With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”
Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.
Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.
Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.
Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.
My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.
So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.
Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…
This year, my oldest son is beginning high school. As a freshman, he has begun considering possible college majors that he’d like to aim toward. His big love is theater, especially musical theater (insert pragmatic-dad eye roll here). He is a member of the school band, and he is trying out agriculture, as our family has a long history of farming in addition to teaching and other professions.
As much as I’d like to give him the whole lecture about “getting a degree in something useful,” I’m realize in no position to advise him to be practical about his eventual course of study. I’ve done a pretty unconventional thing, earning a terminal degree in creative writing later in life, and I can’t say it has turned out badly. No matter how many guidance counselors and career advisers may say otherwise, getting a degree (or two!) in the liberal arts can in fact make life more fulfilling.
Readers of this blog know that I recently spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, leading poetry workshops and kayaking the lakes of a beautiful part of the country:
And earlier this summer, I spent a week in Appalachia simply pondering how best to order my latest manuscript of poems:
Then there was the summer of my 40th birthday, where the whole family and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal because I received a partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program:
And before I became an “international” poet, there was the summer I spent a week at the Juniper Writers Institute (also on a scholarship), where I explored the home of Emily Dickinson:
And the farm of Robert Frost in Derry, New Hampshire:
Oh, and then there was the time (in the middle of my MFA program) that I was kindly given a full ride to the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This would have been in 2013:
Add to that the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I’ve been able to attend closer to home (The National Graduate Creative Writing Conference in Carrollton, GA; AWP in Tampa; the Other Words conference at Flagler College in Jacksonville, and many, many, more), and you’ve got yourself quite a travel itinerary spread out over 10 or 12 years.
Lest the audience think that I am only measuring meaning by travel, there are plenty of other ways that my liberal arts degrees have enhanced my biography. Before I entered the realm of education, I used my Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism to report for newspapers — now nearly an extinct species. In the process, I drove through (over!) the flames of brush fires, got shot at twice, had a beer bottle hurled at my head during a riot, and witnessed life in a way that few other people ever experience.
I spoke with flood survivors, celebrities big and small, government officials, and even the occasional inmate. All these experiences expanded my lens and allowed me to view the world from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t the liberal arts degree that provided breadth and open-mindedness about our human situation; those understandings came along well after I’d received diplomas, in fact. But I never would have had those encounters without the degrees I earned, and I absolutely would not have interpreted those encounters in the same way sans higher education.
“But what about the money?” you may ask. “Is it true that people with liberal arts degrees earn less than those with vocational and technical degrees?” While I can’t speak to the assets held by those in hands-on professions, I can tell you that we’ve always had enough. My two boys, my wife, and I have had sufficiency and surplus in varying frequency, and even during times of struggle, our scenario has been eased by the knowledge that we are not the only ones to have faced difficulty. A thorough education in the humanities provided both fictional and nonfictional examples from which to learn. Some of our Christmases may have looked like the Bob Cratchit family or an O. Henry short story, but along with that sparsity came the closeness that such stories also featured. Enduring with beloved others is its own wealth.
“What about the cost? Not everyone can afford a spiffy degree from a small, private institution, you know…” True enough. I’m well aware of our national student debt crisis, and I also know that liberal arts colleges can be expensive. For me, the payoff has been worth the initial investment. The promises made by my parents and grandparents turned out to be true: Earn a college degree/ start a career/ live the American Dream, etc. Certainly this has not always been the result for others. I’ll leave it at that.
I do know that when someone is willing to work hard and smart, when he or she gives back to the profession, and when relationships are tended with near-agricultural precision, a liberal arts degree can help make life worthwhile. Sure, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that also bears out the truth of what I’m saying, but for today, I’m speaking from personal experience.
What am I going to tell my son about earning a “useless” degree? Go for it. No, I’m not a proponent of “follow your bliss” or “do what makes you happy” exclusively, but we need at least some modest enjoyment from making our livelihood. Work is still going to be work, no matter what, but fulfillment? That can be achieved, and a liberal arts degree can serve as the welcome mat for it.
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.
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.
Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?
The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.
But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.
Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.
We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.
I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.
Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.
Buy a book, save a life: Between now and Christmas, 100 percent of every sale of each of my books will go toward getting one of my poet-students and her mother out of the homeless shelter. You get good poems, and a family that desperately deserves a Merry Christmas is given a hand up. There are no losers here — If you don’t want to buy one of the books below, you may donate directly to the Save my Student from Homelessness fund:
If you would like to go the literary route and receive some poetry in exchange for your generosity, please consider purchasing any one of the books below (click the title):
Your purchase or donation is deeply appreciated. I can’t say enough good things about this student, and she and her mother are grateful for any help you can offer. Please join this effort to save a budding writer from the horrible conditions at the homeless shelter. THANK YOU!
Recently I had the privilege of driving our state’s poet laureate to and from my employer school for a special reading and appearance. Peter Meinke, author of multiple volumes of poetry and prose, professor emeritus for Eckerd College, and long-time St. Petersburg resident, was one of my mentors in University of Tampa’s MFA program, and before that, he edited my work and instructed me at other workshops around Florida. If you take a look at my book, Middle Class American Proverb, you’ll see that one of the blurbs on the back is from Peter, as well. His advice helped form my personal aesthetic, and his appreciation of forms helped give me a bigger poet’s toolbox.
Conversations with Peter are always interesting because he’s been in the literary game long enough to have stories aplenty about the teaching and writing life. He’s worked with some of the biggest and most recognizable names in the poetry community, and he’s won a plethora of awards, although he’d never brag. In many ways, Peter is what I would consider “the poet’s poet.” So to be driving this gentleman to and from his home was a real treat for an emerging writer.
I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about some of my recent endeavors, poetic and academic alike. I mentioned that I’d applied for a few different things (programs and such), and he replied, “You know, sometimes you get struck by lightning. Something just comes to you out of the blue when you least expect it. Somebody calls you up, and you can hardly believe it.” He talked about a few of his own such experiences, and then finished up with, “…but you have to put yourself out there.”
We chatted a while about some of the folks we both knew — where they were, how they were doing, who had vacated or filled positions here or there. It was richly rewarding to converse with someone who shared a common vocabulary and a common set of interests.
As usual, Peter’s appearance was met with applause and appreciation. Students and community members lined up for his book signing afterward, and he took pictures with several of my awe-struck pupils. The night was memorable, successful, and enjoyable for us all.
On my way back to my own home after dropping Peter off, I was filled with the hope that one day, I too could provide the gift of experience to some up-and-comer. As great as poetry is, passing its “fever” on to others is even greater. And therein lies the quiet strength of our state’s poet laureate: his legacy of learning and love of language. Might we all aspire to leave similar tracks for others to follow.
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.
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.
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.