life, poetry, writers, writing

Bass fishing and Poetry

My sons and I catch a lot of bass. There’s a pond behind our home where we catch them (sometimes over and over again) and then release them. We’ve used lures, live bait, and a whole host of other options. We’ve also caught fish in all four seasons. When the cold weather comes, we just fish deeper to reach the warmer waters where these freshwater species tend to hang out. Welcome to Florida.

But one thing I’ve noticed is true for both poetry writing and bass fishing: The moment you stop trying so hard is the minute success visits. It never fails — if I’m “concentrating” on reeling in a monstrous fish, my line will stay slack for hours at a time. When I’m lost in a daydream about something totally unrelated to fishing, however, suddenly I’ve got more bites and tugs than I could ask for. The same is true for poetic inspiration; if I’m trying to “force it” too much (or be too “literary”), you can bet that future poems will stay safely in the cattails of my mind, away from any lure I may be jiggling to get them to emerge. But if I just go about my ordinary day-to-day tasks, epiphanies will come.

This observation is common among writers I know. When they go to literary retreats, workshops, conferences, and similar venues, they find themselves lacking inspiration, partially because they’re looking for it too hard. Only when we allow ourselves to relax, wander, and flow will we be visited by first lines or great ideas. There’s plenty of research to back this up too: Daniel Pink and other scholars have long known that creativity is maximized by mental ease and comfort rather than stress.

So, what’s the message? In writing as in fishing, let the good things come to you. The biggest bass and the most impressive poems tend to surface when we kick back, watch the clouds, and allow nature to take its course.

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poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Embracing the Idiosyncratic

WIN_20171228_15_08_04_ProWriting is full of superstitions. There are accounts of authors who only use a certain brand of typewriter, who write only at one certain time of day, who sip only one certain brand of coffee or tea with one certain number of creams/sugars/whatevers in it.

Our rituals become nearly religious in their practice. For instance, I prefer to write the first several drafts of a poem with a fountain pen, specifically a Waterman Phileas. I like to fill its charger with ink from a bottle — the color doesn’t really matter so long as it’s not red — and then feel the flow of that ink through a golden nib onto the page of a legal pad (canary or white is of little consequence to me).

But these kinds of minute habits, while important, are more innocuous than the habits we can sometimes abuse in our actual writing. I know I have a few idiosyncrasies in my poetry, and over the years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with each of them. The excessive alliteration, the internal rhyme for no good reason other than the enjoyment of its sound, the Dickinsonian love of dashes — all these and more have been stylistic markers of my work, for better or worse.

And while my MFA program did its best to make me aware of them to the point of eschewing them, I’ve come to another understanding: All the greats have certain idiosyncrasies that critics scolded them for, but in the long run, we find those little habits endearing. Who could  imagine the work of e.e. cummings with capital letters, for instance? Or who could recall the work of Ogden Nash without its insistent whimsy and child-like wordplay? The list goes on, and the remainder of this post could be comprised of famous poets’ strange diction-predilections, but there’s only so much space, and I value your time.

The point is just this — Maybe I’ll stop using those devices that I’ve loved so much and so long, fearing I may “wear them out.” Or maybe, like a comfortable sweatshirt or an old pair of jeans, I’ll keep using them. Maybe I will own them proudly. Being mindful of delicious syllables doesn’t necessarily mean obviating them. In the diet of language, our guilty pleasures can still be consumed (or employed) occasionally, so long as we know not to eat the whole metaphorical pizza. Like everything, diction is a balancing act. Too much or too little of anything can throw things into disorder or disarray. But sometimes, that kind of creative chaos is just what we need. Our little indulgences and idiosyncrasies can lead us to greater authenticity. And as literary history proves, the authentic writers survive long after they’ve passed. Here’s to a great 2018, complete with all the oddities our creative minds return to again and again.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Seeking the China Tree

cypress

Only by climbing to the top of my grandparents’ magnolia could I see it: Far off in the west, craning above a humdrum horizon of pines and oaks, there was what I called “The China Tree.” In retrospect, it was probably just an oddly-shaped cypress, but its shadow pressed against sunsets made me think of Oriental landscapes and scenes from books and paintings I’d encountered as a boy.

While still a child, I vowed to seek the tree one day — I’d strike out on a hike to find its magnificent shape beyond the neighbors’ fields, and rest only once I’d stood at its proud, ancient trunk. The tree was a conquest-in-waiting, a thing of distinct beauty and history beckoning above and well beyond all that was common. And I told myself I would be its discoverer.

From my favorite thinking spot, the barn roof, I couldn’t see the tree’s paisley canopy; there were too many power lines and old chimneys blocking the view. But from the barn’s apex, I could ask myself: How will you know when you’ve found it? My answer as an adolescent was full of hubris — I’ll just know. Something that big, something that rare can’t be easily mistaken.

When I last returned to my grandparents’ farm, my boys and I climbed the old magnolia again, and I noticed that the China Tree was gone. Taken by hurricanes or hungry chainsaws sometime during my adult absence, its silhouette no longer marked the horizon. It saddened me, as I never pursued that quest I’d promised myself, and moreover, my sons would never know that landmark.

Maybe, though, in a more figurative way, I’ve been on the China Tree journey my whole life: I wanted to seek it for its beauty, its history, and its difference from everything around it. Is that not what the life of a poet is?

As one who has chosen the unconventional path toward a goal that many don’t understand, I believe that even today, I am seeking the China Tree. Yes, now it is more symbolic than literal, and maybe it’s a little harder to see — after all, the pines and oaks of grown-up obligations tower thick and high, and some days, it’s tough to discern my target.

Yet the ultimate objective remains the same: Find beauty, find history, find originality. With these missions in mind, I renew myself to the path ahead of me. The China Tree has not yet been fully discovered, and I will stop only once I can rest at its majestic foot. Time to press onward.

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.

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).

Uncategorized

On Slow Progress

Image
photo credit: NCSU

Once when I was fifteen years old, I climbed a waterfall. To be precise, I climbed the rock facing underneath the waterfall. My family and I were in north Georgia at the time, and the trail leading to the falls had ended at a wooden deck-style overlook some distance back, but I was not to be restrained by man-made barriers. As a young man full of vigor and adventure, I knew I could get closer. I had no idea how close I would get…to dying.

At the base of the falls well off the path, I began my steep ascent. The hard rock underbelly of the falls was covered in algae and ferns, and my fingernails dug up green with each new handhold. My hiking boots were not designed for this type of climbing, but they held fast to the slick and treacherous surface. Their cleats, too, ripped into the carpet of greenery. Each move was a calculated, deliberate decision. My pulse was racing, my stomach flooded with adrenaline. Still, I was too deep into the task to go back, and had I wanted to, I probably couldn’t have. I decided to see this venture through with discernment and strength. Even with caution, though, bad things happen.

As I neared the top of the falls, the gush and roar of the waters above me became near-deafening. I knew I’d have to veer to one side of the overflow or the other. The problem I now faced was inexperience — as an untrained and unfamiliar climber, I knew how to go up, but beyond that one direction, my movement was limited. I’d have to go straight through the water to reach the top. I summoned my most courageous breath, and felt the current strike the crest of my scalp. I pushed upward, caught a face full of water, and fell backward.

It was a surprisingly short fall — unlike those dreams where one seems to descend for eternity before waking with a jolt, this fall scraped my chin and chest on the rock outcropping, and in the midst of the peril, my fingers and boot-treads made one last grasp to the surface. I had enough purchase to shove my way up the right side of the falls, and eventually, I found myself standing at their apex, looking back down the long trail of white and the brutal path beneath it. Around me, mountain laurel were in bloom, and I could see our campsite in the distance. The victory at last was mine, and a hard lesson was learned. My chin was still bleeding. I covered it with my bare hand, and walked in the direction of camp.

I thought of this experience recently as I was growing impatient with other life circumstances. As regular readers know, I have a book forthcoming this summer, and my career is in a state of flux as I attempt to transition from secondary to post-secondary teaching. The end of the school year is upon us, and I’m generally discontent with waiting. The waterfall climb of my youth was one made with persistence, care, decisiveness, and bravery. As I think back on it, I recognize traits that I now need as the next chapter of my biography is only a few pages away. And while I may experience a “slip” or two along the way, I understand that, like surmounting any great obstacle, judicious patience remains key.