poetry, Uncategorized

The Book Trailer: Just Say Yes

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:

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.

 

Uncategorized

Apples and Oranges: Frost’s Influence on my Early Work

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Photo: University of Buffalo’s Robert Frost Collection

As a middle schooler, I was fortunate to have one English teacher throughout those tumultuous years who encouraged my interest in poetry. Mr. Pace knew I was a rare breed: a perceptive and sensitive farm boy interested in writing and things literary, though not the greatest scholar. My profile, he felt, matched up with a certain northeastern poet whose canonized tomes of work combined the rhythmic labors of agriculture with the delicate intricacies of poetic diction. Hence, my introduction to the works of Robert Frost began.

I would sit atop our barn roof overlooking our orange grove, and read everything from “Out, Out –” to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’d never seen snow. This was central Florida, after all. It didn’t matter — Frost brought it to life with his vintage imagery and steady, clopping-horse meter.  And then, of course, there were the apple orchard pieces. From “After Apple-Picking” to “Mending Wall,” I knew well the lifestyle he described, even though our farm and its accompanying ladders and fences were more than a thousand miles away from New England. Like Frost, I knew the press of a rung into flesh and the whisper and sway of fruit trees. Here was a man who “got” me, I felt, even though he was long since dead.

My love for Frost’s work continued into high school and college, and I wrote bad pastiches of his work, thinking I was being totally original all the while. After all, my “citrus farm” poems were completely disparate from anything New Englandish. Yeah, right. As I look over my older pieces, I hear familiar iambs and rustic rhymes that mark a younger poet’s perception of excellent verse. How brilliant I believed my rhyme schemes and wordplay to be! If only the rest of the world could see this marvelous talent, I thought, refusing to admit that every syllable was a tribute to America’s godfather of poetry — Frost.

Even my first book, Growing Moon, Growing Soil, contains blatant influence from “Frosty Bob.” As I matured, my reading tastes expanded to include contemporary voices and a vast array of styles. But as a writer, I kept coming back to those paradoxical poems — so seemingly simple, yet profound. Frost’s work occupied a space on my mental bookshelf alongside Bible verses and the Scout Oath and Law — it was ingrained among the ridges and folds of my brain’s landscape as surely as cut weeds turned under by a grove disc.

Today, my work is influenced differently — I no longer strive to “sound like” this poet or that one, but my poetry (I like to think) has come into its own. One of the greatest compliments of my more recent work came from poet Erica Dawson: “John is accomplished. He knows his voice.  He knows his subject matter.  He knows his style.” Those words, like Mr. Pace’s initial encouragement, gave me not only assurance, but a goal. If my work is to reach the level of greats like Frost, it must be identifiable as uniquely mine. The thumbprints of many poets may be found within my writing, no doubt, but when the final draft is finished, my hope is that it surges with a different pulse; one as recognizable as Frost’s, but unique — oranges to everyone else’s apples. 

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

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs 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.

poetry, Uncategorized

Latest publication: The Wayfarer

What a beautiful journal! The free e-edition is very nice, but I would encourage my readers to purchase the print edition — it’s worth the price, and small presses can use all the support they can get in these times! Thank you to the editors of The Wayfarer, whose skills and sharp eyes made this edition a visual feast as well as a fulfilling reading experience.The Wayfarer magazine

poetry, Uncategorized

Figuring Out Audience

AudienceThis past semester, I admittedly struggled quite a bit in my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program. I attempted an essay I cared little (if any) about, changed directions two or three times in regards to the essay topic, and constantly received negative feedback on poems that I thought exceeded standards. Now that this past semester’s experience is over with, I do have one positive take-away from the whole experience: I know exactly who my audience ISN’T.

That being said, I hadn’t given a great deal of specific thought to my audience prior to this point. I always kind of thought that I wrote for the masses; people who work 9-5 shifts in average jobs, and who pretty much represent the American status quo. This semester, however, I figured out the precise people for whom my work is truly intended. Here they are:

I write for high school English teachers around this country. This notion is a bit selfish, perhaps, as I too am included in that demographic. But whenever I write something, I find myself giving it the English Teacher Litmus Test: If this piece were being taught to a group of 11th or 12th graders, would the teacher be able to point out interesting and relevant material? Would there be literary devices that the teacher could elaborate upon, imagery that is striking enough to deserve comments, and maybe some ambiguity that the students could be left to figure out? If I can picture teachers I know really delving into the poem and engaging in Socratic inquiry about it with their students, then my job is complete. Hopefully, the poem can be taught similarly at the college or graduate level with equal dexterity, just with slightly different vocabulary and greater critical analysis.

Had I not been forced to write for someone that disliked my work and often disparaged it adamantly without concrete reasons, I would not have been able to pinpoint the other side of the issue — that is, my truest target audience. People who know and appreciate the classics, people who have advanced understandings of the great literary traditions, and people who admire work that values history and beauty will probably enjoy the poems I produce. Proficient English teachers, those who love the language and its literature, fill this bill well. As a new semester is about to begin in just a matter of weeks, I look forward to writing for someone else who may or may not be my biggest fan. Either way, I expect that the feedback I receive on my work will help make my work stronger. Derogatory comments will be validated by credible, experienced, and informed perspectives rather than personal tastes and whims. Expectations will be communicated with explicit clarity and specificity rather than vague notions and glittering generalities. And maybe, just maybe, this mentor will see my work through the lens of my real intended audience — that 21st Century educator who really GETS poetry, and who equally inspires students to love it, as well.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Chat with Mildred Greear

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

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.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Gone Digital

coverHello, loyal readers. This is just a quick post to let you all know that my book, Growing Moon, Growing Soil: Poems of my Native Land, is now available as a Kindle edition. The digital version is far less expensive than the original paperback, but it maintains the character and artistry of the printed page. Please see the link below, and purchase your copy today! All proceeds will go toward advancing the literary arts in central Florida. Thank you as always for your support!

My book, in Kindle edition

 

poetry, Uncategorized

The Obligatory “Writing Resolutions” Blog Post

notebooknpenIt’s a bit of cliche to write a post entirely about “what I resolve to do in 2013.” However, that’s not stopping me from doing it. Disappointing, I know. But all the cool kids are doing it. So, here you have it: John Davis Jr.’s list of writing resolutions for the new year:

1. I have a book manuscript that has been sitting on my hard drive now for the better part of a year. I’ve submitted it around to various publishers and contests, revised it and polished it countless times, but still haven’t landed any “bites” yet. I resolve to get this book published in 2013.

2. In connection with resolution #1, I resolve NOT to self-publish said manuscript. Been there, done that, friends. It wasn’t a positive experience the first time around, so why would I intentionally subject myself to that negative encounter a second time?

3. One magazine publication per month, or at least 12 publication credits total in (fairly) reputable outlets. Sure, some months are more publication-heavy than others, and expecting to publish in at least one journal like clockwork every month would be unrealistic. However, seeking to publish at least 12 times over the course of an entire year is doable. Last year, I garnered about 10 publication credits total in magazines and online zines that are pretty good, so this year, I plan to up the ante a bit. If I fall short of the goal, it won’t be for lack of trying.

4. Enter at least six writing contests. My general rule is this: for every five magazine submissions I send out, I try to enter one contest. Some of these are respected and renowned competitions, others are fledgling. But no matter the prestige or the status, entering contests yields its own rewards: subscriptions to magazines, feedback from judges, and name placement are just a few of the perks that come with contest participation.

5. Build the network. By being in the MFA program, I have a number of great associates who provide candid, well-thought-out responses to my work. With that being said, I like hearing from people from all walks of life within the literary field. Editors, publishers, and professors are just a few of the folks whose opinions and thoughts I would like to encounter more. So, with that in mind, I plan to build out my writing network to include more people whose critical eyes are sharpest.

I think five resolutions should about do it — some believe in more, others believe in fewer. For my purposes at this juncture, however, these five goals should give me plenty of work for 2013. Here’s hoping that all my readers have a wonderful new year, as well. May it be filled with the pleasures and wonders that our world has to offer: Faith, Family, Friends, and incredible experiences. Happy New Year!