For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.
Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.
I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.
And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.
Recently 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.
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.
My family and I attended the Central Avenue Arts Festival downtown today. The booths were plentiful and colorful, with media ranging from stained glass to metal, oil-on-canvas to photography. All were dazzlingly amazing. The weather was breezy, and displays included pottery making (my two sons got to make pinch pots) and an entire “kids’ corner” devoted to letting children make and do.
Amid these other booths, there was one gentleman attempting to sell his self-published children’s books. They were on display, and people were occasionally stopping by, flipping pages and admiring them. But in comparison to the other booths, the lone book vendor lacked the sparkle and flair that other artists generated with their wares.
Certainly it wasn’t the author’s fault — his medium was simply more “subdued” than the flashier arts around him. Sometimes those of us in the literary realm find ourselves struggling with this same perception: Why should patrons trouble their minds with words when a picture will provide instant gratification? Understandably, the average consumer wants to be aesthetically pleased. Poetry appeals to all of the senses, but the reader has to work to receive its pleasure. Paintings, sculptures, or photographs, while potentially meaning-heavy, can be appreciated even by those who aren’t seeking an artist’s purpose or vision. To delve into language, however, requires cognitive investment. And so the struggle continues: How do writers (and poets especially) reach a want-it-now, get-it-now society?
One way is to increase awareness. When people know authors and poets, they are more likely to direct their attention toward the written word. Every city, town, and county has someone pursuing the writing life, and some are better known than others. About two years ago, I posted an interview I had with Mildred Greear, a North Georgia poet whose work is known regionally, and who was a friend to Byron Herbert Reese, a well-known poet of historic import. The folks in Mildred’s part of the world love her work and support it, not because they are among the literati or the poetry elite, but because, well…it’s Mildred. And to support poetry is to support her and everything she represents: a distinct geography, history, and set of ideals rolled into one. In an age where many are crying for audiences to “separate the work from the artist” and similar notions, people near Sautee-Nacoochee, GA are doing the opposite, and it works. One great ambassador for verse can make all the difference. Some of the customers who have bought Mildred’s work might not even read poems, but they see her volumes as a near-biblical necessity. If you’re living there, you need some Greear poetry on the family bookshelf.
My hope as a younger, still-emerging poet is to serve as that same kind of ambassador. Rather than being the “quiet booth” in the arts community, I hope that my literary contributions (large and small alike) help make my community a better place in much the same way Mildred’s efforts have. The more people understand the vitality of poetry and other literary arts, the more a culture thrives. And with that thriving culture, communities build understanding and mutual respect, as well.
If you support writers and artists, especially in your community, please allow me to thank you. Likewise, if you haven’t seen what kinds of creative minds are at work in your part of the world, I encourage you to do so. Attend gallery openings, public readings, book signings, and the range of other available cultural outlets that your town or city has to offer. And if you don’t find any, make one of your own — it may feel like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness, but as any good Bible scholar can tell you, those lone voices are often the most relevant. It may sound trite, but you really can make an impact for good.
As I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.
Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?
Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.
As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.
Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.
Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.
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.