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.
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.
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.
If you read this blog with regularity, you know I recently returned from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended a writing conference and explored literary landmarks around New England. I am also a student of municipalities that encourage and invite tourism, however, and Amherst, despite being small and comparatively out of the way, was doing a number of things to make their town tourist-friendly to folks like me:
1.) The public library celebrates renowned local authors and artists. In fact, the whole third floor of Jones Library is devoted to historical artifacts and volumes regarding Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Also, local landmarks have significance to the artistic and literary history of Amherst.
2.) The area’s history is celebrated with events, as well, and there appears to be good community involvement which has been stimulated through the use of various media.
3.) Churches and civic groups are partners in the arts.
4.) Colleges in Amherst offer their space as venues for arts-related and literary events, even if the organizers are unrelated to the colleges.
I was favorably impressed by all these details, and thought I would bring them back to my city as suggestions for implementation. After all, Winter Haven is a city on the grow, and with a renewed focus on the arts and tourism, all of these Amherst traits seemed worthy of emulation.
Why, then, don’t I plan to return to Amherst anytime soon? The answer lies in people. Everywhere I went, from the Stop N Shop and Big Y grocery stores to the corner diner, people were complaining. Conversation in the diner was dominated by older men bemoaning a new red light that had been installed. Younger women in the grocery store aisles were whining about their toddlers’ behaviors. Cashiers never smiled, and transacted business without pleasantries. It seemed to me, an outsider, like Amherst was a miserable place to be a local. I stopped in at Friendly’s, New England’s version of Steak N Shake, and nobody, not even the servers, made the restaurant live up to its name. Maybe the city was just having a bad week, but it was enough to sour my perception as a visitor.
Granted, I’m a little spoiled on hospitality. Here in my part of the country, “service with a smile” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s an overall attitude. Some days, that smile might be forced, but there never seems to be a time when merchants aren’t glad to see you. Publix serves as a national example of what grocery stores should emulate, mostly because of their kind and responsive customer service. Likewise, local chatter at our diners and coffee shops usually consists of a healthy mixture of politics, business, family life, and current events — and most of the time, those conversations, even contentious ones, are cordial.
There are those who would accuse my people of being disingenuous. They might claim that we hide our anger, frustration, or dismay behind stereotypical southern “sunnyness.” But the truth is, no matter how bad the world might be, whether a new red light, an unruly child, or a hard day at work has flustered us, most of us can still muster up kindness for others. It’s what people here do, and it’s one reason why I stay.
The great irony of this post, perhaps, is that it falls into the category of “complaining about complaining.” I get that. But perhaps this post is also demonstrative of attitude infectiousness: pessimism yields more pessimism, yes, but the opposite is also true. Come to Winter Haven sometime and find out for yourself. I’m off to Richard’s Fine Coffees.
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.
In contrast to my recent post about the triviality of “cover reveals,” this post deals with a technique that I and other authors find effective: The Book Trailer. Simple to produce, short enough to keep interest, and crazy affordable (you can’t beat FREE), the book trailer has a vast reach. Within the first hour of uploading the book trailer below, I had more than 100 views. I haven’t checked the stats today, but the trailer is probably one of the more popular marketing steps I’ve taken in preparing for the release of Middle Class American Proverb. The book has its own website, http://www.middleclassamericanproverb.com/, and its own Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/middleclassamericanproverb?ref=bookmarks.
But none of these has received the attention that the book trailer did in such a short period. Maybe that’s my own fault — I could have pushed the website and the Facebook page harder, but at some point, marketing becomes annoyance. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the book trailer for my loyal blog followers:
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.