Recently I’ve been expanding my cadre of skills, and as part of that ambition, I’ve started teaching poetry courses on Skillshare, a site where people quite literally share their skills. My first session is a “Reader’s Digest” version of a larger workshop I usually do for Firehouse Cultural Center, and it features photographic poetry prompts from my good friend Jim Futrell. (It’s also free, so no risk if you hate it) 🙂
I’m providing a link to my first attempt at this in the hopes that some of you will take a look at my ekphrastic poetry guidance and try out the exercise that I’ve posted there. It should be fun! Here you go:
In a few days, I’ll be headed to the dairy state of Wisconsin. I’ve never been there before, and this time, I’m going to be leading poetry workshops, giving craft talks, and even leading a fishing expedition and playing a little guitar (see prior blog entries for details).
While my wife has family in Wisconsin, my impressions of it have been largely shaped by a public school education and media stereotypes: I expect a place where the Packers are revered, cows are in abundance, “Butter Burgers” are considered a delicacy, and the English is tinged with a certain Nordic-based dialect. It will be interesting to see how my expectations are met or disproved.
One thing that I’m most looking forward to is the change of perspective that always accompanies travel. It’s nice to enter that head-space where everything is different and new, where you feel like an observer and guest instead of a traffic-slogging native just trying to survive the daily grind. Travel always means renaissance — a new beginning for thought and creativity.
It will also be nice to go somewhere that requires a shorter flight and a shorter drive. As much as I enjoyed (and was changed by) my family’s adventure to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016, I merely tolerated the 16-hour flight it necessitated. My sons were champs about it, and my wife loves anything that means an excursion is underway. Me? Not so much. I like leg room and unlimited mobility.
And my Wisconsin experience is not slated to be “the norm:” I won’t be visiting The Dells or posing alongside statues of football greats. Instead, I will be in isolated community (a seeming oxymoron, I know, but stay with me). My fellow writers and I will be housed at the Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center, which is a pastoral setting deep in the woods. I’ll be near Trout Lake (which I hope lives up to its name), and the feeling of the whole experience will be significantly more tranquil than touristy.
So, here’s hoping that this brief time away yields some much-needed mental clutter removal and a little broader understanding of our country, as well. Just as my earlier summer sojourn into Appalachia allowed me some solitude for literary endeavors, this adventure should reignite my teaching passion while presenting chances to reflect. I plan to keep accounts of my trip here, so stay tuned…
There’s been a lot of bad press about Catholicism lately, but then, there’s been bad press about pretty much anything having to do with God, religion, or faith, so that stands to reason. Anytime the media get a whiff of something potentially salacious or scandalous, it becomes a headline (I should know; I started out as a newspaper reporter many years ago). And this isn’t to excuse the egregious behaviors of offenders; victims deserve to be heard and justice deserves to be rendered in cases where horrors occurred. But I’d like to take a moment to take a look at the redeeming side of a denomination not my own.
I was born in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida the day after America’s Bicentennial. Forty-one years and three months prior to that event, my stepdad (who recently passed away) was also born there. The lovely Catholic hospital had crucifixes in every room, and the presence of nuns was a silent reassurance to patients including my mother, who was and is a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. So, my life began as a consequence of Catholic benevolence, among other factors.
Fast-forward 10 years. I am sitting in my fifth grade class, and it is the last time school will appeal to me until I hit age 30. The reason I still semi-like school in 1986 is mostly because of my teacher, a phenomenal educator/second-mom who happened to be Catholic. Even with all my issues (and there were many), I was still treated by her as though I had rich potential for great things — musically, creatively, and academically. In her fair but compassionate eyes, she saw a student who desired attention, so she made me the “leader” of class songs. She saw a boy who was drawn to more sensitive endeavors like story writing, so she gave me time to pursue them. My school life was made more tolerable, even enjoyable, because of a Catholic educator who chose to work in a rural public school as her mission field.
Jump now to my adulthood: While attaining two graduate level degrees in subjects I actually like (education and creative writing), I attend the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a city populated by statues of St. Francis on numerous corners and where the famed Loretto Staircase is found. The workshop is run by IMAGE Journal, whose editor at that time was (and still is?) Catholic. I am attending the workshop on a scholarship, donated generously by a local Catholic family. Without their assistance, I would have been sitting at home, twiddling a number two pencil, and wishing I could be among like-minded poets.
While I’m at The Glen, I meet a charming woman who is in the process of becoming a Franciscan Sister. We chat over matters ranging from theology to literature, and we participate in workshops that refine our writing while celebrating faith. I attend a homily given by a Benedictine monk, and it makes me think deeply, reflect upon my own beliefs, and inquire further.
Another year passes, and the woman I met at The Glen is now a full-fledged Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She messages me online to tell me that America magazine (a Catholic publication) is holding a poetry contest. She thinks my work might be a good fit. I submit a little something. My poem “Skeletal Prayer” takes runner-up, and I’m elated. The news of the win comes at a time when I’m thinking about abandoning poetry altogether, so I keep going. What’s more, my financial adviser sees the poem and sends me hearty congratulations. Life is good and getting better.
And now, to the present: In 10 days, I will be presenting poetry workshops and craft talks at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Retreat Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. This invitation to teach and write is the result of meeting the aforementioned Franciscan Sister some years ago. It should be an interesting time; I’m learning what a Taize service is (since I’ll be playing a little guitar for it), and again I find myself standing at the intersection of Faith, Art, and Mystery. I can hardly wait to try my hand at this new experience.
My life has been repeatedly and favorably influenced by Catholic forces well beyond my control. As I teach my college students Flannery O’Connor short stories and draw inspiration from minds like G.K. Chesterton, I’m reminded that, even though my Protestantism may be firmly intact, it is only because of Catholicism that my birth, my education, and my literary life have been what they are. And for that truth, I am continually grateful.
Not too long ago, someone told me to quit submitting my work to small journals. “I’ve never even heard of half of these,” he lamented. “Your work deserves to be in bigger places — you know, like The New Yorker or something.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m among the great morass of writers submitting their poetry to The New Yorker every year. It’s almost like a custom of sorts. I send something, and six months later, I get their standard rejection. C’est la vie.
But to completely abandon the small, independent magazines to exclusively focus on getting published in “major” venues would be both foolhardy and counterproductive. Small journals have, for decades, provided my work with a home that has become gratifying in different ways.
One of the greatest rewards of “submitting small” occurs when that tiny publication really takes off. Take, for example, Deep South magazine. Erin Z. Bass, who has become a friend of mine, started this little venture years ago when I was still getting my feet wet in the literary realm. She published some of my fledgling work, and since that time, she’s provided a home for some of my more mature poems as well. It’s been great to see how her magazine has thrived, covering food, culture, literature, and the broad array of southern life topics. With pride, I tell people I’ve been published there. Had I kept my work for some “bigger” magazine, I never would have been part of this success story.
Smaller journals also nominate for awards. Not that big publications don’t, mind you, but more often than not, I’ve found my work gets nominated for prizes when it’s been published in little places. These journals’ editors appreciate the well-crafted line, the strong image, and the dexterity of wordplay. As a result, they will often nominate work exhibiting these qualities for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and other recognition. I’ve always enjoyed the potential of having my work nominated unexpectedly. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of the perks of doing this work.
Finally, the literary community only works when we all pull together. What if everyone strictly contributed to mega-zines? The little voices that are so necessary to a civilized and well-read society would dry up, and we would all be forced to consume the standard tastes of a select few big shots. Boring! The little journals ensure that the broadest diversity of voices is presented. Let’s face it: Not everyone is going to love poems about rural life, generational customs, and historic landmarks, and yet this is what much of my work addresses. Without the small mags, these creations would remain safely tucked away inside my laptop. But instead, there are editors out there who recognize value in a breadth of experiences: urban, suburban, and yes, rural.
I will continue submitting my work to the up-and-coming journals. They do good things. Certainly, I’ll take my shot with the “name brand” magazines as well — it’s part of being a writer. But don’t expect me to withhold good work from a place just because it’s not as lauded as the monolith publications. If we’re eager to hear from a wide variety of experiences, the small magazine must thrive. And it’s up to writers to help it do exactly that.
In the Christmases of my youth, my dear (now deceased) Aunt Martha always bought me a yearly subscription to a very popular writing magazine. Novice scribblers religiously scoured its pages for insights to getting published, receiving recognition, and of course, winning those all-important writing competitions. Article titles included such enticements as: “10 Secrets to Crafting a Contest Winner” and “Win That Award! Top Writers Tell You How.”
In the body of such articles, glittering generalities and pseudo-motivation reigned. Typical promises: If inexperienced writers simply use Times New Roman 12-point font, keep their cover letters brief, and “write with their heart,” they will magically become gold-medalist poets/short story writers/novelists/whatever. Other suggestions included such wisdom as, “Be sure to center and boldface your title” and (perhaps my favorite) “Don’t thank the contest sponsor or judge; it shows a lack of confidence.” Gee, thanks.
The unfortunate truth is, no one approach (or set of rules) will guarantee a contest win — ever. The world of publishing is incredibly subjective. What one editor or judge loves, another will hate (and vice-versa). You can “always submit your best,” as the old saw goes, and still come up empty-handed when the laurels are passed around. Such is writing life.
Just as writers learn to expect rejection, we also learn to live with losses. Defeat is especially disheartening if you paid a big submission fee. Of course, the good side of this issue contains another truth: Stick around long enough, and sooner or later you’re bound to win a few. Even little contests feel big when your work has won, and it’s gratifying to learn that someone somewhere (even at the tiniest of journals) has appreciated your work enough to award it.
I’ve been writing “real” poetry for about 20 years now, and in that time, I’ve had the joy of being nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. My 2014 book, Middle Class American Proverb, was nominated for both the American Book Award and the Florida Book Award. Yet for all these nominations, I’ve never quite ascended to the winners’ platform. I guess I could throw myself a pity party and moan, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” but truthfully, I appreciate just being nominated. In retrospect, a small-town poet like me getting Pushcart nods and similar tokens is a pretty big deal. Sure, I’d like to win one day, but poetry is a marathon, not a sprint or a dash.
And of course, this isn’t to say I haven’t won my fair share of contests. Going all the way back to 2002, I won the Wesley Ryals Writing Award for Poetry from my first alma mater, Florida Southern College. Later on, I was among the winners of the Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest put together by The Studios of Key West. My work has won me scholarships and partial scholarships to places I would never have traveled otherwise. I’ve also been a runner-up in America magazine’s Foley Poetry Contest. So, I’ve done all right. And if you stick around, you probably will, too.
Another advantage of time: I’ve served as a journal editor and a contest judge over the years, and those roles allowed me to see things from the viewpoint of a decision-maker. It’s tough to cull out writing that is “soooo close,” but inevitably it happens. Here again, what I liked wasn’t necessarily what others liked. The things I rejected would have been accepted by someone with different tastes. But in the end, someone has to be declared winner. Sometimes, just knowing you’re a finalist, a semifinalist, or an honorable mention can be motivation, and that happens quite often when your work is satisfactory.
Keep going, writer. Don’t get seduced by “secret formulas” or “sure-fire ways to success.” There’s a reason that the magazine my Aunt Martha gifted me every year recently filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The allure of pretty-sounding logical fallacies and empty promises can only be sustained so long. For the devotee of words, everything will eventually happen the way it’s supposed to. That includes winning contests, getting published, and achieving other milestones. Don’t quit. Persist. That’s how you win.
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.
Recently I had a piece published by a journal that is edited by someone who has received, shall we say, “mixed responses” from the literary community. This editor’s political and religious views are certainly not “mainstream” in the poetry world, for certain.
That being said, I love this editor’s written work and [their] journal’s style. The fact that this person has been berated for unconventional beliefs is inconsequential to me as a writer. If anything, I admire the editor more for that willingness to stand on principles, whether I agree with them or not.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that in the future, my work being published by the editor’s journal may be a “dark mark” against my name. Guess what? I don’t care.
Too often writers inform their choices based on what is “acceptable.” I have reached a magical middle age where such considerations don’t enter my radar anymore. Good journal? Submit. Bad journal? Don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t base my submissions on who nominates how many for which awards. I don’t look at percentages of rejections or acceptances. I don’t even give an inkling to a publication’s “prestige.” I send my work to places I respect. The end. Accepted? Hooray! Rejected? Keep going.
“But don’t you want to be on ‘the right side of history?'” my socially concerned friends may ask. My answer: Not especially. The annals of literature contain heroes and villains alike — those we’ve forgiven and those we haven’t. If I’m eventually judged by the same politically correct mob that hates the Fugitives but adores Ginsberg, so be it. Their sensitivity to prevailing mores has blinded them to a great span of sterling work, and frankly, my words aren’t for them anyway.
My poems speak of old-fashioned values, hard work, forgotten places, and flawed people. These topics exclude me from certain bookshelves, and that’s okay. Furthermore, it’s equally okay that my work is published in places that may one day “fall from grace.”
For today, my poetry is there, chosen by an editor who might or might not share my vision of the world. If that bothers you, dear reader, please heed this message: None of us is perfect. Let’s forego the hypocrisy of pretending that any man-made philosophy is fallacy-free and just enjoy the show. History will write (and right) itself.