Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of persona poetry — that magical brand of literary method acting wherein I adopt the voice and features of another person (or animal, or tree, or whatever) and write poems from their perspectives. It’s a lot of fun, wearing a mask of sorts, and I can see why my oldest son so badly wants to be a theater major in college.
But this walking about in others’ skin has had another effect on me. It has caused me to reflect upon times in my life where I’ve decided on identities that were, shall we say, less than authentic. As an undergraduate, I occupied the “poor, dumb country boy” role quite well. This persona gave my professors the impression I was a small-town hick that couldn’t possibly pass their classes. In some cases, it gave me an easy out when a class required too much effort on my part: “Dr. Willard, I’m sorry, but I’m just a poor, dumb country boy, and I don’t get a thing about physical science. Can I just get my D and go?” Other times, I loved shocking professors who’d jumped to conclusions. Sometimes I made A’s, and other times I’d posit something into class discussion that was unexpectedly profound or showed great insight. Their facial expressions were dumbstruck and priceless, and this was part of the thrill.
My parents and grandparents would have been horrified by this acting on my part; they’d reared me to be genteel, cultured, refined, and above all, honest. I’d had a great deal of training despite my rural roots, from piano and classical guitar lessons to extensive travel opportunities. I knew all too well which fork to use at formal dinners and how to comport myself in a variety of diverse social circumstances. So for me to effect this ill-bred image was anathema to my upbringing. Like so many kids in college, I was finding myself by being anyone but myself. “Bubba” had it better and easier — nobody expected him to do much, and when he did, he was more heavily rewarded than his peers whose intelligence was taken for granted.
The habit of playing the poor, dumb country boy followed me into my young professional life, though. He became a scapegoat for my errors (or early adulthood laziness) in much the same way that my imaginary friends in childhood had. Couldn’t find the location of the press conference? “Bubba” to the rescue — he (I) was just too ignorant to locate it. Didn’t hand in a lesson plan? Well, in Hardup County, we never knew nothin’ bout no lesson plans or gradebooks. And so forth. I became so adept at this performance that slowly, almost unnoticeably, my persona was taking over. I began to chew tobacco, thicken my dialect, and walk with a gait that could only be described as an aimless amble. “Bubba” was consuming me.
This persona worked fairly well until I earned too many degrees. People generally stop believing you’re a backwater hillbilly once you’ve acquired a certain level of education. It’s hard to get labeled a redneck when multiple graduate-level diplomas are hanging on the wall behind you. So I’ve had to retire him, especially now, as I begin applying to doctoral programs. Sorry, Bubba, you’ll have to be put out to pasture, to use one of your colloquialisms. Thanks for your service, but like an outgrown security blanket, you need to be packed up. I’m closing the lid on the trunk of my personal history, and hopefully the stale cedar air will be too much for you. It’s time to live earnestly.
As Father’s Day arrives Sunday, I felt that the brief piece below would be fitting for the occasion. My stepdad, Jerry, has been gone from this world now for just over a year, and his impact is still being felt by all of us. Here’s a small vignette that provides what Anne Lamott would call a “one-inch picture frame” into a portion of his time here on earth:
Toward the end of his life, my stepdad realized that he and I had something in common. A woodworker, he often retired to his tin-roofed shop at the far side of our back yard to craft bookshelves, magazine racks, lecterns for the teachers in our family, and even a bassinet that every grandchild slept in over the years.
But his pet projects were tiny replica buildings – not dollhouses, but simple blocks he stuck together and then painted to look like homes, stores, or other landmarks he admired. There was a white church with ornate stained glass he’d painted, an old country store featuring a rectangular, red-worded sign, and lots of small rural cabins and farmhouses. One of these homes was adorned with a front-facing “window” in which he’d painted a dangling small yellow light bulb accented by short, equally yellow lines.
I should have detected his nearly hidden affinity for art sooner. In college, although he was a football player preparing to be a coach, he majored in art. When he and my mom were first married, the room I was assigned was once his study – a room adorned with sketches and paintings he had created during his time as an undergraduate. There was one of a boy who was finishing a soapbox derby racecar, another of a coach helping a male cheerleader with a ladle full of water after the football team (reveling in the background) had won the big game, and smaller portraits that have now dissolved from memory.
These pictures were soon stashed, however, as I started hanging posters of baseball stars, musicians, and movies from that era. I suppose he boxed up his college efforts and shelved them somewhere in his workshop, though nobody has bothered to look for them. After all, his functional furniture and happy houses were the essential pieces composing his legacy, and he used these to connect himself to me during his twilight years.
“When you write a poem,” he asked, “do you fit the words together just so, or do you let them just kind of fall onto the page?” The parallel to woodworking was clear: He wanted to ensure I was “measuring twice and cutting once,” just as he would. I did my best to explain how I parsed my diction over multiple drafts, chose verbs and images selectively, and was always certain to pick the most fitting word. This satisfied him. “The right tool for the right job,” he said, grinning.
Over the course of several visits, he asked about rhyme, meter, and even concepts like scansion, symbolism, and line breaks. Although he didn’t have the “literary” vocabulary to accurately name such things, the notions were nonetheless expressed in his own way. He began to see words like fresh slabs of white pine: trimmable, designable materials that could be stained or assembled in myriad configurations. When I wrote about notable places from his part of our state, he nodded heartily. He absorbed each description and visibly considered why they were chosen, his finger on the page and his eyes intense behind his glasses. He developed a new relationship with language: Parts of speech as wood, as tools, as art.
By the time he died, he had read all of my books and anything of mine accepted by magazines. He looked at poems like tiny houses – finely detailed creations, complete with painted windows on the world and tiny light bulbs. The builder boy, the old coach, and the master craftsman gained peace from the arrival of understanding. He left this world content, not simply with his own history, but with the bridge he’d established between himself and the one son-by-marriage who seemed most different – a wordworker.
There once was a famous poet (Robert Penn Warren, I think) who said something like, “Poetry is found in the living of life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing there, but I’m doing so to make a point.
Recently, like so many other people in this weird time, I was furloughed from my full-time university teaching job. I have another three weeks or so before the furlough is supposed to be over, and even that expectation may prove false — who knows?
In the meantime, I’ve been devoting myself to other endeavors: my podcast, for example, or the Skillshare classes I create. But this past weekend, as my in-laws took my sons for a sleepover, my wife and I undertook a different venture: Kayaking.
If you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy. I camp, fish, shoot sporting clays, and generally enjoy being in nature. But kayaking makes your mind different every time you go.
About this time last year, I was serving as a faculty member at the Word and Community writing retreat in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. While there, I kayaked almost daily. I’d set out at dawn and cross Trout Lake, visiting a small island in the middle of it. Some days the wind made the lake choppy, and staying stable was challenging. Other days, the water was like glass, the paddling was easy, and the big-windowed houses on shore seemed to smile at my presence there as loons sounded their cries in the distance.
That kayaking was different from the trip I took this weekend. For one thing, while at last year’s retreat, my mind was in a very “literary” place, and it was busy seeking inspiration (almost artificially) in minute details and newfound sensations brought on by foreign geography. Inspiration was found, but only when I allowed my mind to relax and stop trying to force poetry from every ripple in the water.
In contrast, this weekend was less about the literary and more about escape — Getting away from my stalled professional life, from my pessimism, and yes, even from my poetry. As much as I love writing, it has the propensity to consume me, too.
But what does all this have to do with Warren’s quote, you may ask? Kayaking is perhaps one of the best examples to demonstrate that writers need to go and do, not just write. The canonized masters of the 20th Century weren’t just sitting in their studies, thinking lofty thoughts and scribbling philosophical diatribes — they were men and women of action, and through those actions, they found literature.
Even if no immediate epiphanies arise from an activity, it is the living of life, not the recording of it, that counts. So often in our present, we think of travel and events in regards to their photographic potential. How will this trip or this exercise look on social media? Maybe it’s time we started enjoying things simply for their essence again. Rather than speculating about what kind of poem, story, essay, or photograph something will create, can we just live? Because I can promise you, if Warren is right (and I believe he is), inspiration will come to us. When our minds are clear and our worries are fewer, the words will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a new day ahead. Let’s seize it.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
When I give readings, seminars, and workshops, I’m sometimes asked what my “process” is for writing a poem. That’s been pretty hard to elucidate until now. I just put together a new for-fun class on Skillshare here: Skillshare Poetry Class
In this course, I take students through the process of writing a poem. We begin with inspiration and how it gets generated, and then we proceed all the way through to the final, publishable draft of a poem. If you’re interested, I’d really love for you to join and be my “student.”
I’d also really like to see the poems that you create as a result of this class — Who knows? Maybe the next “Dover Beach” will happen thanks to this little endeavor…
I’ve got a new project amid all this quarantining and social distancing, and I hope you’ll give it a listen!
The Metacreative Podcast is intended to help people rouse their inspiration to write, create, and produce. This first episode details a process that has long worked for me: Socratic Journaling. It also includes a couple of really stellar poems that might help loosen some of your own reflections, which can also drive inspiration. Find The Metacreative Podcast here:
Thanks for your support as I try out this new venture. I hope it results in some great work as we stay alone together in this strange time. Happy Listening!
Lately, I’ve been turning more and more toward nature as a way to remain sane and solitary during this pandemic. I hope these brief meditations and reflections are helpful in providing a small window of contemplation in the midst of negativity. Enjoy!