life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

What I Write When I Don’t Write Poems

Back-porch scribblings while looking across the pond.

Sometimes people ask me, ”Why don’t you write fiction or nonfiction?” My answer to them is, ”I do; it’s just not my first love or my calling.” I sometimes begin with prose before arriving at a poem. Today was one of those days. Sitting on my back porch with a yellow legal pad in my lap and a cup of coffee nearby, I began writing something, anything, to prime the mental pump. Gym-goers, consider this like the cardio before the weight training. As I cursived out a few initial throw-away words, the garbage truck pulled up out front, its brakes emitting that high, industrial screech that precedes a brief stop. This quick encounter prompted the following to appear on my notepad:

The sound of our neighborhood garbage truck takes me back to Fort Meade, circa 1986, when garbagemen (yes, that’s what we called them) would leap from the backs of slow-moving, dirty white trucks and, with Herculean muscle, lift and empty our large metal trash cans into the waiting, hungry mouth of the compactor in the truck’s rear. The work was filthy and stinky, and the men who did it went home every night smelling of other people’s refuse. But the men who did it grew strong and made a decent enough living to send kids off to college so they’d never have to become “sanitation workers.”

Today, the truck extends a mighty mechanical gripper. The machine lifts, empties, and returns the dumpster, which is lifeless gray plastic. There is no poetry in this process. No clang of cans, no yelling among workers. No Clyde, no Cecil [whose names we knew because they were embroidered onto gray-blue name-strips above their breast pocket, sometimes ripped]. No quick wave before the resumption of a route. Just an ugly claw taking waste, leaving vacancy.

Ironic, I suppose, that I openly stated the lack of poetry in modern rubbish collection. Had it not been for the shiny blue truck’s arrival and the sensations that went with it, my recollection would not have been triggered. I know that Cecil and Clyde (conveniently two C names) will probably make an appearance in a future poem. I know that those noises and memories will probably appear in that poem, as well. And I know that right now, I must allow those images and ideas to rest a while before they become something else. I’ll stash away this yellow piece of paper, and some morning at 4 a.m., much to my family’s chagrin, I will revisit this small vignette, and it will take on new life in my chosen genre.

This is what a life in literature sometimes looks like: not the gleam of an award or the bustle of a book-signing, but the simplicity of a legal pad, a ballpoint pen, and a cup of coffee. A view of a pond, a quick sensory stimulation, and a ready place to process all those thoughts that arrive. This is what I write when I don’t write poems.

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Preparing for the Big Launch

I used to serve under a school administrator who repeatedly used the cliche, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” In fact, he kept a large wooden sign with the phrase painted on it in his office. I hate that expression now.

Tomorrow I will launch my fifth book, The Places That Hold, at the Firehouse Cultural Center in lovely small-town Ruskin, Florida, where I’ve given many poetry workshops over the years, and I find myself repeating the “first rodeo” cliche as a way to assure myself that everything will go just fine.

Book launches are always a crap shoot: You could have zero people or 100, just depending on so many other factors. This time, there’s Omicron lurking around us, a children’s parade, and a handful of competing events. Truthfully, poetry isn’t known for bringing in the masses, and I get that.

I’ve done my part — The word has been put out on social media and through other outlets, I’ve readied all the supplies, and I’ve recruited at least a few good friends to comprise an audience in case nobody else shows up. I know what I’ll be reading, wearing, and doing at the event itself. I’d like to say this is “old hat” by now, but with all transparency, putting a new book into the world with a special engagement like this always tends to be nerve-wracking until it’s done.

So yes, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” but you never know which way the bull might buck, either. Stay tuned, readers. There may be figurative face-manure or a shiny buckle ahead; only time will tell.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Author’s Copies

Look what arrived today!
There’s nothing quite like holding your book after it’s just been published.
Even the back cover is beautiful. So satisfied with this collection!

Ready to get your own copy? Visit:

https://eastoverpress.com/books/the-places-that-hold/

life, poetry, writing

Night Hikes, Vultures, and Subjects to Avoid in Writing

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) « Extension's Sustainable Tourism Blog

Last New Year’s Eve, I took a night hike that turned scary. My boys, my wife, and I were at Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs, and we weren’t quite ready to hit the hay, so we began walking. I brought along my Q-beam, a powerful handheld light that could shine the eyes of racoons, opossums, and other night creatures.

As we walked, we heard a shuffling in the high branches of nearby cypresses. Curious, I shone the bright light up into the dark boughs. Hundreds of buzzards were roosted there, and I had disrupted their beauty sleep. They swooped angrily from the trees, their oily wings and guttural calls combining in horrid cacophony above us. Their thick, putrid droppings spattered the ground. Both my sons thought the big birds were attacking us; in retrospect, they may have been right.

We retreated to camp. Tired from running and drained from an adrenaline dump, we all had a long and deep night’s sleep in our tent. The next morning over a campfire breakfast, we talked over the incident from the night before: Were the vultures merely moving from the discomfort of the light? Were they defending the roost? None of us knew for sure. But the lesson learned remains with us on every camping trip — Don’t wake the buzzards.

What, you may ask, does this story have to do with creative writing? Well, as an MFA student, I was often encouraged to write about the things that were most uncomfortable and disruptive. “Dig into your deepest secrets and horrible moments,” the advice went, and many young writers did exactly that, producing poems and stories about the most horrific traumas and ugliest family secrets you can imagine.

But we are now living in an age where those kinds of experiences flood the Internet and all other forms of media. If one expects to be read or heard, there needs to be some kind of wound or tribulation involved. It’s exhausting, and it’s warping the upcoming generation. We now have boys and girls who consider emotional damage the norm, and if someone isn’t professing a psychological condition, they become the outcast. I say enough.

There is a reason that Billy Collins and the late Mary Oliver are best-selling poets: Their work often explores the everyday, the pleasant, and the (heaven forbid) accessible. People are tired of reading about degradation and dismay, and poetry that continues to explore darkness only reaffirms what non-readers of poetry already thought — Poetry is some exclusive, deeply morose art form that only eccentrics and humanities majors can “get.”

It’s time to stop disturbing the vultures, writers. Our potential audience is waning like never before because they’re done with all the negativity, the political diatribes, and the recounting of grievous injustices. Should our poetry become all sunshine and daisies? No. Is there a time and place where unkind or ugly words must be shared? Yes. But we have already overextended that period, and it’s time to give readers some joy, some light, and some of what the Romantics would celebrate — poetry that glorifies nature, humankind’s connection to it, and life at large.

We need more odes, and less of the odious. Poetry will thrive with the masses again when we begin to remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” It’s high time that our words gave people the impressions and sensations of positivity. Now more than ever, we need poems that are lights. And we need those lights to shine on something other than the “buzzards” of our shared humanity.

life, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

E.B. and Me

One of the essays I most love to teach is  “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White. In that short essay, White recounts lake trips he took with his father each summer, and he tells the reader about his own encounter with his son at the same lake. Throughout the essay, he sees his father in himself, and he sees himself in his son. The essay is full of vivid imagery (as one would expect from the author of Charlotte’s Web), and it muses fondly without straying into rank sentimentality. 

Last weekend, my wife, sons, and I went back to a lake house where I spent some summer days in my own youth. Much like White, I got to see history repeating itself. My boys discovered the joy of diving off a dock, feeling the white sand of the lake bottom against bare feet,  collapsing at night in the pleasant exertion of a day spent swimming, swinging from a rope swing, and soaking in Florida sunlight.

But there were differences, too. For one, my experiences at the lake house were usually large family affairs, surrounded by countless cousins and massive amounts of home-cooked food. People were busy skiing and knee-boarding, and it was hard to find a place that was not already occupied by beloved others. As much as I revel in the memories of those large family gatherings, this past weekend had several advantages over the bigger productions of my boyhood.

We were able to connect to one another in meaningful ways since it was only us. We played card games, watched a movie or two, and the rest of the time was spent on the lake or engaged in some form of relaxation. My sons used light-up swords to “duel” each other in the evening outside. We made memories. We conversed. We escaped.

And while part of me longs for the days of yesteryear, complete with now-departed family members and the squirt-gun spirit of boyish mischief, another part is deeply satisfied with this present — a time when I as a father can watch my sons discover the new-old joys of a near-summer day on the lake, one complete with colder morning water that warms gradually throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

I get it now, E.B. I’ve stepped into your shoes a little. I’ve felt the creep of age slowly maturing me from descendant into ancestor, and I’m okay with that. One day my boys will undoubtedly have similar feelings as generations continue to unfold. It’s the way things are meant to be.

 

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.

So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.

Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Eulogy for the UT MFA Program

hooding “I feel like a friend has died,” I told someone today. The news came by email: The MFA program that helped make me the poet I have become will be closing. In an announcement with all the usual logistical wording, the interim director of University of Tampa’s MFA program, a man I admire and deeply appreciate, relayed the somber message. The alumni Facebook page lit up with equal parts horror, shock, and grief. How do we say goodbye to something that has so profoundly impacted us, not just as writers, but as human beings?

I’m just old-school enough to try to process this tragedy with a blog post. Some of my fellow grads will probably pen deep and artful poetry and creative prose, but the old newspaper reporter in me reaches for something a bit more journalistic. So here are the facts:

Without the UT MFA program, I never would have:

— Written three of my four books of poetry
— Studied under brilliant people like Erica Dawson, Peter Meinke, and Sandra Beasley
— Gone to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016; Amherst, Massachusetts in 2015; or Santa Fe in 2013
— Been hired to lead poetry workshops in the northwoods of Wisconsin last summer
— Gotten a job as a college professor, which later led to a higher ed leadership position
— Met many of the good friends I still contact and share news with
— Hosted a guest author series for three of the schools I’ve served
— Networked with influential figures in the literary community who helped me greatly
— Made permanent happy memories at places like the Dali Museum and Ybor City
— Learned what it smells like inside the minarets of Plant Hall

I’m sure there are other “never-would-haves” that exist, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. I think of all the good that classes and workshops there have done. I think of the people whose lives, like mine, would be radically different had they never attended. I think of the great and meaningful conversations that occurred in unexpected places. And I do not fail to consider an apparent irony: So many of our seminars and craft lectures were held in classrooms at the school of business.

Now we hear that business is the very killer of our program. Higher education is changing, they say. People don’t want to learn for the sake of learning; they want a pathway to a job, and it better pay well. Who cares about literature, culture, and liberal arts tradition? Well, I do. And I know a bunch of people who agree with me.

We will shed our tears in private and move on with our literary lives, knowing well that we wouldn’t even have such existences had it not been for the University of Tampa MFA program. Like all deaths, this one will never leave us. We will simply adjust to being without as one does after the departure of a beloved. And this program and its people are dearly, dearly beloved.

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Avoiding the Imaginary Audience

crowd in front of people playing musical instrument during nighttime
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.

Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.

Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.

The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.

Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

A Fast of a Different Kind

black android smartphone on top of white book
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Lots of talk has recently surrounded the subject of fasting. There’s intermittent fasting, carb fasting, even social media fasting (which I’ve done and enjoyed, frankly). For the past month, I’ve been engaged in another sort of fast — one intended to decrease my stress levels and simultaneously give me more time to create: The Submissions Fast.

You heard that right: For the last 22 days, I have not submitted any of my poetic work to any publisher or contest, large or small. “Why would a working poet do this?” you might ask. Here’s my answer…

I noticed about a month ago that my Submittable queue had grown to more than 30 submissions that were either “received” or “in progress.” This meant that publishers had my latest works in hand at a variety of venues. Some places looking at my poems were competitions, some were magazines I respected, and still others were small operations seeking poems for other purposes.

Whatever their mission, these diverse outlets were all considering some incarnation of my best 10 or 12 recently written poems (some in series of five, some in series of three, and others looking at just one, depending on guidelines and needs). These potential publishers were giving their editorial eye to essentially the same material. I knew it was time to lay off. I’m a fan of simultaneous submissions, but there comes a time when the business of writing must give way to the art of it.

And so, for the last several weeks, I’ve reined in my usual desire to submit, submit, submit. I’m letting these poems “rest” while I write, teach, and focus on other endeavors. When I see one of the ubiquitous calls for submissions, I ignore it and keep moving to other unrelated items. Doing so is hard; for decades now, I’ve lived under the expectation that “being a poet means putting your work out into the world” by submitting it. But at some point, enough is enough.

Despite my earnest desire to send off a packet of my poetry to a new journal or contest I see advertised, I’ve endured and persevered, and the results have been unexpected. I find myself gravitating more toward creative nonfiction as opposed to crafting new poems. Maybe it started as a way of coping with submission-loss: “If I’m writing and submitting stuff in a different genre, it doesn’t count.” Like the addict who insists a different brand of the same substance is exempt from restriction, I convinced myself that putting prose in front of editors was not (is not) like submitting poetry.

Writing reflectively about this decision demonstrates its fallacy, of course. Turning work in to potential publishers and getting that hope-driven dopamine rush is the same, no matter what kind of writing is involved. So, I’m just going to call those nonfiction submissions “cheat days” like certain diets would allow. That’s a reasonable justification, right?

The other effect that not submitting has had on me is a certain calm. No longer do I feel the need to frantically check the progress indicators on my present submissions, and no longer do I obsess over which editor might be viewing which work at what time. Leaving my work to do its thing is much like planting seeds. I know I have to wait for these little efforts to produce or fail. Stressing over them is a futile decision that induces unnecessary anxiety.

There’s plenty in my life to fret about without adding more to the menu. Submitting can be a rewarding learning experience. But when it gets out of hand, like anything else, it’s time to exercise some control. Doing so has allowed my mind to explore other avenues and relieve itself of a fetter that shouldn’t exist.

Maybe some of those 30 places will say yes. Many, I’m certain, will say no (my acceptance rate tells me so). But in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. Putting my work out there is supposed to be the enjoyable part of this literary life. When it becomes the opposite, stopping is the solution.