life, teaching, Uncategorized

The Value and Relevance of Home

EmilyHouseIf you have been following this blog for the last few days (or longer), you know about my campaign to help save one of my brightest students and her mom from the homeless shelter this holiday season. In running this one-man show, I have had to give a lot of thought to the psychology and meaning that the word “home” generates.

After all, we are in the midst of a holiday season rife with songs about the joys and pleasures of being at home, whether it’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” or “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” In our greatest literature, home is portrayed as that point of both psychological and physical relief: When a character is at home, he or she is at rest, completely at ease, and ideally, right with the world.

Of course, there are plenty of homes in literature where the above is not true, whether it’s in short stories like Aryn Kyle’s “Allegiance,” or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” or whether it’s in longer novels (see multiple works by Stephen King or any other author who capitalizes on family dysfunction).

But even when an author or character comes from a home with “chronic angers” (Hayden) or faults and fissures (Poe), home as a concept still resonates with the expectation of peace. When that expectation is unfulfilled, conflict results.

But what about the nomad? The archetypal wanderer may fill our minds with romantic notions, but in reality, the soul without a home is oppressed. Such is the case with my student and her mother. Life at the shelter is not so different from jail: No visitors beyond the lobby, curfew is 6 p.m., and countless other restrictions give families the impression that they are not so much being housed as confined. That’s no way to spend Christmas.

As our minds fill with warm images and remembrances of home, may we all realize in this season that there are many wonderful, intelligent, and moral people without such a place. Let us give so that others may know the comfort and joy that our seasonal carols promise. Once again, here’s the link to donate:

https://www.gofundme.com/save-my-student-from-homelessness

 

 

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

On Losing One’s Touch

howtoholdapen1Recently I’ve been rejected. A lot. As in, even the Armpit of Nowhere Review won’t publish my work.

I’m a veteran writer, and as such, I’m used to getting my fair share of rejections. In looking over my Submittable queue recently, it was revealed to me that roughly 10 percent of my poetry submissions have been accepted over the years that I’ve been using the service. So, it stands to reason I’ve got a pretty thick skin — that kind of pathetically slim acceptance rate necessitates one.

But here’s the part that has me concerned: This latest round of rejections comes after a sort of evolution in my poetic style. Such diction alterations happen every once in a while — a poet decides that the old way or the old materials have grown stale, and so a few shiny new features begin to assert themselves in his or her work. Sometimes these changes can be good; other times, they denote the death-knell of the artist’s career.

My suspicions about this latest round of rejections have me speculating about possible causes. The poems themselves, by all measures of quality and integrity, are fine pieces. They are well put-together, and would receive workshop table praise from people whose voices I respect. And I understand that often, rejections are not so much a comment on one’s work as they are a byproduct of space constraints and other factors. Still, I sense the culprit must be something abstract, something subterranean.

My first suspect: Disingenuous fervor. I have written about things that I should care about (and deeply), but on a more subconscious level, I am distantly apathetic. That apathy could translate into an energy vacuum in the poems. Much like the snake-oil salesmen of old, I may be trying to muster interest in ideas about which I am (earnestly) less than enthralled. To quote Frost, “No passion in the writer, no passion in the reader.”

Suspect number two: Divergent interests. I have been spending much of my time recently pursuing excellence in other areas of my life. I’ve dabbled in nonfiction, I’ve made my teaching more robust, and I’ve even started doing a young adult novel podcast with my oldest son. More on that later. These other pursuits, while valuable, could easily be sapping the creative juice from my poetry, however, and I’m wondering about the effects of laurels from other non-poetic enterprises — are the rewards from these endeavors silencing my usual muses?

Third and final suspect: Age. I’ve found myself becoming more curmudgeonly toward the opinions of “experts” in the literary realm, and more disparaging of modern poetry. Maybe I’m becoming that weird old guy in the poetry world who yells “Get off my lawn!” to the avant-garde. I’m over 40, and let’s face it, that’s the age when a lot of poets have made their greatest contributions. I know, I know: There’s a whole cadre of people who didn’t really come onto “the scene” until their twilight years. Good for them. There’s also a vast wealth of people who were bright and shining stars in their youth, though, and for yours truly, that ship has sailed. My only “over the hill” option is to stick around and hope that perseverance pays off, as my mentors have often assured me it will.

In the meantime, I fear that one or more of the above-mentioned factors has resulted in some loss of my stylistic “touch:” the intangible characteristic that sets apart the work of memorable authors. I’d like to try reverting to my MFA-minded self — that individual who sees inspiration everywhere and burns to make people feel the pleasant vertigo of poetic rapture. I’m not sure I can find him again, or that it would be at all appropriate to do so. Perhaps these latest rejections signal that it’s time to call in the dogs and turn out the lights, as the old saying goes. The first part of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” could have been right: “…there are things that are important beyond/ all this fiddle.” I recall how the rest goes, and I draw inspiration from her conclusion, but maybe a respite of sorts is in order. Stepping back from the page could be just the thing that my writing needs; call it a brain break from heartbreak. Farewell for now, poetry. I’ll be back when I just can’t possibly stay away any longer.

 

poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Cover Revealed!

hardinheritance

Thanksgiving is always a great time for my family, but today was made even greater by some unexpected news: The cover for my latest collection is now completed! The wonderful people at Five Oaks Press emailed me to let me know that the cover, complete with art from the inimitable Tinia Polk Clark, was ready. So here it is for your enjoyment. If you think this cover is great, however, just wait until you read the book!

My greatest pleasure is that my book was honored by blurbs from the likes of Andrew Hudgins, Sandra Beasley, and John Hennessy — all highly esteemed voices in the literary community. Their vote of confidence means a great deal to me, and I’m hopeful that their words, seen here on the back (left) cover, might give you, reader, some idea about the book itself.

Soon it will be time for book launch arrangements, readings, signings, and the like. Stay tuned here for all the details. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for following!

poetry, Uncategorized

Shhh….Don’t tell anyone

Loyal blog subscribers, I have a secret for you: Today you can order your pre-release copy of my newest book, Middle Class American Proverb. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/Middle-Class-American-Proverb-Davis/dp/0942544129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1414094131&sr=8-1&keywords=Middle+Class+American+Proverb

This is the definitive Florida poetry collection I’ve been writing about. Get your copy today!

johndaviscover (3)

poetry, Uncategorized

On Acceptances and Patience

OsceolaTurkeyGobblerinColorAs a much younger writer, I once composed a short story based upon one hunting trip I took with my grandfather. On that trip, I shot a young jake (turkey) with almost no beard, and moments later, a huge flock of larger turkeys came strutting by, including one with an earth-dragging beard. As hunting camp guests, we were limited to one bird, and these bigger ones had long spikes on their legs and weighed nearly double what my quarry did. The point of the story was supposed to be “good things come to those who wait,” but in retrospect, the amateur creative nonfiction probably missed its mark.

I thought back on that story today, though, as I received an acceptance for my manuscript Middle Class American Proverb. The book is an 85-page collection of poems based upon rural life in old Florida and its highs and lows, among other topics. Understand: I graduated from the MFA program at University of Tampa in January, and since that time, I’ve been waiting for a publisher to accept this hard-worked collection of poems which I produced as my creative thesis. I had widely submitted it  long before I graduated, starting last fall. It’s been entered into contests, shopped around to academic and small presses around the country, and generally plastered everywhere I could find a spot for it in the literary community.

Many of my fellow writers wait far longer than just a few months to receive those magic words, “Your manuscript has been accepted.” In today’s market especially, poetry is not a big seller, as it is purchased mostly by other poets, literary critics, and academics. To get a volume of poetry accepted by a press, even a small one, is a near-miraculous feat. Making the process worse is that seemingly interminable period between submission and the yea or nay of publishers. As the old song says, waiting is the hardest part. Indeed.

Now, as the manuscript has found a home and the edits begin, I can breathe a little easier. Colleges and universities smile more favorably on applicants with a book or two under their belt, and the old notion of “publish or perish” still thrives at serious institutions around the country. I am incredibly grateful to my publisher, Negative Capability Press of Mobile, Alabama, for their interest in and attention to what I consider my masterpiece (thus far).

It is incredibly gratifying when editors and publishers recognize the labor and serious thought that you as an artist have invested into a work. And certainly this collection, by far, has received the best parts of my work and creativity. As the edits fall into place and the book comes to life from its manuscript form, I can hardly wait to see it emerge as the book I’ve always dreamed it to be. The process, I know, will be long. It will require the patience of a seasoned turkey hunter — or maybe that of a more experienced writer. Either way, I’m ready. This time, the first offer is one worth taking. Bigger “birds” might be out there, but this one is just right.

negcappress

poetry, Uncategorized

Business and the Personal

Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com
Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, multi-millionaire chain bookstore owner (played by Tom Hanks), advises small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “It’s just business. It’s not personal. … Recite that to yourself.” Ryan’s character responds with, “Whatever something else is, it should begin by being personal.”

I see the merit in Kathleen Kelly’s sentiment, but having been in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing recently, I think I’m inclined to lean more toward Joe Fox’s approach. Yes, poetry, writing, and book-making are all endeavors that involve a person’s heart, even the soul. However, when it comes time to negotiate about matters like royalties, author’s copies, and similar factors, it’s time to put away the purple prose and break out the spreadsheets and graphs.

Lots of writers don’t want to hear this. They’d rather live in their sheltered creative Xanadu, pondering air castles and planning their next great narrative. On the other hand, rarely does one find publishers who can’t distinguish pragmatics from the emotional. Publishers, for the most part, are able to put aside their feelings and prejudices in favor of their latest project. I recently dealt with a publisher (name omitted intentionally) whose approach to book production was seen not as a creative-commercial enterprise, but rather, as an extension of her/his inner self. The publisher in question viewed the relationship with the writer as an deep emotional bond rather than seeing it primarily as a business arrangement. This person also slammed the work of similar publishers, some of whom he/she had worked with in the past.

As things became increasingly unprofessional, I politely declined the services of this publisher. I attempted to word the rejection softly, as I too have had my fair share of let-downs. In response, I was told that seeking a traditional or academic publisher was “insulting.” There were hurt feelings, apparently, despite my best attempts to avoid such ugliness. As a recent MFA grad seeking an experienced and respected publisher for my creative thesis (a mighty fine collection, if I do say so myself), I really don’t need a business partner who is affronted by every minor exchange.  It’s great to be invested in your craft, whatever that may be. Likewise, it’s necessary to differentiate between an expression of intellect and an expression of love. A consumer decision is not a romance.

Yes, creating (be that writing or publishing) is showing the world a piece of yourself. But when that creation crosses the transom into product, it’s time to evolve into strategist. Even for those of us who’d rather “dwell in possibility,” there must come a time when strictly cognitive and logistical decisions predominate. Once the art is done, business belongs in its proper perspective. Let’s keep it professional.

poetry, Uncategorized

What If and If Only

PreacherI heard a minister deliver a sermon that cautioned believers against these two phrases. His point, for those within his congregation, bore validity: If the family members of a faith spend too much time in worry or regret, then they (we) are displaying a lack of confidence in our Higher Power.

For writers and creators, however, there are no two more powerful phrases. “What ifs” open the door to imagination, whereas “If onlys” encourage reflection. There’s a proud tradition behind both of these phrases yielding creative, dynamic works across genres. Consider Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — a “What If” poem if there ever was one. Scholars and speculators agree that much of the poem may have been induced by chemical means, but even so, without the questioning of reality, such language would not have existed.

For “if only” work, see Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t think a great deal of exposition is needed for this example. From Lenore to Annabel Lee, Poe’s work is rife with the “if onlys” of lost love and longing. This isn’t to say that all creative work must contain angst or fantasy; certainly much great poetry, art, and creation has been produced from the images and occurrences of “average” life (see Billy Collins). However, to exclude the questions mentioned above from the creative process would result in enormous detriment.

As artists, the need for us to pose and answer creative inquiries is great, and perhaps no two questions are more idea-inducing than these. Fellow writers and makers, delve into your what-if and if-only moments. Your Kubla Khan or your Raven may be waiting just around the next question.