life, teaching, writing

The Literary Scoutmaster

Photo by Bryce Carithers on Pexels.com

When I was the age of my current students, I was busy finishing up the requirements for Eagle Scout. I genuinely enjoyed scouting, mostly because the things I learned there were hands-on, useful, and seemed to have real-life application. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that one of my very first jobs was camp counselor, teaching younger boys how to safely and accurately shoot both rifles and shotguns. Scouting was good to me, and it gave me skills I use and teach even now when I take my sons camping, fishing, skeet shooting, hiking, or kayaking, among other activities.

Admittedly, the Boy Scouts of America is not what it used to be. Over the years, the organization has made a series of egregious missteps that have caused me not to place my sons in a troop, and I’ve largely cut all ties with the BSA. But this isn’t a political post, nor is it one intended to defend or prosecute “Scouting USA” as they now prefer to be called. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon how my present teaching experience embodies what was valuable within a former version of scouting: Practical guidance and retainable learning through meaningful relationships and memorable experiences.

I teach at an all-boys high school. Every day, I get to walk into my classroom and impart subject matter I love to young men who are eager to start the first chapters of their “real lives” beyond secondary education. Like tying a square knot or administering first aid, the skills I provide (reading a text more deeply, writing a clear sentence, etc.) are ones that will follow my pupils the rest of their lives if they’re wise enough to grasp this opportunity.

And I do all I can to ensure that my subject matter is imparted in a tangible, relatable way. We don’t just sit in rows and uniformly parrot back the rules of reading and writing; we investigate texts and tear sentences apart to see what makes them work (or not). I choose material that the boys will find engaging so as not to lose their focus. I show them that poetry, an oft-dreaded element of high school English, can be cool. They earn metaphorical “merit badges” in matters like fiction, nonfiction, composition, rhetoric, and critical analysis. And throughout all this, I lean into their experiences.

They write about their lives, their parents, their worries, and their friends. They give presentations about how they share traits with certain characters we’ve encountered. They read paragraphs with highlighters like navigators would read maps with compasses. And they build essays and compositions as a camper might carefully structure his log-cabin fire lay: each piece discerningly placed atop the other until the warmth and light reach optimal climax.

These boys remind me of a better chapter and give me hope for our cultural future. While all around us, young men give in to so many negative influences, I prefer to think that my small part in shaping my students will in some way brighten tomorrow through integrity and knowledge. I know that some of them will make bad choices just as certain scouts in my troop did. But if a small-town poet can reach into the minds of enough youth with lingering lessons about words and ideas, I will have succeeded. When my students enter the world beyond our campus, I know they will have heeded, even adopted, a certain old motto that remains in my heart: Be Prepared.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Author’s Copies

Look what arrived today!
There’s nothing quite like holding your book after it’s just been published.
Even the back cover is beautiful. So satisfied with this collection!

Ready to get your own copy? Visit:

https://eastoverpress.com/books/the-places-that-hold/

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

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.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

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.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

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.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

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.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

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.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

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…

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“God Wanted You to be a Poet:” Conversations with my Mother

 

pen writing gold ink
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.

Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”

Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.

These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.

However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.

Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.

 

 

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.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Figuring Out Audience

AudienceThis past semester, I admittedly struggled quite a bit in my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program. I attempted an essay I cared little (if any) about, changed directions two or three times in regards to the essay topic, and constantly received negative feedback on poems that I thought exceeded standards. Now that this past semester’s experience is over with, I do have one positive take-away from the whole experience: I know exactly who my audience ISN’T.

That being said, I hadn’t given a great deal of specific thought to my audience prior to this point. I always kind of thought that I wrote for the masses; people who work 9-5 shifts in average jobs, and who pretty much represent the American status quo. This semester, however, I figured out the precise people for whom my work is truly intended. Here they are:

I write for high school English teachers around this country. This notion is a bit selfish, perhaps, as I too am included in that demographic. But whenever I write something, I find myself giving it the English Teacher Litmus Test: If this piece were being taught to a group of 11th or 12th graders, would the teacher be able to point out interesting and relevant material? Would there be literary devices that the teacher could elaborate upon, imagery that is striking enough to deserve comments, and maybe some ambiguity that the students could be left to figure out? If I can picture teachers I know really delving into the poem and engaging in Socratic inquiry about it with their students, then my job is complete. Hopefully, the poem can be taught similarly at the college or graduate level with equal dexterity, just with slightly different vocabulary and greater critical analysis.

Had I not been forced to write for someone that disliked my work and often disparaged it adamantly without concrete reasons, I would not have been able to pinpoint the other side of the issue — that is, my truest target audience. People who know and appreciate the classics, people who have advanced understandings of the great literary traditions, and people who admire work that values history and beauty will probably enjoy the poems I produce. Proficient English teachers, those who love the language and its literature, fill this bill well. As a new semester is about to begin in just a matter of weeks, I look forward to writing for someone else who may or may not be my biggest fan. Either way, I expect that the feedback I receive on my work will help make my work stronger. Derogatory comments will be validated by credible, experienced, and informed perspectives rather than personal tastes and whims. Expectations will be communicated with explicit clarity and specificity rather than vague notions and glittering generalities. And maybe, just maybe, this mentor will see my work through the lens of my real intended audience — that 21st Century educator who really GETS poetry, and who equally inspires students to love it, as well.