life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Po-Biz Discernment: A Brief Publishing Guide

Sometimes, a publisher just doesn’t do enough for a deserving author.
Photo by George Milton on Pexels.com

My publisher is exemplary. Since publishing The Places That Hold with Eastover Press in December of last year, I’ve seen my work publicized, advertised, marketed, and recognized in ways no other book of mine has ever been. Some of this positive buzz is my doing as the author, but much of it is the direct result of the good people at the press itself. I’ve recommended that the editor and publicist do a conference talk on how small presses can keep their authors satisfied and their relationships productive. That’s how good they are.

All the above being said, I feel like I’m a little spoiled. I see authors whose work I admire and respect receiving little to no support. Fellow author “Chris” wrote a splendid collection of poems a while back and published it through a small independent press that runs an annual contest with a hefty submission fee. I think the book may have been their contest winner, in fact, though it’s hard to tell from the publisher’s near-secretive presentation of the book. Today, I looked for a copy of Chris’s collection at the “big boy” bookstores online, and they have no trace of it. I’ve seen no print ads for it, heard no talk of it, and, aside from a brief and subtle mention on the publisher’s website, there’s been no noticeable promotion of it via social media or other online sources. The tough part of this invisibility is, I know this author’s work to be truly worthwhile, and if his publisher had done just a little more, we’d all be talking about his poems right now. It’s a shame.

What else? It helps to have an editor whose work ethic is similar to your own. I grew up in a rural area known for farming, and I was taught early and often the value of honest labor. Someone who didn’t put their back into their work wasn’t much account, my grandparents believed, and even though the kind of work I do today is less muscular, I remain convinced that true diligence has value. Thankfully, my publisher’s people don’t see their press as some little throwaway sideline venture for an additional revenue stream. They pour their love into it, and that translates to giving it 100 percent. Their authors (like me) reap the rewards of their commitment and devotion to good literary business practices. I suspect certain rival presses are hoping to succeed on auto-pilot, as their business model has demonstrated a lax, even indifferent, attitude toward their products and producers.

At an after-reading get-together with several writer friends recently, I heard one say, “I do almost all of my own publicity and scheduling. [The publisher] just put my work into book form and hopes I’ll do the rest.” I remained silent. I didn’t want this person to feel bad, but it was hard not to brag on my publisher. And honestly, I think my friend’s experience has been similar to that of many indie authors today: Find some publisher who accepts your work, and then prepare to do all the legwork on your own just as though you self-published. Accept whatever terms appear in the contract because literary publishing is such a subjective and tough racket. Give up; conform to the expectation of being “the poor artist.” To be fair, this friend has done Zoom readings, library gigs with similar authors, and a range of other book-related activities, but he’s had to fight tooth-and-nail to get these opportunities. A professional publisher eases that struggle, and mine has done exactly that.

When I was submitting The Places That Hold to potential publishers, there were some well-meaning acquaintances who said, “Don’t you want to go for a big-name place this time? Haven’t you published enough with these small presses?” I was flattered by their faith in my poetry, but I also had a vision in mind that excluded Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or even W.W. Norton, a big publisher renowned for their support of poets.

There were also some who advised against a “newer” press, citing statistics that independent book publishers often fold within a year or two of opening (been there, done that, know better). Eastover Press was still fledgling at that time, and these admonishers of mine worried about its sustainability. What the pearl-clutchers didn’t realize was that I knew some of the faces behind the masthead. I knew they would approach my book and their others with tenacity, quality, care, and a spirit of earnest work. My decision has paid off.

In late July, The Places That Hold will receive another award. This time, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association will be giving it a medal (I’ll know the details at the actual awards ceremony). The book has already earned one medal at the Florida Book Awards. It has been featured on podcasts, websites, and in publications large and small. And the good news keeps rolling in.

Novices: When your book is ready, trust a publisher that sees the endeavor of literature the way you do. If your work is truly remarkable, the press you decide upon will give it wings or bury it. Choose wisely.

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

The Thrifty Creative: Three Strategies

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Experts tell us the GDP is great and unemployment is at an all-time low. Sounds wonderful, but let’s be honest: Average families like mine are struggling under the weight of exorbitant gas prices, record inflation, and severe stock market decline. The international conflict between Russia and Ukraine has impacted our dinner tables and our wallets, and the socioeconomic fallout from years of COVID has exacerbated the dilemma.

But this is not a political post, nor is it one that casts aspersions on any one political figure. The reasons for our current crisis are multi-faceted and intricately complex, requiring well-reasoned solutions from sharp minds. Should our leaders be doing more to fix our situation faster? Absolutely. The true heavy lifting in any notable society is done by the middle class, history shows us, and financially crippling this major swath of America is negligent, derelict, and cruel. Let readers place the blame where they will.

What is a poet to do under such monetary burdens? The same thing he always does: Write. That’s right — Money aside, I’m keeping at it. I am doing it, however, in a way that stretches dollars and makes cents (pardon the terrible dad-joke pun). What does this kind of penny-pinching “poeting” look like? Here’s a quick list:

1.) Hometown “residency:” Rather than taking a prestigious (see also: expensive) spot at some big-name writers workshop or conference, I’m writing nearby. My MFA alma mater is close to my home, and I’m able to use its spaces for submission work, writing, correspondence, and promotion. In previous blog posts, I’ve described a hometown residency model that leverages separate space apart from one’s home; this practice very much follows that same advice. I’ve minimized gas expenditure (visiting the university while my son is completing summer enrichment courses at his school in the vicinity), and I’ve become more intentional about the use of my time. I have a plan that accommodates inspiration.

2.) Using summer downtime wisely: Yes, I know — not everyone has the luxury of unoccupied summer days. I used to be one of those souls working year-round with less-than-occasional vacations, so stay with me. When I’m not doing family stuff, I’m seeing about the “business side” of writing. You know: Checking Submittable repeatedly, scoping out new markets via Duotrope, sending out applications for various awards or programs, and generally seeing about writing-related tasks apart from the writing itself, which requires serious time and deeper thought.

3.) Seeking fellowships, grants, and endowments: I’ve been fortunate. Over the years, I’ve attracted a happy little following to my work, and some of these people are quite generous. Recently, a benevolent donor funded a week’s stay at Rockvale Writers’ Colony in Tennessee, where I’ll be headed in late July to begin work on my latest project. I’m also asking supporters to fund research for my upcoming work via my Patreon page. This next book will be a powerful statement, and I’m hopeful a kind few supporters will provide the means for me to do intensive research at the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee. See Patreon for more details. But the big picture is just this — art takes financial support, and finding that support is doable with diligence.

So, there you have it — Three things that an artist (even a word-artist) does when things get tight. This period of sparsity will pass like others have, but in the meantime, there’s work to be done. As the old song says, lift that barge, tote that bale. Sooner or later, it’s bound to pay off.

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.

life, Uncategorized, writing

Encouragement, Persistence, or Something Else?

I’m social media “friends” with many people I knew during my secondary school career. It’s interesting to see who has gotten married, moved away, had kids, or recently switched careers, among other things. Some folks make you think, “Yes, that sounds about right for so-and-so,” and others surprise you: “Really? I never thought (name here) would ever (insert seemingly strange life event here).”

Every once in a while, though, a name pops up in my feed and I think, “Now why aren’t they writing more?” After all, I went to school with a great number of people who were stellar writers at the middle school and high school level — far better than I was, definitely. They had a strong sense of language’s musicality, wrote with a unique personal diction, and went well beyond any of the formulaic writing advice handed out by teachers at that time.

I think of “Rosa,” a Wauchula Hills girl Mr. Pace praised for her innovative compositions in eighth grade. I think of “Ralph” and “Jorge,” both of whom dominated English class but who could equally demystify math and science, a feat my right-hemisphere-heavy brain could never perform. These students and others were cheered for their writing prowess in both the creative and academic genres, but today, they’ve abandoned the art altogether. Adulthood and all its myriad obligations appear to have stifled the authorial impulse for these classmates, and I want to implore them, “Go buy a legal pad and scribble down the first things that come to mind! We need more writers like you!”

Admittedly, the affairs of their lives are not mine to judge, no matter how well-intended my wishes for them may be. It could be that some of them gave writing a try only to find that it is fickle: Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, to quote the late John Denver. Maybe one or two started a blog like this one and discovered that it doesn’t pay the bills, so why bother? Truthfully, there is much I just don’t know, but I suspect that the lack of immediate reward could have been a turn-off. Some people labor at the inkwell/keyboard all their lives and never see any impact, yet posthumously, their words are cherished (think Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe for starters). Why persist under circumstances like that?

I still write because of both encouragement and endurance. Plenty of people in my life motivated me along the way, and I’ve come to understand that doing a thing for a long time has its rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic. This year marks my twenty-fifth as a “real” poet — someone who has gone beyond dabbling with clever rhymes and poured time, resources, and significant work and research into the craft. There are plenty of much younger people who have achieved literary fame (and even fortune) from their words at ages far lower than mine. But I genuinely don’t perceive writing as a competition, and because I don’t, I just keep going at my own pace, on my own terms. I take heart from poets like Billy Collins and Ruth Stone, both remarkable writers who weren’t “discovered” until about age 60. Things turn out okay for scribes who keep at it, and even if I’m never discovered in the same way they were, I will have compiled a considerable body of work for my family to remember me by, for better or worse.

Writerly classmates of old Hardee High, please pick up a pen. I promise that your words will make it worthwhile. Even on the hard days, even on the dry-well days, even on the apathetic days, having written anything at all still feels good. Do it because it’s therapy. Do it because it leaves a legacy. Do it because you have a talent to either use or lose. I look forward to seeing your latest work soon. Until then, happy scribbling.

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Appearance on Florida Writers Podcast

Hello friends, fans, and followers.

I was on the Florida Writer Podcast and had so much fun being interviewed by Alison Nissen for the Florida Writers Association.  Enjoy our conversation as we chat about the intertwining past and present of poetry, Florida history, and finding inspiration.

https://floridawriters.libsyn.com/exploring-the-dark-history-of-florida-with-poet-john-davis-jr

Thanks for tuning in!

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.

poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Book Launch! You’re invited

Hello friends, fans, and followers!

The official launch of The Places That Hold will take place Saturday, January 22 at 2 p.m. at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin, Florida. It’s a stone’s throw from Tampa and St. Petersburg, so if you’re local, come on by! For those on Facebook, see the link below:

www.facebook.com/events/595926751480194/permalink/596159064790296/

Here’s hoping you can make it to this fun event!

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, poetry, publishing, writing

On Winning and Losing in Literary Life

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Recently, I was honored to receive a lovely recognition: The Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. The contest, hosted by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Library in North Carolina, was judged by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, who read my first-place poem during a Zoom-based awards ceremony earlier this week. You can read about the award and view my poem here: https://thelanierlibrary.org/upcoming-events/sidney-lanier-poetry/

I am thrilled and excited by this achievement, just as I was when I was a poetry “newbie” seeking to stake my claim in the literary landscape of our country. I know the prize probably won’t make national headlines or secure me a six-figure advance on a book deal from Norton, but every time my work manages to get a little attention, it’s a nice reminder that I’m doing something right. I’m sure it’s the same for artists or creators of any type.

Lots of novice poets get very intense about winning contests; they pay obscene entry fees, look for legitimate-sounding competitions that promise “publication” or big monetary awards, and they think that if only they can win, their struggle for literary acclaim will at last be over. I know this because I did it, too. Truth is, there’s always a bigger award. Even Pulitzer and Nobel winners will tell you: Once you’ve got the thing, you’ve got it. You take it for granted after a while, even as rising writers grit their teeth and sweat over such matters, grinding their pencil leads into ugly nubs or mercilessly pounding their poor, abused keyboards.

This isn’t to say that awards don’t matter; certainly there are some that can ensure future prosperity and opportunity for those of us in writer-land. But to fret over which prize we might win or lose? That’s a surefire way to inhibit creative flow. The author banging out words with a mindset fixated on ribbons or trophies is a typesetter, not a writer. “If I just arrange these artfully glamorous adjectives in a certain way, I can be sure to impress the judges,” they tell themselves, all the while sacrificing authenticity.

There are those who will say that art should never be about competition, that the two notions are diametrically opposed. They say that there can be no truly fair criteria for contests since artistic taste is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so forth. I won’t go so far as to endorse their argument. For as long as humans have existed, we have competed, even in abstract matters. To throw away literary contests would be a foolish refusal to acknowledge our humanity. But that doesn’t mean we need to prioritize contests over the truer, nobler task of creating. Writers write, above all else. In the words of Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.”

The other truth that new writers are sometimes unprepared for is the extraordinary number of losses one must endure for each win. Every time a poet or prose writer achieves some prize, you can bet that there are huge strings and stacks of losing entries that preceded victory. Even my friends who are considered “name-brand” poets acknowledge that losing is a far larger part of lit-biz than winning. The old adage about “taking your lumps” is as true in writing as it is in sports, performance, or business. Everybody pays their dues.

I neither discourage nor encourage entry into poetry contests. I think that each person must decide whether such an act is worth the time, resources, and effort invested. For some, competition is a motivator, and for others, it means anxiety. In a culture that embraces the idea “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” there remain individuals who are happier refraining from shooting altogether. Good for them; not entering is as much a willful act as entering.

For those of us who keep submitting our stuff to competitions large and small, keeping a balanced perspective is crucial. I appreciate the recognition of this latest award, and I’m honored by it, as well. And like so many other people, I like to win. However, I’ve also done this long enough to know that achievement and accomplishment only happen via work. And the work must go on.