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. 

poetry, Uncategorized

Advancing the Literary Arts, One Step at a Time

hiker

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

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

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

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

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

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

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

poetry, Uncategorized

More VS. Different: A human quandary

Adding isn't always the answer.
Adding isn’t always the answer.

Recently, I’ve been consumed by one mistake that I’ve made throughout my writing and teaching life. In some ways, this error is stereotypically American: When I feel the need for change, instead of choosing something different, I just pile something else on. It’s a childish mindset really — I’m unhappy with the one thing, but if I had two things, I’d be happier. Fallacy, fallacy.

When I was a young man just starting out, I didn’t make much money. Oh sure, I’d been to college and done my part to begin a journalism career, but a fresh degree and limited experience meant a meager income. My solution was always working harder, not smarter. I’d take on extra jobs until my every waking moment was consumed with responsibility of one form or another. And when you’re just setting foot into “the real world,” being industrious is admirable. But I found out pretty quickly that burnout is very real, and being obligated non-stop is a great way to compromise your health.

The lesson didn’t stick, though. When I changed careers about four years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I began to repeat the same mistakes in education: “Oh, teachers don’t make much? That’s okay. I’ll just take on more duties. I’ll tutor after school and pick up some freelance gigs on the side.” By this time I was married, and the incessant lesson planning, grading, and researching were all taking their toll on the homefront.

I added titles to my own job description, becoming a technology guru, a committee and department leader, a curriculum developer, and a professional development coordinator. My writing, of course, was taking the back burner to my overwhelming career roles, all because I assumed that if I had more to do, I’d somehow be happier. And granted, the experiences I earned while tackling these titles proved valuable. I know about a wealth of fields that make me an asset in the workplace. But meanwhile, I still wasn’t content.

The truth was, I needed something different, not something more. One more graduate degree wasn’t the answer, despite my 4.0 GPA. One more assignment wasn’t the panacea to discontent.When you’re tired of digging ditches, buying more shovels isn’t the solution.  I needed to work smarter, not harder, and I needed balance.

By shouldering more and more responsibility outside my home, I’d minimized the time I had for my family life. I had become that workaholic husband and father who can’t show up to his kids’ birthday parties, and writing? What was writing? Certainly there was no time for such frivolity. Our bank account was steadily reaping the benefits of my overexertion, but the price beneath my roof was far too great. It was time to restore some sanity and clarity to every part of my life.

I began cutting back on extra teaching opportunities, and started riding my bicycle again, for starters. I took a more active part in church life. My wife and I were dating again. I flew kites and threw Frisbees with my sons on the weekends. This was different, and it was good. Our financial situation was okay, but we still weren’t rich. And for one time in my life, I didn’t care. Money, I found, was reciprocal: we received what we gave, and often, we reaped more than we sowed, to use some biblical terminology. My new quest for balance and “smarter work” was paying off. My new and more flexible schedule now included a daily writing routine during the early morning hours, and soon, I had a thick volume of work. The MFA became not “one more degree,” but a natural outcropping from my own talents and interests, which my re-balanced life had shown me.

So now, as spring break draws nearer and the end of another school year will follow not long after, I feel another mile marker approaching. Change is coming in my professional life, and this time, my hope is that I’ll remember the lessons of my personal history. Work smarter, achieve balance, and don’t mistake more for different.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

What If and If Only

PreacherI heard a minister deliver a sermon that cautioned believers against these two phrases. His point, for those within his congregation, bore validity: If the family members of a faith spend too much time in worry or regret, then they (we) are displaying a lack of confidence in our Higher Power.

For writers and creators, however, there are no two more powerful phrases. “What ifs” open the door to imagination, whereas “If onlys” encourage reflection. There’s a proud tradition behind both of these phrases yielding creative, dynamic works across genres. Consider Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — a “What If” poem if there ever was one. Scholars and speculators agree that much of the poem may have been induced by chemical means, but even so, without the questioning of reality, such language would not have existed.

For “if only” work, see Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t think a great deal of exposition is needed for this example. From Lenore to Annabel Lee, Poe’s work is rife with the “if onlys” of lost love and longing. This isn’t to say that all creative work must contain angst or fantasy; certainly much great poetry, art, and creation has been produced from the images and occurrences of “average” life (see Billy Collins). However, to exclude the questions mentioned above from the creative process would result in enormous detriment.

As artists, the need for us to pose and answer creative inquiries is great, and perhaps no two questions are more idea-inducing than these. Fellow writers and makers, delve into your what-if and if-only moments. Your Kubla Khan or your Raven may be waiting just around the next question.