I’ve never mastered it. The rant, the screed, the protest — they’re all mysteries to me, even to this day. Oh sure, I’ve written plenty of poems about things that made me mad; one even took third place in the 2012 Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest sponsored by the Studios of Key West. “The Words I Hate and Why” was a poem that had a certain “slit-your-throat-before-you-know-it” quality. It made people go “ooh” painfully at the end, and it caused them to wince in empathy for the poem’s speaker. The piece certainly accomplished its aim: It hurt the person it was intended to hurt, almost irreparably so. This damage may be one reason I don’t typically write “angry” poems. Their cost is just too great.
Recently, I had a mentor look over a few works of mine dealing with issues that I can get pretty passionate about. His advice: “At some point, John, you’re just going to have to come right out and say, ‘I’m pissed off about this.'” Trouble was, I was being artful and allegorical about anger. It’s an old habit and one I’ve tried to break, but when it comes to writing stuff that riles me up, I prefer to be subtle rather than overly didactic. There’s already too much bad poetry written from irrational, spewing minds.
Even when I was in the MFA program, prior mentors encouraged me to unleash the acerbic wit, the well-timed pejorative, or the harsh critique. My upbringing sometimes prevents such invective, however. Every time I’ve been angry and acted on it, by word or by deed, regret has inevitably followed. To use my poetry to launch malice or hostility into this world would be a mistake. Don’t we have enough of those things already?
Just today, I drafted a poem that responded to some pseudo-political drivel penned by another poet who shall remain nameless. My reply poem is deft. It is cuttingly and cunningly crafted. And more than likely, I will wad it up and throw it out by the end of the week. To allow someone else’s poorly informed and warped worldview to infect me with stress is to let that someone else win. They’ve had their (poorly wrought, dogmatic) say, and they will forever be able to look back on that waste of phonemes. But I don’t have to react…not with words, not with time, not even with further thought. Do I protest too much? Maybe. But let’s pretend it’s over, anyway. Life’s too short.
I intend to keep writing about those themes, people, and ideas that have merit and worth — “Whatsoever things are lovely,” to borrow a phrase from Paul. This doesn’t mean I’m going to be Pollyanna about the darkness in the world or matters that deserve righteous indignation. But it does mean that I will continue finding other catharses besides poetry. If you want to read some angry tirades, you’ll just have to look elsewhere. Sorry Not Sorry.
Once upon a time, there was a poet. He was ambitious, as poets happen to be, and he was terribly concerned with making a name for himself. All day every day, he sat around thinking about what his literary legacy would be, and how future generations would look back upon his work.
This was pretty funny, considering his work had only been carried in a dozen or so literary journals of modest reputation, and his first book had been bought by only a handful of family and friends. Nonetheless, Poet was quite certain that one day, his rhymes and stanzas would wind up in the hands of adoring students who would romanticize his life, documentary-style, and he would receive the reverential treatment of other great canonized writers.
Driven by his lust for immortality and renown, Poet began assembling his most recently published works into a collection. He’d already self-published one book (see “bought only by family and friends” above), and he’d even gone to a terribly expensive liberal arts college to earn the coveted MFA — which he reminded people regularly was a “terminal degree.” So he knew how to put a poetry collection together and how to find a publisher.
When the day came to submit his manuscript, Poet was shaking with excitement. He sent the book to publishers great and small, hoping oh so adamantly that one would see the merit and value in his clever diction and intense imagery. As luck would have it, one did!
This publisher was a very good publisher, too. The press had a 40-year history of getting poets’ work in front of readers and libraries alike, and much of the poetry it published was like that of our hero. Joy and elation filled Poet’s mind! How great! How rewarding! He could hardly wait to hold this new book in his hands. The manager of the press was very kind, and the cover art for his book was beautiful. Likewise, the pagination, the formatting, and the production quality of the book were all incredible. Before the book hit the presses, the kindly publisher had advertised its arrival through major outlets, and critics were eager to read it. Poet was as happy as he had ever been. The book sold several hundred copies, a very positive return for a new book of poems from a virtually unknown author.
As months passed, however, Poet began to think too highly of himself. After all, his work had now been published in “better” venues with bigger names, and established writers had been singing Poet’s praises. Surely he deserved to have his work seen and appreciated by people beyond his geographic region.
“London!” Poet exclaimed. “I must have my work published in London!”
The warm light of Big Ben flashed in his mind along with scenes of major publishing houses he had seen in magazines and in movies. If only he could find his own! London became an obsession — even England would do, if not the capital city. After all, the home of Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Donne would certainly benefit from his writing as well. He was just as deserving as they, he told himself.
More of his poetry was picked up by magazines, contests, and anthologies (thanks somewhat to the book that had been put out by his good former publisher), and soon, Poet had a whole new manuscript ready to go. Rather than sending the book to his highly proficient previous publisher, though, Poet decided to go a different route (aside: consider this part “going off the path in the woods”, a la Goldilocks).
An English publisher had recently set up shop, and the manager of that press approached Poet. “What a nice manuscript you have there,” said the British publisher in exquisite queen’s English. “Wouldn’t it be delightful to have it turned into a book? I’m very qualified.” Publisher licked his lips and his eye gleamed.
“Yes! Yes!” Poet shouted without a moment’s hesitation. “My book will be published in [gasp] Europe!”
And so, Poet handed over his work, a collection of award-winning poems previously published in reputable magazines. New Publisher extended his claws, clasped the manuscript greedily, and slithered back to the deep, dark woods of unknown England.
Some months later, a book from Hickshire, UK arrived. Its interior was on cheap, plain white pages, many of the poems had been incorrectly printed, and the back-cover blurbs from prestigious members of the literary community were barely visible due to New Publisher’s poor design sense. Poet’s dream of overseas publication was becoming a nightmare. He could hardly believe his eyes! Moreover, New Publisher had not done anything for publicity or marketing of Poet’s newest manuscript, and so no one knew about it, aside from people who knew Poet already. It sold maybe 100 copies, and many of those purchases were “pity sales,” people who felt so badly for Poet that they bought copies just to ease his suffering.
If only he could undo this decision; if only he could go back in time and send this precious manuscript to a publisher that he knew would treat it professionally and artistically. But alas, it was too late. Poet’s bad decision would now haunt him forever, even when, in a few short months, New Publisher closed its doors leaving all its writers in the lurch, including Poet. What was he to do now?
With a humbled spirit and a wiser perspective, Poet began working on fresh poems. He sent them out to magazines, contests, and other venues, and soon, many of them found loving homes. In a few years, Poet had regained the ground he’d lost due to his own hubris. Editors recognized his name, contest judges identified his work by its unique style, and fellow writers appreciated his judicious perspectives. However, this time, Poet kept his ego in check. As the acceptances poured in and the award nominations mounted, Poet began assembling another collection. And this time, he swore he would not be lured off course by the promise of exotic publication.
Upon finishing the last pages of the book, he humbly submitted it exclusively to the publisher he’d known before — the one who had so richly contributed to his prior successes and victories. There, his newest book received a warm reception and all the editorial attention it deserved. The kind publisher was elated to see Poet return! The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller in the poetry category, it received multiple accolades and awards, and everyone lived happily ever after. THE END.
The moral of this story, boys and girls, is not to let your pride go before a fall. Beware the wolves and snakes of the publishing industry who capitalize on self-important people. Avoid falling prey to the traps and snares that Poet encountered, and you too will be wiser and happier all your livelong days.
Not too long ago, someone told me to quit submitting my work to small journals. “I’ve never even heard of half of these,” he lamented. “Your work deserves to be in bigger places — you know, like The New Yorker or something.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m among the great morass of writers submitting their poetry to The New Yorker every year. It’s almost like a custom of sorts. I send something, and six months later, I get their standard rejection. C’est la vie.
But to completely abandon the small, independent magazines to exclusively focus on getting published in “major” venues would be both foolhardy and counterproductive. Small journals have, for decades, provided my work with a home that has become gratifying in different ways.
One of the greatest rewards of “submitting small” occurs when that tiny publication really takes off. Take, for example, Deep South magazine. Erin Z. Bass, who has become a friend of mine, started this little venture years ago when I was still getting my feet wet in the literary realm. She published some of my fledgling work, and since that time, she’s provided a home for some of my more mature poems as well. It’s been great to see how her magazine has thrived, covering food, culture, literature, and the broad array of southern life topics. With pride, I tell people I’ve been published there. Had I kept my work for some “bigger” magazine, I never would have been part of this success story.
Smaller journals also nominate for awards. Not that big publications don’t, mind you, but more often than not, I’ve found my work gets nominated for prizes when it’s been published in little places. These journals’ editors appreciate the well-crafted line, the strong image, and the dexterity of wordplay. As a result, they will often nominate work exhibiting these qualities for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and other recognition. I’ve always enjoyed the potential of having my work nominated unexpectedly. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of the perks of doing this work.
Finally, the literary community only works when we all pull together. What if everyone strictly contributed to mega-zines? The little voices that are so necessary to a civilized and well-read society would dry up, and we would all be forced to consume the standard tastes of a select few big shots. Boring! The little journals ensure that the broadest diversity of voices is presented. Let’s face it: Not everyone is going to love poems about rural life, generational customs, and historic landmarks, and yet this is what much of my work addresses. Without the small mags, these creations would remain safely tucked away inside my laptop. But instead, there are editors out there who recognize value in a breadth of experiences: urban, suburban, and yes, rural.
I will continue submitting my work to the up-and-coming journals. They do good things. Certainly, I’ll take my shot with the “name brand” magazines as well — it’s part of being a writer. But don’t expect me to withhold good work from a place just because it’s not as lauded as the monolith publications. If we’re eager to hear from a wide variety of experiences, the small magazine must thrive. And it’s up to writers to help it do exactly that.
Recently I had a piece published by a journal that is edited by someone who has received, shall we say, “mixed responses” from the literary community. This editor’s political and religious views are certainly not “mainstream” in the poetry world, for certain.
That being said, I love this editor’s written work and [their] journal’s style. The fact that this person has been berated for unconventional beliefs is inconsequential to me as a writer. If anything, I admire the editor more for that willingness to stand on principles, whether I agree with them or not.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that in the future, my work being published by the editor’s journal may be a “dark mark” against my name. Guess what? I don’t care.
Too often writers inform their choices based on what is “acceptable.” I have reached a magical middle age where such considerations don’t enter my radar anymore. Good journal? Submit. Bad journal? Don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t base my submissions on who nominates how many for which awards. I don’t look at percentages of rejections or acceptances. I don’t even give an inkling to a publication’s “prestige.” I send my work to places I respect. The end. Accepted? Hooray! Rejected? Keep going.
“But don’t you want to be on ‘the right side of history?'” my socially concerned friends may ask. My answer: Not especially. The annals of literature contain heroes and villains alike — those we’ve forgiven and those we haven’t. If I’m eventually judged by the same politically correct mob that hates the Fugitives but adores Ginsberg, so be it. Their sensitivity to prevailing mores has blinded them to a great span of sterling work, and frankly, my words aren’t for them anyway.
My poems speak of old-fashioned values, hard work, forgotten places, and flawed people. These topics exclude me from certain bookshelves, and that’s okay. Furthermore, it’s equally okay that my work is published in places that may one day “fall from grace.”
For today, my poetry is there, chosen by an editor who might or might not share my vision of the world. If that bothers you, dear reader, please heed this message: None of us is perfect. Let’s forego the hypocrisy of pretending that any man-made philosophy is fallacy-free and just enjoy the show. History will write (and right) itself.
April has certainly been less than “the cruelest month” this year. I’ve had some pieces published, spent some time with excellent poets, and with spring has come that sense of hope and relief. Soon, my boys will be out of school, and summer will press its Floridian heat upon us, urging us to the community pool and the beach. But for now, I’d like to spend the last little bit of a great month celebrating a victory or two:
1.) Deep South magazine, a publication that has been friendly to my work since its very beginnings, recently published “My Grandfather’s Exhibit,” a newer piece of mine that deals with a subject very dear to me:
I’d appreciate folks visiting the link and hitting “like” or offering a comment, if you can spare the time. The editor loves for people to interact with content, and maybe this piece will inspire a few memories of your own. I’ll also share the audio version below:
2.) Alternating Current Press, who publishes a great online journal called The Coil, recently awarded an ekphrastic piece of mine in its Daguerrotyped competition. Using the photo provided from them, I put together a piece celebrating the contributions of women during the mid-20th Century:
Here again is an audio version for those who prefer to both hear and read works:
I also have some pieces forthcoming in other venues that I’ll announce as I’m able. I hope that National Poetry Month has treated you well, reader, and that as the year progresses, poetry will continue to be a valuable part of your everyday life.
“This is a very, very fine poem. I just wanted to call you and let you know that we’ll be including it in our July issue. Thank you for sending it to us.” …And my day was made.
It isn’t every day one receives a phone call from the editor of a literary journal, especially one as busy as The American Journal of Poetry, founded and operated by Robert Nazarene (who called me) and James Wilson. Readers may recognize these two esteemed gentlemen as the former editors of MARGIE, a literary magazine that was legendary in its time for inclusion of high-quality and award-winning material.
Their July issue of AJP will include such renowned poetry giants as Mark Jarman, Alice Friman, and Tony Hoagland — and it will also include yours truly. The fact that my work is being published alongside these poets and others I deeply respect would have been enough to send me over the moon. But the fact that the editor reached out by phone, a nearly unheard-of act of kindness in the poetry realm, was the icing on the proverbial cake. His praise of my work combined with his personal interest spoke volumes about his work ethic and his dedication to an oft-underappreciated task.
So as you’re reading over the ugly remarks about editors on sites like Duotrope, bear in mind that there are still a few out there who do the task in a timely and proficient manner. Some even care enough to make phone calls, and by doing so, rekindle the fire of poetic passion beneath skeptical and world-hardened writers. Even in a time dominated by online submission trackers and digital everything, the personal touch still matters. Thank you to those gatekeepers and decision-makers who continue to do their jobs in a way that enhances the humanity of the literary community. Now more than ever, you’re needed.
In one week, I will be launching my latest collection, Hard Inheritance, at one of our city’s nicest art galleries. It is bittersweet, as this will be both the first and last book launch I hold here. I’ve loved my current city for 17 years, but this summer, my family and I will be moving to the west coast of Florida. My newest university teaching gig is a 70-mile drive from my present home, and making a 140-mile round trip daily is simply infeasible. By spring break, we plan to put our house on the market, and hopefully by summer, we will be in a new house in the Tampa Bay area. Timing, the market, and other factors will determine how quickly all this occurs, of course.
In the meantime, I’m excited to offer this new book, much of which has been inspired by our city, to the people of Winter Haven. My cover artist, a Winter Haven native herself, will be on hand to sign copies of the book with me, and invitees include people who have been supportive of my craft over the years that I’ve resided here. In many ways, this book launch is a fond goodbye to a place that has been kind to me and my family. The time I’ve spent here hasn’t been perfect — the same is true anywhere called home — but it has been inspirational.
Winter Haven’s people, its lakes, its nature, and its history have all woven themselves into my poems at different points along my artistic journey. I’ll miss all that over on the west coast, but there will be fertile material for writing there, as well. I’ve enjoyed seeing the vast salt water every day as I cross the Courtney Campbell Causeway or the Howard Frankland Bridge, and I feel certain that soon enough, my writing will take on a flavor that is more beach-driven. My hope is not to become one of those poets who creates trite rhymes about the sea, but rather, one who allows the environment to speak in its own way. Certainly that has happened here among the lakes of Winter Haven.
My wife’s family lives in Winter Haven, and doubtless we will be returning to visit often, especially during the summers. And yes, it will be a while yet before we’re out of the area. But this book launch allows me to reflect upon and salute a place that has been meaningful. The future is uncertain but hopeful, and it wouldn’t be possible without history. So, Winter Haven, a place of history, beauty, and opportunity, this book launch is for you. Best wishes.