life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Creeks and Hammocks: Reflecting on Year 41

blur calligraphy close up conceptual
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Poets tend to view age a little differently from most people: We measure our years in publications, gatherings (literary and not), and in Eliot’s case, even coffee spoons. I had some real reservations about being 41 over the past year. After all, could there be a less consequential age? Friends and family make such a big deal out of 40 that its successor seems like an anticlimax.

For me, 41 was fairly quiet, but I did get to inch a little closer to bigger goals and dreams. I wrote a creative writing course for my college which was adopted institution-wide (even in China and Latin America), I wrote some pretty decent poetry that got published in places I liked, and I moved to a new home in a friendly neighborhood just miles away from scenic woods with a creek.

Maybe the creek has been the most monumental of all “41” discoveries. It has given me the chance to spend time with my boys making memories that are genuine. There are vines hanging over the creek that are strong enough for both sons to swing on, a tree bridge, and of course, all the other nature-based sights and sounds that go with a small flowing body of water: fish, snakes, raccoons, and even an occasional bobcat. It’s a place that is magical for many reasons.

I suppose, however, that what I appreciate most about the creek is its authenticity. Unlike theme parks, movie theaters, or tourist traps, the creek is a place where my boys can allow their imaginations to determine their adventures. There are no lines, no prescribed rides or experiences, no Hollywood artifice. At the creek, we are kept company by red-tailed hawks rather than costumed characters, and we are guided not by slick brochures or fake technology, but by the soft currents that flow through Florida forests and boyish ambitions.

At different times, I’ve watched my sons become pirates, jungle explorers, and even characters from various novels. Recently, I helped both boys create flutter-mills like the one mentioned in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Rawlings used the flutter-mill as a symbol of passing time and a foreshadowing of coming maturity,  and never have those ideas held such weight in my own mind. Middle age reminds one that things are halfway over, and you better get busy making your difference.

Maybe my difference won’t be measured in ink. Maybe it will be measured in creek water and sons’ laughter. Either way, I’m satisfied. If 42 is anything like 41, I’m looking forward to it. There are still plenty of things I’d like to accomplish both professionally and personally, but the 40s are also much like a hammock stretched in the middle of one’s chronology — yes, there are visible fixed points at both ends, but as long as I’m here in the middle of leaving a legacy, I might as well enjoy the sway of the breeze, the sky above, and the soft rhythms that make life enjoyable. Happy birthday to me.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Culture of Complaint: Image Killer

oldpersoncomplainingIf you read this blog with regularity, you know I recently returned from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended a writing conference and explored literary landmarks around New England. I am also a student of municipalities that encourage and invite tourism, however, and Amherst, despite being small and comparatively out of the way, was doing a number of things to make their town tourist-friendly to folks like me:

1.) The public library celebrates renowned local authors and artists. In fact, the whole third floor of Jones Library is devoted to historical artifacts and volumes regarding Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Also, local landmarks have significance to the artistic and literary history of Amherst.

2.) The area’s history is celebrated with events, as well, and there appears to be good community involvement which has been stimulated through the use of various media.

3.) Churches and civic groups are partners in the arts.

4.) Colleges in Amherst offer their space as venues for arts-related and literary events, even if the organizers are unrelated to the colleges.

I was favorably impressed by all these details, and thought I would bring them back to my city as suggestions for implementation. After all, Winter Haven is a city on the grow, and with a renewed focus on the arts and tourism, all of these Amherst traits seemed worthy of emulation.

Why, then, don’t I plan to return to Amherst anytime soon? The answer lies in people. Everywhere I went, from the Stop N Shop and Big Y grocery stores to the corner diner, people were complaining. Conversation in the diner was dominated by older men bemoaning a new red light that had been installed. Younger women in the grocery store aisles were whining about their toddlers’ behaviors. Cashiers never smiled, and transacted business without pleasantries. It seemed to me, an outsider, like Amherst was a miserable place to be a local. I stopped in at Friendly’s, New England’s version of Steak N Shake, and nobody, not even the servers, made the restaurant live up to its name. Maybe the city was just having a bad week, but it was enough to sour my perception as a visitor.

Granted, I’m a little spoiled on hospitality. Here in my part of the country, “service with a smile” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s an overall attitude. Some days, that smile might be forced, but there never seems to be a time when merchants aren’t glad to see you. Publix serves as a national example of what grocery stores should emulate, mostly because of their kind and responsive customer service. Likewise, local chatter at our diners and coffee shops usually consists of a healthy mixture of politics, business, family life, and current events — and most of the time, those conversations, even contentious ones, are cordial.

There are those who would accuse my people of being disingenuous. They might claim that we hide our anger, frustration, or dismay behind stereotypical southern “sunnyness.” But the truth is, no matter how bad the world might be, whether a new red light, an unruly child, or a hard day at work has flustered us, most of us can still muster up kindness for others. It’s what people here do, and it’s one reason why I stay.

The great irony of this post, perhaps, is that it falls into the category of “complaining about complaining.” I get that. But perhaps this post is also demonstrative of attitude infectiousness: pessimism yields more pessimism, yes, but the opposite is also true. Come to Winter Haven sometime and find out for yourself. I’m off to Richard’s Fine Coffees.

poetry, Uncategorized

Shhh….Don’t tell anyone

Loyal blog subscribers, I have a secret for you: Today you can order your pre-release copy of my newest book, Middle Class American Proverb. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/Middle-Class-American-Proverb-Davis/dp/0942544129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1414094131&sr=8-1&keywords=Middle+Class+American+Proverb

This is the definitive Florida poetry collection I’ve been writing about. Get your copy today!

johndaviscover (3)

Uncategorized

Apples and Oranges: Frost’s Influence on my Early Work

Image
Photo: University of Buffalo’s Robert Frost Collection

As a middle schooler, I was fortunate to have one English teacher throughout those tumultuous years who encouraged my interest in poetry. Mr. Pace knew I was a rare breed: a perceptive and sensitive farm boy interested in writing and things literary, though not the greatest scholar. My profile, he felt, matched up with a certain northeastern poet whose canonized tomes of work combined the rhythmic labors of agriculture with the delicate intricacies of poetic diction. Hence, my introduction to the works of Robert Frost began.

I would sit atop our barn roof overlooking our orange grove, and read everything from “Out, Out –” to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’d never seen snow. This was central Florida, after all. It didn’t matter — Frost brought it to life with his vintage imagery and steady, clopping-horse meter.  And then, of course, there were the apple orchard pieces. From “After Apple-Picking” to “Mending Wall,” I knew well the lifestyle he described, even though our farm and its accompanying ladders and fences were more than a thousand miles away from New England. Like Frost, I knew the press of a rung into flesh and the whisper and sway of fruit trees. Here was a man who “got” me, I felt, even though he was long since dead.

My love for Frost’s work continued into high school and college, and I wrote bad pastiches of his work, thinking I was being totally original all the while. After all, my “citrus farm” poems were completely disparate from anything New Englandish. Yeah, right. As I look over my older pieces, I hear familiar iambs and rustic rhymes that mark a younger poet’s perception of excellent verse. How brilliant I believed my rhyme schemes and wordplay to be! If only the rest of the world could see this marvelous talent, I thought, refusing to admit that every syllable was a tribute to America’s godfather of poetry — Frost.

Even my first book, Growing Moon, Growing Soil, contains blatant influence from “Frosty Bob.” As I matured, my reading tastes expanded to include contemporary voices and a vast array of styles. But as a writer, I kept coming back to those paradoxical poems — so seemingly simple, yet profound. Frost’s work occupied a space on my mental bookshelf alongside Bible verses and the Scout Oath and Law — it was ingrained among the ridges and folds of my brain’s landscape as surely as cut weeds turned under by a grove disc.

Today, my work is influenced differently — I no longer strive to “sound like” this poet or that one, but my poetry (I like to think) has come into its own. One of the greatest compliments of my more recent work came from poet Erica Dawson: “John is accomplished. He knows his voice.  He knows his subject matter.  He knows his style.” Those words, like Mr. Pace’s initial encouragement, gave me not only assurance, but a goal. If my work is to reach the level of greats like Frost, it must be identifiable as uniquely mine. The thumbprints of many poets may be found within my writing, no doubt, but when the final draft is finished, my hope is that it surges with a different pulse; one as recognizable as Frost’s, but unique — oranges to everyone else’s apples. 

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

Why “Florida Poetry?”

Once in a while, I have people ask about the title I have chosen to wear as a writer. “Why limit yourself to being considered a ‘Florida Poet?'” they inquire, certain that I have made a horrible marketing mistake. The simple fact is, I believe in truth in advertising. My work, while not totally Florida-driven, is largely based here in my home state. Sure, I may write once in a while about exotic, even fictional, locales, but for the most part, the nature, the people, the settings, and the themes of my work are uniquely Floridian.

I don’t write “Florida Poetry” so that I have a better shot at cornering one select niche of readers, nor do I use the term to make my work seem any more “Floridian” than that of my peers or colleagues. When I advertise myself as a “Florida Poet,” I do so because I want people to understand what they’re getting when they pick up one of my books, or when they see my pieces in journals and on websites all over. My perspective is one influenced by “Floridana,” and all that term encompasses.

So, to those of you thinking I’ve eliminated myself from “serious literary consideration” and such, my hope is that you now have a better understanding of my position — I am Florida through and through, and no state is more universal.