life, poetry, writing

Night Hikes, Vultures, and Subjects to Avoid in Writing

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) « Extension's Sustainable Tourism Blog

Last New Year’s Eve, I took a night hike that turned scary. My boys, my wife, and I were at Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs, and we weren’t quite ready to hit the hay, so we began walking. I brought along my Q-beam, a powerful handheld light that could shine the eyes of racoons, opossums, and other night creatures.

As we walked, we heard a shuffling in the high branches of nearby cypresses. Curious, I shone the bright light up into the dark boughs. Hundreds of buzzards were roosted there, and I had disrupted their beauty sleep. They swooped angrily from the trees, their oily wings and guttural calls combining in horrid cacophony above us. Their thick, putrid droppings spattered the ground. Both my sons thought the big birds were attacking us; in retrospect, they may have been right.

We retreated to camp. Tired from running and drained from an adrenaline dump, we all had a long and deep night’s sleep in our tent. The next morning over a campfire breakfast, we talked over the incident from the night before: Were the vultures merely moving from the discomfort of the light? Were they defending the roost? None of us knew for sure. But the lesson learned remains with us on every camping trip — Don’t wake the buzzards.

What, you may ask, does this story have to do with creative writing? Well, as an MFA student, I was often encouraged to write about the things that were most uncomfortable and disruptive. “Dig into your deepest secrets and horrible moments,” the advice went, and many young writers did exactly that, producing poems and stories about the most horrific traumas and ugliest family secrets you can imagine.

But we are now living in an age where those kinds of experiences flood the Internet and all other forms of media. If one expects to be read or heard, there needs to be some kind of wound or tribulation involved. It’s exhausting, and it’s warping the upcoming generation. We now have boys and girls who consider emotional damage the norm, and if someone isn’t professing a psychological condition, they become the outcast. I say enough.

There is a reason that Billy Collins and the late Mary Oliver are best-selling poets: Their work often explores the everyday, the pleasant, and the (heaven forbid) accessible. People are tired of reading about degradation and dismay, and poetry that continues to explore darkness only reaffirms what non-readers of poetry already thought — Poetry is some exclusive, deeply morose art form that only eccentrics and humanities majors can “get.”

It’s time to stop disturbing the vultures, writers. Our potential audience is waning like never before because they’re done with all the negativity, the political diatribes, and the recounting of grievous injustices. Should our poetry become all sunshine and daisies? No. Is there a time and place where unkind or ugly words must be shared? Yes. But we have already overextended that period, and it’s time to give readers some joy, some light, and some of what the Romantics would celebrate — poetry that glorifies nature, humankind’s connection to it, and life at large.

We need more odes, and less of the odious. Poetry will thrive with the masses again when we begin to remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” It’s high time that our words gave people the impressions and sensations of positivity. Now more than ever, we need poems that are lights. And we need those lights to shine on something other than the “buzzards” of our shared humanity.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Writing the Living

There once was a famous poet (Robert Penn Warren, I think) who said something like, “Poetry is found in the living of life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing there, but I’m doing so to make a point.

Recently, like so many other people in this weird time, I was furloughed from my full-time university teaching job. I have another three weeks or so before the furlough is supposed to be over, and even that expectation may prove false — who knows?

In the meantime, I’ve been devoting myself to other endeavors: my podcast, for example, or the Skillshare classes I create. But this past weekend, as my in-laws took my sons for a sleepover, my wife and I undertook a different venture: Kayaking.

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If you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy. I camp, fish, shoot sporting clays, and generally enjoy being in nature. But kayaking makes your mind different every time you go.

About this time last year, I was serving as a faculty member at the Word and Community writing retreat in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. While there, I kayaked almost daily. I’d set out at dawn and cross Trout Lake, visiting a small island in the middle of it. Some days the wind made the lake choppy, and staying stable was challenging. Other days, the water was like glass, the paddling was easy, and the big-windowed houses on shore seemed to smile at my presence there as loons sounded their cries in the distance.

That kayaking was different from the trip I took this weekend. For one thing, while at last year’s retreat, my mind was in a very “literary” place, and it was busy seeking inspiration (almost artificially) in minute details and newfound sensations brought on by foreign geography. Inspiration was found, but only when I allowed my mind to relax and stop trying to force poetry from every ripple in the water.

In contrast, this weekend was less about the literary and more about escape — Getting away from my stalled professional life, from my pessimism, and yes, even from my poetry. As much as I love writing, it has the propensity to consume me, too.

Kayak2

But what does all this have to do with Warren’s quote, you may ask? Kayaking is perhaps one of the best examples to demonstrate that writers need to go and do, not just write. The canonized masters of the 20th Century weren’t just sitting in their studies, thinking lofty thoughts and scribbling philosophical diatribes — they were men and women of action, and through those actions, they found literature.

Even if no immediate epiphanies arise from an activity, it is the living of life, not the recording of it, that counts. So often in our present, we think of travel and events in regards to their photographic potential. How will this trip or this exercise look on social media? Maybe it’s time we started enjoying things simply for their essence again. Rather than speculating about what kind of poem, story, essay, or photograph something will create, can we just live? Because I can promise you, if Warren is right (and I believe he is), inspiration will come to us. When our minds are clear and our worries are fewer, the words will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a new day ahead. Let’s seize it.

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life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Creeks and Hammocks: Reflecting on Year 41

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Poets tend to view age a little differently from most people: We measure our years in publications, gatherings (literary and not), and in Eliot’s case, even coffee spoons. I had some real reservations about being 41 over the past year. After all, could there be a less consequential age? Friends and family make such a big deal out of 40 that its successor seems like an anticlimax.

For me, 41 was fairly quiet, but I did get to inch a little closer to bigger goals and dreams. I wrote a creative writing course for my college which was adopted institution-wide (even in China and Latin America), I wrote some pretty decent poetry that got published in places I liked, and I moved to a new home in a friendly neighborhood just miles away from scenic woods with a creek.

Maybe the creek has been the most monumental of all “41” discoveries. It has given me the chance to spend time with my boys making memories that are genuine. There are vines hanging over the creek that are strong enough for both sons to swing on, a tree bridge, and of course, all the other nature-based sights and sounds that go with a small flowing body of water: fish, snakes, raccoons, and even an occasional bobcat. It’s a place that is magical for many reasons.

I suppose, however, that what I appreciate most about the creek is its authenticity. Unlike theme parks, movie theaters, or tourist traps, the creek is a place where my boys can allow their imaginations to determine their adventures. There are no lines, no prescribed rides or experiences, no Hollywood artifice. At the creek, we are kept company by red-tailed hawks rather than costumed characters, and we are guided not by slick brochures or fake technology, but by the soft currents that flow through Florida forests and boyish ambitions.

At different times, I’ve watched my sons become pirates, jungle explorers, and even characters from various novels. Recently, I helped both boys create flutter-mills like the one mentioned in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Rawlings used the flutter-mill as a symbol of passing time and a foreshadowing of coming maturity,  and never have those ideas held such weight in my own mind. Middle age reminds one that things are halfway over, and you better get busy making your difference.

Maybe my difference won’t be measured in ink. Maybe it will be measured in creek water and sons’ laughter. Either way, I’m satisfied. If 42 is anything like 41, I’m looking forward to it. There are still plenty of things I’d like to accomplish both professionally and personally, but the 40s are also much like a hammock stretched in the middle of one’s chronology — yes, there are visible fixed points at both ends, but as long as I’m here in the middle of leaving a legacy, I might as well enjoy the sway of the breeze, the sky above, and the soft rhythms that make life enjoyable. Happy birthday to me.