As I begin to conclude my time as faculty at Word and Community: A Writers Retreat, I feel it would be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and gained here. The following are a few lessons I’ve taken from a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods with other writers:
1.) One’s creative impulse and personal faith are two halves of a larger whole. They work integrally with one another and often simultaneously.
2.) Solitude is great, but like everything else, it demands balance. Being by oneself for reflection and contemplation must be counter-weighted by relationship and interaction with others. Too much time in either community or isolation can be detrimental to creativity.
3.) Being on a body of water opens the mind’s gateway to metaphor, analogy, and critical perspective. The physical supplements the metaphysical when paddling a craft.
4.) Nature is necessary to allow the processing of events, truths, and ideas from our lives. Clarity is fostered by trees, trails, and the wild.
5.) We must go in order to return. Away is anywhere not home. Seeking simplicity through complexity leads one back to the familiar and the cherished. And these ideas are also interrelated.
In retrospect, I probably would not have had the time to better understand my craft and my self without this week in the woods. It has allowed me to write, edit, revise, teach, and most of all, relax. I’ve met others I won’t soon forget, eaten differently (and more nutritiously) than I usually would, and cleared away a number of mental cobwebs.
Tomorrow, I will return my rental car, board an airplane, and resume life as husband, dad, educator, and leader. But for these final hours, it’s nice to hear the wind through the pines, watch the ripples on Trout Lake, and hear the bird songs of a place unlike my native Florida. But it will also be good to get back there. Farewell, Wisconsin.
While browsing the local library nearest my university the other day, I stumbled across one of my books neatly tucked between other collections of poetry by some very well-known names in the literary realm. I’ve always been honored to see my work juxtaposed with that of “name-brand” poets, and I’ve even caught myself saying in those brief author’s bios that lit mags make you write: “His work has been published alongside that of [well-known literary icon] in [equally well-known literary journal].” I’m going to stop doing that, and here’s why:
I’ve been around the poetry game long enough. I don’t have to “prop my work up” by saying it appeared with the poetry of somebody who receives hefty advances or well-publicized appearances. Maybe that sounds a little arrogant, even bitter, but it’s time to let my words and my craft stand on their own two feet.
Comparisons will always be inevitable — some critics have said my work reminds them of The Fugitives, while others have drawn lines to other various modernists or formalists, and that’s okay. I don’t mind being called “The Southern Robert Frost,” for example. That’s high praise.
But I feel compelled to stop invoking the names of people who have already had their turn at bat (and in most cases, hit it out of the park). It smacks of pretension and literary snobbery at its worst, and truthfully, if I saw someone else do it, I’d be very critical. “Well LA-DEE-DA, so-and-so…Your work has ‘appeared’ beside someone else important. Big frickin’ deal.” It diminishes the credibility of the writer rather than scaffolding it. So it needs to stop, no matter how much I may admire other poet(s).
Not too terribly long ago, I stopped mentioning (in my author’s bio) my multiple Pushcart Prize nominations for this same reason. Stick around poetry long enough and write decent poems, and sooner or later, you’re bound to get a few. It’s a big deal the first time it happens — I remember the great celebration at our home when the first journal to nominate me, Deep South magazine, spread the news. But unless and until I actually win one, it’s kind of like telling people that my next-door neighbor is a movie star. I’ve had enough of hedging greatness.
My poems need to live on their own merits and be judged by their own characteristics, positive or negative. Not everybody is going to enjoy my style, but at least they won’t be conflating it with that of someone who has long since paid their dues. It’s time to stop trespassing on others’ good names. Let it begin today.
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.
Earlier this year, brilliant mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in a car wreck. Nash’s work and life were the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard in the early 2000s. Like many moviegoers, I too was touched and inspired by Nash’s biography (even if it was “adapted” for film). His humble West Virginia origins, his battle with personal demons, and his eventual rise to academic and economic prominence spoke to audiences everywhere.
Recently, one scene from Howard’s movie replayed in my head as I encountered a situation similar to one faced by Nash early on in the film: Upon his arrival at Princeton after receiving a substantial scholarship, Nash is confronted by Martin Hansen during a reception. Hansen indicates that he “simply assumed [Nash was] the waiter,” due to his appearance. This barbed condescension is a hallmark of the early Nash-Hansen competitive relationship as portrayed in the film.
People from small towns or rural upbringings often face this kind of slight, even today. I grew up in a town of 3,500 people. Everyone knew everyone else, and the main vocation was agriculture. So, when I eventually moved to a city of 35,000 people (and growing), I felt as though I’d made my home in a more metropolitan area. Even though the culture here is still one of welcoming and warmth (see prior posts), my city has many markers of being a larger, slightly more urban place than many of Florida’s smaller map dots.
While I was serving as a guest lecturer at an area university some months ago, a student I met had the audacity to insinuate that small to mid-sized cities are undeserving of artists in residence or poets laureate. His contention was that only large cities and crowded urban areas should pay attention to literary and arts-related matters, because, after all, creative gifts can only thrive in such a vast and populous setting. There was more “talent” to choose from, he indicated, and more educated people inhabiting the big cities.
So, let me set the record straight, if only to repudiate this student’s erroneous assumptions. Many highly educated and erudite individuals choose to be country-dwellers, suburbanites, and big city expatriates (I’d supply a list, but it would be far too long). Their decision is made not because they desire to be “bigger fish in smaller ponds,” but because they desire a truer sense of community, a safe and clean place to raise a family, or maybe because they hold dear the virtues that modestly populated areas often embrace. In the end, there are several reasons to eschew the hustle and bustle of the sky-scraped city, especially if one is an artist. Certainly, there are benefits to larger metropolises, just as there are drawbacks. And yes, arts and culture do thrive there in most cases.
However, assuming ignorance or lack of refinement exists solely in smaller towns or mid-sized cities is the height of arrogant urban imperialism. I believe that Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, and John Nash would agree, for starters. And for me, smaller places yield bigger ideas. It is not by accident that Richard Hugo encouraged poets to seek out “triggering towns” that seemed to be more tight-knit communities.
I’m not attempting to prescribe small-town living to those accustomed to bigger cities, nor am I advocating one particular mode of residency. But I do know that, for my creative purposes, small and medium places work. Those who denigrate them, somewhat ironically, need only a broader mind.
For the first time in a long time, I actually felt anxious about publishing. As a younger writer, I worried whether people would think my pieces were good enough. Over the years, as I completed the MFA and had other major milestones in my poetry writing, those fears waned. I began to adopt the attitude that I knew my work had worth and quality, and if others disagreed, so be it. I found that sentiments within the literary community were so broad that my work would never be pleasing to everyone. I wrote with my particular audience in mind, and if others also happened to enjoy it, so much the better. This wasn’t to say that I disregarded workshop advice or the feedback of diverse others, but at the end of the day, my work was just that…my work. I could compose, edit and revise with the best of them, and that confidence laid my worries to rest.
Perhaps this was why I was taken aback by my own boyish hesitation and nervousness when my fiction appeared. This funny southern tall tale was unlike anything I’d ever done, and I suddenly felt the need to seek out validation like a kid in school. All those old reservations about whether my work was good enough suddenly resurfaced. After all, I’d built my reputation on a substantial foundation of poetry — branching out into another “unsafe” genre like fiction was reason for apprehension, even intimidation.
Once the piece appeared, some of the trepidation subsided, but even now, I look at my writing there and fight the propensity to hem and haw about it. Maybe my skepticism over my fiction-writing abilities will subside like my poetry worries did, but for today, I continue to walk on eggshells around this newer genre in my publication history. Like any art, with proficient practice comes greater assurance. Maybe I need to read and write more fiction; maybe I need a few more workshops. I’m not sure. But I do know that engaged time tends to cure insecurity. This summer, as I’m busy planning book events and producing more stanzas, I plan to prioritize writing beyond the purple curtain of poetry. Hopefully, as the old saying advises, practice will make perfect, however I choose to define that abstraction.
My family and I attended the Central Avenue Arts Festival downtown today. The booths were plentiful and colorful, with media ranging from stained glass to metal, oil-on-canvas to photography. All were dazzlingly amazing. The weather was breezy, and displays included pottery making (my two sons got to make pinch pots) and an entire “kids’ corner” devoted to letting children make and do.
Amid these other booths, there was one gentleman attempting to sell his self-published children’s books. They were on display, and people were occasionally stopping by, flipping pages and admiring them. But in comparison to the other booths, the lone book vendor lacked the sparkle and flair that other artists generated with their wares.
Certainly it wasn’t the author’s fault — his medium was simply more “subdued” than the flashier arts around him. Sometimes those of us in the literary realm find ourselves struggling with this same perception: Why should patrons trouble their minds with words when a picture will provide instant gratification? Understandably, the average consumer wants to be aesthetically pleased. Poetry appeals to all of the senses, but the reader has to work to receive its pleasure. Paintings, sculptures, or photographs, while potentially meaning-heavy, can be appreciated even by those who aren’t seeking an artist’s purpose or vision. To delve into language, however, requires cognitive investment. And so the struggle continues: How do writers (and poets especially) reach a want-it-now, get-it-now society?
One way is to increase awareness. When people know authors and poets, they are more likely to direct their attention toward the written word. Every city, town, and county has someone pursuing the writing life, and some are better known than others. About two years ago, I posted an interview I had with Mildred Greear, a North Georgia poet whose work is known regionally, and who was a friend to Byron Herbert Reese, a well-known poet of historic import. The folks in Mildred’s part of the world love her work and support it, not because they are among the literati or the poetry elite, but because, well…it’s Mildred. And to support poetry is to support her and everything she represents: a distinct geography, history, and set of ideals rolled into one. In an age where many are crying for audiences to “separate the work from the artist” and similar notions, people near Sautee-Nacoochee, GA are doing the opposite, and it works. One great ambassador for verse can make all the difference. Some of the customers who have bought Mildred’s work might not even read poems, but they see her volumes as a near-biblical necessity. If you’re living there, you need some Greear poetry on the family bookshelf.
My hope as a younger, still-emerging poet is to serve as that same kind of ambassador. Rather than being the “quiet booth” in the arts community, I hope that my literary contributions (large and small alike) help make my community a better place in much the same way Mildred’s efforts have. The more people understand the vitality of poetry and other literary arts, the more a culture thrives. And with that thriving culture, communities build understanding and mutual respect, as well.
If you support writers and artists, especially in your community, please allow me to thank you. Likewise, if you haven’t seen what kinds of creative minds are at work in your part of the world, I encourage you to do so. Attend gallery openings, public readings, book signings, and the range of other available cultural outlets that your town or city has to offer. And if you don’t find any, make one of your own — it may feel like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness, but as any good Bible scholar can tell you, those lone voices are often the most relevant. It may sound trite, but you really can make an impact for good.
Last night, I graduated from University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. The picture you see here is the hooding ceremony. The gentlemen behind me (center) are preparing to place my MFA graduate hood upon me. I said farewells to many friends who have traveled alongside me over these last two years, and I received the hearty congratulations of family, friends, and fellow writers alike. One of my old frat brothers even showed up for the ceremony. It was bittersweet, as graduations always are: shuffling off one set of experiences to fully engage in another, saying goodbyes to greet new challenges, and reflecting on the positive memories and lessons of a long-term academic endeavor.
The question that arises after any graduation, of course, is now what? I must have been asked a dozen times yesterday about my plans for the future with this degree. My hopes are rather standard, really: I would like a full-time college teaching position, and I’d like to continue pursuing the literary life and all it has to offer. I have my name in the hat for various awards, fellowships, and publication opportunities, and I plan to continue applying for as many possibilities as I can.
Mostly, though, I plan to write. Not to oversimplify, but really, the MFA for me is a license to practice my craft in greater credibility. Now it would be questionable NOT to arise at 5 every morning and sit down to pen things out. Now it would be foolish to waste creative time and space, squandering a significant investment. More than anything, though, now is the time that I am compelled to prove the worth, the validity, and the relevance of my degree. Failing to write regularly would equal surrender, and those that know me will attest that giving up is not in my nature.
The MFA means excelsior — onward, upward, higher. May today begin that climb to a yet-unmarked summit.