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.

Advertisements
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

An Address to New Teachers Everywhere

A group of summer school students work on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.
A group of summer school students working on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.

If my loyal readers will allow me, I would like today to take off my “poet’s cap” and put on my teacher’s mortarboard instead for just one post.

As summer draws to its end and a new school year eagerly waits right around the corner of the calendar, I feel the need to post something here for all you newly hired teachers and professors. I, too, was once that first-year teacher. Now I serve as a mentor to up-and-coming educators. In that capacity, I have composed a brief address to teachers new to my school. I feel that this address would benefit teachers in any school, but especially independent schools like my own. Here, for your encouragement, is that short speech:      

ADDRESS TO NEW VANGUARD TEACHERS
By John Davis Jr., educator and poet

Before you lies an incredible journey. You have the chance to truly and positively change lives if you take advantage of this moment in your career. At Vanguard, you can teach as you have always wanted to teach, and you can become the servant leader that American education so sorely needs today.

Here is the place where your grandest experiments and classroom daydreams can come to life, if you let them. Now is the time that all your compassion, all your patience, and all your skills will be needed daily. You will have to hug children that others have found unlovable, and you will have to give structure to students that have never known boundaries. You will need to prepare your best advice for broken hearts, best-friend betrayals, and even divorces and deaths. These students need your voice, and they need your shoulders.

They will seek you out to tell you of all their firsts. When they pass their driving exam, compliment their shiny new permit photo. When they lose a beloved family pet, put your arm around them and console them. When they fail at anything, encourage them. When they ask you the hard questions, be honest with them.  They’ll respect you more for the truth than for some typical grown-up cliché. And at the end of the day, real life is really what they need to hear about the most.

They will bring you food they have cooked in culinary arts. Eat it enthusiastically, even if it’s horrible. They will show you pictures of what they plan to wear to prom. Tell them that it’s incredible, even if it’s hideous. They will proudly exhibit their latest woodworking project for you. Tell them how artistic it is, no matter how loose-jointed and awkward it may look.  

Dress like you’re the boss, but be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and even occasionally bruised. But know above all that the labor, the grit, and the pain are all worth it. You will become to these students a parent, an older sibling, and eventually, a fond remembrance. Even when they go off to college, they’ll spend part of their break coming to see you again if you’ve done the job right.

And when they have long since graduated, found their way, and started adult lives of their own, rest assured that you will be a main character in the stories they tell their children. Your advice, your lessons, and your every idiosyncrasy will be recounted for another generation, not because you are a sage or a superhero, but because at one time in one child’s life, you cared.

Give them your 100 percent every day, even when you feel like you only have 10 percent left. Laugh with them, share with them; invent new games with them. The greatest stories of your teaching life are ahead of you, educator. Be prepared.

 

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Putting the work in workshop

20130729-131949.jpg

The great thing about writing workshops is hearing other people’s responses to your written work. For instance, during today’s workshop with Amy Newman at Glen West (see photo of workshop locale– GORGEOUS), our group responded to one of my pieces that I had begun to feel wasn’t very good. I had submitted this piece to five or six journals over the last few months, only to receive rejections every time. I knew something had to be glaringly wrong with it, but my editing and revising sensors were just not catching it.

Instead of hearing how terrible this piece was, I was greeted instead with adulations accompanied by helpful word-by-word analyses. The one problem found in the piece was a single weak verb that I had somehow overlooked. That one word aside, my workshop peers pointed out a variety of strengths and merits of the piece that I had never even considered. I left feeling not only relieved, but strengthened.

In a truly supportive and functional workshop, the members build one another up like this one did. Yes, weaknesses and flaws are addressed, but likewise, poems’ assets also get a fair shake. I feel privileged to have received a scholarship to attend this week-long engagement, and hope that the positivity and encouragement continue all seven days. What an incredible opportunity!

poetry, Uncategorized

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.

Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?

Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.

As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.

Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.

Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.

poetry, Uncategorized

Experiential Education for Writers

In the middle of the twentieth century, critical theorist John Dewey put forth his then-radical idea that experiences equal education. Dewey, considered the father of the progressive movement, posited that interaction and continuity were the two key traits that made up an educational experience. Even today, while educators use different names for those same ideas (interaction=engagement, continuity=structure), Dewey’s legacy lives on. But it’s not just for those of us in the classroom. Dewey’s experiential education model is undergoing a renaissance of sorts at the post-secondary level, with more colleges and universities touting that they believe in it and use it to provide students with memorable learning.   Even for working writers and parents, the thoughts that Dewey developed have implications that can provide lasting benefits to us in our average, non-academic lives.

To begin, experiences form the foundation upon which all truly great literature is built. Even if those experiences are imagined or exaggerated, they nonetheless constitute the building blocks of fiction, poetry, and plays around the world. For those of us in the everyday world, the small experiences can generate great writing.

bikeThis summer, I’ve been riding bikes with my sons. We started small, with a few laps around our block here, and recently, we sojourned to their grandmother’s house about a mile away. The bike riding sessions have given rise to those metaphorical, time-transcending conversations that parents have always found meaningful: learning to ride a bicycle safely is a parallel to one’s larger life, after all. Lessons in persistence, balance, confidence, care, and initiative can all be heard when one is teaching others about basic cycling. Uphill grades can’t be conquered without perseverance, and the reward is always that downhill gust of face-breeze. Bicycles and their allegorical implications have been used by writers for years, and so, I haven’t bothered to write a poem about this experience yet. I feel that it’s been covered entirely too well by others before me. The poem that this experience generates will probably not be the old cliche about “letting go of the baby bird” or some similar tripe, but I sense that something from our time together will mold itself into poetry before the summer’s out. It just needs some time for creative gestation.

kayak 1Last summer, my oldest son and I spent almost every day kayaking. There are lakes all over our town, and we would set out on Lake Martha, carving a trail to the park across the lake from our launch point. The park made for some great play time, and afterward, we would paddle back. This experience also bore a number of universal lessons that later worked themselves into poetry — the landmarks around the lake were particularly symbolic of different stages in life: the park being childhood, the high weeds being adolescence, the tall offices being adulthood, and finally, the hospital just before home. As you might have guessed, the experiences of our kayaking journeys lent themselves toward poetry.

I relate these two examples to reinforce the larger point: Yes, experience equals education, but more than that, experience equals life equals literature. Only by living can we truly write in a way that will relate to others. Until next time — to write great, live great.