poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Embracing the Idiosyncratic

WIN_20171228_15_08_04_ProWriting 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.

Advertisements
poetry, publishing, writers, writing

The Personal Touch Still Matters

“This is a very, very fine poem. I just wanted to call you and let you know that we’ll be including it in our July issue. Thank you for sending it to us.” …And my day was made.

It isn’t every day one receives a phone call from the editor of a literary journal, especially one as busy as The American Journal of Poetry, founded and operated by Robert Nazarene (who called me) and James Wilson. Readers may recognize these two esteemed gentlemen as the former editors of MARGIE, a literary magazine that was legendary in its time for inclusion of high-quality and award-winning material.

Their July issue of AJP will include such renowned poetry giants as Mark Jarman, Alice Friman, and Tony Hoagland — and it will also include yours truly. The fact that my work is being published alongside these poets and others I deeply respect would have been enough to send me over the moon. But the fact that the editor reached out by phone, a nearly unheard-of act of kindness in the poetry realm, was the icing on the proverbial cake. His praise of my work combined with his personal interest spoke volumes about his work ethic and his dedication to an oft-underappreciated task.

So as you’re reading over the ugly remarks about editors on sites like Duotrope, bear in mind that there are still a few out there who do the task in a timely and proficient manner. Some even care enough to make phone calls, and by doing so, rekindle the fire of poetic passion beneath skeptical and world-hardened writers. Even in a time dominated by online submission trackers and digital everything, the personal touch still matters. Thank you to those gatekeepers and decision-makers who continue to do their jobs in a way that enhances the humanity of the literary community. Now more than ever, you’re needed.

 

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, 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.

poetry, Uncategorized

Embracing the Shel Silverstein moment

Shel, looking especially Whitman-esque.
Shel, looking especially Whitman-esque.

As a child, my mother and grandparents read a good mixture of genres to me. About once a week, usually on Fridays, my mom made a special effort to expose me to poetry. Sometimes it came from the Childcraft series, a collection of gilt-spined hardcover books that were like thin encyclopedias of primary knowledge. Sometimes, it was the inimitable Dr. Seuss, with his nonsensical rhymes and his worlds of whimsy and fantasy. And then, there were the nights before bed that I was privileged enough to be exposed to the great Shel Silverstein, an author whose work had been slammed by public school districts throughout the south because of Shel’s past career choices (artist for Playboy, among them) and his shocking use of words like “butt” and “pee.”

The thing I really liked about Shel’s work is that, often, it would start with a simple premise (having to do the dishes, preparing to clean one’s room, etc.) and by the end, the poem had morphed into something totally unusual and unexpected. I find my own poetry doing this more and more these days. A poem will start with something pretty standard, but by the end, an entire other world or scenario will have emerged on the page.

At first, I was troubled by this occurrence, thinking that structure and form demanded I stick to the original idea and pursue it to its most logical and rational conclusion. I should persist, in other words, to do justice to my work’s inspirations. After letting the “distracted” works rest, though, I came back to them with fresh perspective. It was then I recognized that, even though the poem had taken the road less traveled somewhere along the way, it still held merit. Revision would still be necessary, but the original form — weirdness and all — warranted its own continued existence. Not unlike Shel’s digressions into crazy landscapes, my own poetry is sometimes fueled by what my fiction friends would call “the not-knowing.”

No doubt the Beats would approve of this editorial decision, reiterating their “first thought, best thought” mantra. Not every poem has to show up for work in a starched oxford shirt and presidential-looking tie. Still, I can’t help feeling that words without boundaries are somehow lost. Frost’s misgivings about free verse resonate even today in the minds of poets everywhere, mine included. I feel that certain limits and strictures make poetry stronger, and poems without rules, even self-imposed ones, often fail the test of relevance. Call me a “new formalist” if you will. Many of my peers disagree, asserting the wildness of words renders a poetic experience that is exclusive and unique. Too often such justifications provide fodder for “artists” who want to assign depth to drivel, however. “It’s not that I can’t write; it’s that I find meaning in error and ugliness,” they’ll say, as if ignorance plus garishness equals enlightenment. Rubbish.

Giving in to occasional rabbit-trails along a poem’s path may be acceptable, even artful. But when diversion turns to disruption, it’s time to get out the old poets’ toolbox and get to work. Accepting moments of Seussian whimsy and Silversteinish play can make work more human, and add an element of fun to otherwise serious poetry. It remains up to the poet, however, to know when and where those moments are beneficial. For today, I think I’ll do a few re-writes and see what happens. Wish me luck, respected reader.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Lessons learned while editing

pencil_redRecently I’ve had the privilege of providing feedback to a budding poet whose work has been compiled into a chapbook. I see a lot of my own history in this poet’s words — as he has been exploring the tools of the trade, there’s the occasional overuse of alliteration (we both love the smart rhythm and happy repetition of consonant sounds), but there’s also this vibrant joy that comes with writing for writing’s sake.

This gentleman’s work has reminded me of my own roots as a fledgling poet. Before any fancy MFA programs, before any acceptance letters or awards, there I was — that beginner who scribbled out potent images and happily entangled words for the sake of seeing and hearing their interplay with one another. At some point along the writing journey, as I learned more of the “rules” and what to expect from diverse audiences and editors, somehow a little bit of that word-joy vanished. Writing poetry became about using literary devices and styles that others dictated were “the right way.” And while others’ perspectives are always helpful (even when they’re hurtful), at some point we as poets must step back from others’ voices and ask ourselves, “Is this really ME?” We would be wise to adhere to the admonition that Polonius gives to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all else: to thine own self be true.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider others’ points or feedback; indeed, if we want to excel as writers, listening to credible responses will strengthen our work greatly. But when that advice begins to fly in the face of one’s own vision, then it’s time to gain some distance for the sake of clarity. In a few days, I will be headed over to Tampa for my summer MFA residency. While there, I will be engaged in workshops and seminars, many of which are intended for the critique and strengthening of my poems. As I listen to my peers and hear their thoughts (positive and negative) about my creations, I hope that I can keep that beginning-writer passion alive. When the bliss of writing is gone, nothing remains but sheer mechanics and accumulated letters. And when writing becomes the equivalent of intellectual ditch-digging, it’s time to stop.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

“Risking” sentimentality

sentimental As the next residency period for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program draws nearer, I’ve been reading the required materials like a good student. In my packet of readables this time, there are an awful lot of opinions regarding the idea of “sentimentality” in writing, especially poetry.

I’ve grown up as a writer around mentors who use the word “maudlin” disparagingly, and who utter “saccharine” for truly reprehensible sweetness violations in literature. These authors that I am reading, however, issue a valid and worth-repeating maxim to poets and writers alike who fear being too emotional or too feeling-oriented in their writing.

Essentially, all their opinions boil down to this: Use sentimental discernment. That is, if you know that the writing is corny, hokey, cliche, or sugary to the point of nausea, it needs to be edited or omitted totally. However, fearing openness and exposure through one’s literature is equally a handicap to be overcome. Some of these authors state blatantly that modern writers have become so emotionally distant from their work, that it lacks the “heart” that made literature great in the first place. Instead, witty wordplay and smart-aleck irony have become the standard. Poets are deemed cool if they seem to be the writing equivalent of Dirty Harry Callahan.

It’s time to put our emotions back into our work, but it’s time we did so without resorting to the hackneyed devices of yesteryear. Risking sentimentality increases the humanity of our writing, and allows us to reach those who have had similar experiences as well as those who haven’t. Poets don’t need to shoot for greeting card verse, but we also don’t need to shield ourselves by writing solely disinterested observations on life. There’s enough pseudo-philosophy out there right now through memes, tropes, and bumper stickers. Let’s put the heart back into our writing, and history will remember us fondly for doing so.