life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“God Wanted You to be a Poet:” Conversations with my Mother

 

pen writing gold ink
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Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.

Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”

Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.

These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.

However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.

Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.

 

 

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life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Power of Rearrangement

white and black curtains
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When I was a teen, I regularly switched the locations of furniture and wall art in my bedroom. About every four months or so, I’d grow bored of seeing things from the same point of view, and so I’d shift my bed to a different wall, my desk and chair to another corner, my bookcase to a separate location, and so forth. My poor mother never knew quite what to expect when she entered, but I’ve learned that’s par for the course when parenting any teenager, furniture-mover or not.

The thing I liked about altering my room was this: I’d come in after school, temporarily forgetting that I’d made the shifts, and I’d see my room differently for a while. Whether I was lying in bed, sitting at my desk, or occupying some other space, the room seemed like a completely new and alien space. It was great, this secure disorientation.

After some time, though, I began to run out of options. I’d put all the furniture and decor in every possible space they could be. I would have to recycle some old ideas. Even then, shifting things around made my daily routine a little more interesting. I recall waking and taking just the briefest of seconds to recollect that I’d moved things; the room wasn’t the same, at least for a short while.

Last weekend, I conjured up this memory when I decided to rearrange my study. I’ve always been a fan of looking out a window while writing, especially if the view beyond is water, be that a pond, a lake, or an ocean. But lately, the view had grown stale. I was tired of seeing the same thing, not unlike when I was a teen. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I began dragging furniture around upstairs, relocating my heavy desk, bookcase, footlocker, and large reading chair. When I was done, I’d created a whole new space with a more open feel. Ta-da! Fresh perspective. Maybe my adolescent self wasn’t such a bonehead after all.

The other result of such a shift is cleanliness. In order to rearrange, one has to clear the space in question of clutter. Despite whatever we artists might say about our right-brained, pile-generating, free-wheeling sense of organization, structure and order are (sigh) more conducive to producing good work. I think of my stepdad’s workshop when I’m situating my environment: Every screw, nut, bolt, nail, and drill bit had its own home, and while I’m no woodworker, having that kind of fastidious attention to detail is admirable.

What will come from this new arrangement? Hopefully some new poems driven by new thoughts. One can never tell, but I’m eager to see if an unfamiliar view will enhance my creativity. If I could speak to my former self, I’d say thanks for the inspiration, kid. You really were onto something.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Writing Poetry as Patriotism: A 9/11 Reflection

high angle photography of city buildings
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9/11/01 gave Americans pause. We paused to mourn, we paused to reflect, and we paused to resolve. Along with that pause, though, came poetry. People needed catharsis amid crisis, and poems, no matter how good or bad, helped us. Some of the stanzas written were angry, some were sad, and others were just reaching and exploring to make sense of immense tragedy.

Americans wrote poems of every conceivable stripe. Now, as the vivid images of 9/11 turn “adult” by reaching an 18th anniversary, poetry writing has waxed and waned. There have been national events that have spurred on the creation of more poems, certainly, but the problem is one of motivation: Once the flames of inspiration have cooled, so do passions for writing.

As people accept whatever happened, be that a terrorist attack or a personal milestone, their desire to produce poems is seen as a mere whim — something brought on by extraordinary circumstances, and definitely not something to continue in “normal” times. But this line of thinking is flawed; after all, poetry has historically served as the documentation of our everyday lives in the present. Why should today be any different?

Billy Collins writes about Cheerios and the forgetfulness of old age. Tracy K. Smith writes of museums and cathedrals. Aimee Nezhukumatathil pens pieces about baked goods and auctions. Everything (literally everything) is the stuff of poetry — why should we reserve a whole genre for some special occasion, treating it like the good silver or the fine china? Life is too short to keep our words safely untarnished in credenzas of the mind; break out the good stuff and use it now! Not just for the funeral, the wedding, or the remembrance.

Eighteen years ago, more than three thousand people breathed their last. What poems passed with them? We who remain are charged with an obligation — to communicate our selves so that others may learn, recall, and understand their own humanity. The absolute best way to accomplish this task is through poetry. Don’t wait for another tragedy, another landmark in personal history, or another ceremony to strike your creative fancy. There are poems within you right now. Write about the unconsidered objects in your office, that funny thing a child does, the weather wherever you aren’t. Write about a long-forgotten item buried in a drawer. Write the smells on your daily commute. Write poems. America needs them.

 

life, poetry, teaching, writers, writing

Where the Liberal Arts Take You

This year, my oldest son is beginning high school. As a freshman, he has begun considering possible college majors that he’d like to aim toward. His big love is theater, especially musical theater (insert pragmatic-dad eye roll here). He is a member of the school band, and he is trying out agriculture, as our family has a long history of farming in addition to teaching and other professions.

As much as I’d like to give him the whole lecture about “getting a degree in something useful,” I’m realize in no position to advise him to be practical about his eventual course of study. I’ve done a pretty unconventional thing, earning a terminal degree in creative writing later in life, and I can’t say it has turned out badly. No matter how many guidance counselors and career advisers may say otherwise, getting a degree (or two!) in the liberal arts can in fact make life more fulfilling.

Readers of this blog know that I recently spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, leading poetry workshops and kayaking the lakes of a beautiful part of the country:

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And earlier this summer, I spent a week in Appalachia simply pondering how best to order my latest manuscript of poems:

 

Then there was the summer of my 40th birthday, where the whole family and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal because I received a partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program:

And before I became an “international” poet, there was the summer I spent a week at the Juniper Writers Institute (also on a scholarship), where I explored the home of Emily Dickinson:

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And the farm of Robert Frost in Derry, New Hampshire:

 

Oh, and then there was the time (in the middle of my MFA program) that I was kindly given a full ride to the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This would have been in 2013:

Add to that the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I’ve been able to attend closer to home (The National Graduate Creative Writing Conference in Carrollton, GA; AWP in Tampa; the Other Words conference at Flagler College in Jacksonville, and many, many, more), and you’ve got yourself quite a travel itinerary spread out over 10 or 12 years.

Lest the audience think that I am only measuring meaning by travel, there are plenty of other ways that my liberal arts degrees have enhanced my biography. Before I entered the realm of education, I used my Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism to report for newspapers — now nearly an extinct species. In the process, I drove through (over!) the flames of brush fires, got shot at twice, had a beer bottle hurled at my head during a riot, and witnessed life in a way that few other people ever experience.

I spoke with flood survivors, celebrities big and small, government officials, and even the occasional inmate. All these experiences expanded my lens and allowed me to view the world from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t the liberal arts degree that provided breadth and open-mindedness about our human situation; those understandings came along well after I’d received diplomas, in fact. But I never would have had those encounters without the degrees I earned, and I absolutely would not have interpreted those encounters in the same way sans higher education.

“But what about the money?” you may ask. “Is it true that people with liberal arts degrees earn less than those with vocational and technical degrees?” While I can’t speak to the assets held by those in hands-on professions, I can tell you that we’ve always had enough. My two boys, my wife, and I have had sufficiency and surplus in varying frequency, and even during times of struggle, our scenario has been eased by the knowledge that we are not the only ones to have faced difficulty. A thorough education in the humanities provided both fictional and nonfictional examples from which to learn. Some of our Christmases may have looked like the Bob Cratchit family or an O. Henry short story, but along with that sparsity came the closeness that such stories also featured. Enduring with beloved others is its own wealth.

“What about the cost? Not everyone can afford a spiffy degree from a small, private institution, you know…” True enough. I’m well aware of our national student debt crisis, and I also know that liberal arts colleges can be expensive. For me, the payoff has been worth the initial investment. The promises made by my parents and grandparents turned out to be true: Earn a college degree/ start a career/ live the American Dream, etc. Certainly this has not always been the result for others. I’ll leave it at that.

I do know that when someone is willing to work hard and smart, when he or she gives back to the profession, and when relationships are tended with near-agricultural precision, a liberal arts degree can help make life worthwhile. Sure, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that also bears out the truth of what I’m saying, but for today, I’m speaking from personal experience.

What am I going to tell my son about earning a “useless” degree? Go for it. No, I’m not a proponent of “follow your bliss” or “do what makes you happy” exclusively, but we need at least some modest enjoyment from making our livelihood. Work is still going to be work, no matter what, but fulfillment? That can be achieved, and a liberal arts degree can serve as the welcome mat for it.

 

 

 

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

At the Retreat

William Faulkner once famously said, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” As I enter my third day of the Word and Community Writers Retreat at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin, I find myself having to recall those words regularly.

How easy it is to be overwhelmed by nature’s splendor and by the fact that one has been selected to impart poetic knowledge (even wisdom?) to aspiring writers of all ages. As I breathe in the clean air of the Northwoods, I recall that I have come here, yes, to teach and to help, but also to write.

On this Wednesday devoted to silence and solitude, my aspiration is to complete several poems that are presently in draft form. The bones are there, but they need muscle and life. I resolve to put more than this promising prose on the page — let there be poetry.

poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Writing Wisconsin

close up photo of cow
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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…

 

 

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

How Catholicism has Impacted My Life — Even Though I’m not Catholic

crucifix on top of bible
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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.