life, poetry, publishing, writing

On Winning and Losing in Literary Life

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Recently, I was honored to receive a lovely recognition: The Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. The contest, hosted by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Library in North Carolina, was judged by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, who read my first-place poem during a Zoom-based awards ceremony earlier this week. You can read about the award and view my poem here: https://thelanierlibrary.org/upcoming-events/sidney-lanier-poetry/

I am thrilled and excited by this achievement, just as I was when I was a poetry “newbie” seeking to stake my claim in the literary landscape of our country. I know the prize probably won’t make national headlines or secure me a six-figure advance on a book deal from Norton, but every time my work manages to get a little attention, it’s a nice reminder that I’m doing something right. I’m sure it’s the same for artists or creators of any type.

Lots of novice poets get very intense about winning contests; they pay obscene entry fees, look for legitimate-sounding competitions that promise “publication” or big monetary awards, and they think that if only they can win, their struggle for literary acclaim will at last be over. I know this because I did it, too. Truth is, there’s always a bigger award. Even Pulitzer and Nobel winners will tell you: Once you’ve got the thing, you’ve got it. You take it for granted after a while, even as rising writers grit their teeth and sweat over such matters, grinding their pencil leads into ugly nubs or mercilessly pounding their poor, abused keyboards.

This isn’t to say that awards don’t matter; certainly there are some that can ensure future prosperity and opportunity for those of us in writer-land. But to fret over which prize we might win or lose? That’s a surefire way to inhibit creative flow. The author banging out words with a mindset fixated on ribbons or trophies is a typesetter, not a writer. “If I just arrange these artfully glamorous adjectives in a certain way, I can be sure to impress the judges,” they tell themselves, all the while sacrificing authenticity.

There are those who will say that art should never be about competition, that the two notions are diametrically opposed. They say that there can be no truly fair criteria for contests since artistic taste is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so forth. I won’t go so far as to endorse their argument. For as long as humans have existed, we have competed, even in abstract matters. To throw away literary contests would be a foolish refusal to acknowledge our humanity. But that doesn’t mean we need to prioritize contests over the truer, nobler task of creating. Writers write, above all else. In the words of Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.”

The other truth that new writers are sometimes unprepared for is the extraordinary number of losses one must endure for each win. Every time a poet or prose writer achieves some prize, you can bet that there are huge strings and stacks of losing entries that preceded victory. Even my friends who are considered “name-brand” poets acknowledge that losing is a far larger part of lit-biz than winning. The old adage about “taking your lumps” is as true in writing as it is in sports, performance, or business. Everybody pays their dues.

I neither discourage nor encourage entry into poetry contests. I think that each person must decide whether such an act is worth the time, resources, and effort invested. For some, competition is a motivator, and for others, it means anxiety. In a culture that embraces the idea “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” there remain individuals who are happier refraining from shooting altogether. Good for them; not entering is as much a willful act as entering.

For those of us who keep submitting our stuff to competitions large and small, keeping a balanced perspective is crucial. I appreciate the recognition of this latest award, and I’m honored by it, as well. And like so many other people, I like to win. However, I’ve also done this long enough to know that achievement and accomplishment only happen via work. And the work must go on.

poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Taking to Audio: The Metacreative Podcast, Episode One

metacreative

I’ve got a new project amid all this quarantining and social distancing, and I hope you’ll give it a listen!

The Metacreative Podcast is intended to help people rouse their inspiration to write, create, and produce. This first episode details a process that has long worked for me: Socratic Journaling. It also includes a couple of really stellar poems that might help loosen some of your own reflections, which can also drive inspiration. Find The Metacreative Podcast here:

The Metacreative Podcast: Episode One

Thanks for your support as I try out this new venture. I hope it results in some great work as we stay alone together in this strange time. Happy Listening!

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“God Wanted You to be a Poet:” Conversations with my Mother

 

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Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.

Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”

Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.

These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.

However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.

Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.

 

 

poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

The Joy of Literary Volunteerism

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.

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Beautiful Genius: A Review of Cornelius Eady’s The War Against the Obvious 

 

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Cover courtesy of Jacar Press

While reading Cornelius Eady’s newest chapbook, The War Against the Obvious (Jacar Press, 2018), the audience must ask: “Is it jazz? Is it blues? Is it poetry?” The answer to all three is a resounding yes.

Using the artful anaphora and rhythmic refrains common to musical innovators like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Eady weaves words into meter reminiscent of Langston Hughes. In other places, he allows his diction to parallel the beats and melodic play of jazz master Thelonious Monk, with scats of phrases punctuated by drum-beat white space. Line and stanza breaks equally reinforce sometimes-staccato prosody. The overall effect is at once enlivening and enlightening.

Eady has previously professed a love for 45 rpm records, and while reading this chapbook, one can detect a distinct connection between the small vinyls of yesteryear and the lyric professions of certain poems in the 34-page collection. Single-page pieces like “I’m a Fool to Love You” (a title borrowed from Billie Holiday) resonate with the static and scratch of bygone, glorious audio:

“Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,
Some type of supernatural creature.
My mother would tell you, if she could,
About her life with my father,
A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.
She would tell you about the choices
A young black woman faces.”

And so begins an adventure into a bittersweet past, one akin to those heard in the brass lamentations of saxophones. The volume of poems is both light and dark, still and moving. With serious, dire poems like “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket” eventually giving way to happy pieces like “White Socks” (a rollicking commentary on fashion) and “The White Couch,” a narrative poem displaying a vignette of humorous everyday life and concluding the book with a smile.

The collection is also home to one of the most powerful closing lines I’ve ever read (no hyperbole here):
“Like cellophane beneath a match.” This concluding simile comes from the poem “Aerial Ballet,” and to truly understand its impact, one must have context (buy the chapbook). But please believe me when I say that, as far as endings go, this one is perfect. It’s worth picking up a copy of the book if only to fall under the spell of this single piece.

In addition, Eady pays homage to the influence of AM radio in his past through the universality of his words. In another era, AM radio stations played a little bit of everything. A rock song may be followed by something classical or country, and in the same way, The War Against the Obvious combines influences to produce a collection that is relatable to a broad demographic. Just as music reaches into a primal, limbic space within us, so too do Eady’s poems. Like the watermarked music notes behind them, these lines and stanzas rise and fall with intentional spontaneity.

After reading The War Against the Obvious, one would assume that a musical album download included with it would continue its sonorous tradition of jazz or blues, or maybe a combination of both. But true to its title, the chapbook is supplemented by the unexpected (spoilers ahead): The audio collection, accessed by using a link on an included bookmark, whisks the listener into the world of Irish ballad, bluegrass, and folk-rock.  Hanging Out with Ms. Sparkle features words and music by Eady, but it is made complete by vocals from the poet and Concetta Abbate, percussion from Sebastian Sanchez, and accompaniment including acoustic and electric guitars and the unmistakable sound of mountain dulcimer, all played by Eady himself. Charlie Rauh lends his electric guitar skills to track 6, and Paulo Fazio assisted with arrangements. Sanchez also served as mix engineer for the collection, which includes a tribute to Zora Neale Hurston entitled “Ward of the State” — a worthwhile listen. The lyrics of the songs are poetry themselves, and although there are places where one can tell that this project was done by individual artists with ordinary technology, the mixture of strings, voices, and drums creates an ear-pleasing experience. It is a surprising and eclectic blend that makes for a good morning coffee-drinking soundtrack.

The War Against the Obvious and its supplemental album would make a fine addition to anyone’s library, but it will especially speak to fans of history, diverse music, and strong imagery. For these reasons, it is my pleasure to recommend both this reading and this listening. You will not be disappointed.

You may view a full description and order this volume from the publisher here.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Creeks and Hammocks: Reflecting on Year 41

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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.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Poetry Reading is On the Rise! Now What?

closeup photo of assorted title books
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Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?

The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.

But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.

Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.

We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.

I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.

Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Obligatory Pre-AWP Blog Post

It took long enough, but AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has finally come to Tampa. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be reading, learning, and buddying around with some of the finest literary minds in our nation and beyond. Lots of writers have documented their social anxieties and their expectations about AWP in their blogs, even going so far as to provide their packing list and playlists for the occasion.

I think I’ll take a different approach: Insofar as this is my first AWP, I have virtually no preconceived notions about “elevator pitches” or slick networking. No, I’m a poet, and as such, I’m relieved of some of the burdens shouldered by my brethren in prose. I don’t really have an agenda, per se, or some product I’m trying to get discovered. To an extent, this commerce-less status of mine has its advantages: I can show up, enjoy the events, and calmly peruse the book fair and other areas with the placidity of a sunning turtle.

If I happen across some of my literary heroes, great. If I bump into representatives of prestigious programs or fellowships, likewise. But honestly, I am quite content these days. From a literary-life standpoint, I’m satisfied: I have a sweet little teaching gig at a college that pays well, I have time to pursue my writing endeavors, and in my new home, I even have a writing room overlooking a pond. I guess I could thirst for a Pulitzer or worry myself sick over who got published where and who won what award, but to what avail? Nah, just partaking in the craft is my mode these days. Write a little, submit a little, let the chips fall where they may. It has taken me 30 years, but I’ve learned that the best things come to those with peace and balance. And friends, I’ve got peace and balance to spare.

So, if this post seems a little capricious or even cocksure, it’s not because I’m apathetic or egomaniacal, it’s just that I’m settled. AWP or no, I know I will return to my house at the end of everything, kiss my wife, hug my boys, and go on writing. Sure, there are stories about people who met agents or editors there and had their lives changed, but my aims are not quite so grandiose. I want to see my friends, read my work, have a good time, and learn a few things along the way. That’s not too much to ask. Because once all the banners come down and the convention center empties, life will resume with its bills to pay, its mouths to feed, and its little moments of inspiration. And I will keep seizing those moments with serenity and equanimity; ink will flow, lines will live, and poetry will continue.

In the meantime, I’ll take in the hubbub of AWP with the fascination of a kid at the state fair. No, I haven’t developed a “plan,” as so many guides indicate I should, and I haven’t visited Walmart to pick up the “mandatory” supplies. I’m local, after all, and if I need something, it’s maybe half an hour to my place. So, thank you to all those diligent souls who have tirelessly composed epistles and listicles in preparation for this event. But I think I’ll just ride this wave in to shore like Floridians do. And if I miss out on “the main attraction” or “the big deal,” so be it. This isn’t life or death, and on Monday, there will be students to teach and poems to write. Chill out, my literary comrades; this is Tampa. We take things easy here.