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

Hometown Fellowship — A guide to being inspired where you are

A view of Central Avenue from my new short-term writing space.

Recently, I decided to invest in my writing using a different method. Plenty of my writer friends pay some high-priced writing retreat or conference a handsome sum for the sake of privacy and different surroundings. Still others win residencies at noted creative spaces like Yaddo or The Studios of Key West. My objective was to experience this same “getaway” mentality without the hassle of airlines, rental cars, or questionable bathrooms.

I decided, simply, to invest recent prize winnings of mine in a “loft.” Here in my city, we have lots of historic buildings downtown with inexpensive space for rent. My thought was, by providing myself with a different perspective on a usual place, my writing would be renewed. So far, the new view has generated one piece, and I’m hoping, of course, for more.

I also gave myself a deadline and a project: for three months, I will use this office space as a creative venue outside my usual lake-view “writing room.” During that time, my plan is to produce a chapbook-size accumulation of work inspired by this new locale. Notice, I did not say “at least 20 poems,” or “at least 30 pages,” or any other precise measurement. By leaving the project somewhat open-ended, I have allowed myself the luxury of defining my own parameters as time proceeds. After all, I’ve only paid for three months here, and using the space judiciously is imperative.

By giving ourselves, writers and artists, permission to invest in our passions, we are assuring at least some level of productivity. There is also a tradition to be observed here: plenty of poets, novelists, and creatives have similarly allowed themselves the liberty of “lofts” or “studios” over the centuries. The views from these spaces have produced some of our greatest masterpieces. If I can achieve even some small slice of that same motivation, my objective will be achieved.

In the meantime, I would ask my fellow right-brainers to consider something similar if they’re in a funk or need a breath of fresh air.  A small getaway can result in the greatest returns, I’ve found. Hopefully, my little experiment will pay several creative dividends as the months pass. Updates, as usual, will follow.

A second view of Central Avenue from the new writing space.
poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphany #5: The Emersonian Epiphany

emerson You knew it had to show up sooner or later, reader. What better way to conclude a series on epiphanies than with the one thing that has inspired countless poets over centuries? Nature, when all else fails, returns us to our basest and most earnest humanity. In nature, we find a little of what has motivated all those poets who have come before us. Moreover, who can resist the mesmerizing wonder of a spider repairing a dew-dropped web, or a leaf reflecting with the orange of seasonal light? Nature, for certain, holds both scientific mysteries and spiritual inspiration, even for the most adamant cynic.

Why else would so many poets “go for a walk” when words fail them? Why is it that, when we wish to “escape” our civilized routines, we inevitably turn to remote greener locales as our getaway? Yes, the view in wilderness is different from our common existence, but there’s also a matter of instinct at work here: As living, breathing organisms, we have an inchoate desire to connect with the raw and unmodified elements of a more primal, unspoiled world. I know. Some of you are shaking your heads, yelling “Just give me my Ritz-Carlton, my Starbucks, my iPhone and my Land Rover!” That’s okay. Deny it all you want, metropolitan, but deep within you, beyond that glossy, technology-loving veneer, you too have a drive to connect with nature. We all do.

Poets, of course, have historically been more susceptible to this drive than others less sensitive. Every crackle of a branch, every rustle of a leaf, every soft flit in the brush is amplified to the artist, and so, nature becomes a sense-heightening experience. This fact drives the plethora of residencies, fellowships, and conferences held in splendorous locations amid mountains, forests, lakes, and canyons. Knowing full well that artists, and especially poets, cannot resist the draw of God’s inimitable creation, organizers and program developers often choose serene vistas for optimum imagination engagement. It just makes sense.

The writer’s versions of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau embodied the Naturalist aesthetic, and in so doing, fathered a movement followed even today. We can look at formalists, modernists, post-modernists, Language poets, or the broad spectrum of other “schools” that exist out there, but within each one, there is influence that stems from the natural world, no matter how slight. Some may justify this influence by stating the obvious: The world is all around us; of course it’s going to drive artistic work! True, but in a world dominated by steel, circuits, satellites, and fiber optics, why would we continue to devote our attentions to things less shiny, less electronic, or less progressive? You, reader, know why. Whether you believe evolution and adaptation are to credit, or whether you believe in a more supernatural cause, the truth is undeniable — nature is as much a part of us as our flesh, our blood, our very DNA. To get outside our limited perspective, we must literally and figuratively get outdoors.

As I draw this series to a close, I would ask my followers and readers to respond to one simple question: What is it that gives you revelation? How do you generate or receive epiphanies of your own? Your thoughts and comments, as always, are appreciated. And until next time, get outside!


poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies, part 4: The Epiphany While Reading

booksA while back, I decided I hadn’t read enough Marcel Proust. To better equip myself with his viewpoints and his genius, I began reading his work with serious, scholarly depth. My intent was not to generate my own writing, but to better understand his so that I would be able to utilize his philosophies in academic endeavors.

The pleasant surprise of this “new” reading material came when I stumbled across the phrase “…kaleidoscope of darkness.” Immediately my mind began to whirl and hum with the possibilities that this contradiction provided. I turned the phrase into a first line, and wrote an entire poem inspired by it. Then, I deleted the first line. I still owe a pretty debt to Proust for his inspiration, despite his words’ disappearance from my work.

Lots of poets have moments like these — they’re reading a happy piece of summertime fiction or an article unrelated to anything literary when one certain phrase or circumstance elicits the poetic response. Maybe a memory is stirred, or perhaps an idea is initiated because a unique turn of phrase strikes the creative core just so. Whatever it is that lights our imaginative fire, those epiphanies had while reading can prove to be some of the strongest, and produce work that is often the most rewarding. No doubt this effect is why generations of poets have told younger ones to read, read, read. The more exposure one has to others’ original diction, the greater the likelihood for inspiration becomes.

Hmmmm…I suddenly feel like I could know a little more about John Stuart Mill — signing off for a while, friends. Until next time, READ.

poetry, Uncategorized

Hemingway’s Distance

 When the great author of The Old Man and the Sea was in Michigan, he wrote about Paris. Likewise, when he was in Paris, he wrote of Michigan. In speaking with other poets and writers, I have found there to be a common link among creative types: The farther (in every sense of that word) we are from our dearest subjects, the stronger our writing about it becomes.

For instance, when I return to my family homestead many miles south of here, I am not automatically inspired to compose lines about it. The spirit of the place is too strong, too close. Also, the peace I experience there is too great for the fevered activity of poetry composition. The old place’s effect is soporific on my muse, but once I’ve left and I’m on the road or even back at my current suburban home, then the poetic flood begins to rise. Images, sensations, memories, and the whole of the family farm experience (past or present) sets itself heavily on my writing mind.

Time also serves as a literary “distance” filter: Consider Wordsworth’s famous lines above Tintern Abbey, written five years after the visit took place. By having hindsight, the truest and most poem-worthy elements of an experience can rise like sweet cream to the surface of our consciousness. The traumas and impressions of the present are intensified by having some chronological separation. Only the strongest details remain after delay. Sometimes this separation can be mere hours, other ideas may require years for processing. It all depends upon the severity and sincerity of the inspiration in question.

I am not advocating the idea that writers shouldn’t “strike while the iron is hot,” however. If one is overcome by the NEED to write at a moment, then by all means, don’t let that desire cool in apathy. The Beats would tell us that our first thoughts are our best thoughts, but the discerning voices before and after that generation would advise us to refine those first thoughts into something far more elegant.

The big picture is just this: If you want to create truly reflective writing, then some form of distance is necessary. It doesn’t always have to be as radical as Michigan to Paris, but stepping back from the subject is advisable for any creative endeavor. If you don’t believe me, just ask “Papa.”

poetry, Uncategorized

Daniel Pink’s Theories and NaNoWriMo

I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month, and I do not plan to do so this year. I actually kind of object to the whole concept. I know: It works for a lot of people who ordinarily would not find the impetus to sit down and write 1,600 words per day (or whatever the “magic number” is). At the end  of one month, they find that they have created a lot of prose. Good for them.

Moreover, there are many success stories from writers about the manuscripts they created during this time of forced productivity. Several NaNoWriMo authors have found their books picked up by publishers, and some have even won awards. I congratulate them. But this post really isn’t about how NaNoWriMo works for other people. It’s about how it works for me, personally. Call it selfish if you will, but I think enough people share my quandary to warrant exploration of the topic.

When I was in my first round of grad school, I became an amateur philosopher for a while in the quest to make a John-Nash-like “new discovery,” only in the field of education rather than mathematics. I read works by Paolo Freire, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Aristotle, and more modern names like Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. I related to Pink’s research because he consolidated and clearly stated exactly what I, and others like me, had known innately all along: We don’t do well what we aren’t motivated to do, and we aren’t motivated by a lot of things that corporate America has always used.

Pink identifies main “drivers” like autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Here is where my objections to NaNoWriMo come into play: Once I sense that something is “mandatory,” and I sense that it has been made that way by something or someone beyond myself, immediately I resist. I have had to overcome this instinct in the workplace and in graduate-level study — there are certain mundane tasks that others assign me that simply must be done, and so, my compliant “good soldier” self must supersede my most ingrained instincts to rebel against the compulsory. It is difficult, at best.

Why, then, if I know that I am “programmed” to shun the mandatory, would I choose to ruffle my own proverbial feathers? NaNoWriMo is a choice that quickly devolves into a chore. Engineered and engaged in by others, the purpose of NaNoWriMo is defeated by its “club-like” nature. When a self-improvement task begins to develop organizational properties, I then begin to hear its death knell. The only structure that truly succeeds is one decided upon by the individual, and in this case, the individual has given over that control to a group’s expectations instead. Failure for me as a writer would be inevitable. Some may call this assertion stark pessimism, but my own intrapersonal understandings tell me that it is valid. I have engaged in enough metacognition to know that my “rebel writer” within would sabotage any attempt by outside forces to control or “streamline” my creativity.

In addition, I could much more easily be devoting that time to endeavors I not only choose, but also design for myself. My fulfillment will be higher, my sense of accomplishment will be greater, and my enjoyment will make the tasks intrinsically rewarding. This reasoning is largely why I am a poet. My greatest contentment is found within the self-made structures, routines, and practices of an independent poetry writing life. I will probably never be a millionaire due to this simple satisfaction, but in the pursuit of my passions, I will be exponentially happier than I would be under the stressors and rigid constraints of affluence.

No, readers. I will not be participating in NaNoWriMo. When at last I sit down to begin “the great American novel,” it will be because the muse and my heart have impelled me to do so, not because I allowed a conjured-up contest to crow-bar its way into my creativity. Daniel Pink is right, and my right-brained life proves his correctness time and time again. I choose to succeed in my own way. How about you?


poetry, Uncategorized

Faith, Cognition, and Creativity

It’s always dangerous to start blogging about potentially divisive issues like religion, especially on Sunday. But this post really isn’t about religion; it’s about faith and its role in the creative process. It’s also about how others within the creative and academic community perceive writers of faith. This post will probably cost me some readers, and I’m okay with that. I respect your views, and I’d like for you to respect mine as well. If you don’t, so be it. This is America, after all.

I have a lot of friends within the writing and arts realm who generally frown upon Christianity. They’ve had bad experiences with churches, pastors, congregation members, or other entities (choir directors, for instance). They’ve been fatigued by petty squabbles over methodology or order of worship. Their doors have been knocked on by cult members who say the path to prosperity and eternity is “my way or the hell-way.” It’s too bad, really.

In workshops and in seminars, there always seems to be a faction of holy-haters, and inevitably, they flock together to build the fire of their ire with the fuel of others’ guile. I happen to be a Christian, and I’m saddened by their disdain. Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clarify: I am not what certain popular media portray as “Christian:” Quran-burning, hate-filled, condemnation spewers who bomb abortion clinics and wave “God Hates F*gs” posters. My Jesus wouldn’t do that.

My position is just this: In order to be “whole” people, individuals must engage not only their minds, but also the other aspects of their humanity– the physical, the emotional, and yes, the spiritual. My soul happened to be spoken to at an early age. I felt a sincere and innate desire to choose Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and since that time, my Faith has given me “life more abundantly:” My highs have been the highest, my lows have been the lowest, but in every circumstance, my God has seen me through in a way that secular logic never could. Whether it’s been near-death experiences (I’ve been on life support twice), experimental brain surgery in my early thirties, or the thousands of smaller instances along the way, I feel certain that my life would have been much worse and less significant without Christ.

My personal faith isn’t the way some choose to engage their soul, and I get that. For some of my writer friends, Yoga is their spiritual exercise of choice. For others, they lean toward a different set of traditions. These same friends have sent me their “happy thoughts” or their “positive vibrations” when they’ve been doing their religious practices. I am not offended. We agree to disagree, and they acknowledge my prayers and practices just as I acknowledge theirs. Call it the spiritual equivalent of the “two-finger wave” off the steering wheels of our separate supernatural vehicles.

But herein lies the key to this matter: Faith, you see, is exactly that — metaphysical belief. It’s not a scientific theory to be diagnosed and dissected by the mind, and that element of mystery disturbs some of my colleagues. You cannot solve a spiritual question with a cognitive answer any more than you can use your heart as your brain. The two (in both cases) carry specific demands and capabilities that cannot be met or found in other ways.

Likewise, having a science-based argument about religion is like trying to apply duct tape to a rainbow. It ain’t-a gonna happen, friend. I know that my writing is stronger and my life is better when both most closely reflect and exhibit the tenets of my beliefs. When I’ve tried to “be someone else”  or write like someone I’m not, the product was passionless, synthetic, and ugly. I cannot “write like a Buddhist” any more than Richard Gere can act like he’s me (trust me, he can’t).

My faith has given me inspiration many times over the years. Granted, my poems have not become evangelical daggers that stab scripture into people; that wouldn’t help anyone, and it’s not my style. However, chances are good that if you’ve had a strong emotional (even spiritual) response or connection while reading my work, that’s probably not accidental, either. I’ll let the reader decide that little detail.

The purpose of this post, I hope, has been clearly conveyed. My intent here is not alienation or division, but explication and perhaps some provision of understanding. The closer we can come to being real with each other about all the diverse facets of our lives as writers, artists, and whole human beings, the better our world will be. If this transparency offends you, reader, I apologize. I would offer my warmest regards and highest hopes for all of us in the week ahead. And if you’d like, I’ll say a little prayer for you, too.

poetry, Uncategorized

Writing in “Real Life”

Before my cohort and my other fellow MFA candidates left from our last residency in June, we were given a final warning by the inimitable Arthur Flowers (see photo, left): “So, what are you going to do? You’re about to go back out into real life, where there’s bills to pay and mouths to feed. … People are going to tell you that you’re chasing a fantasy. People are going to say to you, ‘Just do like the rest of us.’ Don’t you do it. Follow that dream you’ve begun here. Never let anybody tell you that you’re not a writer.”

The truth is, I’ve had to replay this little lecture to myself on more than one occasion. As my teaching gigs and the mundane suburban duties of yardwork and such pile up, I sometimes tend to forget that I am also a poet. After all, the labels of father, husband, and professor seem to hold so many more responsibilities. What’s more, the immediacy of providing for my family tends to obscure the more long-term goal of poetic success.

It is indeed a dog-eat-dog world out there, and poets, like everyone else, are scrambling in a fight to the top: networking, assuming new titles, taking on the challenges of work-home balance, and ensuring that all the parts of life are functioning smoothly. In the midst of all this, it becomes pretty easy to allow writing and those related goals to take a back seat. I even found myself telling my wife recently, “Writing’s not as important as (insert bigger priority here).” And while that may be true, I must remind myself not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Just because life demands greater attention to things of necessity doesn’t mean that I should completely cast aside any and all writing endeavors. And neither should you, reader.

“We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do,” the old saying goes. But occasionally there’s a blurry line between those two ideas. Where the needs meet the wants, in that blurry gray space, is poetry. Yes, I could live without writing. But it would definitely be a sad and colorless existence, devoid of any creative sparks or intrinsic cognitive satisfaction. It is unimaginable and unimaginative. I have no plans to cut out my essence, just as I have no plans to desert my family or my career. Join me, readers, in this persistent striving toward the bigger, toward the better, toward tomorrow. Let us be pilgrims on this journey together. May our walk be filled with abundance, and may our pens never run dry.

poetry, Uncategorized

Preparing the MFA Mind

As I spend my last day at home before the big Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing residency, I’m taking a few last minutes to brush up on all the reading I’ve done before this point. Everything from Aristotle to Billy Collins has been thrown at me in preparation for this upcoming session, and I’m proud to say that I’m ready.

Which leads me to a bit of history: Prior to adulthood, I was not always the exemplary student. In junior high, high school, and even as an undergraduate, my performance was, shall we say, lackluster. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work; it was that I lacked motivation. If I didn’t see the need for learning something, then frankly, I didn’t learn it. Daniel Pink talks a great deal about motivation in his book Drive, and in many ways, I am the poster child for his theories: If I like it, if I want it, if I enjoy it, I’ll do it. Likewise, if I am given autonomy to perform tasks (academic or otherwise), then I am largely happy, and I will produce. However, the flip side of this coin also holds true. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to overcome my own resistance to math, in particular. My mind simply does not operate in mathematical ways, even though I can be very logical and reasonable at times. Also as an adult, I have had to face the truth of maxims that my parents constantly threw at me: “You might not LIKE it, but you still have to do it,” and “We do what we HAVE to do so we can do what we WANT to do.” So, when an unpleasant task comes my way, I have learned to discipline myself, break chores into pieces, and do all those things that my mom and dad (for years) tried to persuade me to do. For me, changing required firsthand experience — all the idioms in the world don’t replace real-world encounters for learning purposes.

In my first graduate program, which was in education, I earned a 4.0 grade point average. Here again, it was subject matter that I enjoyed, and which I decided to pursue. In addition, I was paying for the education myself. Straight A’s were my own personal expectation and goal (not anyone else’s), and therefore, I fulfilled that aim. Now I find myself having to persist in this MFA reading, as well. While many of these reading selections are interesting, I notice that I have to force myself to stay aware and absorbent to the ideas presented on the written page (especially Aristotle). By steeling my mind to assimilate the learning that I personally want, I am preparing to reap the benefits of an education that I have tailored to my own interests and needs. My eventual goal is to teach at the college level, but to get there, I have to pay the piper first. I suppose now would be a good time to stop procrasti-blogging and hit the books. Brain, don’t fail me now!