life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

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:

A sample of my own Socratic Journaling that eventually led to a poem that was published.

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:

A response to a curiosity I had about sash weights in old farmhouse windows. This, too, became a longer poem later.

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:

THE SOCRATIC JOURNAL by JOHN DAVIS JR.

life, teaching, writing

The Literary Scoutmaster

Photo by Bryce Carithers on Pexels.com

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.

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Franklin’s Lightning: A Birthday Post

I’ve been telling myself my age this year is inconsequential. Benjamin Franklin says otherwise.

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.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Po-Biz Discernment: A Brief Publishing Guide

Sometimes, a publisher just doesn’t do enough for a deserving author.
Photo by George Milton on Pexels.com

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.

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Preparing for the Big Launch

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.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Author’s Copies

Look what arrived today!
There’s nothing quite like holding your book after it’s just been published.
Even the back cover is beautiful. So satisfied with this collection!

Ready to get your own copy? Visit:

https://eastoverpress.com/books/the-places-that-hold/

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Cover Reveal: The Places That Hold

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.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

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.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

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.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

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.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

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.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

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.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

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…

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Seeking the Wright Inspiration

20180811_175617
A classroom inside Edge Hall, where I earned my first Master’s degree.

As a creative writer, I’ve done some pretty weird things to try to force epiphanies upon myself. Consider my sophomore year at the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College, 1995-1996. Around this time, I took an American Literature class under Prof. Wesley Ryals. His course was challenging; he expected you to read copious amounts of writing outside of class, and when you arrived, he would hold deep discussions of the work, leaving those who hadn’t read (yours truly included) in the proverbial dark.

So I began reluctantly reading. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the syllabus, and I began to understand symbolism. Suddenly everything around me came to life with underlying potential — trees meant life and growth and progress, the sky above me foreshadowed the day ahead, and a million other everyday images I’d previously ignored glowed with further implications. We read other canonized authors like Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and my “literary x-ray vision” for the world around me strengthened.

Right about this same time, I started seeking out spots on campus from which to write. I’d always dabbled in poetry and prose, but now, with this new heightened awareness, I felt especially motivated. I chose a bench somewhere near the freshman girls’ dorms and wrote about a dead white-barked tree covered in brown-black birds. The piece was awful, consisting of faulty formalism with heavy-handed rhyme and meter, but it was editable anyway.

I visited the balcony of the Student Life Center. It was supposed to be closed for repairs, but what are “keep out” signs to young men but invitations? From there, I looked out over Lake Hollingsworth at night, and took particular interest in the radio towers blinking their “dim, consistent red” while cars “looped a pool of silent black.” Egad. I think on these excerpts now and shudder, but they were a starting point. I began to conclude that, so long as I could get elevated enough or secluded enough, artistic revelation would follow.

And so I began frequenting the outdoor stairwells of Edge Hall, where education and religion classes were held (still are). In the evenings, the hustling spirits of the day were left there, but no one visited. Notepad in lap, I wrote about the rain and the wind, the hollow echoes of hard, narrow places. Sometimes the experience was good, but most of the time, I was trying too hard to squeeze the blood of inspiration from my turnip-brain. I’d leave with a legal pad full of sophomoric observations, and occasionally I’d return to them later and pick out some small detail that generated poetry. A few years after I graduated with my B.A., two FSC-inspired pieces would be included in Cantilevers, the school’s literary magazine, and one of them would win — get this — the Wesley Ryals Creative Writing Award.

What I learned from all this nomadic writing, though, was that a writer cannot prescribe himself a place for creativity. As my mentor Erica Dawson once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), you don’t just sit down somewhere and think Today I will write a poem about X. Epiphanies are elusive things, and placing yourself in solitude may help foster them, but there’s no assurance.

As a 19-year-old questing after sagacity, I never would have guessed that I would return to FSC years later to attain my first master’s degree in education, let alone that I would do so inside the very building where I’d written those stairwell stanzas. If someone had told me I’d complete that graduate program with a 4.0 GPA, I would have scoffed, considering my undergrad grades. Likewise, if some guru had said I’d have an MFA and eventually teach the very works that inspired me, I probably would have laughed.

But if some soothsayer had said, “Years from now, you will look out from the third floor of the Roux Library and still be inspired to write poetry,” I would have believed. Florida Southern continues to be a place of inspiration for me. I’ve been honored to adjunct-teach there a few times, but mostly, I like to return to the campus to see with older eyes that which I could not have seen earlier — genius under its eaves, history written into every column, and beauty in the youthful interactions of those with a whole future ahead of them. Such a place embodies potential, and potential is where revelation thrives.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Poetry Reading is On the Rise! Now What?

closeup photo of assorted title books
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?

The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.

But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.

Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.

We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.

I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.

Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.