poetry, Uncategorized

Niche and Identity

Sometimes routine is more foe than friend
Can one’s writing niche become a rut?

Much has been written about the importance of finding one’s place, both in the universal sense and within one’s chosen profession. Modern poets strive for years to find their voice, their style, and their unique contribution to literature. In essence, they strive to find their niche.

No matter how you pronounce it (neesh for some, nitch for others), one’s niche is an important component to the writing life. Knowing it can mean the difference between publication and rejection. Our niche, to some extent, is how we brand ourselves as writers. A quick look at the title of this site will show you how I feel my work is defined — “Florida poetry.” Granted, that doesn’t mean my work is all beach sunsets and Disney characters (those aren’t the REAL Florida anyway), but enough of my work has its roots in Floridian soil to justify the label, I believe. I am indeed a Florida Poet.

But what happens when that niche becomes a rut? When the title we choose to wear is either outgrown or outmoded, it’s time to reconsider. A wise writing mentor once told me, “We are constantly redefining ourselves.” He was right then, and it still holds true. When our chosen position in life or literature no longer suits our situation, then change, in one form or another, must occur. Even now, as my travels increase and my style matures, I feel that the “Florida Poet” label is being stretched to its limits. The niche has lived its life, and perhaps I may retire that verbiage altogether. Like actors who fear typecasting, writers too can “portray themselves into a box.” If one is known by strictly one state or one style, then it’s time to diversify. Showing off the full range of “chops” that one possesses can also breathe fresh air into previously stale subject matter.

Oh sure, I’ll always be a Florida poet at heart — this land, where my family has spent seven generations, has been too good to even consider abandoning my roots, my heritage, or my Cracker drawl. But as my poems grow and as my tastes broaden, perhaps I may dig the niche a little broader. Florida for many is a destination. For me, it is the port from which to set sail — not a rut, but a route. May my work always do it justice, and may I always fit my niche, no matter its wording, to the fullest.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Lessons from Santa Fe

Now that some time has passed since my scholarship-funded trip to the Glen West Workshop, I feel that I can reflect on the experience with greater objectivity, and extract some of the bigger ideas from it. Held on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the workshop included writers and artists from all walks of life, and from all over the world.

A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John's College in Santa Fe.
A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

The scenery was beautiful, the discussions and seminars were engaging, and the faith-based component made me take a much harder look at my own personal theology. Almost nightly, I found myself returning to scripture to examine my own beliefs in response to the claims of others beyond my denomination. What I found was this: The pastors and leaders I have known allow God’s Word to speak to them to inform their perspectives. Their hermeneutics and apologetics are without error when scrutinized from a logical, etymological, and spiritual standpoint. I became grateful for my solid foundation in the greatest of all literature.

 

Aside from the religious component of the workshop, however, the time spent working out my own poetry was invaluable. Critiques during workshop allowed me to hear from a community that represented a broad cross-section of society, from amateur dabblers, avid readers, and experts who are highly respected in their field. In addition, the artful environment of Santa Fe provided a much-needed break from the summertime doldrums I was previously facing. The art galleries, public displays of sculpture, and a fantastic rendering of C.S. Lewis’sĀ The Screwtape LettersĀ on stage at the Lensic Theatre allowed me the cognitive space I needed to regenerate creativity.

While the accommodations were sparse, the company, the climate, and the conversation made up for any lacking luxuries. I made a few new good friends who are very different from me, and by so doing, received bigger understandings and broader interpretations of life itself. I would recommend The Glen West Workshop to those seeking something different than the typical writing conference. Its effect on your mind and your soul will be worth it.

poetry, Uncategorized

Embracing the Shel Silverstein moment

Shel, looking especially Whitman-esque.
Shel, looking especially Whitman-esque.

As a child, my mother and grandparents read a good mixture of genres to me. About once a week, usually on Fridays, my mom made a special effort to expose me to poetry. Sometimes it came from the Childcraft series, a collection of gilt-spined hardcover books that were like thin encyclopedias of primary knowledge. Sometimes, it was the inimitable Dr. Seuss, with his nonsensical rhymes and his worlds of whimsy and fantasy. And then, there were the nights before bed that I was privileged enough to be exposed to the great Shel Silverstein, an author whose work had been slammed by public school districts throughout the south because of Shel’s past career choices (artist for Playboy, among them) and his shocking use of words like “butt” and “pee.”

The thing I really liked about Shel’s work is that, often, it would start with a simple premise (having to do the dishes, preparing to clean one’s room, etc.) and by the end, the poem had morphed into something totally unusual and unexpected. I find my own poetry doing this more and more these days. A poem will start with something pretty standard, but by the end, an entire other world or scenario will have emerged on the page.

At first, I was troubled by this occurrence, thinking that structure and form demanded I stick to the original idea and pursue it to its most logical and rational conclusion. I should persist, in other words, to do justice to my work’s inspirations. After letting the “distracted” works rest, though, I came back to them with fresh perspective. It was then I recognized that, even though the poem had taken the road less traveled somewhere along the way, it still held merit. Revision would still be necessary, but the original form — weirdness and all — warranted its own continued existence. Not unlike Shel’s digressions into crazy landscapes, my own poetry is sometimes fueled by what my fiction friends would call “the not-knowing.”

No doubt the Beats would approve of this editorial decision, reiterating their “first thought, best thought” mantra. Not every poem has to show up for work in a starched oxford shirt and presidential-looking tie. Still, I can’t help feeling that words without boundaries are somehow lost. Frost’s misgivings about free verse resonate even today in the minds of poets everywhere, mine included. I feel that certain limits and strictures make poetry stronger, and poems without rules, even self-imposed ones, often fail the test of relevance. Call me a “new formalist” if you will. Many of my peers disagree, asserting the wildness of words renders a poetic experience that is exclusive and unique. Too often such justifications provide fodder for “artists” who want to assign depth to drivel, however. “It’s not that I can’t write; it’s that I find meaning in error and ugliness,” they’ll say, as if ignorance plus garishness equals enlightenment. Rubbish.

Giving in to occasional rabbit-trails along a poem’s path may be acceptable, even artful. But when diversion turns to disruption, it’s time to get out the old poets’ toolbox and get to work. Accepting moments of Seussian whimsy and Silversteinish play can make work more human, and add an element of fun to otherwise serious poetry. It remains up to the poet, however, to know when and where those moments are beneficial. For today, I think I’ll do a few re-writes and see what happens. Wish me luck, respected reader.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies: A new blog entry series

brick All of us have them: Those ingenious revelations that visit us in a state of reverie, near-sleep, or near-awake. The problem comes for many of us when we decide to leverage our big revolutionary ideas in an approachable way for others. Epiphanies, elusive and sometimes seemingly divine, can be a source of pleasure or torture, depending on how we use them.

For the next several blog posts, I plan to highlight different types of epiphanies, and then present one way of leveraging them into applicable plans or products, especially from a writing standpoint. To begin, let’s look at one type of epiphany that regularly strikes the poetic mind: the analogy epiphany.

In this revelation, the poet or thinker is suddenly and shockingly aware of a similarity or relationship between two previously alien things. Usually, the two items in question are comprised of one concrete, tangible thing and one abstraction. For instance, when Robert Burns realized his love was a red, red rose, his writing documented that epiphany. Many may say that this thought lacked originality, as poets had been symbolizing love with roses for centuries. Often though, our own epiphanies are far from original as well. When we begin speaking in similes and metaphors about two previously disparate ideas, you can bet that an analogy epiphany is hard at work forming itself. Our “aha” moments need not escape us, however.

When the analogy epiphany strikes me, my first choice is to dissect the relationship between the two things using a plain, ordinary T-chart. You know the kind: Two columns created by one vertical line intersecting a shorter horizontal line toward the top. One topic goes on the left at the top, one topic goes on the right. From there, I’m able to list qualities, characteristics, and descriptors of the two things and see their similarities and differences with parallel acuity. Sure, this may seem elementary — a Venn Diagram or another instrument may work just as well for visual organization. But by having the two ideas side by side, I’m able to begin a larger process. About five or ten minutes into listing qualities, first lines begin to form inside my mind. I write these down. Maybe I’ll use them, maybe not. More often than not, refined versions of these first lines work their way into my poetry somehow.The two items often create a central metaphor around which the larger piece is built.

By examining relationships between tangentially connected things, the wheels and cogs of the mind begin to naturally create points of commonality that were previously unexplored. These connections are the creators of poetry, as well as products and plans in the business world. The more receptive we become to our analogy epiphanies, the better our world will be. Creators and connectors, keep your minds wide open. More epiphanies to follow.