life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Recent Good News

Tools of the Trade

I know it’s been a while since I updated this blog, and for that, my audience, I sincerely apologize. Truth is, there hasn’t been much to report. But that’s about to change…

Earlier this week, I received the good news that my fifth collection of poems, The Places That Hold, will come out in spring of next year. EastOver Press, a relatively new producer of fine literature, will be its publisher, and I couldn’t be more pleased. They’ve done fine work for fellow poets like Sylvia Woods, and this book deserves a publisher who gives careful attention and craft to the sacred act of bookmaking. Too many small publishers today are fly-by-night, single-person operations that are more interested in money than art. I can honestly say that EastOver Press defies that trend, and I’m pleased to be associated with them.

Also, Cutleaf Journal just published several poems of mine. Here’s the link. These new ones take a hard look at our sometimes conflicted relationship with place; I suspect everyone faces that complex feeling about location and its emotional resonance sooner or later.

As more developments arise, I’ll be sure to announce them. I’m looking forward to revealing the cover of the new book in months ahead, and I’m eager to drop a few hints about its interior, as well. For now, you can get a sneak peek of some of its poems by visiting the Cutleaf Journal link I’ve included here. Thanks for reading!

life, poetry, publishing, writing

On Winning and Losing in Literary Life

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Recently, I was honored to receive a lovely recognition: The Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. The contest, hosted by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Library in North Carolina, was judged by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, who read my first-place poem during a Zoom-based awards ceremony earlier this week. You can read about the award and view my poem here: https://thelanierlibrary.org/upcoming-events/sidney-lanier-poetry/

I am thrilled and excited by this achievement, just as I was when I was a poetry “newbie” seeking to stake my claim in the literary landscape of our country. I know the prize probably won’t make national headlines or secure me a six-figure advance on a book deal from Norton, but every time my work manages to get a little attention, it’s a nice reminder that I’m doing something right. I’m sure it’s the same for artists or creators of any type.

Lots of novice poets get very intense about winning contests; they pay obscene entry fees, look for legitimate-sounding competitions that promise “publication” or big monetary awards, and they think that if only they can win, their struggle for literary acclaim will at last be over. I know this because I did it, too. Truth is, there’s always a bigger award. Even Pulitzer and Nobel winners will tell you: Once you’ve got the thing, you’ve got it. You take it for granted after a while, even as rising writers grit their teeth and sweat over such matters, grinding their pencil leads into ugly nubs or mercilessly pounding their poor, abused keyboards.

This isn’t to say that awards don’t matter; certainly there are some that can ensure future prosperity and opportunity for those of us in writer-land. But to fret over which prize we might win or lose? That’s a surefire way to inhibit creative flow. The author banging out words with a mindset fixated on ribbons or trophies is a typesetter, not a writer. “If I just arrange these artfully glamorous adjectives in a certain way, I can be sure to impress the judges,” they tell themselves, all the while sacrificing authenticity.

There are those who will say that art should never be about competition, that the two notions are diametrically opposed. They say that there can be no truly fair criteria for contests since artistic taste is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so forth. I won’t go so far as to endorse their argument. For as long as humans have existed, we have competed, even in abstract matters. To throw away literary contests would be a foolish refusal to acknowledge our humanity. But that doesn’t mean we need to prioritize contests over the truer, nobler task of creating. Writers write, above all else. In the words of Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.”

The other truth that new writers are sometimes unprepared for is the extraordinary number of losses one must endure for each win. Every time a poet or prose writer achieves some prize, you can bet that there are huge strings and stacks of losing entries that preceded victory. Even my friends who are considered “name-brand” poets acknowledge that losing is a far larger part of lit-biz than winning. The old adage about “taking your lumps” is as true in writing as it is in sports, performance, or business. Everybody pays their dues.

I neither discourage nor encourage entry into poetry contests. I think that each person must decide whether such an act is worth the time, resources, and effort invested. For some, competition is a motivator, and for others, it means anxiety. In a culture that embraces the idea “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” there remain individuals who are happier refraining from shooting altogether. Good for them; not entering is as much a willful act as entering.

For those of us who keep submitting our stuff to competitions large and small, keeping a balanced perspective is crucial. I appreciate the recognition of this latest award, and I’m honored by it, as well. And like so many other people, I like to win. However, I’ve also done this long enough to know that achievement and accomplishment only happen via work. And the work must go on.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

How We Begin Making a Better Year — NOW

Greeting 2021 before it Arrives…Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

What can we do to ensure that 2021 isn’t just a 2020 redux? There are plenty of actions that have nothing at all to do with masks, social distance, or near-obsessive handwashing. Supporting those who create and facilitate culture and helping nonprofits that have suffered are just a couple of ways we can begin the return to something like normal.

Small presses and their authors have been profoundly and negatively affected by the COVID pandemic. Cancelled author events, fewer sales opportunities, and closed venues have all created major deficits for those who keep original thought alive and well. Yes, even your loyal host has been impacted. It isn’t often I use my website and blog for overt sales messages, but you know the old saying about desperate times…

https://negativecapability.storenvy.com/products/10446729-middle-class-american-proverb

A purchase or two of this book (visit the link above) will help begin the restoration. It may seem like a strange bit of logic to prescribe buying poetry to overcome a crisis like this one, but here’s the truth: A moment spent reading poetry is a moment spent without present worries. Poetry transports us to a different place and time mentally. It can allow us to breathe air unencumbered by danger, visit maskless friends and neighbors, and feel genuinely connected in ways we’ve so sorely missed. If you’re seeking that connectedness, poetry (and especially THIS poetry) is the answer.

Next, consider year-end giving to a worthy nonprofit. Arts nonprofits have faced an especially horrible setback. The small cultural center where I give workshops has had to reduce programming and opportunities while moving most events online. While this isn’t terribly different than businesses and schools “going virtual,” moving to the online platform completely negated the famous hands-on approach that Firehouse Cultural Arts Center classes are famous for. As we begin to mitigate the damage of 2020, I would ask that you give generously to this cause. The link to do so is below:

Please give here and help out an organization vital to our area. Donations are tax deductible, as FCC is a 501c(3) charity.

If we are to do better and see a light at the end of this terrible tunnel, we must begin by supporting those causes and ideas that would ordinarily receive our favor. Helping writers, small presses, and arts nonprofits is a great way to start overcoming a bleak period.

Victory hinges on so many things: precautions, herd immunity, and even an eventual cure. But if we desire to regain that missing piece of shared human experience, we should prove that with actions: Contributing to the humanities rolls out the welcome mat to a new, brighter, and healthier era. Please purchase and give today. A new year awaits.

life, poetry, publishing, writing

How to make a Poet’s Christmas Happier

johndaviscover (3)

Middle Class American Proverb

This book is what I would call my magnum opus — It is the most complete representation of my work. Its poems range from the formal to the comical and all points in between. If you love Old Florida, boyhood mischief, and well-crafted poetry about real people and places, this is the book for you. Literary enough for English majors, but practical enough for the rest of us, too. A great gift for the reader in your life.

$15.00

Dear Santa,

What I really want for Christmas this year is for people to purchase my 2014 collection, Middle Class American Proverb. It’s a great way for them to prepare for my forthcoming collection which I haven’t announced yet (hint, hint). I know a lot of my friends and family already have Middle Class American Proverb, but it would be great if some more strangers (friends I haven’t met) would buy this book. I’d also be elated if some of my loyal readers bought this collection for their own friends or family members. If they buy it from some other website, they’ll have to pay nearly $20 for it (or more!), but if they get it directly from me, I can make them a deal and get it to them for only $15.

It’s been a tough year, Santa. COVID-19 and other major crises have hit us hard. We could all use a little something extra in our stocking, and if you’ll just get a few people to purchase this book of mine, I’d be incredibly grateful. You know I don’t like asking people for money. So here’s hoping that you can make this one wish come true; I’m counting on you, big guy.

A very, very, very good boy,

John

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Personas I’ve Known: Becoming “Bubba”

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of persona poetry — that magical brand of literary method acting wherein I adopt the voice and features of another person (or animal, or tree, or whatever) and write poems from their perspectives. It’s a lot of fun, wearing a mask of sorts, and I can see why my oldest son so badly wants to be a theater major in college.

But this walking about in others’ skin has had another effect on me. It has caused me to reflect upon times in my life where I’ve decided on identities that were, shall we say, less than authentic. As an undergraduate, I occupied the “poor, dumb country boy” role quite well. This persona gave my professors the impression I was a small-town hick that couldn’t possibly pass their classes. In some cases, it gave me an easy out when a class required too much effort on my part: “Dr. Willard, I’m sorry, but I’m just a poor, dumb country boy, and I don’t get a thing about physical science. Can I just get my D and go?” Other times, I loved shocking professors who’d jumped to conclusions. Sometimes I made A’s, and other times I’d posit something into class discussion that was unexpectedly profound or showed great insight. Their facial expressions were dumbstruck and priceless, and this was part of the thrill.

Occasionally, it’s good to be “Bubba.”

My parents and grandparents would have been horrified by this acting on my part; they’d reared me to be genteel, cultured, refined, and above all, honest. I’d had a great deal of training despite my rural roots, from piano and classical guitar lessons to extensive travel opportunities. I knew all too well which fork to use at formal dinners and how to comport myself in a variety of diverse social circumstances. So for me to effect this ill-bred image was anathema to my upbringing. Like so many kids in college, I was finding myself by being anyone but myself. “Bubba” had it better and easier — nobody expected him to do much, and when he did, he was more heavily rewarded than his peers whose intelligence was taken for granted.

The habit of playing the poor, dumb country boy followed me into my young professional life, though. He became a scapegoat for my errors (or early adulthood laziness) in much the same way that my imaginary friends in childhood had. Couldn’t find the location of the press conference? “Bubba” to the rescue — he (I) was just too ignorant to locate it. Didn’t hand in a lesson plan? Well, in Hardup County, we never knew nothin’ bout no lesson plans or gradebooks. And so forth. I became so adept at this performance that slowly, almost unnoticeably, my persona was taking over. I began to chew tobacco, thicken my dialect, and walk with a gait that could only be described as an aimless amble. “Bubba” was consuming me.

This persona worked fairly well until I earned too many degrees. People generally stop believing you’re a backwater hillbilly once you’ve acquired a certain level of education. It’s hard to get labeled a redneck when multiple graduate-level diplomas are hanging on the wall behind you. So I’ve had to retire him, especially now, as I begin applying to doctoral programs. Sorry, Bubba, you’ll have to be put out to pasture, to use one of your colloquialisms. Thanks for your service, but like an outgrown security blanket, you need to be packed up. I’m closing the lid on the trunk of my personal history, and hopefully the stale cedar air will be too much for you. It’s time to live earnestly.

Uncategorized

Scroll Saw: A Father’s Day Tribute

As Father’s Day arrives Sunday, I felt that the brief piece below would be fitting for the occasion. My stepdad, Jerry, has been gone from this world now for just over a year, and his impact is still being felt by all of us. Here’s a small vignette that provides what Anne Lamott would call a “one-inch picture frame” into a portion of his time here on earth:

Toward the end of his life, my stepdad realized that he and I had something in common. A woodworker, he often retired to his tin-roofed shop at the far side of our back yard to craft bookshelves, magazine racks, lecterns for the teachers in our family, and even a bassinet that every grandchild slept in over the years.

            But his pet projects were tiny replica buildings – not dollhouses, but simple blocks he stuck together and then painted to look like homes, stores, or other landmarks he admired. There was a white church with ornate stained glass he’d painted, an old country store featuring a rectangular, red-worded sign, and lots of small rural cabins and farmhouses. One of these homes was adorned with a front-facing “window” in which he’d painted a dangling small yellow light bulb accented by short, equally yellow lines.

            I should have detected his nearly hidden affinity for art sooner. In college, although he was a football player preparing to be a coach, he majored in art. When he and my mom were first married, the room I was assigned was once his study – a room adorned with sketches and paintings he had created during his time as an undergraduate. There was one of a boy who was finishing a soapbox derby racecar, another of a coach helping a male cheerleader with a ladle full of water after the football team (reveling in the background) had won the big game, and smaller portraits that have now dissolved from memory.

            These pictures were soon stashed, however, as I started hanging posters of baseball stars, musicians, and movies from that era. I suppose he boxed up his college efforts and shelved them somewhere in his workshop, though nobody has bothered to look for them. After all, his functional furniture and happy houses were the essential pieces composing his legacy, and he used these to connect himself to me during his twilight years.

            “When you write a poem,” he asked, “do you fit the words together just so, or do you let them just kind of fall onto the page?” The parallel to woodworking was clear: He wanted to ensure I was “measuring twice and cutting once,” just as he would. I did my best to explain how I parsed my diction over multiple drafts, chose verbs and images selectively, and was always certain to pick the most fitting word. This satisfied him. “The right tool for the right job,” he said, grinning.

            Over the course of several visits, he asked about rhyme, meter, and even concepts like scansion, symbolism, and line breaks. Although he didn’t have the “literary” vocabulary to accurately name such things, the notions were nonetheless expressed in his own way. He began to see words like fresh slabs of white pine: trimmable, designable materials that could be stained or assembled in myriad configurations. When I wrote about notable places from his part of our state, he nodded heartily. He absorbed each description and visibly considered why they were chosen, his finger on the page and his eyes intense behind his glasses. He developed a new relationship with language: Parts of speech as wood, as tools, as art.

            By the time he died, he had read all of my books and anything of mine accepted by magazines. He looked at poems like tiny houses – finely detailed creations, complete with painted windows on the world and tiny light bulbs. The builder boy, the old coach, and the master craftsman gained peace from the arrival of understanding. He left this world content, not simply with his own history, but with the bridge he’d established between himself and the one son-by-marriage who seemed most different – a wordworker.

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.

Kayak1

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.

Kayak3

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.

So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.

Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…