poetry, Uncategorized

More VS. Different: A human quandary

Adding isn't always the answer.
Adding isn’t always the answer.

Recently, I’ve been consumed by one mistake that I’ve made throughout my writing and teaching life. In some ways, this error is stereotypically American: When I feel the need for change, instead of choosing something different, I just pile something else on. It’s a childish mindset really — I’m unhappy with the one thing, but if I had two things, I’d be happier. Fallacy, fallacy.

When I was a young man just starting out, I didn’t make much money. Oh sure, I’d been to college and done my part to begin a journalism career, but a fresh degree and limited experience meant a meager income. My solution was always working harder, not smarter. I’d take on extra jobs until my every waking moment was consumed with responsibility of one form or another. And when you’re just setting foot into “the real world,” being industrious is admirable. But I found out pretty quickly that burnout is very real, and being obligated non-stop is a great way to compromise your health.

The lesson didn’t stick, though. When I changed careers about four years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I began to repeat the same mistakes in education: “Oh, teachers don’t make much? That’s okay. I’ll just take on more duties. I’ll tutor after school and pick up some freelance gigs on the side.” By this time I was married, and the incessant lesson planning, grading, and researching were all taking their toll on the homefront.

I added titles to my own job description, becoming a technology guru, a committee and department leader, a curriculum developer, and a professional development coordinator. My writing, of course, was taking the back burner to my overwhelming career roles, all because I assumed that if I had more to do, I’d somehow be happier. And granted, the experiences I earned while tackling these titles proved valuable. I know about a wealth of fields that make me an asset in the workplace. But meanwhile, I still wasn’t content.

The truth was, I needed something different, not something more. One more graduate degree wasn’t the answer, despite my 4.0 GPA. One more assignment wasn’t the panacea to discontent.When you’re tired of digging ditches, buying more shovels isn’t the solution.  I needed to work smarter, not harder, and I needed balance.

By shouldering more and more responsibility outside my home, I’d minimized the time I had for my family life. I had become that workaholic husband and father who can’t show up to his kids’ birthday parties, and writing? What was writing? Certainly there was no time for such frivolity. Our bank account was steadily reaping the benefits of my overexertion, but the price beneath my roof was far too great. It was time to restore some sanity and clarity to every part of my life.

I began cutting back on extra teaching opportunities, and started riding my bicycle again, for starters. I took a more active part in church life. My wife and I were dating again. I flew kites and threw Frisbees with my sons on the weekends. This was different, and it was good. Our financial situation was okay, but we still weren’t rich. And for one time in my life, I didn’t care. Money, I found, was reciprocal: we received what we gave, and often, we reaped more than we sowed, to use some biblical terminology. My new quest for balance and “smarter work” was paying off. My new and more flexible schedule now included a daily writing routine during the early morning hours, and soon, I had a thick volume of work. The MFA became not “one more degree,” but a natural outcropping from my own talents and interests, which my re-balanced life had shown me.

So now, as spring break draws nearer and the end of another school year will follow not long after, I feel another mile marker approaching. Change is coming in my professional life, and this time, my hope is that I’ll remember the lessons of my personal history. Work smarter, achieve balance, and don’t mistake more for different.

 

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poetry, Uncategorized

After the MFA

hooding Last night, I graduated from University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. The picture you see here is the hooding ceremony. The gentlemen behind me (center) are preparing to place my MFA graduate hood upon me. I said farewells to many friends who have traveled alongside me over these last two years, and I received the hearty congratulations of family, friends, and fellow writers alike. One of my old frat brothers even showed up for the ceremony. It was bittersweet, as graduations always are: shuffling off one set of experiences to fully engage in another, saying goodbyes to greet new challenges, and reflecting on the positive memories and lessons of a long-term academic endeavor.

The question that arises after any graduation, of course, is now what? I must have been asked a dozen times yesterday about my plans for the future with this degree. My hopes are rather standard, really: I would like a full-time college teaching position, and I’d like to continue pursuing the literary life and all it has to offer. I have my name in the hat for various awards, fellowships, and publication opportunities, and I plan to continue applying for as many possibilities as I can.

Mostly, though, I plan to write. Not to oversimplify, but really, the MFA for me is a license to practice my craft in greater credibility. Now it would be questionable NOT to arise at 5 every morning and sit down to pen things out. Now it would be foolish to waste creative time and space, squandering a significant investment. More than anything, though, now is the time that I am compelled to prove the worth, the validity, and the relevance of my degree. Failing to write regularly would equal surrender, and those that know me will attest that giving up is not in my nature.

The MFA means excelsior — onward, upward, higher. May today begin that climb to a yet-unmarked summit.

poetry, Uncategorized

The little chapbook that could

combboundThe very first collection of poems I ever published were put into a plastic comb-bound chapbook entitled Satin Grit: Poetry for the Average Joe. I know, I know — a truly horrible title, and unfortunately, the poetry inside this little 25-page first effort wasn’t much better. Forced rhymes, trite metaphors, tired cliches, and “borrowed” clip art from Windows 95 made that initial attempt truly laughable in retrospect.

But that first little gathering of bad poems, which I sold for $5 apiece from a folding table at a small central Florida authors’ get-together, gave me some elementary experience in the business of publishing. I understood what it meant to assemble a collection, choosing just the right piece for just the right page. I gained some sense of the work that goes into the physical process of making a book, no matter how small.

At the end of the event, I still had a box full of my homemade chapbooks, but a few kind patrons actually ponied up their hard-earned money for inexperienced and unrefined verses of a twenty-something dabbler. I had an “author’s profile” in the local newspaper, and a few other perks came my way as a result of those terrible, dot matrix-printed chapbooks. These rewards were enough, however, to keep me going. In 2005, I would publish an entire collection of Florida poetry, and in 2012, I would enroll in the University of Tampa’s MFA in Creative Writing program to further hone my skills. That sorry, self-made chapbook served as a gateway to further pursuits, despite its questionable quality.

So today, when I received word from Kelsay Books that they’d like to publish my newest chapbook, a 30-page volume dedicated to the issues of fatherhood and mentorship, I felt a few rogue memories returning. Would these little texts be no better than Satin Grit? My poetry has come a long way since those folding-table days, but would people treat this new work seriously, or see it as simply another “ploy” by a struggling poet? A friend of mine who also published through Kelsay assured me that their products were professional and artful, and that I would be pleased with the end result, for certain. And of course, no plastic comb binding. Whew. I scribbled my signature and date onto the contract, sent it back off to the publisher, and now, the waiting game begins.

The Boys of Men will be available in September 2014, according to my publisher. It will be sold through Amazon and other venues, and I will receive five author’s copies as a starting point. And even though poetry chapbooks aren’t the hottest selling commodities, the royalties I will receive on sales aren’t bad, either. I intend to have a book launch and a few other events (more details will follow). The faith I have in my work is greater than when I began peddling my word-wares more than a decade ago. I now see the chapbook as an honorable literary endeavor rather than a cheap avenue to push my name under people’s noses. I also admire the history of the chapbook: its humble beginnings as reading material for the less-than-royal draw me to it just as much as its modern, wildly artistic iterations. My writing, many rejection letters and maturing experiences later, is finally worthy to be bound into a quality chapbook. I am honored by this new proposition, and equally honored to partner with Kelsay Books.

I’ve become many things since those Satin Grit days — a husband, a father, an educator, and yes, a REAL poet. As I finish out my final months of the MFA program and I await the publication of The Boys of Men, memories of badly bound manuscripts and the head-shaking pity of small-town strangers may continue to haunt me. But at least now I know that, when the time arrives to launch my latest work into the world, this time it will soar on its own wings.

poetry, Uncategorized

Lessons learned while editing

pencil_redRecently I’ve had the privilege of providing feedback to a budding poet whose work has been compiled into a chapbook. I see a lot of my own history in this poet’s words — as he has been exploring the tools of the trade, there’s the occasional overuse of alliteration (we both love the smart rhythm and happy repetition of consonant sounds), but there’s also this vibrant joy that comes with writing for writing’s sake.

This gentleman’s work has reminded me of my own roots as a fledgling poet. Before any fancy MFA programs, before any acceptance letters or awards, there I was — that beginner who scribbled out potent images and happily entangled words for the sake of seeing and hearing their interplay with one another. At some point along the writing journey, as I learned more of the “rules” and what to expect from diverse audiences and editors, somehow a little bit of that word-joy vanished. Writing poetry became about using literary devices and styles that others dictated were “the right way.” And while others’ perspectives are always helpful (even when they’re hurtful), at some point we as poets must step back from others’ voices and ask ourselves, “Is this really ME?” We would be wise to adhere to the admonition that Polonius gives to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all else: to thine own self be true.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider others’ points or feedback; indeed, if we want to excel as writers, listening to credible responses will strengthen our work greatly. But when that advice begins to fly in the face of one’s own vision, then it’s time to gain some distance for the sake of clarity. In a few days, I will be headed over to Tampa for my summer MFA residency. While there, I will be engaged in workshops and seminars, many of which are intended for the critique and strengthening of my poems. As I listen to my peers and hear their thoughts (positive and negative) about my creations, I hope that I can keep that beginning-writer passion alive. When the bliss of writing is gone, nothing remains but sheer mechanics and accumulated letters. And when writing becomes the equivalent of intellectual ditch-digging, it’s time to stop.

 

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

The Blessing and Curse of Subjectivity

Again I find myself apologizing for a rather extended absence from the blogosphere; I just completed another intense 10-day residency in University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. During those days, I was privileged to sit in workshops with fellow writers and hear their opinions and suggestions regarding my work. Some, as you might imagine, were quite good. They made my work more concise, clearer, and cleaner. Other suggestions were less fruitful, demonstrating only that the reader was unfamiliar with certain literary tools/devices, or that they simply had divergent poetic sensibilities from my own.

For poets, both the pleasure and the problem come from the realm of subjectivity. Over the last three semesters for instance, I’ve had three different writing mentors. All three are well-known and celebrated contemporary poets with extensive publication histories, award-winning books, and other laurels. Each one has brought a new and valuable gift to the table, and each one has had his or her own personal preferences about what poetry should look like, sound like, feel like, and be. Mentor One had different “rules” than Mentor Two, and Mentor Three has already discarded some of Mentor Two’s hard-and-fast standards. Some like language poetry, others despise it, favoring neo-modernism instead. The list goes on and on.

These vast variations among “experts” have led me to one solid conclusion: Poetry is entirely subjective. This is not a new truth. In fact, it’s one that we were advised about from the very get-go of this MFA program. But the reality of subjectivity is just now beginning to truly evidence itself for me personally. What one editor loves, another hates, and what one professor praises, another scorns. The same could be said of my fellow students in the program — because poetry doesn’t really play by any concrete rules, one workshop participant can be just as right as another in saying yea or nay to different constructions, images, parallels, or rhymes. Some reasons for critiques have a stronger tradition than others, but nobody gets excluded from having his or her say-so.

As a right-brained creative, I like the abstract notion that poetry can be perceived and valued in so many different ways. However, as a rule-follower and a structure-lover, I find myself desiring certain definitive, concrete absolutes within poetry simultaneously. It’s a perilous and paradoxical predicament, and not unlike those faced by certain other professions — what one doctor sees as incredible treatment, another calls quack medicine. What one lawyer claims is an excellent defense, another decries as logical fallacy. Those of us in the arts, however, are especially prone to the whims of individuals’ opinions: People at the top of the literary food chain have absolute mindsets about what makes great work, and woe to the poor soul whose words fail to comply with those perceptions.

The happier side of this question coin, though, is certainly worth examination: If a reader LOVES your writing, he or she will tend to LOVE it completely. Fan followings are created upon this same psychology. There exists very little grey area between the emotional responses caused by a poem. Either the reader identifies with it and embraces it after a couple of read-throughs, or he or she casts it aside as unworthy. Sure, some folks will say, “Well, I like this piece, but it’s not the poet’s strongest,” but at the end of the day, they still follow your progress and like your Facebook page. One less-liked piece won’t totally alter overall perception (unless you really step in some deep kimchi).

The question poets are tasked with asking ourselves is this: Is subjectivity our friend or foe? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” The artistic tastes, whims and preferences of other individuals result in publication, awards, fellowships, and the other markers of a writing life. Equally, those same sentiments result in harsh critical reviews, rejection letters, and workshop ugliness. Working in the humanities demands understanding and contending with humanity — its flaws, its beauty, and yes, its unpredictable subjectivity.

poetry, Uncategorized

The MFA — “Legitimizing” writers

I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was very young, I would write fantastic stories about spies and detectives, and as I matured, so did my writing tastes and styles.

At this point, I proudly call myself a poet. I’ve had work published pretty regularly, I have a book of my own out there, and while poetry doesn’t keep the lights on and the kids fed, it does contribute something to my existence (see prior posts). With that being said, I always felt that it was pretty important to have something that proved my “writerness” more than just bylines and a strong publication history. Hence, my enrollment in the University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

Yes, I know many of my writer friends out there will quickly jump to the assertion that you don’t “need” a piece of paper proclaiming that you are indeed a writer. With that said, however, the benefits of the MFA program have so far been many and great: I’ve been able to meet and speak with renowned writers, I’ve gotten an inside view of the publishing industry, and my own abilities have become refined as a result of my enrollment.

For some writers, the MFA works. Others believe that a good writing critique group can yield the same outcomes. I disagree. Your writers’ group probably will not  get you introduced to the likes of Philip Levine or Lucille Clifton. If it does, I’d love to know what group you’re attending.

Likewise, it seems that an awful lot of very well-intended people who have been told they have “talent” wind up in writing clubs or groups that are community-based. They bring in their latest piece about granny’s quilt or pappy’s old dawg and expect it to be given the same level of thought as work by Chaucer, all because their ailing mother gave them high praise for rhyming the words “bone” and “home.” Perhaps I’m being a bit snarky here, but I’ve seen this happen.

You get what you pay for, folks. The MFA is an investment in a writing career. If you desire for your writing to be a serious part of your life and not just a hobby, then a degree is the path to that reality. If you’re satisfied being a local celebrity and the “big fish in the small pond,” then maybe a writers’ group is best. As for me, I plan to keep plugging away at the ole sheepskin. One year down, one to go!