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In today’s literary community, aspiring toward a more traditional type of success has been replaced by a phobia about being “too mainstream.”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.

Advertisements
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

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).

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

On Acceptances and Patience

OsceolaTurkeyGobblerinColorAs a much younger writer, I once composed a short story based upon one hunting trip I took with my grandfather. On that trip, I shot a young jake (turkey) with almost no beard, and moments later, a huge flock of larger turkeys came strutting by, including one with an earth-dragging beard. As hunting camp guests, we were limited to one bird, and these bigger ones had long spikes on their legs and weighed nearly double what my quarry did. The point of the story was supposed to be “good things come to those who wait,” but in retrospect, the amateur creative nonfiction probably missed its mark.

I thought back on that story today, though, as I received an acceptance for my manuscript Middle Class American Proverb. The book is an 85-page collection of poems based upon rural life in old Florida and its highs and lows, among other topics. Understand: I graduated from the MFA program at University of Tampa in January, and since that time, I’ve been waiting for a publisher to accept this hard-worked collection of poems which I produced as my creative thesis. I had widely submitted it  long before I graduated, starting last fall. It’s been entered into contests, shopped around to academic and small presses around the country, and generally plastered everywhere I could find a spot for it in the literary community.

Many of my fellow writers wait far longer than just a few months to receive those magic words, “Your manuscript has been accepted.” In today’s market especially, poetry is not a big seller, as it is purchased mostly by other poets, literary critics, and academics. To get a volume of poetry accepted by a press, even a small one, is a near-miraculous feat. Making the process worse is that seemingly interminable period between submission and the yea or nay of publishers. As the old song says, waiting is the hardest part. Indeed.

Now, as the manuscript has found a home and the edits begin, I can breathe a little easier. Colleges and universities smile more favorably on applicants with a book or two under their belt, and the old notion of “publish or perish” still thrives at serious institutions around the country. I am incredibly grateful to my publisher, Negative Capability Press of Mobile, Alabama, for their interest in and attention to what I consider my masterpiece (thus far).

It is incredibly gratifying when editors and publishers recognize the labor and serious thought that you as an artist have invested into a work. And certainly this collection, by far, has received the best parts of my work and creativity. As the edits fall into place and the book comes to life from its manuscript form, I can hardly wait to see it emerge as the book I’ve always dreamed it to be. The process, I know, will be long. It will require the patience of a seasoned turkey hunter — or maybe that of a more experienced writer. Either way, I’m ready. This time, the first offer is one worth taking. Bigger “birds” might be out there, but this one is just right.

negcappress

poetry, Uncategorized

Going Organic — A Floridian Perspective

grove0001
A view of our grove from the top of our barn, January 1996. As a younger poet, I spent a great deal of time “pondering” from the old barn roof. This vista was my first real point of inspiration.

My family runs a citrus farm in south central Florida. My grandfather, who died in late 2004, began it well before my mother was born.

It isn’t a very big grove; only about 20 acres. We grow pineapple variety oranges, which are considered by the industry a “juice orange.” You won’t find our fruit in commercials for OJ, because they aren’t “table fruit,” meaning they aren’t the kind of oranges one puts in a bowl to make a centerpiece.

Now in Florida, we have another blow dealt to our crop: Citrus Greening. This disease causes the fruit to wither into hard little knots, and it causes trees to diminish in foliage and abundance. As bad as citrus canker was in the 1980s and before, greening now threatens family farms like ours even more. This disease, caused by a foreign phyllid, has brought Florida Citrus to its knees. As legislators and agricultural experts figure out what to do next, Florida orange groves are dying away, acre by acre. Ours is no different, unfortunately. Government officials have worked hard to get funding to eradicate greening, but it may not happen fast enough. No more 100 percent Florida orange juice is a very close and real possibility. Greening could mean the end of not only a product, but also a long line of family traditions, as well. Current farmers looking to pass on the family business may soon be without a family business at all.

I explain all this to raise another point, however: In the midst of the great greening crisis our state is undergoing, many farmers, including my family, are examining organic farming practices with greater intensity. No-till farming and other ideas are being investigated for their potential benefit, and 21st Century agriculturists are learning that the chemicals we relied upon for decades are doing more harm than good, especially in dealing with greening.

Poetry, much like citrus farming, equally demands a more organic approach as we enter a new era in literature. No longer can the writer be satisfied with language that sounds self-important and inflated; the words must flow, and there must be balance among the elements, just as sustainable agriculture requires the right balance of water, sunlight, and food. Too much alliteration or metaphor, and the verses will perish. Too little editing or revising, and the end product will be as hard and withered as a greening-affected orange.

It seems a little selfish to focus on writing artfully amid such a dangerous situation for family farms. But maybe, just maybe, some of the same practices that poets and artists employ on paper can be used by our scientific community to save our citrus — sometimes, the new, radical, and unconventional solution is exactly what a piece of writing needs. And perhaps that’s what our oranges need as well.

If you’d like to get involved in the fight against greening, please write your congressional representatives, and search online for ways that you may be able to help. Keep American Agriculture strong! Thank you for listening, and thank you for reading.