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.
When I was a younger man, I desperately wanted to be the next Ernest Hemingway of poetry: a rugged outdoorsman and adventurer extraordinaire who happened to scribble meaningful words. I think every writer goes through that phase sooner or later. George Saunders, for example, regularly confesses to a time in his life when he was striving for his prose to mimic that of “Papa.”
I haven’t fought any bulls or driven any ambulances overseas, and surprisingly enough, even though I reside in the Sunshine State, I have never landed a giant blue marlin (or any other large saltwater fish, for that matter). However, once in a great while, I encounter an opportunity that combines Hemingway’s two great loves: travel (usually in natural settings) and writing.
Such was the case in 2016, when I spent 16 days in Lisbon, Portugal. From the food to the language to the music to the memorable landmarks, that city and its surrounding areas made me feel like the reincarnation of some Lost Generation member — enjoying the days and nights in a European setting, chatting casually about artistic concerns with like-minded others. Even now, certain Lisboan influences still enter my work from time to time.
And this summer presents a similar (though more domestic) opportunity. For one week in early summer, I will be attending a writer’s retreat in the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee. The natural splendor of the area combined with solitude should produce some favorable results. My plan is to work on poetry for half the week and prose for the other half, but we’ll see what the muses have in mind. I have two manuscripts in the works, and there’s no telling where creative isolation may lead.
Another perhaps more Hemingway-esque event that I’ll be helping lead this summer can be found at the Marywood Writers Retreat in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. While there in July, I’ll be leading poetry workshops and also serving as an unofficial fishing guide — A “fish with the poet” event has been planned, and, having never fished in Wisconsin previously, I’m excited by the prospect. Granted, I’ve caught plenty of bass, bluegill, sunfish, catfish, and other freshwater species south of the Mason-Dixon, but that’s a whole other world, from what I’ve been told. (Note to anglers — please feel free to drop good fishing advice in the comments section below if you’ve got it. I’ll trade you my “best” poetry advice.)
But whether I’m reeling in the big one or attempting to pen a masterpiece, I am hopeful that the spirit of Hemingway — the spirit that seizes the world by its lapels — will work its magic. And I hope that you too, reader, will find joy and inspiration as warmer months finally arrive. To good times and good writing: Cheers!
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.
Writing 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.
My new book, Hard Inheritance, was just submitted to the publisher! I’m pleased to announce that this latest collection, 60 poems strong, will be available in 2017. Launches are being scheduled, and news of times and places will come soon. Also, I’ll be posting sales links and sites in the future for those who like to patronize both electronic and brick-and-mortar vendors.
I’m especially pleased to share Five Oaks Press publication with the likes of Julie Hensley (another Disquiet International Literary Program alum), and the inimitable Peter Murphy. I am also pleased to announce that this latest collection has blurbs from some of the best-known and most respected voices in poetry today. See below for a free preview:
The poems in Hard Inheritance are set firmly in the poet’s “ancestral terrain” of small-town Florida. The landscape is lovingly but unsentimentally brought to the page, and it is peopled by the poet’s family, friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners, with “the calm assurance of traveled/trails with familiar footholds.” These truly are “songs sculpted by home’s hard structures.”
~Andrew Hudgins, National Book Award Finalist and author of The Joker: A Memoir, American Rendering: New and Selected Poems and other critically acclaimed works
What is architecture, without its inhabitants? “In our heart pine handmade farm house, / my grandparents were window weights: // cast iron bars tethered in country wood, / plumb and place-holding pendulums.” What is a field, without the hands that tend it? In Hard Inheritance, John Davis Jr. recognizes the potent ecosystems of everyday life, as in “What the Grove Knows”: “Stirred soil lifts its secrets to the sky. / Revealed and overturned crickets / invite snowy egrets who eat them.” Readers will enjoy taking a joy ride on an untethered dock, hunting down poisonous white frogs, harvesting worms before a father and son’s angling expedition, and hand-nestling one newspaper section into another before the morning’s delivery. Yet these poems resist mere nostalgia; the author’s voice is attentive, conversational, and wise to how class shapes the landscape at hand. Given graceful and balanced stanzas, consonance of word choice, and the unexpected glimmer of a pantoum, I admire both Davis’s rigors of craft and vitality of spirit.
John Davis Jr.’s Hard Inheritance offers us a fine collection of well-built poems. Vivid images drawn from Florida’s flora and fauna, the pressures and rewards of family life, and work ranging from the orange grove to the printing press balance Davis Jr.’s heart-breaking restraint and precise diction. Heir in part to Seamus Heaney and to Claudia Emerson, Davis Jr. has made of his literary and literal ancestry a singular twenty-first century voice.
~John Hennessy, author of Coney Island Pilgrims, poetry editor of The Common
I’m eager to post a cover image here, so keep your eye peeled! Thank you all for your support of my continued work. Your readership makes it all possible!
If you read these posts regularly, you know I’m not in the habit of asking for things. I believe that people read what I write because they want to receive something, not necessarily give something. But today I approach all of my site followers with a simple request.
This year, my creative writing students will be writing and making (binding) their own novellas. For that to happen, we need a bunch of supplies. In fact, more supplies than my little department budget will allow me to afford. To address this issue, I’ve started a DonorsChoose page that allows my friends, family, followers, and others to donate to this cause.
I’d deeply appreciate any donations you can offer. They don’t have to be big. In fact, if each follower of this blog gave $1, I’d reach my goal by day’s end. If you are fortunate enough to be able to give more, please do so. My student writers are incredibly gifted, and they deserve this opportunity.
To help out these budding Hemingways, Dickinsons, and Shakespeares, please follow this link:
Recently, I attended a lecture by a respected writer who posited that we should write about the obscene, the vulgar, the disgusting, and the revolting. He said that his logic for this encouragement depended not upon shock value, but rather, upon the notion that all such things were true. Specifically, he called writers in the seminar to write about their bodily functions, sexual encounters, hidden diseases, and sources of physical shame. This, he said, would lead to writing that was absolute truth, and would liberate writers from their self-consciousness. Likewise, such writing would reach an audience that has apparently been searching for such literature — in his mind, there exists a group of people who want to know that others do, in fact, excrete waste, cavort recklessly, and wrestle with modern-day plagues (and desire to read about it). Perhaps so.
My response to the notion that we should write ugliness, though, is this: We are more than organisms, and because we are, we should elevate ourselves and our art above the crass. This statement is not intended as condescension or old-school literary snobbishness, but, somewhat ironically, as a statement of truth. Stay with me here:
As the leaders of all other species, and as cognitive, reflective, intellectually astute creatures, we should use our creative and mental faculties in the most supreme way possible. Keats was not wrong when he equated truth with beauty, even though his definition may have been an oversimplification. Yes, there is more to truth than just beauty, but as highly developed beings, we should seek the best and finest truths rather than those which debase or denigrate. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and countless others (including the Romantics) have reached this conclusion well before our time.
To write about subjects primitive, desperate, and scatological can sometimes be a fun and bawdy diversion, but devoting oneself to these lesser ideas renders literature into the equivalent of monkey-flung feces, to borrow an image from the aforementioned speaker. Some will call this assertion elitism, and maybe it is. But if we are to leave a legacy of thought, shouldn’t we aspire to greatness rather than the sewer? Shouldn’t we leave behind something more than our literal behind?
All this theoretical explication probably won’t change the downward spiral of gutter-dwelling “literature” that is being written. I get that. But if one person lifts clearer eyes to consider things less coarse, less brutal, and less detestable, then this small epistle hasn’t been in vain. As writers, we don’t have to be Pollyanna, falsely portraying a world that is all sunshine and daisies; in fact, we have an obligation not to. But likewise, we don’t have to decrease our own personal and cultural worth by slinging words that glorify the gross and reprehensible. We are more than organisms.We are wonderfully made, and that wonder should shine in all we write.