poetry, Uncategorized

Upon Returning to Caffeine

This morning, for the first time in a year, I had my first cup of real, honest-to-God coffee. You see, last summer I had an encounter with caffeine that totally reformed my whole perception of it: While on a writing binge, I consumed three large cups of coffee one after the other after the other. Something then happened that had never happened before — my heart rate shot through the roof (like say, 130 bpm), my blood pressure spiked to a dangerously high number, and I thought I was going to die. Yes, really. I even wound up going to the hospital to get checked out, having never encountered anything like that before. Once the effects of the caffeine subsided about an hour or so later, I was fine. In the twenty-some-odd years I’d been drinking coffee, it had never turned against me with such hostility. After this bright red warning sign, when I consumed even a little caffeine, I noticed that some of my previous symptoms began to return. Maybe it was psychosomatic, maybe not. Either way, I didn’t like the feeling.

So, I was turned off of caffeine for a good long while. For the past year, I’ve been a devotee of caffeine-free everything, from sodas to foods (bummer: chocolate has caffeine), and it has been a purification by fire. Admittedly, my mind has been clearer, my body has been more responsive, and my teeth have been noticeably whiter. This fast of sorts has had its advantages. Still, though, something was missing.

At family events, I declined the southern house wine (Sweet Tea) in favor of water. At writing events, I opted for beverages clear and flat while others around me were delighting in the carefree enjoyment of lattes and mochas. Yes, I missed it. But I didn’t miss the near-death sensation from my prior encounter. Better safe than sorry, I told myself.

So this morning, when I found I was totally out of decaf (which, by the way, still has trace amounts of caffeine), I took a risk and made a cup of the hard stuff. I prepared it as I would have pre-fast, two sugars no cream, and partook slowly and cautiously. Thus far, as I’m writing this, I’m feeling no ill effects. A little physiological charge, perhaps, but nothing devastating.

World religions of all sorts preach moderation, and perhaps this account is one that reinforces that idea. “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone,” teacher John Keating advises his charges in the classic movie Dead Poets Society. Sometimes we have to nearly choke on the bone to appreciate the marrow, however. I don’t plan to caffeinate myself like I used to, but I am hopeful that I can have an occasional indulgence without frightening repercussions. I’ve missed being a coffeehouse regular, I’ve missed the ritual of preparing a single cup before writing, and I’ve missed being a part of the rich history that “real” coffee embodies.

Today, as ten ounces of Nantucket Blend wind their way through my system, I’m reminded of a Simon and Garfunkel tune: Hello darkness my old friend/ I’ve come to talk to you again. The trick is not to be consumed by the darkness. As sunrise peeps over the lake beyond my writing window, I’m grateful that a new day has begun.

My dealer of choice -- a fine little coffeehouse here in Winter Haven.
My dealer of choice — a fine little coffeehouse here in Winter Haven.
poetry

Against Obviation of the Abstract

colorful-abstract-face-chris-bradleyIn just a few short weeks, I’ll be speaking to the graduating class of my alma mater’s MFA program. I’m supposed to be addressing “Life after the MFA,” a subject that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last year and a half. In preparation for this talk, I’ve been looking over some of the notes I once took in MFA workshops, seminars, and synthesis sessions, and I’ve found that, while apart from the academic structure of the program, I’ve developed a discerning sensibility about some of the issues presented by professors in grad school.

One subject is that of using the abstract vs. using the concrete. Not one, not two, but three different professors in the MFA program at different times encouraged students to eschew abstraction in favor of concrete images. This is a good idea for beginning writers like the ones I teach, as their poetry is often littered with pathos in the form of notions like love, jealousy, rage, and abandonment.

But to lay down as a rule the idea that anything abstract or intangible must be omitted is incorrect, or at the very least, in need of refinement. The truth that I’ve found is this — using the abstract in poetry is much like using anything else in art: too much, and the work will become imbalanced; too little, and the work will lack relatability. This is especially true in the use of one of my favorite literary devices, the zeugma. For the unfamiliar, a zeugma is a combination of something concrete with something abstract in a line of poetry (or literature): “She spoiled her honor and her Sunday dress,” for example. Using too many zeugmas cheapens a poem and casts the image that the author must prevail upon parlor tricks to wow the audience rather than solid content.

But the right zeugma in the right place can make a piece sing. Just like similes, metaphors, oxymorons, and the whole array of other literary devices, the zeugma too carries its weight. And without abstraction, the zeugma is relegated to the status of a single image, a single item. Abstraction is necessary for this device and so many others to work.

“Everything in moderation,” the old saying goes, and in poetry as in life, this cliche actually holds true. Plenty of concrete imagery mixed with the right amount of abstract language can produce beauty, truth. Will I, like my former professors, prescribe my advice to near-graduates?  Probably not. I’ll probably discuss the pragmatics of literary life — the necessity of staying in touch with fellow writers and readers, the merits of continuing to submit work, and possibly the necessity of overcoming rejections.

As for using the abstract, my students and I will continue to ply the often-holistic, qualitative language in our everyday writings. Rather than removing a tool from the writer’s toolbox, we will use it as a carpenter uses a plane — the write tool for the right job at the right time.

poetry

On Poet Laureateship

I’ve written before about awards and prizes in the literary realm — some good, some bad. But today I’d like to talk about a very special kind of award; one that recognizes not only quality or quantity of work, but devotion to one’s community. Having recently been named poet laureate of Winter Haven, Florida, I feel a need to examine what such a title means, and what it means to others.

I first heard of poets laureate when I was in college; about that time, two Roberts, Robert Hass and then Robert Pinsky, were poets laureate of our country. And even though I wasn’t an English major, I knew that the title was something significant. I had dabbled in poetry myself even though I was pursuing a misguided career in journalism, and thought that anyone who received such a title must have an exceptional affinity for the written word. The office intrigued me.

The next poet laureate I knew, this time more personally, was Peter Meinke. As a student of Peter’s both in workshops and in my MFA program, I was privileged to see and learn what it took to become the poet laureate of a city. In Peter’s case, his city is St. Petersburg, and all one has to do is pay a visit there to see how St. Pete appreciates him and his work. While the “man on the street” might be unfamiliar with Meinke’s decades-long canon of literature, those who read widely and have been around the Tampa Bay area for a while know that, when it comes to poetry, Peter is king in Florida. In fact, he is currently under consideration to become the poet laureate of our state, a position that I hope he occupies soon. Peter knows what it means to love an area and portray its beauty, its scars, and its people in poetry.

After Billy Collins served the US as poet laureate in the early 2000s, bringing with him the Poetry 180 program to American high schools, I was equally excited when Natasha Trethewey, Southern poet extraordinaire, was named to the office. Her work, while examining issues like civil rights and racial hardships, drips with the resonance and the harmony of America’s southland. She can render an oxymoron so skillfully that it can rip your heart out, and in the next line she’ll have you laughing hysterically. Certainly our national poets laureate give up-and-comers something to aim for as a goal.

Meanwhile, here in Winter Haven, I am humbled by the title of local poet laureate. As my city’s first, I also hope to set the bar for those who may come after me. Whether it’s celebrating a groundbreaking, honoring fallen heroes, or inspiring the bright young minds of tomorrow, my poems are intended to be a positive addition to our city’s growing understanding of and emphasis upon the arts. I love this city that has served as my home for the last 14 years — a time span that has allowed me to evolve from a young photojournalist into an educator, a writer, a husband, a father, and now, a poet laureate. During my time in Winter Haven, I’ve earned two graduate level degrees, taught at two colleges and spoken at many others, and I’ve been allowed the freedom to pursue my craft in a natural setting comparable to none. May my words serve this community well and with the greatest of gratitude.

Here, for my readers, is the short piece I read to the city commission at their meeting Monday night after the poet laureate pronouncement was made:

End Weekend

Our lake is silver
on the cusp of evening
as it is waiting

for sunset, nightfall,
a thousand blind mosquitoes
making black blacker.

Here we are, a lone
boat trolling toward our dock
where God’s finger trails

and our wake both stop.
The surface cools to midnight
blue – that good-bye hue

preceding the stars
that navigate our earthbound
vessels to Monday.

This poem was first published in Saw Palm magazine (USF); included in my latest book Middle Class American Proverb (published by Negative Capability Press).

poetry, Uncategorized

The Awards Game

Award_imageIt’s that time of year again: Editors and publishers are nominating works from their magazines and bookshelves for a broad range of laurels. Most notably at this time of year, writers receive word of Pushcart Prize nominations. As a younger writer, I used to get all tingly when those nominations arrived by email — kindly journal editors who liked my work sent it on to that mystical committee that views thousands of submissions every year from literary journals all over. I am still honored to have my work nominated for the Pushcart (as it was again this year), but in speaking with mentors and writer-friends of mine, I’ve come to understand something: Poets “worth their salt” are nominated for the Pushcart almost annually. Venerated veterans of poetry take such nominations for granted, apparently, even though those of us who are still “emerging” think them a big deal. So, I’ve learned to cool my jets a little. Once my work is actually included in the honorable Pushcart anthology, I’ll certainly add that detail to my author’s bio. But for now, I suppose I should join the ranks of my fellow authors who see nominations as a nice thought, a kind gesture, but ultimately, little more than a tip of the hat toward one’s work.

I’ve learned also that the awards one reads about in other writers’ portfolios aren’t always as glamorous as they seem (take note, young writers). Certain awards may open some doors, they may add something to one’s CV, but outside the literary community, they don’t amount to a hill of beans. Robert Frost was a fan of the old saw “Fine words butter no parsnips,” and I suppose in the world of literary awards, a similar thought exists — shiny trophies, parchment certificates, and faux-wood plaques don’t make you a writer any more than a fancy hat does.

Recently a publisher friend of mine let me know that my book has been nominated for a couple of other awards, as well. If I win, it will be a wonderful experience, and I’m trying hard not to get my hopes up too much prior to the announcements. These awards are entered by many of my most respected fellow writers and their publishers, as well. To even enter the field is an honor unto itself. The danger, of course, in winning awards is the temptation toward stasis — many a great writer, after earning the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, has lain down his pen. The award was an end rather than a milepost on the journey. Writers, as awards season enters full swing, the temptation is great to see pinnacles where only plateaus exist. Gilded honors are stations on the path, not summits to be conquered. Let us be grateful and humbled, but let’s not be complacent. There’s writing yet to do. Stick that award on the shelf or on your book cover, and let’s keep going.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

When did you become a “real” writer?

220px-Stipula_fountain_pen The question above isn’t new. Literary magazines and writing guides have been debating it forever, it seems, and the general consensus among writers groups, workshop participants, and seminar-givers is this: people gets to call themselves writers when each individual decides it’s time. What a horribly unspecific and wishy-washy answer. That being said, all I can provide is my own experience in an attempt to help elucidate some sort of solution to this continuing conundrum.

For some people, becoming a full-time writer gives them the license to wear the title. For others, attaining a degree in writing allows them to introduce themselves with the phrase “I’m a writer.” Many novices don’t consider bringing up their writing unless they’ve published extensively. So, let’s be clear — going full-time, earning educational laurels and publishing are all nice components to a writer’s personal history. Yet none of those (by itself or in concert with the other factors) will magically bestow the name of “writer” upon anyone. What, then, does it?

An oversimplified answer would be to say, “Well, writers write.” That unfortunate phrase has become a cliche (if not a trope) that writing magazines and workshop providers have been uttering like a forged instrument for too many years. We know writers write; hence the name. But if writing is our only criteria for calling someone a “writer,” we’re losing something along the way.

Allow me to provide an example: Last night, my six-year-old son received a new art table from the store. He drew pictures of rockets and dragons and all sorts of things, and then put some words under them. Some of the words were correctly spelled, others were more phonetic. Does he then qualify for what we would call a “writer?” I’d like to say yes, but by societal and cultural standards, I’m afraid that the answer is a resounding negative.

Stephen King is a writer. Billy Collins is a writer. Even Danielle Steele (yeesh) is a writer. Why? Because they have been advertised, marketed, promoted and published as writers, and therefore the public has dubbed them “authors.” Does that mean that our names must be up in lights or on the front of Barnes and Noble before we can lay claim to such a noteworthy nomination? Not exactly.

Here’s what did it for me: Yes, I earned an MFA. Yes, I’ve published three books now. And yes, I’ve seen my name in a pretty good number of literary magazines over the years (gratefully). But honestly, it wasn’t until I finished this most recent book that other people began calling me a writer, and I suppose the reality sank in at last. You see, my first book was self-published (fodder for another post entirely), and my second was a shorter volume (chapbook). This third book was published by a respected and professional publisher, and it has been better received than either of my previous two. It has been advertised in newspapers, online, and in magazines, and friends of mine from various lit journals have promoted it fiercely. I have not one but two different launch events planned. Many of these efforts were self-initiated, and mostly because I have greater respect for this book than I’ve had for my others. That’s not to say the others were bad; it’s just that this volume kicks their cumulative butts.

So I suppose you could say that this most recent book, Middle Class American Proverb, was the magic ingredient that finally allowed me to admit to myself that I’m more than a schoolteacher. Because I’ve given it the respect, the time, and the investment that it truly deserves, it has allowed me to finally say to others, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

The lesson here: When we give our endeavors serious treatment, we will then be treated seriously by others, and more importantly, by our selves.

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

The Book Trailer: Just Say Yes

In contrast to my recent post about the triviality of “cover reveals,” this post deals with a technique that I and other authors find effective: The Book Trailer. Simple to produce, short enough to keep interest, and crazy affordable (you can’t beat FREE), the book trailer has a vast reach. Within the first hour of uploading the book trailer below, I had more than 100 views. I haven’t checked the stats today, but the trailer is probably one of the more popular marketing steps I’ve taken in preparing for the release of Middle Class American Proverb. The book has its own website, http://www.middleclassamericanproverb.com/, and its own Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/middleclassamericanproverb?ref=bookmarks.

But none of these has received the attention that the book trailer did in such a short period. Maybe that’s my own fault — I could have pushed the website and the Facebook page harder, but at some point, marketing becomes annoyance. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the book trailer for my loyal blog followers:

poetry, Uncategorized

Launching the Chapbook

davis cover 1This Tuesday, I will launch my chapbook of poems entitled “The Boys of Men.” This volume, a collection of poems dealing with the topics of fatherhood and mentorship, is near and dear to me, as it was originally developed as a gift for my two sons. As the poems developed, though, I began to understand how this little assembly of verses might be useful to others beyond my family. The messages, after all, cross the boundaries of bloodlines.

Ideals of trust, loyalty, persistence, and courage are universal, after all, and these poems speak of all those and more. As a bigger book of poems waits for its release just around the corner, I want to take the time to celebrate this smaller milestone; this little get-together of poems that future generations can look to for fond reflection, family connection, and perhaps even a moment or two of guidance. My purpose in publishing this book was never to get rich — rather, I wanted those close to me to have a keepsake, something intimate and direct. In this volume, I feel that’s accomplished.

For those wishing to buy a copy, here’s the Amazon address: http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Men-John-Davis-Jr/dp/0692276874/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1411822481&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Boys+of+Men+by+John+Davis+Jr.

I hope that you gain as much from reading this as I gained from writing it. Your purchase is appreciated, and your attention to my work is always, always valued. Thank you.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

The Catharsis of Found Poetry

FoundPoetry1It was the end of the first week of school. Students in my creative writing classes had been pounded all week with Strunk & White, William Zinsser, and the thousand and one unofficial “rules” of good writing. It was time for expression. It was time to put the “creative” back in creative writing.

I thumped a load of TIME magazines down on the table at the front of the classroom along with scissors, glue sticks, tape, and construction paper.  Then I began explaining found poetry: that crazy-but-sometimes-deep hodgepodge of discovered, connected everyday language. My challenge to this group: “Take seemingly disparate words and phrases from these publications and bring them together in a way that appeals to your mind.” No limitations other than that. Just cut and paste. Form something that makes a semblance of sense to you — that’s it.

Then something magical happened. Students began to string together words and phrases in unexpected ways, forming verses about topics ranging from racial prejudice to missing class because of nature’s call. Some were expectedly cliche, but others struck a nerve, both in their authors and in me as their teacher. It was splendid. It was creative. It was (pardon the triteness) inspiring.

This was not the first time I’d seen the “cut and paste” exercise used — teachers have known about newspaper poetry and similar tricks for years. And of course, I’d been fortunate enough to have a grad school professor who encouraged us to use this exercise to loosen up our own creative muscles before. But when these high schoolers were set loose on the project, there was an unusual fervor in the air — it was as though they were finding treasures that would help display their souls. After a long week of reading the advice of the old, the dead, and the mundane, found poetry was just what the doctor ordered.

For us as writers, the occasional dabble into arts and crafts can likewise be a refresher.  When faced with being stuck, the switch to tactile-kinesthetic arranging of words like refrigerator magnet poetry or word tiles can allow another part of the brain to do the work for a while. And sometimes, when monotony brings us down, colorful paper and scissors and paste can also remind us of a simpler time — one that perhaps inspired us to undertake the writer’s journey in the first place.

For more examples of my students’ awesome work: https://sites.google.com/site/harrisoncreativewriters/

 

Uncategorized

Apples and Oranges: Frost’s Influence on my Early Work

Image
Photo: University of Buffalo’s Robert Frost Collection

As a middle schooler, I was fortunate to have one English teacher throughout those tumultuous years who encouraged my interest in poetry. Mr. Pace knew I was a rare breed: a perceptive and sensitive farm boy interested in writing and things literary, though not the greatest scholar. My profile, he felt, matched up with a certain northeastern poet whose canonized tomes of work combined the rhythmic labors of agriculture with the delicate intricacies of poetic diction. Hence, my introduction to the works of Robert Frost began.

I would sit atop our barn roof overlooking our orange grove, and read everything from “Out, Out –” to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’d never seen snow. This was central Florida, after all. It didn’t matter — Frost brought it to life with his vintage imagery and steady, clopping-horse meter.  And then, of course, there were the apple orchard pieces. From “After Apple-Picking” to “Mending Wall,” I knew well the lifestyle he described, even though our farm and its accompanying ladders and fences were more than a thousand miles away from New England. Like Frost, I knew the press of a rung into flesh and the whisper and sway of fruit trees. Here was a man who “got” me, I felt, even though he was long since dead.

My love for Frost’s work continued into high school and college, and I wrote bad pastiches of his work, thinking I was being totally original all the while. After all, my “citrus farm” poems were completely disparate from anything New Englandish. Yeah, right. As I look over my older pieces, I hear familiar iambs and rustic rhymes that mark a younger poet’s perception of excellent verse. How brilliant I believed my rhyme schemes and wordplay to be! If only the rest of the world could see this marvelous talent, I thought, refusing to admit that every syllable was a tribute to America’s godfather of poetry — Frost.

Even my first book, Growing Moon, Growing Soil, contains blatant influence from “Frosty Bob.” As I matured, my reading tastes expanded to include contemporary voices and a vast array of styles. But as a writer, I kept coming back to those paradoxical poems — so seemingly simple, yet profound. Frost’s work occupied a space on my mental bookshelf alongside Bible verses and the Scout Oath and Law — it was ingrained among the ridges and folds of my brain’s landscape as surely as cut weeds turned under by a grove disc.

Today, my work is influenced differently — I no longer strive to “sound like” this poet or that one, but my poetry (I like to think) has come into its own. One of the greatest compliments of my more recent work came from poet Erica Dawson: “John is accomplished. He knows his voice.  He knows his subject matter.  He knows his style.” Those words, like Mr. Pace’s initial encouragement, gave me not only assurance, but a goal. If my work is to reach the level of greats like Frost, it must be identifiable as uniquely mine. The thumbprints of many poets may be found within my writing, no doubt, but when the final draft is finished, my hope is that it surges with a different pulse; one as recognizable as Frost’s, but unique — oranges to everyone else’s apples.