Recently I’ve been expanding my cadre of skills, and as part of that ambition, I’ve started teaching poetry courses on Skillshare, a site where people quite literally share their skills. My first session is a “Reader’s Digest” version of a larger workshop I usually do for Firehouse Cultural Center, and it features photographic poetry prompts from my good friend Jim Futrell. (It’s also free, so no risk if you hate it) 🙂
I’m providing a link to my first attempt at this in the hopes that some of you will take a look at my ekphrastic poetry guidance and try out the exercise that I’ve posted there. It should be fun! Here you go:
In a few days, I’ll be headed to the dairy state of Wisconsin. I’ve never been there before, and this time, I’m going to be leading poetry workshops, giving craft talks, and even leading a fishing expedition and playing a little guitar (see prior blog entries for details).
While my wife has family in Wisconsin, my impressions of it have been largely shaped by a public school education and media stereotypes: I expect a place where the Packers are revered, cows are in abundance, “Butter Burgers” are considered a delicacy, and the English is tinged with a certain Nordic-based dialect. It will be interesting to see how my expectations are met or disproved.
One thing that I’m most looking forward to is the change of perspective that always accompanies travel. It’s nice to enter that head-space where everything is different and new, where you feel like an observer and guest instead of a traffic-slogging native just trying to survive the daily grind. Travel always means renaissance — a new beginning for thought and creativity.
It will also be nice to go somewhere that requires a shorter flight and a shorter drive. As much as I enjoyed (and was changed by) my family’s adventure to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016, I merely tolerated the 16-hour flight it necessitated. My sons were champs about it, and my wife loves anything that means an excursion is underway. Me? Not so much. I like leg room and unlimited mobility.
And my Wisconsin experience is not slated to be “the norm:” I won’t be visiting The Dells or posing alongside statues of football greats. Instead, I will be in isolated community (a seeming oxymoron, I know, but stay with me). My fellow writers and I will be housed at the Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center, which is a pastoral setting deep in the woods. I’ll be near Trout Lake (which I hope lives up to its name), and the feeling of the whole experience will be significantly more tranquil than touristy.
So, here’s hoping that this brief time away yields some much-needed mental clutter removal and a little broader understanding of our country, as well. Just as my earlier summer sojourn into Appalachia allowed me some solitude for literary endeavors, this adventure should reignite my teaching passion while presenting chances to reflect. I plan to keep accounts of my trip here, so stay tuned…
There’s been a lot of bad press about Catholicism lately, but then, there’s been bad press about pretty much anything having to do with God, religion, or faith, so that stands to reason. Anytime the media get a whiff of something potentially salacious or scandalous, it becomes a headline (I should know; I started out as a newspaper reporter many years ago). And this isn’t to excuse the egregious behaviors of offenders; victims deserve to be heard and justice deserves to be rendered in cases where horrors occurred. But I’d like to take a moment to take a look at the redeeming side of a denomination not my own.
I was born in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida the day after America’s Bicentennial. Forty-one years and three months prior to that event, my stepdad (who recently passed away) was also born there. The lovely Catholic hospital had crucifixes in every room, and the presence of nuns was a silent reassurance to patients including my mother, who was and is a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. So, my life began as a consequence of Catholic benevolence, among other factors.
Fast-forward 10 years. I am sitting in my fifth grade class, and it is the last time school will appeal to me until I hit age 30. The reason I still semi-like school in 1986 is mostly because of my teacher, a phenomenal educator/second-mom who happened to be Catholic. Even with all my issues (and there were many), I was still treated by her as though I had rich potential for great things — musically, creatively, and academically. In her fair but compassionate eyes, she saw a student who desired attention, so she made me the “leader” of class songs. She saw a boy who was drawn to more sensitive endeavors like story writing, so she gave me time to pursue them. My school life was made more tolerable, even enjoyable, because of a Catholic educator who chose to work in a rural public school as her mission field.
Jump now to my adulthood: While attaining two graduate level degrees in subjects I actually like (education and creative writing), I attend the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a city populated by statues of St. Francis on numerous corners and where the famed Loretto Staircase is found. The workshop is run by IMAGE Journal, whose editor at that time was (and still is?) Catholic. I am attending the workshop on a scholarship, donated generously by a local Catholic family. Without their assistance, I would have been sitting at home, twiddling a number two pencil, and wishing I could be among like-minded poets.
While I’m at The Glen, I meet a charming woman who is in the process of becoming a Franciscan Sister. We chat over matters ranging from theology to literature, and we participate in workshops that refine our writing while celebrating faith. I attend a homily given by a Benedictine monk, and it makes me think deeply, reflect upon my own beliefs, and inquire further.
Another year passes, and the woman I met at The Glen is now a full-fledged Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She messages me online to tell me that America magazine (a Catholic publication) is holding a poetry contest. She thinks my work might be a good fit. I submit a little something. My poem “Skeletal Prayer” takes runner-up, and I’m elated. The news of the win comes at a time when I’m thinking about abandoning poetry altogether, so I keep going. What’s more, my financial adviser sees the poem and sends me hearty congratulations. Life is good and getting better.
And now, to the present: In 10 days, I will be presenting poetry workshops and craft talks at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Retreat Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. This invitation to teach and write is the result of meeting the aforementioned Franciscan Sister some years ago. It should be an interesting time; I’m learning what a Taize service is (since I’ll be playing a little guitar for it), and again I find myself standing at the intersection of Faith, Art, and Mystery. I can hardly wait to try my hand at this new experience.
My life has been repeatedly and favorably influenced by Catholic forces well beyond my control. As I teach my college students Flannery O’Connor short stories and draw inspiration from minds like G.K. Chesterton, I’m reminded that, even though my Protestantism may be firmly intact, it is only because of Catholicism that my birth, my education, and my literary life have been what they are. And for that truth, I am continually grateful.
For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.
Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.
I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.
And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.
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.