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!
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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lately, I’ve been turning more and more toward nature as a way to remain sane and solitary during this pandemic. I hope these brief meditations and reflections are helpful in providing a small window of contemplation in the midst of negativity. Enjoy!
Earlier this year, I wrote about my “travel fast,” explaining how 2020 would be a year in which I would abstain from literary workshops, conferences, seminars, or retreats. My plan has been (and continues to be) allowing connection with my family to motivate and inspire new writing. Well, God sure has an interesting sense of humor:
“What’s that, son? You want to spend more time with your family? POOF! Here you go. I will enable you to work from home, school your sons at home, worship at home, give poetry workshops from home, exercise at home, and….let’s see…pretty much anything else you want to do — it’s going to have to happen within the four walls of your house. You’re welcome.”
Lest anyone think I’m making light of coronavirus, let me say that I’m not. I know that people are dying. I know that many are ill in ways they’ve never been before. And I know that a global pandemic is nothing to laugh about. We in the US are blessed to have largely first-world concerns that sound an awful lot like whining to those less fortunate. That being said, the situations we find ourselves in as locked-down Americans deserve a moment or two of levity.
Thus far, my boys, my wife, and I have: 1.) Put together jigsaw puzzles, 2.) Played countless rounds of Uno, Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit, 3.) Gone for hikes in the remote area near the creek, 4.) Ridden our bikes a couple of miles a day, and 5.) attended “online church,” an experience that has really expanded our definition of “sacred.”
But throughout all this, the discoveries we’ve made have been meaningful: My oldest son, a budding TikTok celebrity whose following is somewhere around 45,000, has been entertaining us with his theatrical abilities. He randomly performs stand-up routines, imitations, and monologues. My youngest son, the future architect/lawyer/billionaire, has been learning to code and has had extensive video conversations with his favorite cousin who shares much of his personality and interests. These two have their own “secret detective agency” and hatch plans via Facetime. Much of their dialogue has been inspired by the book series The Mysterious Benedict Society.
The hero during our isolation has been my wife: A healthcare worker, she goes to her clinic day after day, exposing herself to potential infection so that people can receive the care they need, now and anytime. When she returns in the evenings, she immediately showers and sanitizes to protect all of us. About a week ago, a known COVID-19 infected patient coughed near her. We’ve been watching and waiting ever since. Nothing so far, thankfully, but…the risk is always there. To exacerbate her situation, she’s also recovering from surgery that she had about three weeks ago. Without going into graphic detail, the operation was moderately invasive. Nonetheless, she presses on. She is our resident saint and our honored queen.
Our afternoons have been the most remarkable feature of this weird time: I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with the boys. We each have a copy of the text, and via Audible, we have Tim Robbins reading the book to us. We follow along, pause to discuss and reflect, and analyze the book’s characters, plot, tone, and other details. Supplementing this study, we’ve watched old episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, a t.v. show based upon the great author’s exhilarating short stories (see YouTube). The boys find commonalities between the novel we’ve been reading and the smaller bite-sized narratives on screen. This has given rise to discussions of our present society and culture, as one might imagine. It’s also allowed us to practice some amateur psychology on the characters Bradbury invented. My oldest son developed a five-step treatment plan for Mildred (Montag’s wife in the novel), for example.
Will this quarantine generate poems? Probably. I don’t plan to write about all the kinds of things that have occurred to so many others — how this moment demonstrates our universal humanity, how politics are utterly futile in times like these, how the family unit remains the foundation of our society. These big ideas, while true, will undoubtedly be overdone, and frankly, poems that are written with an agenda in mind rarely succeed as art.
No, my poems that will spring from this strange point in history will probably dwell upon subjects like those I mentioned before — the heroism of my wife, the creativity of my sons, the little day-to-day tasks and events that are breaks from our non-coronavirus life routines. Crisis, despite its horrors, is a rescue from the mundane. It shakes us from our civilized, programmed, humdrum existences into realization of our human fragility. For all of us, this epiphany has been, perhaps, the most monumental lesson.
I never intended for this blog entry to become a gratitude journal, and yet, as I look back over it, it certainly has leaned in that direction. There’s much to be thankful for, and that’s undoubtedly another lesson of this period. As we inhabit the most intimate spaces of our lives with those we hold closest, we re-learn the value of connection. We are reminded that, if everything else perished, our interpersonal bonds would matter most. Hold your dear ones tight, embrace the temporary inconveniences, and soon enough, we will all look back on this historical hiccup a little wiser, a little better.
“I feel like a friend has died,” I told someone today. The news came by email: The MFA program that helped make me the poet I have become will be closing. In an announcement with all the usual logistical wording, the interim director of University of Tampa’s MFA program, a man I admire and deeply appreciate, relayed the somber message. The alumni Facebook page lit up with equal parts horror, shock, and grief. How do we say goodbye to something that has so profoundly impacted us, not just as writers, but as human beings?
I’m just old-school enough to try to process this tragedy with a blog post. Some of my fellow grads will probably pen deep and artful poetry and creative prose, but the old newspaper reporter in me reaches for something a bit more journalistic. So here are the facts:
Without the UT MFA program, I never would have:
— Written three of my four books of poetry
— Studied under brilliant people like Erica Dawson, Peter Meinke, and Sandra Beasley
— Gone to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016; Amherst, Massachusetts in 2015; or Santa Fe in 2013
— Been hired to lead poetry workshops in the northwoods of Wisconsin last summer
— Gotten a job as a college professor, which later led to a higher ed leadership position
— Met many of the good friends I still contact and share news with
— Hosted a guest author series for three of the schools I’ve served
— Networked with influential figures in the literary community who helped me greatly
— Made permanent happy memories at places like the Dali Museum and Ybor City
— Learned what it smells like inside the minarets of Plant Hall
I’m sure there are other “never-would-haves” that exist, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. I think of all the good that classes and workshops there have done. I think of the people whose lives, like mine, would be radically different had they never attended. I think of the great and meaningful conversations that occurred in unexpected places. And I do not fail to consider an apparent irony: So many of our seminars and craft lectures were held in classrooms at the school of business.
Now we hear that business is the very killer of our program. Higher education is changing, they say. People don’t want to learn for the sake of learning; they want a pathway to a job, and it better pay well. Who cares about literature, culture, and liberal arts tradition? Well, I do. And I know a bunch of people who agree with me.
We will shed our tears in private and move on with our literary lives, knowing well that we wouldn’t even have such existences had it not been for the University of Tampa MFA program. Like all deaths, this one will never leave us. We will simply adjust to being without as one does after the departure of a beloved. And this program and its people are dearly, dearly beloved.
Some poets tend to speak of their families as obligations that prevent true creativity. There are fellowships aimed at helping parent-poets escape their roles as mom or dad and focus exclusively on “the work,” whatever that might be. But as one who spent two weeks in 2019 away from my wife and sons, let me tell you what I’ve discovered:
It is only amid the adventures of family life that true poetry is created. The rearing of children, the complexities of marriage, and the shared experiences that go with both produce the stuff of great writing. This isn’t some pseudo-inspirational fluff; it is truth found through living.
In my workplace, I’m fortunate to be given generous vacation time every year. I could spend those hours communing with nature, hearing other writers, discussing the intricacies of composition, or…I could make memories for my family at home or away. Whether we go to the beach, the mountains, or even Lisbon, Portugal (see prior posts), the time we spend will forge moments ingrained in our history. And to me, building fond recollections for my wife and sons trumps circular conversations about craft or melancholy publishing panels.
Certainly, solitude has its place in the life of a writer. It serves as a kind of social fast, and science tells us that fasting is an important component in our human lives. But for sheer generative power, nothing holds a candle to family time. All the prompt-riddled workshops and cliche-filled seminars can’t compare to seeing one’s offspring make the realizations that accompany maturing. To watch the generational cycles continue, to spend time in earnest dialogue with loved ones — these are the elements of inspiration.
For my writer friends who are attending name-brand conferences or literary events this year, I wish you all the best. Have fun hearing from people whose limited celebrity is often greater than their wisdom. I hope you listen to a line during a reading that sparks your innovation. I hope you network with folks you’ve long admired. And I hope you don’t come back empty-handed.
I resolve this year, this 2020, to be present in daily life with my family. I resolve to observe every detail, absorb every minute, and allow my literary endeavors to follow my role as husband and father, not the other way around. I have a new manuscript that’s out there, and hopefully this will be its year. But even if it isn’t, my greater hope is that the impressions I leave on the lives of those closest to me will be indelible. As Robert Penn Warren once said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” It’s 2020, and it’s time to go live it.
If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.
Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.
The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.
Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.