life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

More than Organisms

vitruvian-300-333Recently, I attended a lecture by a respected writer who posited that we should write about the obscene, the vulgar, the disgusting, and the revolting. He said that his logic for this encouragement depended not upon shock value, but rather, upon the notion that all such things were true. Specifically, he called writers in the seminar to write about their bodily functions, sexual encounters, hidden diseases, and sources of physical shame. This, he said, would lead to writing that was absolute truth, and would liberate writers from their self-consciousness. Likewise, such writing would reach an audience that has apparently been searching for such literature — in his mind, there exists a group of people who want to know that others do, in fact, excrete waste, cavort recklessly, and wrestle with modern-day plagues (and desire to read about it). Perhaps so.

My response to the notion that we should write ugliness, though, is this: We are more than organisms, and because we are, we should elevate ourselves and our art above the crass. This statement is not intended as condescension or old-school literary snobbishness, but, somewhat ironically, as a statement of truth. Stay with me here:

As the leaders of all other species, and as cognitive, reflective, intellectually astute creatures, we should use our creative and mental faculties in the most supreme way possible. Keats was not wrong when he equated truth with beauty, even though his definition may have been an oversimplification. Yes, there is more to truth than just beauty, but as highly developed beings, we should seek the best and finest truths rather than those which debase or denigrate. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and countless others (including the Romantics) have reached this conclusion well before our time.

To write about subjects primitive, desperate, and scatological can sometimes be a fun and bawdy diversion, but devoting oneself to these lesser ideas renders literature into the equivalent of monkey-flung feces, to borrow an image from the aforementioned speaker. Some will call this assertion elitism, and maybe it is. But if we are to leave a legacy of thought, shouldn’t we aspire to greatness rather than the sewer? Shouldn’t we leave behind something more than our literal behind?

All this theoretical explication probably won’t change the downward spiral of gutter-dwelling “literature” that is being written. I get that. But if one person lifts clearer eyes to consider things less coarse, less brutal, and less detestable, then this small epistle hasn’t been in vain. As writers, we don’t have to be Pollyanna, falsely portraying a world that is all sunshine and daisies; in fact, we have an obligation not to. But likewise, we don’t have to decrease our own personal and cultural worth by slinging words that glorify the gross and reprehensible. We are more than organisms.We are wonderfully made, and that wonder should shine in all we write.

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poetry, publishing, teaching, writers, writing

Catching up with a Great Mentor

peter meinkeRecently I had the privilege of driving our state’s poet laureate to and from my employer school for a special reading and appearance. Peter Meinke, author of multiple volumes of poetry and prose, professor emeritus for Eckerd College, and long-time St. Petersburg resident, was one of my mentors in University of Tampa’s MFA program, and before that, he edited my work and instructed me at other workshops around Florida. If you take a look at my book, Middle Class American Proverb, you’ll see that one of the blurbs on the back is from Peter, as well. His advice helped form my personal aesthetic, and his appreciation of forms helped give me a bigger poet’s toolbox.

Conversations with Peter are always interesting because he’s been in the literary game long enough to have stories aplenty about the teaching and writing life. He’s worked with some of the biggest and most recognizable names in the poetry community, and he’s won a plethora of awards, although he’d never brag. In many ways, Peter is what I would consider “the poet’s poet.” So to be driving this gentleman to and from his home was a real treat for an emerging writer.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about some of my recent endeavors, poetic and academic alike. I mentioned that I’d applied for a few different things (programs and such), and he replied, “You know, sometimes you get struck by lightning. Something just comes to you out of the blue when you least expect it. Somebody calls you up, and you can hardly believe it.” He talked about a few of his own such experiences, and then finished up with, “…but you have to put yourself out there.”

We chatted a while about some of the folks we both knew — where they were, how they were doing, who had vacated or filled positions here or there. It was richly rewarding to converse with someone who shared a common vocabulary and a common set of interests.

As usual, Peter’s appearance was met with applause and appreciation. Students and community members lined up for his book signing afterward, and he took pictures with several of my awe-struck pupils. The night was memorable, successful, and enjoyable for us all.

On my way back to my own home after dropping Peter off, I was filled with the hope that one day, I too could provide the gift of experience to some up-and-comer. As great as poetry is, passing its “fever” on to others is even greater. And therein lies the quiet strength of our state’s poet laureate: his legacy of learning and love of language. Might we all aspire to leave similar tracks for others to follow.

poetry, Uncategorized

What If and If Only

PreacherI heard a minister deliver a sermon that cautioned believers against these two phrases. His point, for those within his congregation, bore validity: If the family members of a faith spend too much time in worry or regret, then they (we) are displaying a lack of confidence in our Higher Power.

For writers and creators, however, there are no two more powerful phrases. “What ifs” open the door to imagination, whereas “If onlys” encourage reflection. There’s a proud tradition behind both of these phrases yielding creative, dynamic works across genres. Consider Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — a “What If” poem if there ever was one. Scholars and speculators agree that much of the poem may have been induced by chemical means, but even so, without the questioning of reality, such language would not have existed.

For “if only” work, see Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t think a great deal of exposition is needed for this example. From Lenore to Annabel Lee, Poe’s work is rife with the “if onlys” of lost love and longing. This isn’t to say that all creative work must contain angst or fantasy; certainly much great poetry, art, and creation has been produced from the images and occurrences of “average” life (see Billy Collins). However, to exclude the questions mentioned above from the creative process would result in enormous detriment.

As artists, the need for us to pose and answer creative inquiries is great, and perhaps no two questions are more idea-inducing than these. Fellow writers and makers, delve into your what-if and if-only moments. Your Kubla Khan or your Raven may be waiting just around the next question.

poetry, Uncategorized

Niche and Identity

Sometimes routine is more foe than friend
Can one’s writing niche become a rut?

Much has been written about the importance of finding one’s place, both in the universal sense and within one’s chosen profession. Modern poets strive for years to find their voice, their style, and their unique contribution to literature. In essence, they strive to find their niche.

No matter how you pronounce it (neesh for some, nitch for others), one’s niche is an important component to the writing life. Knowing it can mean the difference between publication and rejection. Our niche, to some extent, is how we brand ourselves as writers. A quick look at the title of this site will show you how I feel my work is defined — “Florida poetry.” Granted, that doesn’t mean my work is all beach sunsets and Disney characters (those aren’t the REAL Florida anyway), but enough of my work has its roots in Floridian soil to justify the label, I believe. I am indeed a Florida Poet.

But what happens when that niche becomes a rut? When the title we choose to wear is either outgrown or outmoded, it’s time to reconsider. A wise writing mentor once told me, “We are constantly redefining ourselves.” He was right then, and it still holds true. When our chosen position in life or literature no longer suits our situation, then change, in one form or another, must occur. Even now, as my travels increase and my style matures, I feel that the “Florida Poet” label is being stretched to its limits. The niche has lived its life, and perhaps I may retire that verbiage altogether. Like actors who fear typecasting, writers too can “portray themselves into a box.” If one is known by strictly one state or one style, then it’s time to diversify. Showing off the full range of “chops” that one possesses can also breathe fresh air into previously stale subject matter.

Oh sure, I’ll always be a Florida poet at heart — this land, where my family has spent seven generations, has been too good to even consider abandoning my roots, my heritage, or my Cracker drawl. But as my poems grow and as my tastes broaden, perhaps I may dig the niche a little broader. Florida for many is a destination. For me, it is the port from which to set sail — not a rut, but a route. May my work always do it justice, and may I always fit my niche, no matter its wording, to the fullest.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Keeping the Writing Window Clean

Every writer needs an inspirational view.
Every writer needs an inspirational view.

Those who’ve followed my blog for a while know that I have a “writing room.” Back in the seventies, this room was the formal living room, and after my second son was born, I transformed it into my studio (since I had willingly transformed my previous study into a nursery). In this room, we installed a large picture window that looks out across Lake Elbert. I do most of my writing in view of the lake.

But today’s post is less about the room itself and more about that window — the one that allows me to clear my head of other outside influences and reach a state of creative clarity. This morning, you see, I had to go outside to clean the window. Living on a lake means tolerating the Daddy Longlegs, dirt dobbers, and other occasional creepy crawlies that want to claim your open porch as home. But when they start to encroach on my view, then the gloves are off. As I was scrubbing, I realized, as many poets have, the metaphorical power of windows. Granted, this was not some new, earth-shaking revelation, but simply a restatement of prior knowledge: windows in literature have served as eyes, symbols of transparency or opacity, and they have taken on a wide range of other meanings, depending on the work’s needs.

For us as writers, however, our window on the world (both literally and figuratively) must always remain unclouded. If we allow streaks or stains in the form of distractions, worldly worries, or doubts about our abilities, then the inspiration stops. Just as the window works best when clean, so too, does our writerly vision work best when we free it from the dust of politics, society, career, and finances. Maybe your window is clouded with something else — grief or glee, negative or positive stress. No matter what the “smudges,” we as creatives must get out our mental Windex, and keep the view inspirational. Clean your window, reader. Your work will thank you for it.

poetry, Uncategorized

Lessons from Santa Fe

Now that some time has passed since my scholarship-funded trip to the Glen West Workshop, I feel that I can reflect on the experience with greater objectivity, and extract some of the bigger ideas from it. Held on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the workshop included writers and artists from all walks of life, and from all over the world.

A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John's College in Santa Fe.
A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

The scenery was beautiful, the discussions and seminars were engaging, and the faith-based component made me take a much harder look at my own personal theology. Almost nightly, I found myself returning to scripture to examine my own beliefs in response to the claims of others beyond my denomination. What I found was this: The pastors and leaders I have known allow God’s Word to speak to them to inform their perspectives. Their hermeneutics and apologetics are without error when scrutinized from a logical, etymological, and spiritual standpoint. I became grateful for my solid foundation in the greatest of all literature.

 

Aside from the religious component of the workshop, however, the time spent working out my own poetry was invaluable. Critiques during workshop allowed me to hear from a community that represented a broad cross-section of society, from amateur dabblers, avid readers, and experts who are highly respected in their field. In addition, the artful environment of Santa Fe provided a much-needed break from the summertime doldrums I was previously facing. The art galleries, public displays of sculpture, and a fantastic rendering of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters on stage at the Lensic Theatre allowed me the cognitive space I needed to regenerate creativity.

While the accommodations were sparse, the company, the climate, and the conversation made up for any lacking luxuries. I made a few new good friends who are very different from me, and by so doing, received bigger understandings and broader interpretations of life itself. I would recommend The Glen West Workshop to those seeking something different than the typical writing conference. Its effect on your mind and your soul will be worth it.

poetry, Uncategorized

Pick Five: A Burnout Prevention Strategy

handfiveIt’s that magical time of the academic year when teachers and professors are thoroughly sick and tired of everything school-related, and unfortunately, that also sometimes includes students. I know, I know. Those in the pedagogical arts are supposed to be compassionate souls who never tire of their charges — that doesn’t stop us from being human, however. Every year about this same time, when I feel the negative vibes besetting me daily, I have a little routine that I choose to follow that also serves me well as a writer. I pick five.

Here’s what I mean: I teach juniors and seniors in high school. Among my juniors, I pick out five or so that I know I can and will make a meaningful difference to in the school year yet to come, when they are seniors. My seniors, of course, are graduating, so it becomes my priority to begin thinking ahead for the next go-round. Who among those 11th graders will I impact in a way that makes me their most unforgettable teacher? How will I reach them profoundly, leaving my impression on their future? By “picking five,” I find a reason to stick around for yet another year. Even if I’m only there for those selected few, I know I will have achieved a purpose that is greater than succumbing to my stress and shucking the whole thing in favor of real estate sales or marketing (not that there’s anything wrong with those professions; they’re just the first couple that sprang to mind).

For writers (and poets especially), this strategy requires a little tweaking: Pick five writing goals that you haven’t achieved (realistic ones), or choose five poetic forms that you haven’t yet mastered. I’m still trying to write a reasonably decent villanelle, for example. Don’t try to force words into those forms of course — that never works — but allow those forms to become subconscious targets. When inspiration next strikes, see if one or more of those forms might be fitting for the topic. For writers of other genres, maybe your “five” can be some new narrative devices or dialogue tricks that you haven’t tried out. In any event, identifying five goals can be beneficial for just about anybody.

So, as summer vacations await and beautiful weather beckons beyond your window, don’t quit your day job. Think of five reasons to do what you do best. Maybe those five things, whatever they happen to be, will keep you in the game a little longer and preserve your sanity.