For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.
Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.
I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.
And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.
Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?
The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.
But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.
Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.
We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.
I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.
Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.
After years of writing and months of preparation, Hard Inheritance is now available! Just in time for the holiday season, this new volume contains works first published by such literary powerhouses as Nashville Review and similar respected journals.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it is a testament to life lived in rural Florida. Following in the footsteps of its older brother, Middle Class American Proverb, Hard Inheritance offers readers a glimpse into the trials, joys, and landmark events of time spent in places that barely get their own map-dot. Moreover, it presents a portrait of such places’ people — the hard, the charitable, the native.
Notable southern poet Andrew Hudgins says this about Hard Inheritance:
“The poems in Hard Inheritance are set firmly in the poet’s ‘ancestral terrain’ of small-town Florida. The landscape is lovingly but unsentimentally brought to the page, and it is peopled by the poet’s family, friends, and fellow parishioners. … These truly are ‘songs sculpted by home’s hard structures.'”
And award-winning poet Sandra Beasley adds:
“What is architecture, without its inhabitants? ‘In our heart pine handmade farm house, / my grandparents were window weights: // cast iron bars tethered in country wood, / plumb and place-holding pendulums.’ What is a field, without the hands that tend it? In HARD INHERITANCE, John Davis, Jr. recognizes the potent ecosystems of everyday life, as in “What the Grove Knows”: “Stirred soil lifts its secrets to the sky. / Revealed and overturned crickets / invite snowy egrets who eat them.” Readers will enjoy taking a joy ride on an untethered dock, hunting down poisonous white frogs, harvesting worms before a father and son’s angling expedition, and hand-nestling one newspaper section into another before the morning’s delivery. Yet these poems resist mere nostalgia; the author’s voice is attentive, conversational, and wise to how class shapes the landscape at hand. Given graceful and balanced stanzas, consonance of word choice, and the unexpected glimmer of a pantoum, I admire both Davis’s rigors of craft and vitality of spirit.”
I’m incredibly excited by this new release, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy to fill a stocking or to surprise that word-lover on your list. Get one for yourself, while you’re at it. Here’s wishing everyone the warmest of holiday seasons! Happy Reading!
Only by climbing to the top of my grandparents’ magnolia could I see it: Far off in the west, craning above a humdrum horizon of pines and oaks, there was what I called “The China Tree.” In retrospect, it was probably just an oddly-shaped cypress, but its shadow pressed against sunsets made me think of Oriental landscapes and scenes from books and paintings I’d encountered as a boy.
While still a child, I vowed to seek the tree one day — I’d strike out on a hike to find its magnificent shape beyond the neighbors’ fields, and rest only once I’d stood at its proud, ancient trunk. The tree was a conquest-in-waiting, a thing of distinct beauty and history beckoning above and well beyond all that was common. And I told myself I would be its discoverer.
From my favorite thinking spot, the barn roof, I couldn’t see the tree’s paisley canopy; there were too many power lines and old chimneys blocking the view. But from the barn’s apex, I could ask myself: How will you know when you’ve found it? My answer as an adolescent was full of hubris — I’ll just know. Something that big, something that rare can’t be easily mistaken.
When I last returned to my grandparents’ farm, my boys and I climbed the old magnolia again, and I noticed that the China Tree was gone. Taken by hurricanes or hungry chainsaws sometime during my adult absence, its silhouette no longer marked the horizon. It saddened me, as I never pursued that quest I’d promised myself, and moreover, my sons would never know that landmark.
Maybe, though, in a more figurative way, I’ve been on the China Tree journey my whole life: I wanted to seek it for its beauty, its history, and its difference from everything around it. Is that not what the life of a poet is?
As one who has chosen the unconventional path toward a goal that many don’t understand, I believe that even today, I am seeking the China Tree. Yes, now it is more symbolic than literal, and maybe it’s a little harder to see — after all, the pines and oaks of grown-up obligations tower thick and high, and some days, it’s tough to discern my target.
Yet the ultimate objective remains the same: Find beauty, find history, find originality. With these missions in mind, I renew myself to the path ahead of me. The China Tree has not yet been fully discovered, and I will stop only once I can rest at its majestic foot. Time to press onward.
Recently I had the privilege of driving our state’s poet laureate to and from my employer school for a special reading and appearance. Peter Meinke, author of multiple volumes of poetry and prose, professor emeritus for Eckerd College, and long-time St. Petersburg resident, was one of my mentors in University of Tampa’s MFA program, and before that, he edited my work and instructed me at other workshops around Florida. If you take a look at my book, Middle Class American Proverb, you’ll see that one of the blurbs on the back is from Peter, as well. His advice helped form my personal aesthetic, and his appreciation of forms helped give me a bigger poet’s toolbox.
Conversations with Peter are always interesting because he’s been in the literary game long enough to have stories aplenty about the teaching and writing life. He’s worked with some of the biggest and most recognizable names in the poetry community, and he’s won a plethora of awards, although he’d never brag. In many ways, Peter is what I would consider “the poet’s poet.” So to be driving this gentleman to and from his home was a real treat for an emerging writer.
I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about some of my recent endeavors, poetic and academic alike. I mentioned that I’d applied for a few different things (programs and such), and he replied, “You know, sometimes you get struck by lightning. Something just comes to you out of the blue when you least expect it. Somebody calls you up, and you can hardly believe it.” He talked about a few of his own such experiences, and then finished up with, “…but you have to put yourself out there.”
We chatted a while about some of the folks we both knew — where they were, how they were doing, who had vacated or filled positions here or there. It was richly rewarding to converse with someone who shared a common vocabulary and a common set of interests.
As usual, Peter’s appearance was met with applause and appreciation. Students and community members lined up for his book signing afterward, and he took pictures with several of my awe-struck pupils. The night was memorable, successful, and enjoyable for us all.
On my way back to my own home after dropping Peter off, I was filled with the hope that one day, I too could provide the gift of experience to some up-and-comer. As great as poetry is, passing its “fever” on to others is even greater. And therein lies the quiet strength of our state’s poet laureate: his legacy of learning and love of language. Might we all aspire to leave similar tracks for others to follow.
Recently, I attended the Juniper Writing Institute at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For the unaware, Amherst is the hometown of one of the canon’s most memorable and memorized poets, Emily Dickinson. Also nearby, one can find the farm of another great American poet, Robert Frost, considered by many to be the landmark poet of the 20th century. Both of these poets have meant a great deal to me as a writer throughout my career, and being in their part of the world was an unforgettable experience.
But my own independent studies of both Frost and Dickinson raised a new question for me — one that awoke me at 3:30 a.m. the first night of the conference. So distracted was I from this recurring question that I arose from my semi-peaceful travel slumber to write by hand in my journal. Here, in its unedited version, is the transcript of my late-night, early-morning writing:
6/21/15, 3:30 a.m.
I am awake because Emily Dickinson will not leave my mind. Having visited her house yesterday, I keep seeing her small corner bedroom over and over: its little sleigh bed, its dresser, its white-knobbed doors.
Most of all, though, I think of all its windows. The tour guide kept using phrases like “extraordinary fenestration,” and she did not exaggerate. The natural light in Emily’s room was almost church-like. White and spiritual, it seemed to give life to the broad, thick beams of hardwood flooring there. As old as everything was, the light carried no dust. The air in her quarters was as pristine as the white housecoat she sewed for herself. On that air was the scent of history, a rare mixture of old wood, natural fibers, and unstirred earth.
I glimpsed the Amherst world from her window. Her tiny desk was positioned before it, and for a second, I could visualize her sitting, penning lines of legacy. Some of these lines also awoke me today, mostly her first lines:
Hope is the thing with feathers
I dwell in possibility
My teacher-mind sets to work on these, and I envision exercises for my students:
(Abstraction) is the thing with (concrete object)
What idea or notion do you “dwell in,” and why?
The second of these questions applies to me as well, for once again I find myself too fixated on the idea of leaving my mark as an artist. I dream of a time when others tour my family’s farm or my smaller lake-view house in the city to see where and why and how I worked. Even at this mature age, my boyish whims of literary celebrity return, thanks in part to Emily Dickinson. My pragmatism intervenes, though, and tells me I need to sleep before daylight arrives. [End Journal Entry]
So, I was at my most honest in the middle of the night. But my thoughts of leaving a literary trail for others to follow would not stop with Emily. No, not when the home and writing space of one of my all-time literary heroes was nearby.
Upon my visit to the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, I was privileged to see his barn, his house (both floors!) and the land surrounding. I stood where the great man stood, walked where he walked, and even trod the staircase his wife descended, prompting the poem “Home Burial.” All these experiences once again raised the concern of posthumous impact.
Would people want to similarly experience the spaces where I have created? Will my own work ever merit that kind of attention, before or after my death? The literary marketplace is full of Frost-wannabes and Dickinson-aspirants, and who am I to even ponder such weighty matters? How does proving oneself a “fanboy” of literature make one any more likely to succeed at literary and scholarly endeavors? And thusly, I tortured myself further.
I visited the Robert Frost Library. I spent hours perusing the Frost-Dickinson collection in the Jones Library of Amherst. I allowed my imagination to run wild with scenarios concocted only from the notion of greatnesses recognized. And once again, I found myself twisting my brain into the same enigma that it has puzzled over like a Rubik’s Cube countless times before: Will I matter? Will my work matter? How do I ensure both? What steps must I next take to be certain that I’m not forgotten, like so many writers of the past?
I had hoped by now, at my nearly 40 years of age, that such concerns would really be a thing of the past. After all, I continue to write, and I’m sure that one day I’ll see some wider recognition than my meager efforts have so far produced. Like all writers, I’d like a Pulitzer and maybe some other big awards (see prior posts), but honestly, at the end of the day, what I’m really aiming to do is preserve people, times, and places that have mattered to me the most. If my poetry results in just a few people gaining a broader appreciation of the heritage, values, and experiences I’ve received in this life, then I’ve won. And I don’t mean that all of my poems are totally autobiographical — certainly many are not. But all of them lend themselves toward ideas, visions, and perspectives that, however universal, have arisen somehow from the life I’ve lived.
Will people care about that life? Why should they? Will students sit through laborious documentaries about the different periods in my writing timeline? Will my work be anthologized in textbooks of the future? Such inquiries can drive one mad, if left unchecked. Spending countless hours in the homes of the greats might not make me a better writer, but it did accomplish one thing — it allowed me to see a shared humanity, a common thread of inspiration, motivation, and dedication.
Persistence, diligence, and enormous creativity are shared traits among those we celebrate today, so long after their earthly departures. And perhaps it is these traits that we should take away from memorials and museums commemorating their contributions. More than the vanity of asking, “How can I attain their level of distinction?”, perhaps we (I) should be asking, “What can I do continuously and creatively well to positively affect my world?” Such a question surpasses the superficial desire for remembrance, and enters us into a more philosophical, even theological, realm. May our answers lead us not to fame, not to fortune, and not to solipsism. Rather, may they lead us to be better human beings, produce finer work, and seize the opportunities of the everyday.