life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Family Life as Poetry Workshop, or Why I Won’t be Attending Any Retreats or Conferences This Year

familyshot

Some poets tend to speak of their families as obligations that prevent true creativity. There are fellowships aimed at helping parent-poets escape their roles as mom or dad and focus exclusively on “the work,” whatever that might be. But as one who spent two weeks in 2019 away from my wife and sons, let me tell you what I’ve discovered:

It is only amid the adventures of family life that true poetry is created. The rearing of children, the complexities of marriage, and the shared experiences that go with both produce the stuff of great writing. This isn’t some pseudo-inspirational fluff; it is truth found through living.

In my workplace, I’m fortunate to be given generous vacation time every year. I could spend those hours communing with nature, hearing other writers, discussing the intricacies of composition, or…I could make memories for my family at home or away. Whether we go to the beach, the mountains, or even Lisbon, Portugal (see prior posts), the time we spend will forge moments ingrained in our history. And to me, building fond recollections for my wife and sons trumps circular conversations about craft or melancholy publishing panels.

Certainly, solitude has its place in the life of a writer. It serves as a kind of social fast, and science tells us that fasting is an important component in our human lives. But for sheer generative power, nothing holds a candle to family time. All the prompt-riddled workshops and cliche-filled seminars can’t compare to seeing one’s offspring make the realizations that accompany maturing. To watch the generational cycles continue, to spend time in earnest dialogue with loved ones — these are the elements of inspiration.

For my writer friends who are attending name-brand conferences or literary events this year, I wish you all the best. Have fun hearing from people whose limited celebrity is often greater than their wisdom. I hope you listen to a line during a reading that sparks your innovation. I hope you network with folks you’ve long admired. And I hope you don’t come back empty-handed.

I resolve this year, this 2020, to be present in daily life with my family. I resolve to observe every detail, absorb every minute, and allow my literary endeavors to follow my role as husband and father, not the other way around. I have a new manuscript that’s out there, and hopefully this will be its year. But even if it isn’t, my greater hope is that the impressions I leave on the lives of those closest to me will be indelible. As Robert Penn Warren once said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” It’s 2020, and it’s time to go live it.

 

life, Uncategorized

The Traditional Birthday Post: What 43 Means

man sitting on red wooden chair while reading newspaper
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

43 is not a big deal. 43 is ho-hum, I’m not 40 anymore but not old enough to get a senior coffee at McDonald’s. 43 is having risen to middle management only to find that it’s not paradise, but you need the paycheck, so, well, here you are, and at least you’re experienced enough to know what to do.

When you add the digits of 43 together, you get 7, which is supposed to be a lucky number. Also, 43 happens to be my old rural route school bus number. Being 43 means having been bald long enough not to care and actually preferring your head that way. 43 apparently means developing grays in your remaining “horseshoe,” though, and in sporadic clumps that exactly reflect the degree of stress from two sons: right side of the head = oldest, left side of the head = youngest. I’ll let you guess which gray patch is bigger.

43 means most of the people in the generations before yours are now gone from your life or are headed that way, and you better know how to handle it. Grief doesn’t get any easier, but by now you’ve had to be involved with the nuts-and-bolts of people’s passing and so you know what’s coming from a practical standpoint. It still sucks, though.

43 is wondering about the retirement fund, holding on to a final few lifelong dreams that haven’t yet been achieved, and praying that the kids get hefty scholarships for college. 43 is thinking about who you might eventually become as a grandparent, then quickly throwing that thought aside while assuring yourself you’re too young to think that way. “Isn’t there some work I need to do?” you ask.

43 is regular dentist visits, cardio, and worrying about whether diet soda causes dementia. But it’s also the place that the older generation calls “the prime of your life,” that space where you can make your biggest difference since you’ve been around long enough to gain a little wisdom, but you’re not so old that you’ve burned out.

43 means deciding whether to be “the company man” like others before you, or continuing to change employers every few years just to keep things interesting. Do they still give out gold watches for years of service? Do you even want one? Decisions, decisions…

Maybe above all else 43 means having the maturity to think about what 43 means. You’ve learned to reflect, to think about your thinking, and to be thankful for the path so far. And barring unforeseen circumstances, you’ve got a good bit of road ahead, so you might as well get busy.

 

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

An Empathetic Farewell to Unpopular 2016

last-day-imageSo many of my friends have been cheering on the parting of 2016, thankful that it is about to fade into oblivion. As these last few hours tick by, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for a year in history. But 2016 has elicited that response from me, strangely enough. I feel that 2016 has been like that unpopular kid in class that everybody liked to pick on: easy prey because of difference. I, for one, kind of enjoyed 2016 — not necessarily for political or cultural reasons, but for its more personal milestones:

My fourth book (and by far my best to date), Hard Inheritance, received publication on December 5, and I have been honored by its critical reception. It was good to see a new book of poetry out there, and as 2017 waits just a few hours away, I fully anticipate that it will be a great year for my latest collection.

I received an incredible new full-time position teaching English and Literature at the university level, a long-time goal of mine. The job itself is both rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and I’m the happiest (professionally) I’ve been in a long time. My students make teaching a joy and privilege. That’s a sentiment I thought I’d lost, and now it’s back, thanks to the events of 2016.

Both of my sons have done well in different areas this year. My oldest son discovered a love for basketball, while my younger son has continued to develop himself academically and artistically in the new Montessori school both boys attend. My wife has continued to enjoy her work in the medical field, and my family life has been good, to say the least. My fortieth birthday meant a big trip to Lisbon for all of us, a time that none of us will soon forget for its meaningful experiences.

Maybe your candidate didn’t get elected. Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe unnatural disasters befell your part of the world. But from my little corner of the planet, 2016 was more than okay. It was memorable, it was unique, and it was unpredictable. All three of these traits, while they can be negative, also give us things of beauty. And despite its occasional difficulty and ugliness, 2016 also had plenty of the positive. All we have to do is look for it.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

How 5 became my life’s official number

handfiveAllow me to begin by saying I’m no numerologist. I do believe, however, that one day, we will all understand why the numbers in our lives intermingle and coordinate the way they do. I also believe that this overlap of figures is more than just mathematical. There is a purpose to the numbers, and it’s not just coincidental.

Here’s a good example: I was born on July 5. As a kid, I lived on Fifth Street. My stepdad was born March 5. My oldest son was born January 5. My best friend growing up had a birthday 25 days later than mine. Many of my other family members have birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates that are influenced by the number five — maybe they’re multiples or maybe the dates add up to something five-related. Perhaps that last bit is stretching the significance a little, but you get the picture.

So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when, the other day, my publisher emailed to tell me that my latest book, Hard Inheritance, had been published on the date of my grandfather’s death 12 years prior — December 5th.

To really grasp the importance of this chronological lineup, you have to know the kind of influence my grandfather had in my life. As a young child, I grew up on his citrus farm in Hardee County, a very rural community in southern central Florida. My grandfather loved me more deeply than almost any other person in my life, save my mother. He invested his time, his resources, and his wisdom in preparing me to become a hard working, honest, and thinking man.

He had flown 51 missions in World War II, and his American devotion carried well beyond his military service. He served his church as a deacon (a model I would later follow myself). He faithfully worked for the Coca-Cola Foods Division as a groves manager for decades before retiring to volunteer with my scout troop. I became an Eagle Scout because he taught me the value of persistence and perseverance; seeing a thing through to its successful end.

It only made sense to me when Hard Inheritance came out on the fifth. Of course it would, I thought, following the five-laden trail of bread crumbs throughout my life. It’s both fitting and bittersweet that this book, my best and most earnest to date, would become available to the public on a day with such meaning.

My hope now is that this volume would please him, were he still here. It celebrates the beautiful and the natural, but it also shows the events in life that leave our scars and calluses, both of which he was intensely familiar with. It celebrates Our Florida — that place that he, six generations of our ancestors, and now my children call home.

I think he’d like the history, the honesty, and the geography of this book. He’d probably laugh at the pieces he’s featured in, having forgotten an episode that seemed relatively unimportant to him, but one in which I find deeper relevance. He, too, was a “five” man, after all — born in the month of May, living to the age of 83 (subtract the two digits), and being great-grandfather to five children (3 girls by my sister, 2 boys that are mine).

Being connected to one particular number in such a vital way can sometimes be a Hard Inheritance  of its own. Rarely a day goes by when some important connection to the number 5 doesn’t crop up in my day-to-day life. Were I one to play the lottery, I sometimes think I’d buy one of those “Pick 5” tickets and just play all fives to see what happens. My statistician friends would discourage this, of course, knowing the wild improbability of winning from such a choice.

But if it’s one thing that my life has taught me, it’s that all the cold, sterile math in the world can’t explain the way that numbers work. There is no algebra, no geometry, no trigonometry or physics formula to rationalize how the figures align. And in that same logically inexplicable space, poetry lives.

Tomorrow will mark five days since my book was published. I will celebrate by watching my oldest son, number 35 on his basketball team, play his final game of the season. I will think of how proud my grandfather would be — both of my writing and my boys’ achievements. I will hope for more fives in the future. And I know that I will surely receive them.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

A Southern Thanksgiving Poem

“Thanksgiving in the woods” has been a family tradition of ours for generations.

In just two more days, one of my family’s favorite holidays will finally be here. Thanksgiving is probably the second-most American holiday right after the Fourth of July. Recently, a couple of journals have published my piece “Family Gathering”: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature ran it first, with Deep South Magazine following suit just the other day. For my readers’ enjoyment, I am posting a copy of the piece here, since it has found a home twice now. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and God bless you and yours on this fabulous, historic holiday! 

 

 

 

 

Family Gathering

Dedicated to all my country cousins

 

In those Thanksgiving woods we were grateful
by nature, we were farm kids – mud-made
battle plans detailed our attack:

Mounting our gallant oak-limb steed,
we hurled barrages of pine-cone grenades
followed by Sabal Palm frond spears,
then went hand-to-hand with sword sticks
in the friendly fire of safe conflict.

Wounded, the unnamed invisible invaders
cowardly crossed the creek, high-tailed
into town, where all of our dangers went
to regroup and plot their revenge against
us, the adults of tomorrow.