In basic creative writing classes, instructors often begin by telling students to consider their purpose and audience. This is good advice, mostly, since lacking a “why” or a “who” is a surefire way to write something empty. But today I wanted to take a brief minute to examine the latter of these two fundamentals and express a quick word of thanks.
You see, a poet’s audience is a funny thing. We know that most modern people would rather not trouble their brains with meaningful imagery, earnest emotions, or contemplative thinking. We press on, though, continuing to write words that have inspiration embedded into every syllable, hoping that a select few will feel the richness and depth of revelations we record. We envision a reader who takes the time to truly decode every line, every stanza. We might even daydream about how this poem would be analyzed in an English class one day. And it is these aspirations that keep us doing what we do.
You, dear reader, are a part of that audience. You are among a handful of people for whom I write poetry. Even if you only scan poems for strong or relatable moments, even if you don’t closely inspect every page of my latest book for symbolism or graduate-level literary devices, and even if you only read poetry to fulfill an imaginary cultural expectation, I still write for you, the person who cares enough about language and literature to sit down with the challenge and delight of poems. You are rare and valued, and I care what you think.
So, to all of you who have bought my book, expressed some kind words in a review at Barnes and Noble or Amazon, or passed along word to friends or family, I thank you for being part of a small but vital audience. We need more like you.
The old saying goes, “Wait long enough, and it’ll come back into fashion.” Usually, people say this about clothes and styles of different eras. But I’ve been at the writing game now long enough to notice that the same is true of literary aesthetics, especially in poetry. Presently, prose poetry and invented form/free verse hybrids seem to rule the roost, but I predict that this trend, too, will pass, and eventually, come back around.
Not too many years ago, formalism was having a rebirth of sorts. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and rondeaus were thrust from the depths of the poetry closet back into the limelight. Poets who’d previously identified as avant-garde were dusting off rhyme schemes and meters from the (gasp of dread) canon, that collection of authors so frequently lambasted for being too white, too male, too old, too…well, you get the picture. Their poetic choices were suddenly cool again, and poetry sounded something like it did in past centuries. The tweed jacket with elbow patches had emerged from a long hibernation, to use a metaphor.
Now poetry seems unsure of itself again — the aesthetic dominating pages of literary magazines is, for lack of a better label, no aesthetic at all. In several cases, there are words thrown onto a page with little regard for the reader. Many modern poems read like an inside joke that only the writer gets, and it is precisely this kind of cliquish snobbery that pushed the masses away from poems in the first place. Yes, people expect to read more deeply when they encounter poetry, but that doesn’t mean they should need an X-ray or an MRI of the poem to “get” it. Let’s provide something enjoyable for the first read as well as the second, third, or twenty-third.
Sometimes this brand of exclusivity is unintentional: Poets want to show how much they know rather than communicate a truth, a story, or a moment. The result of this “look at my knowledge” approach becomes overly philosophical, solipsistic slop that reads like something out of a dust-covered textbook in the farthest reaches of an unfrequented library. Candidly, nobody cares about self-important perspectives on the nature of life. We’re all living it, after all, and one person’s take may be appropriate for nonfiction or a driveway conversation, but it isn’t necessarily the stuff of engaging poetry. Give us instead those unforgettable images, that remarkable event, the everyday juxtapositions that fit only into a highly specialized, concise genre.
Lest the audience think I’m painting with too broad a brush here, let me say that there are plenty of splendid modern poets. Most recently, I’ve had the joy of reviewing books by Virginia Konchan and Rachel Custer, both of whom do a phenomenal job combining complex ideas with relatable language. They are neither too accessible nor too abstruse. They clearly understand the fine balance that a skilled poet must learn to strike. And despite using allusions that only a certain demographic might immediately understand, both poets supplement their unique vernacular with universal notions and sensations that are applicable to humanity at large. I appreciate that, and I’m sure other readers will, too.
I know some graduate assistant inside a prestigious MFA program may read this and think that I’m just a curmudgeon stuck in my ways, unwilling to accommodate new methods of doing. Maybe I’ve gotten resentful because my aesthetic isn’t the one that is presently popular. But the sad truth is, a good number of people will totally bypass this blog post because its title used the word “poetry,” and they’ve come to believe that they aren’t welcome when that genre is mentioned. They’re mentally wearing a plain blue oxford cloth shirt, and poetry is velour — uncomfortable, untrustworthy, and weirdly obsolete. Let me assure you, reader, that some poetry won’t rub you that way. I beg you to try on the generous, soft t-shirt provided by poets like those mentioned above. You may find that the dresser drawers of literature contain some suitable garments, even if they seem odd at first.
At the age of 46, Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite, proving that lightning is an electrical discharge. Why does this matter? From my poet’s perspective, 46 seems relatively unimpressive — a sort of in-between age where people go along and get along until something better (or worse) happens. In other words, I’m pretty indifferent to turning 46 today, and I’m glad I stumbled upon the above historical fact to change my attitude.
If one of our founding fathers was still thinking, still pioneering, still researching at 46, then there’s no reason for me to slow down or “ride the year out” complacently. Even now, I have in mind a concept for my next collection of poems. The pieces I’ve written and had published lately reveal to me a common thread, and it is this common thread I intend to use as I begin to think about assembling the next book.
I am beginning research right now on a particular era in Florida history — one dominated by intriguing characters, wild landscapes, natural (and man-made) dangers, and a whole culture of its own, complete with songs, traditions, and superstitions. By the time I’m done, the poems driven by this other time and its people will be (I hope) truly original and extraordinary. I hesitate to say more since over-talking a project can often kill its spirit.
But I tell you, my readers, about this venture because on this birthday, I’m also requesting a small gift. I have set up a Patreon Page where anyone can donate to help fund the research for this important book. When you go there, you’ll learn more about the book itself, its purpose, and its potential. I sincerely hope you’ll pay a visit to the page and help make this new collection’s research possible. As many of you know, I am no longer employed by a university, which means securing research funding is up to me individually, and this is my small way of beginning that process.
Some people have said that giving through Patreon presents them with challenges, so here’s another possibility: If you read over the description of my new project there and want to give another way, you can use PayPal (@poetjohndavisjr) or Venmo (@John-Davis-1204). These other forms of donation will also be used toward my ongoing research through the Florida State Archives, the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History, and other venues.
With luck and strong support, my 46th year can be my very best. I plan to use my charge of inspiration to produce my most relevant and best-written work yet. My kite is in the air and the key is attached. Let’s see what strikes.
My publisher is exemplary. Since publishing The Places That Hold with Eastover Press in December of last year, I’ve seen my work publicized, advertised, marketed, and recognized in ways no other book of mine has ever been. Some of this positive buzz is my doing as the author, but much of it is the direct result of the good people at the press itself. I’ve recommended that the editor and publicist do a conference talk on how small presses can keep their authors satisfied and their relationships productive. That’s how good they are.
All the above being said, I feel like I’m a little spoiled. I see authors whose work I admire and respect receiving little to no support. Fellow author “Chris” wrote a splendid collection of poems a while back and published it through a small independent press that runs an annual contest with a hefty submission fee. I think the book may have been their contest winner, in fact, though it’s hard to tell from the publisher’s near-secretive presentation of the book. Today, I looked for a copy of Chris’s collection at the “big boy” bookstores online, and they have no trace of it. I’ve seen no print ads for it, heard no talk of it, and, aside from a brief and subtle mention on the publisher’s website, there’s been no noticeable promotion of it via social media or other online sources. The tough part of this invisibility is, I know this author’s work to be truly worthwhile, and if his publisher had done just a little more, we’d all be talking about his poems right now. It’s a shame.
What else? It helps to have an editor whose work ethic is similar to your own. I grew up in a rural area known for farming, and I was taught early and often the value of honest labor. Someone who didn’t put their back into their work wasn’t much account, my grandparents believed, and even though the kind of work I do today is less muscular, I remain convinced that true diligence has value. Thankfully, my publisher’s people don’t see their press as some little throwaway sideline venture for an additional revenue stream. They pour their love into it, and that translates to giving it 100 percent. Their authors (like me) reap the rewards of their commitment and devotion to good literary business practices. I suspect certain rival presses are hoping to succeed on auto-pilot, as their business model has demonstrated a lax, even indifferent, attitude toward their products and producers.
At an after-reading get-together with several writer friends recently, I heard one say, “I do almost all of my own publicity and scheduling. [The publisher] just put my work into book form and hopes I’ll do the rest.” I remained silent. I didn’t want this person to feel bad, but it was hard not to brag on my publisher. And honestly, I think my friend’s experience has been similar to that of many indie authors today: Find some publisher who accepts your work, and then prepare to do all the legwork on your own just as though you self-published. Accept whatever terms appear in the contract because literary publishing is such a subjective and tough racket. Give up; conform to the expectation of being “the poor artist.” To be fair, this friend has done Zoom readings, library gigs with similar authors, and a range of other book-related activities, but he’s had to fight tooth-and-nail to get these opportunities. A professional publisher eases that struggle, and mine has done exactly that.
When I was submitting The Places That Hold to potential publishers, there were some well-meaning acquaintances who said, “Don’t you want to go for a big-name place this time? Haven’t you published enough with these small presses?” I was flattered by their faith in my poetry, but I also had a vision in mind that excluded Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or even W.W. Norton, a big publisher renowned for their support of poets.
There were also some who advised against a “newer” press, citing statistics that independent book publishers often fold within a year or two of opening (been there, done that, know better). Eastover Press was still fledgling at that time, and these admonishers of mine worried about its sustainability. What the pearl-clutchers didn’t realize was that I knew some of the faces behind the masthead. I knew they would approach my book and their others with tenacity, quality, care, and a spirit of earnest work. My decision has paid off.
In late July, The Places That Hold will receive another award. This time, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association will be giving it a medal (I’ll know the details at the actual awards ceremony). The book has already earned one medal at the Florida Book Awards. It has been featured on podcasts, websites, and in publications large and small. And the good news keeps rolling in.
Novices: When your book is ready, trust a publisher that sees the endeavor of literature the way you do. If your work is truly remarkable, the press you decide upon will give it wings or bury it. Choose wisely.
Experts tell us the GDP is great and unemployment is at an all-time low. Sounds wonderful, but let’s be honest: Average families like mine are struggling under the weight of exorbitant gas prices, record inflation, and severe stock market decline. The international conflict between Russia and Ukraine has impacted our dinner tables and our wallets, and the socioeconomic fallout from years of COVID has exacerbated the dilemma.
But this is not a political post, nor is it one that casts aspersions on any one political figure. The reasons for our current crisis are multi-faceted and intricately complex, requiring well-reasoned solutions from sharp minds. Should our leaders be doing more to fix our situation faster? Absolutely. The true heavy lifting in any notable society is done by the middle class, history shows us, and financially crippling this major swath of America is negligent, derelict, and cruel. Let readers place the blame where they will.
What is a poet to do under such monetary burdens? The same thing he always does: Write. That’s right — Money aside, I’m keeping at it. I am doing it, however, in a way that stretches dollars and makes cents (pardon the terrible dad-joke pun). What does this kind of penny-pinching “poeting” look like? Here’s a quick list:
1.) Hometown “residency:” Rather than taking a prestigious (see also: expensive) spot at some big-name writers workshop or conference, I’m writing nearby. My MFA alma mater is close to my home, and I’m able to use its spaces for submission work, writing, correspondence, and promotion. In previous blog posts, I’ve described a hometown residency model that leverages separate space apart from one’s home; this practice very much follows that same advice. I’ve minimized gas expenditure (visiting the university while my son is completing summer enrichment courses at his school in the vicinity), and I’ve become more intentional about the use of my time. I have a plan that accommodates inspiration.
2.) Using summer downtime wisely: Yes, I know — not everyone has the luxury of unoccupied summer days. I used to be one of those souls working year-round with less-than-occasional vacations, so stay with me. When I’m not doing family stuff, I’m seeing about the “business side” of writing. You know: Checking Submittable repeatedly, scoping out new markets via Duotrope, sending out applications for various awards or programs, and generally seeing about writing-related tasks apart from the writing itself, which requires serious time and deeper thought.
3.) Seeking fellowships, grants, and endowments: I’ve been fortunate. Over the years, I’ve attracted a happy little following to my work, and some of these people are quite generous. Recently, a benevolent donor funded a week’s stay at Rockvale Writers’ Colony in Tennessee, where I’ll be headed in late July to begin work on my latest project. I’m also asking supporters to fund research for my upcoming work via my Patreon page. This next book will be a powerful statement, and I’m hopeful a kind few supporters will provide the means for me to do intensive research at the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee. See Patreon for more details. But the big picture is just this — art takes financial support, and finding that support is doable with diligence.
So, there you have it — Three things that an artist (even a word-artist) does when things get tight. This period of sparsity will pass like others have, but in the meantime, there’s work to be done. As the old song says, lift that barge, tote that bale. Sooner or later, it’s bound to pay off.
Sometimes people ask me, ”Why don’t you write fiction or nonfiction?” My answer to them is, ”I do; it’s just not my first love or my calling.” I sometimes begin with prose before arriving at a poem. Today was one of those days. Sitting on my back porch with a yellow legal pad in my lap and a cup of coffee nearby, I began writing something, anything, to prime the mental pump. Gym-goers, consider this like the cardio before the weight training. As I cursived out a few initial throw-away words, the garbage truck pulled up out front, its brakes emitting that high, industrial screech that precedes a brief stop. This quick encounter prompted the following to appear on my notepad:
The sound of our neighborhood garbage truck takes me back to Fort Meade, circa 1986, when garbagemen (yes, that’s what we called them) would leap from the backs of slow-moving, dirty white trucks and, with Herculean muscle, lift and empty our large metal trash cans into the waiting, hungry mouth of the compactor in the truck’s rear. The work was filthy and stinky, and the men who did it went home every night smelling of other people’s refuse. But the men who did it grew strong and made a decent enough living to send kids off to college so they’d never have to become “sanitation workers.”
Today, the truck extends a mighty mechanical gripper. The machine lifts, empties, and returns the dumpster, which is lifeless gray plastic. There is no poetry in this process. No clang of cans, no yelling among workers. No Clyde, no Cecil [whose names we knew because they were embroidered onto gray-blue name-strips above their breast pocket, sometimes ripped]. No quick wave before the resumption of a route. Just an ugly claw taking waste, leaving vacancy.
Ironic, I suppose, that I openly stated the lack of poetry in modern rubbish collection. Had it not been for the shiny blue truck’s arrival and the sensations that went with it, my recollection would not have been triggered. I know that Cecil and Clyde (conveniently two C names) will probably make an appearance in a future poem. I know that those noises and memories will probably appear in that poem, as well. And I know that right now, I must allow those images and ideas to rest a while before they become something else. I’ll stash away this yellow piece of paper, and some morning at 4 a.m., much to my family’s chagrin, I will revisit this small vignette, and it will take on new life in my chosen genre.
This is what a life in literature sometimes looks like: not the gleam of an award or the bustle of a book-signing, but the simplicity of a legal pad, a ballpoint pen, and a cup of coffee. A view of a pond, a quick sensory stimulation, and a ready place to process all those thoughts that arrive. This is what I write when I don’t write poems.
I used to serve under a school administrator who repeatedly used the cliche, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” In fact, he kept a large wooden sign with the phrase painted on it in his office. I hate that expression now.
Tomorrow I will launch my fifth book, The Places That Hold, at the Firehouse Cultural Center in lovely small-town Ruskin, Florida, where I’ve given many poetry workshops over the years, and I find myself repeating the “first rodeo” cliche as a way to assure myself that everything will go just fine.
Book launches are always a crap shoot: You could have zero people or 100, just depending on so many other factors. This time, there’s Omicron lurking around us, a children’s parade, and a handful of competing events. Truthfully, poetry isn’t known for bringing in the masses, and I get that.
I’ve done my part — The word has been put out on social media and through other outlets, I’ve readied all the supplies, and I’ve recruited at least a few good friends to comprise an audience in case nobody else shows up. I know what I’ll be reading, wearing, and doing at the event itself. I’d like to say this is “old hat” by now, but with all transparency, putting a new book into the world with a special engagement like this always tends to be nerve-wracking until it’s done.
So yes, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” but you never know which way the bull might buck, either. Stay tuned, readers. There may be figurative face-manure or a shiny buckle ahead; only time will tell.
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.
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!