life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

More than Organisms

vitruvian-300-333Recently, 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.

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, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized

On starting small

Earlier this year, brilliant mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in a car wreck. Nash’s work and life were the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard in the early 2000s. Like many moviegoers, I too was touched and inspired by Nash’s biography (even if it was “adapted” for film). His humble West Virginia origins, his battle with personal demons, and his eventual rise to academic and economic prominence spoke to audiences everywhere.

A Beautiful Mind scene, courtesy of Universal Pictures
Martin Hansen, played by Josh Lucas in the foreground, engages in some party snobbery toward John Nash (Russell Crowe), at left.

Recently, one scene from Howard’s movie replayed in my head as I encountered a situation similar to one faced by Nash early on in the film: Upon his arrival at Princeton after receiving a substantial scholarship, Nash is confronted by Martin Hansen during a reception. Hansen indicates that he “simply assumed [Nash was] the waiter,” due to his appearance. This barbed condescension is a hallmark of the early Nash-Hansen competitive relationship as portrayed in the film.

People from small towns or rural upbringings often face this kind of slight, even today. I grew up in a town of 3,500 people. Everyone knew everyone else, and the main vocation was agriculture. So, when I eventually moved to a city of 35,000 people (and growing), I felt as though I’d made my home in a more metropolitan area. Even though the culture here is still one of welcoming and warmth (see prior posts), my city has many markers of being a larger, slightly more urban place than many of Florida’s smaller map dots.

While I was serving as a guest lecturer at an area university some months ago, a student I met had the audacity to insinuate that small to mid-sized cities are undeserving of artists in residence or poets laureate. His contention was that only large cities and crowded urban areas should pay attention to literary and arts-related matters, because, after all, creative gifts can only thrive in such a vast and populous setting. There was more “talent” to choose from, he indicated, and more educated people inhabiting the big cities.

So, let me set the record straight, if only to repudiate this student’s erroneous assumptions. Many highly educated and erudite individuals choose to be country-dwellers, suburbanites, and big city expatriates (I’d supply a list, but it would be far too long). Their decision is made not because they desire to be “bigger fish in smaller ponds,” but because they desire a truer sense of community, a safe and clean place to raise a family, or maybe because they hold dear the virtues that modestly populated areas often embrace. In the end, there are several reasons to eschew the hustle and bustle of the sky-scraped city, especially if one is an artist. Certainly, there are benefits to larger metropolises, just as there are drawbacks. And yes, arts and culture do thrive there in most cases.

However, assuming ignorance or lack of refinement exists solely in smaller towns or mid-sized cities is the height of arrogant urban imperialism. I believe that Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, and John Nash would agree, for starters. And for me, smaller places yield bigger ideas. It is not by accident that Richard Hugo encouraged poets to seek out “triggering towns” that seemed to be more tight-knit communities.

I’m not attempting to prescribe small-town living to those accustomed to bigger cities, nor am I advocating one particular mode of residency. But I do know that, for my creative purposes, small and medium places work. Those who denigrate them, somewhat ironically, need only a broader mind.

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, publishing, teaching, writing

Television Appearance

So here was a first: My interview with local literati member Jane Waters-Thomas: Writers Den

Lessons learned:

  1. When doing an author interview, never resign oneself to a chair that tilts backward, making you push every ounce of your neck flesh out from under your face. The camera already adds 15 pounds; don’t make it worse with posture.
  2. Avoid using verbal fillers like “if you will” and random catch-all adjectives.
  3. Know when to SHUT UP. There’s a fine line between adding details and bloviating.
  4. Keep your eyes on the host, or on one of a few select spots around the set. Too much eye-shifting seems disingenuous.
  5. Read the text that’s in your book, even if you’ve changed it in a later, better draft. Avoid creating cognitive dissonance.

There you have it. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably lose the tie, also. But we all live and learn, I suppose. Hopefully I get another shot at TV sometime — I liked the format, and I truly appreciated the opportunity to get the word out about my writing and teaching. And now that I know what NOT to do, I’d love another shot at speaking to an audience through broadcast. Great conversations are always welcome!

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).