerve-wracking until it’s done.
So yes, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” but you never know which way the bull might buck, either. Stay tuned, readers. There may be figurative face-manure or a shiny buckle ahead; only time will tell.
Hello, readers. I’m very excited to reveal the cover of my new forthcoming book! Hot off the designer’s PC, here’s the front of The Places That Hold, my fifth collection.
This 81-page book contains some of my finest work yet, according to my fiercest critics (see also: wife and sons). I’ve had a great experience with EastOver Press, the publisher. They’re located out of Rochester, Mass., but the editor calls Speedwell, Tennessee home. This publication marks the first time I’ve ever received an advance for a book, and while it’s crass to discuss money matters, I can honestly say that receiving that check was both gratifying and validating for a small-town scribbler like me.
Perhaps what I’m most excited by is this book’s rare chemistry: It is a unique combination of fond reflection and tragic documentary. On the one hand, there are lots of poems about the beauty and history of my home state. But on the other, there is one whole chapter devoted to pieces inspired by the horrific events that took place at Dozier Reform School in the panhandle. The book is equal parts light and darkness, with poems that examine what it means to call somewhere home alongside those about alienation and abandonment. For those seeking the rural and the natural, you’ll find plenty of both here, but you’ll also find the noise and smell of cities like Tampa, St. Petersburg, and even Lisbon, Portugal. These “Places That Hold,” alongside others, create a book that is rich in imagery. These poems provide escape via captivity.
Keep your eyes on this site for further updates; as soon as The Places That Hold becomes available for purchase, I’ll provide the links and locations here. Thanks as always for supporting my work, and may your upcoming holiday season be the happiest yet.
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 cherishedor prized creative possession…