It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.
As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.
But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?
I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.
Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.
I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.
Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.
America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.
Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.
As I begin to conclude my time as faculty at Word and Community: A Writers Retreat, I feel it would be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and gained here. The following are a few lessons I’ve taken from a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods with other writers:
1.) One’s creative impulse and personal faith are two halves of a larger whole. They work integrally with one another and often simultaneously.
2.) Solitude is great, but like everything else, it demands balance. Being by oneself for reflection and contemplation must be counter-weighted by relationship and interaction with others. Too much time in either community or isolation can be detrimental to creativity.
3.) Being on a body of water opens the mind’s gateway to metaphor, analogy, and critical perspective. The physical supplements the metaphysical when paddling a craft.
4.) Nature is necessary to allow the processing of events, truths, and ideas from our lives. Clarity is fostered by trees, trails, and the wild.
5.) We must go in order to return. Away is anywhere not home. Seeking simplicity through complexity leads one back to the familiar and the cherished. And these ideas are also interrelated.
In retrospect, I probably would not have had the time to better understand my craft and my self without this week in the woods. It has allowed me to write, edit, revise, teach, and most of all, relax. I’ve met others I won’t soon forget, eaten differently (and more nutritiously) than I usually would, and cleared away a number of mental cobwebs.
Tomorrow, I will return my rental car, board an airplane, and resume life as husband, dad, educator, and leader. But for these final hours, it’s nice to hear the wind through the pines, watch the ripples on Trout Lake, and hear the bird songs of a place unlike my native Florida. But it will also be good to get back there. Farewell, Wisconsin.
Once upon a time, there was a poet. He was ambitious, as poets happen to be, and he was terribly concerned with making a name for himself. All day every day, he sat around thinking about what his literary legacy would be, and how future generations would look back upon his work.
This was pretty funny, considering his work had only been carried in a dozen or so literary journals of modest reputation, and his first book had been bought by only a handful of family and friends. Nonetheless, Poet was quite certain that one day, his rhymes and stanzas would wind up in the hands of adoring students who would romanticize his life, documentary-style, and he would receive the reverential treatment of other great canonized writers.
Driven by his lust for immortality and renown, Poet began assembling his most recently published works into a collection. He’d already self-published one book (see “bought only by family and friends” above), and he’d even gone to a terribly expensive liberal arts college to earn the coveted MFA — which he reminded people regularly was a “terminal degree.” So he knew how to put a poetry collection together and how to find a publisher.
When the day came to submit his manuscript, Poet was shaking with excitement. He sent the book to publishers great and small, hoping oh so adamantly that one would see the merit and value in his clever diction and intense imagery. As luck would have it, one did!
This publisher was a very good publisher, too. The press had a 40-year history of getting poets’ work in front of readers and libraries alike, and much of the poetry it published was like that of our hero. Joy and elation filled Poet’s mind! How great! How rewarding! He could hardly wait to hold this new book in his hands. The manager of the press was very kind, and the cover art for his book was beautiful. Likewise, the pagination, the formatting, and the production quality of the book were all incredible. Before the book hit the presses, the kindly publisher had advertised its arrival through major outlets, and critics were eager to read it. Poet was as happy as he had ever been. The book sold several hundred copies, a very positive return for a new book of poems from a virtually unknown author.
As months passed, however, Poet began to think too highly of himself. After all, his work had now been published in “better” venues with bigger names, and established writers had been singing Poet’s praises. Surely he deserved to have his work seen and appreciated by people beyond his geographic region.
“London!” Poet exclaimed. “I must have my work published in London!”
The warm light of Big Ben flashed in his mind along with scenes of major publishing houses he had seen in magazines and in movies. If only he could find his own! London became an obsession — even England would do, if not the capital city. After all, the home of Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Donne would certainly benefit from his writing as well. He was just as deserving as they, he told himself.
More of his poetry was picked up by magazines, contests, and anthologies (thanks somewhat to the book that had been put out by his good former publisher), and soon, Poet had a whole new manuscript ready to go. Rather than sending the book to his highly proficient previous publisher, though, Poet decided to go a different route (aside: consider this part “going off the path in the woods”, a la Goldilocks).
An English publisher had recently set up shop, and the manager of that press approached Poet. “What a nice manuscript you have there,” said the British publisher in exquisite queen’s English. “Wouldn’t it be delightful to have it turned into a book? I’m very qualified.” Publisher licked his lips and his eye gleamed.
“Yes! Yes!” Poet shouted without a moment’s hesitation. “My book will be published in [gasp] Europe!”
And so, Poet handed over his work, a collection of award-winning poems previously published in reputable magazines. New Publisher extended his claws, clasped the manuscript greedily, and slithered back to the deep, dark woods of unknown England.
Some months later, a book from Hickshire, UK arrived. Its interior was on cheap, plain white pages, many of the poems had been incorrectly printed, and the back-cover blurbs from prestigious members of the literary community were barely visible due to New Publisher’s poor design sense. Poet’s dream of overseas publication was becoming a nightmare. He could hardly believe his eyes! Moreover, New Publisher had not done anything for publicity or marketing of Poet’s newest manuscript, and so no one knew about it, aside from people who knew Poet already. It sold maybe 100 copies, and many of those purchases were “pity sales,” people who felt so badly for Poet that they bought copies just to ease his suffering.
If only he could undo this decision; if only he could go back in time and send this precious manuscript to a publisher that he knew would treat it professionally and artistically. But alas, it was too late. Poet’s bad decision would now haunt him forever, even when, in a few short months, New Publisher closed its doors leaving all its writers in the lurch, including Poet. What was he to do now?
With a humbled spirit and a wiser perspective, Poet began working on fresh poems. He sent them out to magazines, contests, and other venues, and soon, many of them found loving homes. In a few years, Poet had regained the ground he’d lost due to his own hubris. Editors recognized his name, contest judges identified his work by its unique style, and fellow writers appreciated his judicious perspectives. However, this time, Poet kept his ego in check. As the acceptances poured in and the award nominations mounted, Poet began assembling another collection. And this time, he swore he would not be lured off course by the promise of exotic publication.
Upon finishing the last pages of the book, he humbly submitted it exclusively to the publisher he’d known before — the one who had so richly contributed to his prior successes and victories. There, his newest book received a warm reception and all the editorial attention it deserved. The kind publisher was elated to see Poet return! The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller in the poetry category, it received multiple accolades and awards, and everyone lived happily ever after. THE END.
The moral of this story, boys and girls, is not to let your pride go before a fall. Beware the wolves and snakes of the publishing industry who capitalize on self-important people. Avoid falling prey to the traps and snares that Poet encountered, and you too will be wiser and happier all your livelong days.
I’ve written before about how this year will be one where I spend some time in other locales for the good of my writing (see “My Hemingway Summer” — an earlier post on this blog). When I travel even short distances for writing purposes, my brain begins making observations and connections that it typically doesn’t make during my everyday routine. For example, during residencies for University of Tampa’s MFA program, I would find deeper significance in even the tiniest of details around me. A pile of bricks I passed daily on my way to workshop became a poem. The creak in the stairs of Plant Hall wound up documented in another piece. Every minute detail seemed to come alive with literary potential.
1.) Small pocket notebook with cheap ballpoint pen: I stole this idea from one of my mentors, Peter Meinke. He has always advised poets young and old to carry something with them to record inspirations. First lines, striking images, and clever turns of phrase are just a few of the things I find myself scribbling into my small pocket notebook, and that happens more frequently when I travel.
2.) White, college-ruled legal pad and good fountain pen: When the inspiration strikes and the ideas are flowing into developed, coherent stanzas, this set of tools becomes my go-to. Whether I’m at a hotel room desk, a coffee shop, or in the middle of the woods, the old standby of writing by hand on a good, stiff pad remains an important part of my creative process. I may have mentioned it a time or two previously, but for fountain pens, I prefer Waterman Phileas models. A good ink in a unique color also helps — see Levenger.
3.) The latest copy of Poets and Writers magazine: When the muse has cooled and I’m thinking about more logistical matters (where to submit, what contests to enter, etc.), I like to peruse the pages of P&W. Their interviews are excellent, their prompts timely, and their resources consistently useful. Maybe it’s a Luddite reflex to prefer the paper copy of the magazine to the digital version, but it’s nice to be able to annotate, highlight, and even tear out pages when needed.
4.) A traveling library of a few essentials: There are some poets whose work manages to inspire me again and again: Robert Wrigley, Rodney Jones, Claudia Emerson, Maurice Manning, Kevin Young, and C.D. Wright, to name just a few. I usually pack a few volumes of poetry I admire to look over when I’m between sessions. Sometimes I read them for leisure, and other times I’m performing serious critical analysis. Either way, they work their magic.
5.) Technology? Well, maybe just a little… Before anyone gets the idea that I scribble monastically on parchment with a quill, let me say that I like my tablet-laptop combo as much as the next guy. But I try to steer clear of the screen as much as possible when traveling for writing purposes. Only when I’m truly ready to create a final draft of something or when I feel that courtesy dictates I should check email do I return to the glowing square of distraction. In the evenings when there’s time, I might post a few social media updates just to keep friends happy. But the whole notion of getting away is, well, getting away. I don’t even use the same brand of soap I do at home when I’m on the road. I want a complete contrast with my normal life. Toward this end, I also abandon unnecessary technology use. It cuts down on procrastination, and it lets me see the world around me more organically.
So, there you have it. Five things (or groups of things) I tend to carry with me on writing adventures. I’d be interested to hear in the comments what items you just can’t live without when you attend a retreat, conference, workshop, or seminar. Do you prefer a particular brand of coffee? Is there a doodad or whatnot you superstitiously pack? Whatever it is, I wish you great travels and great writing in the future. Here’s hoping for a highway full of words to fill our pages.
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!
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.