For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.
Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.
I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.
And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.
When I was a younger man, I desperately wanted to be the next Ernest Hemingway of poetry: a rugged outdoorsman and adventurer extraordinaire who happened to scribble meaningful words. I think every writer goes through that phase sooner or later. George Saunders, for example, regularly confesses to a time in his life when he was striving for his prose to mimic that of “Papa.”
I haven’t fought any bulls or driven any ambulances overseas, and surprisingly enough, even though I reside in the Sunshine State, I have never landed a giant blue marlin (or any other large saltwater fish, for that matter). However, once in a great while, I encounter an opportunity that combines Hemingway’s two great loves: travel (usually in natural settings) and writing.
Such was the case in 2016, when I spent 16 days in Lisbon, Portugal. From the food to the language to the music to the memorable landmarks, that city and its surrounding areas made me feel like the reincarnation of some Lost Generation member — enjoying the days and nights in a European setting, chatting casually about artistic concerns with like-minded others. Even now, certain Lisboan influences still enter my work from time to time.
And this summer presents a similar (though more domestic) opportunity. For one week in early summer, I will be attending a writer’s retreat in the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee. The natural splendor of the area combined with solitude should produce some favorable results. My plan is to work on poetry for half the week and prose for the other half, but we’ll see what the muses have in mind. I have two manuscripts in the works, and there’s no telling where creative isolation may lead.
Another perhaps more Hemingway-esque event that I’ll be helping lead this summer can be found at the Marywood Writers Retreat in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. While there in July, I’ll be leading poetry workshops and also serving as an unofficial fishing guide — A “fish with the poet” event has been planned, and, having never fished in Wisconsin previously, I’m excited by the prospect. Granted, I’ve caught plenty of bass, bluegill, sunfish, catfish, and other freshwater species south of the Mason-Dixon, but that’s a whole other world, from what I’ve been told. (Note to anglers — please feel free to drop good fishing advice in the comments section below if you’ve got it. I’ll trade you my “best” poetry advice.)
But whether I’m reeling in the big one or attempting to pen a masterpiece, I am hopeful that the spirit of Hemingway — the spirit that seizes the world by its lapels — will work its magic. And I hope that you too, reader, will find joy and inspiration as warmer months finally arrive. To good times and good writing: Cheers!
After years of writing and months of preparation, Hard Inheritance is now available! Just in time for the holiday season, this new volume contains works first published by such literary powerhouses as Nashville Review and similar respected journals.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it is a testament to life lived in rural Florida. Following in the footsteps of its older brother, Middle Class American Proverb, Hard Inheritance offers readers a glimpse into the trials, joys, and landmark events of time spent in places that barely get their own map-dot. Moreover, it presents a portrait of such places’ people — the hard, the charitable, the native.
Notable southern poet Andrew Hudgins says this about Hard Inheritance:
“The poems in Hard Inheritance are set firmly in the poet’s ‘ancestral terrain’ of small-town Florida. The landscape is lovingly but unsentimentally brought to the page, and it is peopled by the poet’s family, friends, and fellow parishioners. … These truly are ‘songs sculpted by home’s hard structures.'”
And award-winning poet Sandra Beasley adds:
“What is architecture, without its inhabitants? ‘In our heart pine handmade farm house, / my grandparents were window weights: // cast iron bars tethered in country wood, / plumb and place-holding pendulums.’ What is a field, without the hands that tend it? In HARD INHERITANCE, John Davis, Jr. recognizes the potent ecosystems of everyday life, as in “What the Grove Knows”: “Stirred soil lifts its secrets to the sky. / Revealed and overturned crickets / invite snowy egrets who eat them.” Readers will enjoy taking a joy ride on an untethered dock, hunting down poisonous white frogs, harvesting worms before a father and son’s angling expedition, and hand-nestling one newspaper section into another before the morning’s delivery. Yet these poems resist mere nostalgia; the author’s voice is attentive, conversational, and wise to how class shapes the landscape at hand. Given graceful and balanced stanzas, consonance of word choice, and the unexpected glimmer of a pantoum, I admire both Davis’s rigors of craft and vitality of spirit.”
I’m incredibly excited by this new release, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy to fill a stocking or to surprise that word-lover on your list. Get one for yourself, while you’re at it. Here’s wishing everyone the warmest of holiday seasons! Happy Reading!
Thanksgiving is always a great time for my family, but today was made even greater by some unexpected news: The cover for my latest collection is now completed! The wonderful people at Five Oaks Press emailed me to let me know that the cover, complete with art from the inimitable Tinia Polk Clark, was ready. So here it is for your enjoyment. If you think this cover is great, however, just wait until you read the book!
My greatest pleasure is that my book was honored by blurbs from the likes of Andrew Hudgins, Sandra Beasley, and John Hennessy — all highly esteemed voices in the literary community. Their vote of confidence means a great deal to me, and I’m hopeful that their words, seen here on the back (left) cover, might give you, reader, some idea about the book itself.
Soon it will be time for book launch arrangements, readings, signings, and the like. Stay tuned here for all the details. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for following!
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.
Earlier this year, I ran a series of posts regarding the subject of epiphanies and how those revelations visit upon us as writers and artists. For a complement to that series, here is my last post for 2013:
Christmas at our house is a time of family togetherness. Therefore, it is also a time of remembrance. Yes, we observe all the religious aspects of the holiday — we have our nativity scene out, we read Luke 2, and our gifts to one another are given in recognition of that Greatest Gift of All — Jesus Christ.
Aside from the religious meanings of this season for us, however, Christmas is secondarily a time when we recall family celebrations from years past. When I was very small, we spent Christmas Eve at my Aunt Doty’s house. Her “secret-recipe” chicken and dumplings were the festive highlight of the bountiful food table, and her modest living room was filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and visitors.
Today, my mother carries on that legacy of Christmas Eve at her own home. The scene is similar, and mom has even managed to figure out the hush-hush chicken and dumplings recipe. As a poet, I am grateful to have grown up in an environment where traditions, gatherings, and shared time played such a major pivotal role. Reflections on our family’s celebrations often drive my work, even if the pieces aren’t completely autobiographical.
As artists, when we think back on holidays past, be they Christmas or others, we find ourselves in the environments that have meant (and still mean) the most to us. As you go about your end-of-year errands, showing up at office parties and well-wishing others, take some time to think back on those past seasons of life. Reflection is still a prime epiphany-generator, and this time of year often provokes remembrance in the strongest ways possible. Merry Christmas, readers, and a very Happy New Year.