Sometimes people ask me, ”Why don’t you write fiction or nonfiction?” My answer to them is, ”I do; it’s just not my first love or my calling.” I sometimes begin with prose before arriving at a poem. Today was one of those days. Sitting on my back porch with a yellow legal pad in my lap and a cup of coffee nearby, I began writing something, anything, to prime the mental pump. Gym-goers, consider this like the cardio before the weight training. As I cursived out a few initial throw-away words, the garbage truck pulled up out front, its brakes emitting that high, industrial screech that precedes a brief stop. This quick encounter prompted the following to appear on my notepad:
The sound of our neighborhood garbage truck takes me back to Fort Meade, circa 1986, when garbagemen (yes, that’s what we called them) would leap from the backs of slow-moving, dirty white trucks and, with Herculean muscle, lift and empty our large metal trash cans into the waiting, hungry mouth of the compactor in the truck’s rear. The work was filthy and stinky, and the men who did it went home every night smelling of other people’s refuse. But the men who did it grew strong and made a decent enough living to send kids off to college so they’d never have to become “sanitation workers.”
Today, the truck extends a mighty mechanical gripper. The machine lifts, empties, and returns the dumpster, which is lifeless gray plastic. There is no poetry in this process. No clang of cans, no yelling among workers. No Clyde, no Cecil [whose names we knew because they were embroidered onto gray-blue name-strips above their breast pocket, sometimes ripped]. No quick wave before the resumption of a route. Just an ugly claw taking waste, leaving vacancy.
Ironic, I suppose, that I openly stated the lack of poetry in modern rubbish collection. Had it not been for the shiny blue truck’s arrival and the sensations that went with it, my recollection would not have been triggered. I know that Cecil and Clyde (conveniently two C names) will probably make an appearance in a future poem. I know that those noises and memories will probably appear in that poem, as well. And I know that right now, I must allow those images and ideas to rest a while before they become something else. I’ll stash away this yellow piece of paper, and some morning at 4 a.m., much to my family’s chagrin, I will revisit this small vignette, and it will take on new life in my chosen genre.
This is what a life in literature sometimes looks like: not the gleam of an award or the bustle of a book-signing, but the simplicity of a legal pad, a ballpoint pen, and a cup of coffee. A view of a pond, a quick sensory stimulation, and a ready place to process all those thoughts that arrive. This is what I write when I don’t write poems.
Recently I had a piece published by a journal that is edited by someone who has received, shall we say, “mixed responses” from the literary community. This editor’s political and religious views are certainly not “mainstream” in the poetry world, for certain.
That being said, I love this editor’s written work and [their] journal’s style. The fact that this person has been berated for unconventional beliefs is inconsequential to me as a writer. If anything, I admire the editor more for that willingness to stand on principles, whether I agree with them or not.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that in the future, my work being published by the editor’s journal may be a “dark mark” against my name. Guess what? I don’t care.
Too often writers inform their choices based on what is “acceptable.” I have reached a magical middle age where such considerations don’t enter my radar anymore. Good journal? Submit. Bad journal? Don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t base my submissions on who nominates how many for which awards. I don’t look at percentages of rejections or acceptances. I don’t even give an inkling to a publication’s “prestige.” I send my work to places I respect. The end. Accepted? Hooray! Rejected? Keep going.
“But don’t you want to be on ‘the right side of history?'” my socially concerned friends may ask. My answer: Not especially. The annals of literature contain heroes and villains alike — those we’ve forgiven and those we haven’t. If I’m eventually judged by the same politically correct mob that hates the Fugitives but adores Ginsberg, so be it. Their sensitivity to prevailing mores has blinded them to a great span of sterling work, and frankly, my words aren’t for them anyway.
My poems speak of old-fashioned values, hard work, forgotten places, and flawed people. These topics exclude me from certain bookshelves, and that’s okay. Furthermore, it’s equally okay that my work is published in places that may one day “fall from grace.”
For today, my poetry is there, chosen by an editor who might or might not share my vision of the world. If that bothers you, dear reader, please heed this message: None of us is perfect. Let’s forego the hypocrisy of pretending that any man-made philosophy is fallacy-free and just enjoy the show. History will write (and right) itself.
I recently spent 16 days in the city of Lisbon, Portugal as part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. Having had enough time to process everything I encountered there, I’ve come to some conclusions. There’s a lot that towns and cities can learn from looking at the Lisbon model. I’d like to highlight a few of the things that Lisbon is doing right, and offer some possible applications for other cities in the process:
Art and History are everywhere. No matter where you go in the city of Lisbon, there’s a reminder that it is filled with the ghosts of great figures. From statues in central plazas to museums throughout the city, Lisbon is constantly telling visitors that its past is worth exploring. In addition, the beautiful tiles that accentuate buildings and make up the myriad sidewalks add to the city’s aesthetics and artistry. Tile is nearly synonymous with Lisbon, and its artisans use this medium incredibly.
Guests are received warmly, and are therefore eager to return. My wife and boys and I had a local family we didn’t even know help us with our heavy luggage all the way from the metro station to our apartment (a long and mostly uphill hike). This family asked nothing in return, and offered us their phone number should we need other help while in the city. Residents: Doing your part to make out-of-towners feel welcome will produce returns! The warmth of Lisbonites in nearly every venue made the city hospitable, a home away from home.
Lisbon capitalizes on its celebrities. Every city has a few key figures who have done well in a variety of areas — whether they’re Olympic athletes, known scholars or authors, or other headline-makers, “celebrities” come in a variety of forms. For Lisbon, writers like Fernando Pessoa, Luis Vaz de Camoes, and other literary minds comprise the majority of their well-known figures. In small towns like the one where I was brought up, Tom McEwen (a sports columnist), Dr. Leffy Carlton (a noted physician), and Myrtie Strickland (a lifelong local educator) were considered “celebrities.” Giving these people their place in the sun, much like Lisbon does with Pessoa and Camoes, establishes a sense of local pride and accomplishment.
Not only are bookstores not dead, they are vital to a thriving community culture. Bookstores, or Livrarias as they are known in Portuguese, are instrumental in stimulating and nurturing the intellectual life of Lisbon. They are also ubiquitous. No matter what street you’re on, you’re within walking distance of a bookstore there. Most evenings, you can find a reading, an author event, a book signing, or another similar engagement taking place at one or more of the livrarias. The oldest bookstore in the world, now known as Bertrand, is also found in Lisbon, and its history contributes to the city’s overall sense of modern antiquity.
Having a community trademark helps perpetuate an image. For Lisbon, the aforementioned tiles are its signature. For smaller cities, maybe it’s a natural feature like lakes, certain plants, or mountains. But no matter what a place chooses for its associated image, it’s important for leaders to brand their location using what it’s known for best. Even if you’re “the caladium capital of the world” like Lake Placid, Florida, or “the city of oaks and azaleas” like nearby Bartow, every place has something special to claim.
Certainly, there are other things that Lisbon does right. In our little apartment every evening, we could hear music from the local plazas wafting in through our open windows. Sometimes, there was big-band era brass, while other nights gave us Fado (the “Portuguese Blues,” as some incorrectly call it). Occasionally, an Avett-Brothers-style folk band singing in Portuguese would lend us their talents. But no matter the type of music, it was a comfort. Even without air conditioning, our little rental place was inviting and cool each night, thanks in part to the sounds of local musicians.
I suppose some of Lisbon’s success would be hard to imitate elsewhere. But every city, every town, every area has its own fair share of history, beauty, and culture to share with others. In the end, that sharing attracts visitors, and municipalities could do far worse than to follow the example set by Lisbon.
Recently, I attended the Juniper Writing Institute at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For the unaware, Amherst is the hometown of one of the canon’s most memorable and memorized poets, Emily Dickinson. Also nearby, one can find the farm of another great American poet, Robert Frost, considered by many to be the landmark poet of the 20th century. Both of these poets have meant a great deal to me as a writer throughout my career, and being in their part of the world was an unforgettable experience.
But my own independent studies of both Frost and Dickinson raised a new question for me — one that awoke me at 3:30 a.m. the first night of the conference. So distracted was I from this recurring question that I arose from my semi-peaceful travel slumber to write by hand in my journal. Here, in its unedited version, is the transcript of my late-night, early-morning writing:
6/21/15, 3:30 a.m.
I am awake because Emily Dickinson will not leave my mind. Having visited her house yesterday, I keep seeing her small corner bedroom over and over: its little sleigh bed, its dresser, its white-knobbed doors.
Most of all, though, I think of all its windows. The tour guide kept using phrases like “extraordinary fenestration,” and she did not exaggerate. The natural light in Emily’s room was almost church-like. White and spiritual, it seemed to give life to the broad, thick beams of hardwood flooring there. As old as everything was, the light carried no dust. The air in her quarters was as pristine as the white housecoat she sewed for herself. On that air was the scent of history, a rare mixture of old wood, natural fibers, and unstirred earth.
I glimpsed the Amherst world from her window. Her tiny desk was positioned before it, and for a second, I could visualize her sitting, penning lines of legacy. Some of these lines also awoke me today, mostly her first lines:
Hope is the thing with feathers
I dwell in possibility
My teacher-mind sets to work on these, and I envision exercises for my students:
(Abstraction) is the thing with (concrete object)
What idea or notion do you “dwell in,” and why?
The second of these questions applies to me as well, for once again I find myself too fixated on the idea of leaving my mark as an artist. I dream of a time when others tour my family’s farm or my smaller lake-view house in the city to see where and why and how I worked. Even at this mature age, my boyish whims of literary celebrity return, thanks in part to Emily Dickinson. My pragmatism intervenes, though, and tells me I need to sleep before daylight arrives. [End Journal Entry]
So, I was at my most honest in the middle of the night. But my thoughts of leaving a literary trail for others to follow would not stop with Emily. No, not when the home and writing space of one of my all-time literary heroes was nearby.
Upon my visit to the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, I was privileged to see his barn, his house (both floors!) and the land surrounding. I stood where the great man stood, walked where he walked, and even trod the staircase his wife descended, prompting the poem “Home Burial.” All these experiences once again raised the concern of posthumous impact.
Would people want to similarly experience the spaces where I have created? Will my own work ever merit that kind of attention, before or after my death? The literary marketplace is full of Frost-wannabes and Dickinson-aspirants, and who am I to even ponder such weighty matters? How does proving oneself a “fanboy” of literature make one any more likely to succeed at literary and scholarly endeavors? And thusly, I tortured myself further.
I visited the Robert Frost Library. I spent hours perusing the Frost-Dickinson collection in the Jones Library of Amherst. I allowed my imagination to run wild with scenarios concocted only from the notion of greatnesses recognized. And once again, I found myself twisting my brain into the same enigma that it has puzzled over like a Rubik’s Cube countless times before: Will I matter? Will my work matter? How do I ensure both? What steps must I next take to be certain that I’m not forgotten, like so many writers of the past?
I had hoped by now, at my nearly 40 years of age, that such concerns would really be a thing of the past. After all, I continue to write, and I’m sure that one day I’ll see some wider recognition than my meager efforts have so far produced. Like all writers, I’d like a Pulitzer and maybe some other big awards (see prior posts), but honestly, at the end of the day, what I’m really aiming to do is preserve people, times, and places that have mattered to me the most. If my poetry results in just a few people gaining a broader appreciation of the heritage, values, and experiences I’ve received in this life, then I’ve won. And I don’t mean that all of my poems are totally autobiographical — certainly many are not. But all of them lend themselves toward ideas, visions, and perspectives that, however universal, have arisen somehow from the life I’ve lived.
Will people care about that life? Why should they? Will students sit through laborious documentaries about the different periods in my writing timeline? Will my work be anthologized in textbooks of the future? Such inquiries can drive one mad, if left unchecked. Spending countless hours in the homes of the greats might not make me a better writer, but it did accomplish one thing — it allowed me to see a shared humanity, a common thread of inspiration, motivation, and dedication.
Persistence, diligence, and enormous creativity are shared traits among those we celebrate today, so long after their earthly departures. And perhaps it is these traits that we should take away from memorials and museums commemorating their contributions. More than the vanity of asking, “How can I attain their level of distinction?”, perhaps we (I) should be asking, “What can I do continuously and creatively well to positively affect my world?” Such a question surpasses the superficial desire for remembrance, and enters us into a more philosophical, even theological, realm. May our answers lead us not to fame, not to fortune, and not to solipsism. Rather, may they lead us to be better human beings, produce finer work, and seize the opportunities of the everyday.
To those of you who have eagerly taken advantage of my free book weekend offer, I offer my deep gratitude. Your acceptance of my work shows that you believe it has potential. For this vote of faith, I thank you. Other followers who have not yet seized the opportunity to get your free Kindle copy of Growing Moon, Growing Soil: please do so! I’d hate to tell my writer friends that I couldn’t even GIVE AWAY my poems…how embarrassing.
On a separate note, I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers who encourage others to “write about those things that you would never want to write about.” This near-cliche is usually followed by an admonition to confess fears, secrets, undisclosed parts of one’s past, etc. in the name of soul-cleansing and “honest art.”
Here’s where I disagree with these well-meaning pseudo-sages: Writing poetry is supposed to make the world a little better, a little more beautiful, or a little more meaningful. Some things simply don’t need exploration in poetry, however. Remember how, in junior high writing classes, they taught us to “consider our purpose and our audience?” That rule hasn’t changed. What audience is going to want to read about how you wouldn’t wear sandals to the beach because of toenail fungus? More broadly, why write about the baser matters of life when there’s so much beauty, so much history, so much grander inspiration to seize?
Maybe my gripe here comes from a biblical background: Philippians 4:8 comes regularly to my mind while writing. I use it as a test to see if my poetry bears relevance and worth. That verse reads, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” I feel an obligation as a poet to produce work that causes people to contemplate life using these criteria. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that my poetry always is autobiographical or just about the “warm fuzzies.” But, if I can get people to think in a way that this verse speaks of, even if it’s using something made up (like Christ’s parables), I’ve done my job.
Often, contemporary poetry elicits thoughts that meet some of these qualifications, but certainly not all. Keats’s Grecian Urn aside, truth is not always beauty. I know that’s unpopular talk in our culture today, with Facebook and other social media serving as conduits of over-sharing and gross uber-transparency. Where, however, is the beauty in rape? In murder? In cannibalism? This series of questions beckons back to undergraduate courses in ethics and philosophy, but no matter what school of thought you follow, you must confess: Some factual things do not pass the test for beauty, even if “beauty” is subjective (or, to quote an old aphorism, “in the eye of the beholder.”) If beauty is a matter of perspective, then certainly some twisted minds will find reasons to admire all forms of ugliness. Still, “Truth is beauty, beauty, truth” might make good verse, but too many great minds, both in and out of the humanities, have discredited it over the centuries.
Likewise (on the reverse side of this same coin), something can be lovely without necessarily being pure — think about those intricate bacteria you viewed beneath a microscope during high school science labs. Beautiful? You bet. Pure? Not in the least. My theological friends will tear apart this argument, no doubt, noting that human or scientific truth, beauty, nobility, etc. are not the issues about which Paul was writing. His aims were higher than enlightening our temporary mortal existence. I get that, but his words make a pretty great checklist for poets to strive toward also. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt for artists of every genre to contemplate the audience effect achieved in Paul’s terms. Imagine the renaissance we could ignite if painters, sculptors, dancers, writers, photographers, and other creatives used Philippians 4:8 as their common assessment rubric. What bright, radiant, vibrant works could result!
I’ll step down off my soapbox now. Some things just need airing, and tonight, this little rant happened to be one of them. I hope, once again, I haven’t distanced too many of my fans or followers with this post. I would love to hear opposing or coinciding viewpoints in comments below, and PLEASE remember to take advantage of FREE BOOK WEEKEND (details below). Good night, dear readers.
Once in a great while, a poet has the chance to meet with someone who has “been there, done that” many times over. Such was the case over my recent spring break. My family and I had gone to north Georgia to visit my dad’s sheep farm and do the tourist routine. While there, my father suggested we visit with local writing legend Mildred Greear. I must admit, I was hesitant about the engagement. Stopping by the home of an 87-year-old woman wasn’t really on my itinerary amid mini-golfing, mountain climbing, and snowball fights, but I figured, what the heck — vacation means no real schedule, and who knew? It might turn out a piece of writing or two.
As it turned out, Mildred’s home wasn’t too far away from where we were staying; just “up the hill,” to be exact. My father and I arrived and were greeted at the door. Mildred offered to put on some coffee for us, but we had just gone by the Sweetwater Coffeehouse and were good to go, we replied. So we sat down at her big dining table and began to talk literature. Mildred was especially interested in my literary endeavors, and asked if I’d ever submitted to the Atlanta Review, in particular. I told her I’d sent them a few pieces many years ago (pre-undergrad, let alone MFA), and she encouraged me to submit again.
“The editor there,” she said, “always sends back the most personal responses. Even if he rejects your work, you can expect to get something from it.”
Then she began to speak of her work in the local schools: “I get the boys and girls to think about Emily Dickinson,” she explained. “We look at poems and ask three questions — What, so what, and then what. Every poem has to answer those three questions, and the boys and girls really like it.”
So far, I’d gotten pieces of valuable advice for both of my fields of expertise: writing and teaching. But she wasn’t done yet. The next lessons were the best of all, as they dealt with literary life in general. Like me, Mildred self-published some years ago, and was disconcerted by the work’s treatment by others in the poetry and book community.
“They’ll say, ‘it’s not a real book,'” she recalled, “but you and I know different. Our books are better than a lot of that stuff (traditional publishers) publish.” She looked over a poem of mine from my first volume, Growing Moon, Growing Soil: Poems of my Native Land, and gave it both praise and refinement. “These words — isolation and anticipation — they throw me off a little,” she stated candidly. “Everything else is so peaceful and beautiful, and these words are jarring, kind of out-of-place.” She made me wish I’d met her before I went to press with that first volume back in 2005. Even at 87, her editorial eye hadn’t faded a bit.
She spent a little time recalling her science professor husband Phillip, bragging on his groundbreaking work regarding walnuts and other topics. Her pride shone behind a great smile as she thought of walnut trees returning all over the nation, largely because of Phillip’s influence and experiments. Modern scientists use much of his research even today in modern laboratories, she bragged. Yellowed articles about Prof. Greear’s work were pinned to her wall nearby, lasting reminders of an academic life well-lived.
My father spoke with her a little about local politics and old friends, and Mildred had opinions on all, of course. Asked about legendary north Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reese, she recalled the day of his death: “He was supposed to come by here for dinner,” she remembered. “I’d made fried chicken and we had several people over. … The time passed, and he hadn’t shown up. I just suddenly had this feeling that he wasn’t going to make it. … Somehow I just knew. I had set the table, and I told (someone in the family), ‘you can take that plate off. He’s not coming tonight.’ A moment later, the phone rang, and we found out that (Byron Herbert Reese) had shot himself.”
The memory of that night still haunts Mildred Greear. A pair of boys, Reese’s pupils, had stopped by minutes before his death, and Byron was playing a sad song on the Victrola in his office, the story goes. He seemed very depressed, and the students attempted to cheer him up before heading out. As they proceeded down the hallway, they allegedly heard Reese’s fatal gunshot. The boys ran back to find their good professor dead. Mildred said she encountered one of the young men years later and asked him if he was one of the students who visited Reese that infamous evening. The gentleman she inquired of, now a full-fledged adult, said he was indeed. They consoled one another all over again, remembering Reese’s spirit and work.
Mildred, my dad and I talked a little longer, mostly small, innocuous chit-chat, and then she completed our visit with a hearty thank-you to both of us for stopping by. She wished me well, and implored me to keep in touch. She also asked for a copy of my book, which I’ll be sending soon. Mildred, like so many other elder writers, offered me a keen sense of what value can be added to a life by simply “sticking around.” Her history, her perspectives, and her sound sense of good writing made our visit not only an unexpected pleasure, but a real privilege as well. Thank you, Mildred.