life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

A Farewell Book Launch

cover-for-adIn one week, I will be launching my latest collection, Hard Inheritance, at one of our city’s nicest art galleries. It is bittersweet, as this will be both the first and last book launch I hold here. I’ve loved my current city for 17 years, but this summer, my family and I will be moving to the west coast of Florida. My newest university teaching gig is a 70-mile drive from my present home, and making a 140-mile round trip daily is simply infeasible. By spring break, we plan to put our house on the market, and hopefully by summer, we will be in a new house in the Tampa Bay area. Timing, the market, and other factors will determine how quickly all this occurs, of course.

In the meantime, I’m excited to offer this new book, much of which has been inspired by our city, to the people of Winter Haven. My cover artist, a Winter Haven native herself, will be on hand to sign copies of the book with me, and invitees include people who have been supportive of my craft over the years that I’ve resided here. In many ways, this book launch is a fond goodbye to a place that has been kind to me and my family. The time I’ve spent here hasn’t been perfect — the same is true anywhere called home — but it has been inspirational.

Winter Haven’s people, its lakes, its nature, and its history have all woven themselves into my poems at different points along my artistic journey. I’ll miss all that over on the west coast, but there will be fertile material for writing there, as well. I’ve enjoyed seeing the vast salt water every day as I cross the Courtney Campbell Causeway or the Howard Frankland Bridge, and I feel certain that soon enough, my writing will take on a flavor that is more beach-driven. My hope is not to become one of those poets who creates trite rhymes about the sea, but rather, one who allows the environment to speak in its own way. Certainly that has happened here among the lakes of Winter Haven.

My wife’s family lives in Winter Haven, and doubtless we will be returning to visit often, especially during the summers. And yes, it will be a while yet before we’re out of the area. But this book launch allows me to reflect upon and salute a place that has been meaningful. The future is uncertain but hopeful, and it wouldn’t be possible without history. So, Winter Haven, a place of history, beauty, and opportunity, this book launch is for you. Best wishes.

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poetry, Uncategorized

The Belligerent Merry Christmas

Ho-ho-hold your horses there, buster. 

 

Allow me to begin this semi-controversial post with two disclaimers, or what my logic and rhetoric professors would have called “assumptions:” For the remainder of this reading, please assume that I am a Christian (as I am), and that I am both a poet and language arts educator (which I also am). This means two things — 1. I have no problem saying Merry Christmas to anyone, and often do so both publicly and privately, and 2. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way words are constructed, their connotations, and their overall impression upon audience.

All these assumptions lead us to the real meat of this post: People who angrily insist upon “Merry Christmas” when shopping, on the phone, or in the public forum at large. Yes, I’d like to see everyone wishing everyone else a Merry Christmas, but here’s the thing — God-fearing Christian folks, when you’re in line at the grocery store/Wal-Mart/Target, and the already overburdened clerk says “Happy Holidays,” then and there is not the time to launch into a political and dogmatic soapbox about the use of Merry Christmas. People have families to get home to, dinners to prepare, cards or invitations to send out, and frankly, your high-minded and heavy-handed semantics are only making the season slower and worse for everyone in line behind you.

If you’re that concerned about conveying Jesus to the world, perhaps a better tactic would be to show grace, love, and a touch of holiday empathy to that already overworked person in the store uniform who’s helping you. Look around — everyone knows it’s not just “the holidays” — manger scenes, stars of Bethlehem, advent calendars, and a whole host of heavenly hosts can be found all around you. Yes, there are also snowmen and Santas and all the gaudy lights that Charlie Brown abhorred, but there, in the midst of all that commercialism, is Luke Two, also.

From a strictly academic standpoint, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is more vague and, although alliterative, bland to the point of being trite. Maybe it is this linguistic homogeneity that is the source of conflict — it’s not the lack of Merry Christmas, it’s that the alternative sounds so generic and impersonal. We like people that are regularly in contact with us to know our names, and a little of our likes and dislikes. When we’re confronted with the ho-hum Happy Holidays, we feel like we’ve been shortchanged in some way. That much is understandable.

But to turn a well-wish into an open wound of ill-perceived malice and religious persecution is to defeat the spirit of the season entirely. What makes you so special that you MUST receive a Merry Christmas over any other type of parting exchange? Would you be so offended by the nonseasonal “Have a Nice Day?” How about “Take care now?”

Listen: I make my living from words and their direct and indirect meanings. If anyone should have a beef about what language is used when and how, it should be me. But I’m not going to lambaste the poor soul who wishes me a happy holiday, a good evening, or even a (gasp) Happy Hanukkah. I may return their good tidings with a Merry Christmas of my own, or I might simply say thank you. But to use my faith as a weapon of ridicule? No thanks.

Lighten up, ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay, including what the tattooed kid at the cash register says. May your days be merry and bright. Enjoy this Christmas season and all its glorious traditions with family, friends, and others. Let us keep the good cheer through civility, respectful discourse, and that most universal of all greetings: an honest smile. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

An Elegy for Booktraders

photo

Recently, one of our local traditions here in town closed its doors for good. Booktraders was a staple in downtown Winter Haven for decades, and after two different owners’ attempts at reviving its business, the used bookstore was decorated with deceptively happy-looking yellow signs in its big front windows: FREE BOOKS.

I entered just like dozens of times before, this time with less enthusiasm and curious optimism. The smell of old paperbacks, wood shelving and historical bindings filled me as it had during all those other prior visits, but this time, it was the scent of defeat. People were inside filling carts and boxes with books that they probably never would have “traded” their own used books for previously. During this glut of knowledge, it seemed to matter little whether the books had any real appeal to the hoarders or not. Books were free! The scene was not confrontational like the 1980s ugliness of Cabbage Patch Kid mania, or more recent consumer battles for the hottest items or gadgets. Nonetheless, it was an unseemly display of avarice at its basest: Humans turned hyenas by someone else’s loss.

The real sadness of the situation was its broader commentary upon our current culture. Thanks to electronic everything and a constant shove toward productivity, efficiency and expedience, Booktraders met its La Brea Tar Pits-style extinction, a slow and steady groaning descent into fossilization. I remember summers when my mother, an English teacher for our local public high school, would leisurely read through paperback after paperback. She instilled this love of pleasure-reading into all of her children, myself included. Her friends, more literate members of our community, likewise would consume books by the handful, especially during the summer. That type of leisure reading, however, seems more and more to be a thing of the distant past. Certainly, there are those select bibliophiles who consciously consume traditional texts, but the larger portrait of American reading habits paints a grim picture — one comprised of people engaged in more reading-like activities (texting, Facebook-checking, etc.) than in actual comprehension.

I admit it: I was not above the shuffle and scavenge of Booktraders’ end, I hate to say. I, too, walked away with three free books (pictured above) that actually piqued my interest. At least by saving these few volumes, I could promise them a good home rather than some cold resale. This act was a first for me as a lover of literature: walking away sorrowfully with books tucked beneath my arm. The creak and close of the store’s wooden doors behind me resonated like a casket’s final seal before burial.

The shuttering of Booktraders is a totem of a larger societal shift that is neither promising nor positive. When we are willing to prey on books but not give them our earnest attention and appreciation, we can no longer call ourselves a civilization. As publishing undergoes increasing transition, I suspect that real readers will become the  fulfillment of Ray Bradbury’s prophecies in the iconic novel Fahrenheit 451. We will be the outliers in a world walled in by electronic messaging and superficial relationships. Eventually, those of us who have bothered to memorize important passages will be glanced upon skeptically, even suspiciously. Perhaps this sounds extreme and even conspiracy-nuttish, but history paints a picture of prior societies who have fallen under similar strains. When we lose our love of literature, we lose our humanity.

For now, Booktraders does not rest in peace. It rests in pieces — fragments of disheveled disarray, the byproduct of mindless consumerism. It deserves better. It deserves honor. It deserves love. Farewell old friend, and thank you.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Christmas Remembrances — Friend or Foe?

Pull-up-Christmas-Tree-with-LightsOne of the best things about being a poet around the holidays is the reflection that generates so many great memories. Ideas spurred on by recollections of past Christmases or realizations that take place here in the present are equally powerful motivations to write.

The one cautionary admonition I would issue to my fellow writers, however, falls into that dreadful category of avoiding bathos — that ripe sentimentality (see prior posts) which lessens the power of our words. Holidays become great cliche fodder; all the old pieces of language from carols and cards come flooding back to our brains, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll seep their way into our writing and stink it up like expired egg nog.   

With that word of sufficient warning, allow me to make one slight allowance — writing work that alludes to Christmas carols or other seasonal cultural icons is entirely different. Starting a poem with “Silent Night, Holy Night” and then altering it to convey a completely different message than the old hymn is  okay. Moreover, it’s a world apart from describing one’s past family celebrations as “holly jolly” or simply “merry.” Yuck!

The challenge for writers of all genres is finding new ways to express the oldest of great notions. When Dickens penned A Christmas Carol so long ago, you can bet that he knew his message was not novel — “greed bad, generosity good” had been a maxim for generations before Ebenezer Scrooge existed. But through memorable characterization, engaging dialogue (who doesn’t know “Bah! Humbug!”) and other tools of the trade, Dickens was able to render a masterpiece that has been adapted and enjoyed for more than a century.

As writers, the greatest gift we can give ourselves this season is new perspective. Let’s leave the old wrapping paper of holiday hackney in the dark recesses of our mental attics, and erect the fresh green boughs of our modern perceptions and expressions. As our memories and our current situations blend warmly in the glow of the holidays, let us task ourselves with the duty of renewal and re-purpose. The ghost of Christmas yet to come will thank us for it.