life, poetry, writers, writing

In Praise of Being “Mainstream”

The Cast of


As a kid growing up in the 80s, my television family was the Seavers, not the Cleavers. Every boy my age wanted to be Kirk Cameron (Mike Seaver of Growing Pains), or maybe Michael J. Fox, who played Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. Shows like these made it seem cool to be like those families and their kids, for certain.

In today’s literary community, aspiring toward a more traditional type of success has been replaced by a phobia about being “too mainstream.” I was reading an article just the other day by a respected author who lamented that her life was “becoming too mainstream,” which she defined by tasks like going to the grocery store, washing dishes, and tending to the relationships beneath her roof.

Sadly, being responsible and attempting to live a reasonable, self-sufficient life are both ideas that have been denigrated by various media in recent years. The notions that we should work ethically, raise a family, seek advancement in a single field, and aspire toward something greater than self-satisfaction are frowned upon by a vocal minority. There are those, after all, who believe such ideas to be too old-fashioned, too whitebread, or too puritanical for the twenty-first century.

But this isn’t a political post. I’m here to defend the value of the mainstream in our literature, specifically. There is beauty in the common, after all, and while socio-cultural activists may be trying their hardest to redefine what constitutes “the norm,” Joe and Jane Average still know that their lives — complete with light bills, plumbing repairs, and runny noses — have wonder, merit, and poetry in their seemingly mundane routines. Eschewing the everyday limits the scope and reach of our literature.

What’s more, by omitting mainstream details, artists portray a fallacious picture of what our world is really like: Rather than giving readers honest visions of life, many are seeking shock value, or perhaps some abstract, inauthentic version of their environment. In the end, both of these motives generate lies — creative, occasionally beautiful lies, perhaps, but lies nonetheless. While I’m no Realist (artistically speaking), I also don’t believe that writers should fear the mainstream. Give us the sidewalk cracks, the wasps and overdue notices in the mailbox, the wiffle ball stuck in the backyard oak tree. There is poetry in all these things, and there is life.

Being mainstream, by the way, isn’t all that bad, you’ll find. Parenthood and the obligations of marriage, career, and family life remain sources of great inspiration, just as they did in prior generations. Maybe it’s not new, it’s not avant-garde, and it’s not the “artist thing to do.” But I’ll take it any day over the exotic or the crazy. To be clear, I’m not saying “mainstreaming” is for everyone. However, I am saying that in going about the business of writing, we as authors should not be scared of that which seems standard. For it is the run-of-the-mill that yields the exceptional, the original, and the special. And that, writers, is what we’re after — the diamond in the rough, the pearl inside the oyster, and the rainbow out of the gray. Without the ordinary, there can be no extraordinary.

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poetry, publishing, writers, writing

On the Color of Names

Asian-sounding Pen Name Gets White Guy in Trouble

So, I read the story linked to above from the Washington Post. Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth:

As a plainly named, semi-average white guy, I too have considered using a name that sounds “less Caucasian.” In today’s literary marketplace, it sometimes feels like people with humdrum, plain-Jane names get overshadowed by those without them, no matter what the ethnicity, gender, or background in question may be.

“Oh, to be a Li-Young Lee, a Marina Tsvetaeva, or a Yusef Komunyakaa!” say the Joe Smiths of the writing world. Of course, poets’ names are not their strength (although the aforementioned ones, especially, are impressive and beautiful sounding). It is the authors’ fine work that has earned them their spot in the literary marketplace. Their awards are many, and rightfully so. It is not a matter of name alliteration, length, or origin that has raised them to prominence; it is the quality of their writing, and a strong history of artistic contribution.

Statistics from a number of sources show us that writers from historically underrepresented communities still struggle to get their work in front of readers, and the good folks at Vida: Women in Literary Arts have demonstrated the imbalance between published male writers and their female counterparts. Nonetheless, when one opens a copy of Poets and Writers, AWP Chronicle, and other trade pubs that scribblers like me regularly receive, the most highly publicized writers can seem to be comprised of those with extraordinary and uniquely identifiable names, no matter what their color or creed.

Consider if you will the glossy back cover of the September 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle: There, in a full-color ad for Grand Valley State University’s Poetry Night 2015, are Kwame Dawes and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I wish I could be at the advertised event, not because I want an excuse to form such lovely names more often, but because these are exceptional writers. Inside the back cover, a full-page ad for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (another event I wish I could attend this year) proclaims the presence of Edwidge Danticat, another brand-name poet whose work is as striking as her name, if not moreso. A quick flip through the magazine reveals Nikki Giovanni, Ravi Shankar, Minal Hajratwala, Luisa Igloria, and Natasha Trethewey, among other names like poems.

Admittedly, my name has sometimes raised an editor’s eyebrow or two because “John Davis Jr.” could belong to someone of any number of races. Sure, it’s a white guy’s name, but it could belong to someone of African-American descent, Native American descent, or any one of many other races, I’ve found. A quick run of my name through Google reveals a rainbow of people from all walks of life. Some are realtors, some are doctors, and one even ran for president in 2012. I’ve had editors presume I was African-American because my name reminded them of another famous “Davis Jr.” — Sammy Davis Jr. No joke. I didn’t mind the confusion, nor did I take offense. But then, I’m a member of this country’s majority. My people are not disenfranchised, nor have they faced excessive hurdles in society. And maybe that’s why Michael Derrick Hudson’s decision irks me.

It irks me for the same reasons that dialect-discrimination irks me, actually. I’ve had plenty of people assume over the years (based upon my size, appearance, and Floridian accent) that I am ignorant. “Dumb Southerner” is the label some have attached without knowing my full story. They hear my use of the colloquial “y’all” and jump to their conclusions, which are, ultimately, dead wrong. Yes, my family has farmed for three generations (at least). But we’ve also been educators, doctors, lawyers, professors, and Air Force pilots, just to name a few other roles. I don’t appreciate others assuming we’re hillbillies any more than writers of Asian descent appreciate “Yi-Fen Chou.”

So what’ll it be, Mr. Hudson? You think your name sounds too Anglo-Saxon? Oh, gosh. Better fix that right up. You’ll never get published now. It’s not like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, C.K. Williams, or — let’s go back a ways — Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, or W.B. Yeats have had any luck. I can see your quandary, what with all the illogical repression of white male names and voices, It’s clearly a wonder that your work has managed to see the light of day.

But I get it. I really do. All those delicious-sounding syllables from diverse cultures are out there, just waiting to be exhaled. And they’re tempting. I know they are. That, however, doesn’t make them yours to appropriate. Might I be so bold as to suggest Mr. Hudson read an excellent essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. entitled “What’s In a Name?” I assign it to my students regularly. When you read it, consider yourself Mr. Wilson, Michael. For in essence, you have called Asian and Asian-American writers everywhere “George.” And that’s not okay.

poetry, Uncategorized

The “Cover Reveal:” Just Say No

A word of warning before I begin here: This post is probably going to upset a number of my creative and socially inclined readers. But what you see below must be said.

I will not be holding a “cover reveal” for my upcoming book. If you want to know what the cover looks like, here it is:

johndaviscover (3)

There. It’s revealed. And as happy as I am with this cover (isn’t it COOL?), I don’t feel anything further is warranted. After all, the real meat of this work lies between the covers, and that’s where I’m hoping you’ll look when this volume hits the bookstore shelves soon.

“Why the snarky attitude about cover reveals?” you might ask. Well, here’s the thing: I am a husband, a father, a teacher, and a writer. I serve as a community volunteer and as an active member of my church. My weekends are most often consumed with birthday parties for other people’s kids, lawn maintenance, and the peripheral tasks of education — grading papers, preparing lesson plans, and so forth. My time is valuable, and honestly, unnecessary and entangling social engagements are nothing more than a gigantic time-suck.

Now before my readers accuse me of being some selfish, antisocial hermit, allow me to say that I love a good get-together as much as the next person. Just recently (as you may have read here), I hosted my own chapbook launch for “The Boys of Men,” and it was thankfully well-attended. The food was delicious, the company was wonderful, and the reading was fun and interactive. I sold lots of copies, and was able to make a modest donation to one of my favorite charities who helped host the event.

Why, then, am I against the notion of a cover reveal, in particular? I oppose cover reveals for the same reason that I oppose “gender reveal” events for babies that have not yet arrived: It’s one more thing. That’s right — one more space on the calendar filled with pointless banter and oddly colored punch. We’re all very happy you’re having a boy/girl, but isn’t your fourth baby shower (also inappropriate, might I add) enough? Must you subject us to yet another inane occasion to stand about, idly discussing the weather until you drop a curtain or pop a balloon? Seriously, stop. No more, please.

Authors: Please don’t consume the valuable time of those you know with the literary equivalent of the gender reveal. We know your book has a cover. We’re ecstatic for you, and proud to call you our friend. But to hold people hostage while you unveil a placard is both ludicrous and disrespectful, even if you provide finger sandwiches and fruity beverages. By all means, launch your book. Hold readings. Give lectures and seminars. I’ll be there. It’s an opportunity to learn something, hear something new, and culturally engage. Reveal something more than a shiny piece of plastic, some crackers and a “TA-DA!” Give us your words, give us your work, give us your heart.

poetry, Uncategorized

Business and the Personal

Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com
Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, multi-millionaire chain bookstore owner (played by Tom Hanks), advises small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “It’s just business. It’s not personal. … Recite that to yourself.” Ryan’s character responds with, “Whatever something else is, it should begin by being personal.”

I see the merit in Kathleen Kelly’s sentiment, but having been in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing recently, I think I’m inclined to lean more toward Joe Fox’s approach. Yes, poetry, writing, and book-making are all endeavors that involve a person’s heart, even the soul. However, when it comes time to negotiate about matters like royalties, author’s copies, and similar factors, it’s time to put away the purple prose and break out the spreadsheets and graphs.

Lots of writers don’t want to hear this. They’d rather live in their sheltered creative Xanadu, pondering air castles and planning their next great narrative. On the other hand, rarely does one find publishers who can’t distinguish pragmatics from the emotional. Publishers, for the most part, are able to put aside their feelings and prejudices in favor of their latest project. I recently dealt with a publisher (name omitted intentionally) whose approach to book production was seen not as a creative-commercial enterprise, but rather, as an extension of her/his inner self. The publisher in question viewed the relationship with the writer as an deep emotional bond rather than seeing it primarily as a business arrangement. This person also slammed the work of similar publishers, some of whom he/she had worked with in the past.

As things became increasingly unprofessional, I politely declined the services of this publisher. I attempted to word the rejection softly, as I too have had my fair share of let-downs. In response, I was told that seeking a traditional or academic publisher was “insulting.” There were hurt feelings, apparently, despite my best attempts to avoid such ugliness. As a recent MFA grad seeking an experienced and respected publisher for my creative thesis (a mighty fine collection, if I do say so myself), I really don’t need a business partner who is affronted by every minor exchange.  It’s great to be invested in your craft, whatever that may be. Likewise, it’s necessary to differentiate between an expression of intellect and an expression of love. A consumer decision is not a romance.

Yes, creating (be that writing or publishing) is showing the world a piece of yourself. But when that creation crosses the transom into product, it’s time to evolve into strategist. Even for those of us who’d rather “dwell in possibility,” there must come a time when strictly cognitive and logistical decisions predominate. Once the art is done, business belongs in its proper perspective. Let’s keep it professional.

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies: A new blog entry series

brick All of us have them: Those ingenious revelations that visit us in a state of reverie, near-sleep, or near-awake. The problem comes for many of us when we decide to leverage our big revolutionary ideas in an approachable way for others. Epiphanies, elusive and sometimes seemingly divine, can be a source of pleasure or torture, depending on how we use them.

For the next several blog posts, I plan to highlight different types of epiphanies, and then present one way of leveraging them into applicable plans or products, especially from a writing standpoint. To begin, let’s look at one type of epiphany that regularly strikes the poetic mind: the analogy epiphany.

In this revelation, the poet or thinker is suddenly and shockingly aware of a similarity or relationship between two previously alien things. Usually, the two items in question are comprised of one concrete, tangible thing and one abstraction. For instance, when Robert Burns realized his love was a red, red rose, his writing documented that epiphany. Many may say that this thought lacked originality, as poets had been symbolizing love with roses for centuries. Often though, our own epiphanies are far from original as well. When we begin speaking in similes and metaphors about two previously disparate ideas, you can bet that an analogy epiphany is hard at work forming itself. Our “aha” moments need not escape us, however.

When the analogy epiphany strikes me, my first choice is to dissect the relationship between the two things using a plain, ordinary T-chart. You know the kind: Two columns created by one vertical line intersecting a shorter horizontal line toward the top. One topic goes on the left at the top, one topic goes on the right. From there, I’m able to list qualities, characteristics, and descriptors of the two things and see their similarities and differences with parallel acuity. Sure, this may seem elementary — a Venn Diagram or another instrument may work just as well for visual organization. But by having the two ideas side by side, I’m able to begin a larger process. About five or ten minutes into listing qualities, first lines begin to form inside my mind. I write these down. Maybe I’ll use them, maybe not. More often than not, refined versions of these first lines work their way into my poetry somehow.The two items often create a central metaphor around which the larger piece is built.

By examining relationships between tangentially connected things, the wheels and cogs of the mind begin to naturally create points of commonality that were previously unexplored. These connections are the creators of poetry, as well as products and plans in the business world. The more receptive we become to our analogy epiphanies, the better our world will be. Creators and connectors, keep your minds wide open. More epiphanies to follow.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Integrity: When did it stop mattering?

 Recently, I’ve had more than one run-in with editors and publishers who say they’ll do one thing, and then they don’t. It’s disappointing, not only because my work hangs in the balance, but also because their behavior is indicative of a much larger cultural problem: the loss of character.

At one time, those who broke promises and failed to meet their obligations were castigated by the larger whole of society. People operated with the expectation that when someone said they would do something, it would indeed be done. Accountability was high, and our products and businesses reflected the ideals of quality and honesty. Contracts were a mere formality. But this post is no rant in favor of regression or even reminiscence. It’s a call to activation and engagement.

Today, integrity has become a buzzword for political campaigns and other self-enhancing promotions. We have handed over the mantle of consumer advocacy to organizations and  toothless watchdogs who, in turn, also serve themselves more than the concerned individual. Those who speak up and voice their frustrations are seen as rude or strange, and all the while competitors abroad are seizing on our loss of commercial moral fibre.

Here is my promise to you, readers: I  am awaiting word from at least three different literary magazines that have failed to make good on their publication promises. They have repeatedly missed deadlines, and their response to these infractions has been a sort of beligerent indifference laced with adolescent-sounding excuses. If these editors and publishers continue to fail in the fulfillment of their duties, I will happily publicize their lack of integrity, not only here in this little blog, but also through Duotrope, Submittable,  and other writing-submission-related sites. I do this not out of mean-spirited blackmail, but out of respect for other writers and creators who deserve to have their work treated with professionalism.

Again, I am disappointed that my encounters with these magazines has had to take such an ugly turn. A little bit of character and communication could have gone a long way, but instead, I’m left now with the job of staging a one-man rebellion. I would ask you to join me in this fight. No more laziness, no more dishonesty, no more apathy. It’s time to regain the sense of right that we once demanded. Today is the day to begin.