School’s Out for Summer—or—I’ve Caught My Students’ Senioritis, So This Post’s Gonna Be Short and Sweet

Well, I’m itching to start my summer writing, reading, and porch-sitting. In the next few months, I will be working on my Star Trek: The Next Generation poetry book, as well as my novel; sitting on my red swing, under my backyard’s rose canopy;  swimming with my sweetheart, at the Y; and playing with our dogs and cat. I have much to do! So this month, I’ll just leave you with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” along with her discussion of the poem’s inspiration and the potential aphrodisiac,  jazz. Saucy! 

I Don’t Like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” There, I Said It.

This week, rather than a poetry explication or an interview, I offer you a writing invitation. Follow me, if you will…

A couple weeks ago, I taught Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to my morning American Lit. class. I’m going to be brutally honest. I’ve never really liked this poem. I like the contrast between the living and the dead; I like the rhythm; I like ice cream, but that’s about it. I’ve always found the poem unnecessarily opaque. “Let be be finale of seem”? Please, Stevens.

Anyway, the students were able to recognize imagery and tone. Line by line, I guided them toward an understanding of the dramatic situation, and in some cases, I just filled in the blanks for them. They did a good job. What I remember most about this lesson, though, is the look on their faces when we discussed the ending of the poem and the meaning of the title. Here’s how I will describe their facial expression: blank, with a dash of surprise. They’re a good class, my favorite one this semester. Often, they make intelligent observations about the poems and are lively and fun to teach. I did not take the surprise in their eyes as delight, nor did I take it as a condemnation of the poem itself. It seemed more, to me, a question: “Are you serious?”

I don’t blame them. I wanted to say, “Yeah, you’ve got to do some acrobats for this one,” or “I’m not sure how important it is for you to have read and analyzed this poem; I don’t much care for it myself.” Instead, I just shrugged and moved on to “The Snowman.”

That day got me thinking about poetry in general. I do think there is meaning and growth that a reader can experience through this genre, but I tend to feel as Frank O’Hara did that “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not.”

Am I sorry that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream” at least one hundred times in my life? No. Or at least, there are things I’m much sorrier that I’ve read even once. (The comment section of any online article, for instance.) I like piecing together the mystery of poetry, but at the end of this poem, I often feel like my students looked that day in class. Seriously?

Many years ago, I read Jim Simmerman’s “A Brief Introduction,” a postmodern poem whose speaker introduces the reader to tour the poetic home of Simmerman. The line I like best is when the speaker invites the tourist to view one of Simmerman’s forthcoming poems, which reads:

A robin pecks
at the ice
in my rain gutter.

I make a big
deal of it.

I love these lines. I think they perfectly contrast the ephemeral nature of birds and ice, with the blunt pragmatism of a poet’s job: to find meaning in the mundane. Also, I’m a fan of humor.

And so, dear reader, here is my writing invitation. I invite you, in the comments below, to post your own short poem that highlights the contrast between the ephemeral and the blunt. Don’t worry if you think it’s perfect or not—we’re all friends here! Let’s have some fun! But, please, let us keep President Voldemort out of this round. He doesn’t get to have all our attention!

Also, here’s an exciting announcement:

This Friday, (and hopefully every first Friday of the month, thereafter) I will post an installment on my new web corner called, Online Enlightenment. Each month, I will publish original literature, art, or music that explores notions of enlightenment. This Friday, I am honored to share karvy’s beautiful song, “A Place For Us.” Check back on Friday to read her description of how this song resonates with the theme of enlightenment and, of course, to hear her haunting melody.

If you are interested in submitting to Online Enlightenment, please email me at I’m leaving the topic of “enlightenment” open but would like work to focus more on what enlightenment is rather than what it isn’t.

Photo Credit:

Cocktails with Li Po & Frank O’Hara

This week, we hear from Dr. Raymond Wachter, my friend and colleague of 14 years. In this interview, we discuss journaling, the writing process, and the essence of  Zen poetry. Enjoy! 

You and I have discussed the helpfulness and the pleasure of keeping a journal. What role has journaling played in your own writing process? 

A huge role! Ha ha! I can think of nothing that’s been more central to my life–not just as a writer and teacher of writing, but as far as how I’ve constructed (and de-constructed!) my own identity.

The idea of keeping a journal was foreign to me, until it just sort of happened, organically. A day or two after my 26th birthday, I was at a low point in my life: I was living in Iowa City, bartending and feeling scattered. I was only about a year away from graduating from the University of Iowa, but I was extremely undisciplined about going to classes or even completing basic tasks like paying my university tuition on time.

At that point, in that rather dark phase of my life, I started writing my thoughts in a little notebook. The thoughts turned into entries, and, over the course of a few months, I began to develop a little bit of self-discipline in my personal life. Eventually, I re-enrolled at Iowa and soon after that found myself in a nonfiction writing course. The professor allowed us to choose our own textbook for the course, and I  randomly chose Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I knew nothing about it. Both for the book by Cameron, and as a requirement for the nonfiction class, I was required to write several pages a day; I wrote mostly stream-of-consciousness, in a journal, and have been hooked ever since.

Although you earned your Ph.D. in creative writing (poetry specifically) you have written mostly nonfiction in the past several years. How did this genre crossover occur? Has it changed your perspective on poetry or on writing in general?

Well, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but after I received my PhD and came to Tuscaloosa, I felt very free as a writer, like I could do anything, be whoever I wanted to be as a writer. At first, I revised a (very bad!) novel that I’d written on a one-year break between my master’s and doctoral programs. After I revised the novel (in 2007), I worked hard to shop it around to agents in NYC. None of them ever bit, and they mostly responded in the same way, claiming that my main character was completely unlikeable. It sounds tragic, but I see it as funny now. Besides, with nearly a decade having passed, I can see now that they were on the mark. (The novel is still stored on my hard drive and a redundant jump drive, though I doubt it will ever get published.)

After the thorough rejection by literary agents, I was preparing to write another novel. I  felt it was some sort of badge of honor to keep moving forward. But I still remember quite clearly the way my girlfriend (at the time) scoffed at me, for wanting to continue writing in the same genre. Perhaps because it felt like more of a risk, or more of a jump into the unknown, I pretty much abandoned fiction at that moment. Now, I’m only interested in writing nonfiction & poetry.

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I’m writing a nonfiction book, but it’s not a memoir, and it’s not even “literary nonfiction.” It’s a book about the mind/body connection and how to make choices in your life that bring you happiness.

About seven years ago, the Department of English, here at The University of Alabama, began an initiative where the instructors would teach “themed” courses in First-year Writing. (I believe you and I were both part of that pilot program.) Out of the five themes offered, the one I chose was called “Advancing Mind & Body.” Teaching that course was really wonderful for me, professionally & personally. I began reading a number of authors and sharing them with my students, writers like Bruce Lipton & Larry Dossey, who both have rigorous academic backgrounds, but whose work might be considered “New Science” or “Mind-Body-Spirit” (as far as their publishing labels).  My initial teaching assignment, and the new authors I began reading, definitely changed the course of my writing projects.

So the book I’m currently writing, about the mind/body connection, is an explanation for New Thought concepts about Self-Awareness and the crucial importance of understanding your own inner monologue. I really can’t imagine wanting to write fiction ever again, or even “literary” nonfiction, now that I’m writing this book.

I know that you  have often favored Zen poetry. How has your view of this type of poetry changed over the years? What keeps you coming back to it?

I suppose I was always interested in poets who describe a moment of heightened awareness, which is probably what Zen is, once you strip away all the trappings of Buddhist theology. There’s this poem of Jorie Graham’s that I loved as an undergraduate, called “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Now, Graham is the last person in the world who would call herself a Zen writer, but the poem moves in and out of different moments in Graham’s life–as a mother bringing a leotard to her daughter’s overnight party, to  historical moments, including an entry from Christopher Columbus’s diary.

It’s a gorgeous poem, especially as it’s fairly long and (seemingly) meandering. I didn’t have a clue as to why I liked it two decades ago, but now I can see that I was attracted to Graham, and other poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, because they are all interested in moments of heightened awareness. Whether it’s a moment in their lives (Frank seeing Billie Holiday’s name on a daily newspaper, or Jorie walking through the snow in her neighborhood) or whether it’s a moment in their writing lives (Emily’s “slant of light,” “Winter Afternoons”), it seems to me that great poetry is an accurate rendering of  heightened consciousness. Then, as a reader, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Li Po poem from over 1,200 years ago, or a Sappho poem twice that age, you are able to momentarily enter into that state of heightened awareness that they left for us. Also, as I consider the diverse poets that I just mentioned in this answer, it’s clear too, that the best Zen poets don’t necessarily see themselves as Zen.

Well, if Frank O’Hara and Li Po were somehow able to read or hear this answer, I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me. Actually, if we were all somehow together on the physical plane, you and I and those two poets would probably love to have a cocktail right about now! I’d venture to say that drinks with those two, and a chat about poetry, would probably be the best dinner party one could imagine! 🙂


Ray Wachter grew up on a farm in rural, southwest Iowa. After serving two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he attended the University of Iowa where he received a B.A. in English. He studied American Literature & Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his M.A. and PhD. For the past ten years, he’s been a faculty member in the English Department at The University of Alabama.


Featured image of man typing, by Joel Robison:

Ghost Writing: Busted!

Hope everyone had a spooky Halloween! Today, we hear about ghost writing, music, and the adventures of childhood. Enjoy this week’s interview:

Tell us about yourself and your background.

My name is Karvy. I have a degree in music and spend most of my time either writing or immersed in Chopin. I am part of a collaboration called Karvy & Valor ( where I write and blog and compose. I am also writing my first novel under my own name.

You have recently worked as a ghost writer. What is your writing process for such a project? Do you think that the behind-the-scenes nature of this job lives up to its name?

I’m not sure how typical my ghostwriting experience was. At the beginning of the project, I was handed a 20-page outline that I was told I had 45 days to make it into a 200-page manuscript. It was a delicate balance between writing something solid and keeping the client happy. The original outline was pretty rough. It’s a miracle if you can make something readable out of what you are given. You have to field some pretty wince-worthy ideas and most of the time your employer won’t recognize what is readable and what is not. I wrote for an employer who admittedly ‘didn’t really read much of anything,’ and still hadn’t made it past chapter seven at the time of the book release.

After I won the writer’s confidence, they gave me an immense amount of freedom, and I changed the last half of the outline. This was actually my first time writing fiction, and I adored it. It was so fantastic to have an excuse to get to write as much as I wanted. I would set my alarm for 5:20am and work for 8 hours, go off and teach and come back and work another couple hours when I got home at night. It was so exhilarating to see it taking shape and that experience helped build my confidence as a new writer.

I was pretty happy with the finished book, but after I sent it to the client, he got jumpy and wanted more opinions. He sent it to two different freelance editors and a screenplay writer, and they all inserted themselves into it with more audacity than taste. The end result was unreadable and felt like seven people with very different personalities and styles all had a drunken stab at it.

The book found its way back to me, and it broke my heart a little bit. You can’t get attached to your work as a ghostwriter because someone else owns it and has the legal right to mangle it after it is submitted. The client hired me to rewrite it in the space of a week, which I did because I felt a sort of responsibility for the characters. He gave me a team of two fantastic editors. The finished product was beautiful, but then some potential legal issues came up with some of the studies and medical language and assumptions in the book. It concerned the editors and me more than it did the client. He offered us all credits in the book, which was pretty rare in the ghostwriting world, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t worth the risk of getting pulled into someone else’s legal battle, should someone decide to sue him.

I gained so much from the experience, especially in working with the professional editors; that being said, ghostwriting is not something I plan to do again. I was recently at the book release in San Francisco. I can’t explain how strange it is to hear someone pitching a book, that you wrote, as his own.

How has music influenced your writing or vice versa?

I’m a pretty emotional, serious person—always have been. When I was young, music was my form of expression, and I hardly wrote at all. There was little privacy in our house, so I rarely kept a journal or wrote anything down, or if I did, I would scratch it out, tear it into pieces, and throw it in five separate trash bins so no one could piece it back together. Music was safe because it was an anonymous release. In a household as big as mine was, I needed a place that was my own where I could express my feelings anonymously. I am a pianist and am drawn to the kind of music that has depth and grief. It is still a challenge for me to write honestly. I think my writing is catching up, but there is still a part of me that is conditioned to filter my work through the lens of whom I will or won’t offend, wanting to shield the people close to me, whereas music has no bounds. In a way, music is the perfect non-dualistic art form. It inspires a moving connection and empathy through its fluidity. I hope someday my writing can inspire that kind of empathy.

I am currently writing a novel that is pushing me towards vulnerability and transparency in ways I wouldn’t have believed possible. It has been an experience of growth, and sometimes, I feel amazed that I feel free enough to write it.

You also teach music lessons to children. Do you consider teaching a form of poetry? 

I think anything that sparks wonder can be a form of poetry. Most of the kids I work with  are young, 6 or 7. They come in and sit on the bench and tell me all about their adventures, and I just get to take it all in. I love the way they see the world, so much innocence and zest for life. They are so present because everything to them is exciting and new and worth discovering and paying attention to. It’s a much better way to see the world, don’t you think?

How do you define poetry?

Poetry is like music: it holds the world with metaphor. Another dimension by which to contemplate the human experience.


Featured Image:
“Hand in Smoke”: