Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could read as well. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

To the Moon

Years ago, I was relaxing in my favorite armchair one afternoon, and Max, my oldest son, was playing on the floor at my feet. Max’s favorite toy at the time was a plastic garbage truck, but he could not find it. From my vantage, however, I could see it amongst a scrum of toys against the far wall, but I wasn’t about to leave the comfort of my chair to fetch it.

“It’s right there,” I said, and pointed.

Max had only been on the planet about two years, but I could already glean in him the beginnings of a literalist. Glad that his daddy had found his beloved truck, he looked where he believed I was telling him he could find it: at my hand.

“No,” I repeated. “There.” This time I thrust my finger in the direction of the truck, but again, Max continued to stare at my hand, hoping, I suppose, the truck would soon appear in it. I then found myself in the unpredictable position of having to explain how to follow the invisible string from the tip of my finger to that which he desired.

I did not know it at the time, but this was probably my first lesson in the unique challenge of doing what it is I now love to do. If you ask a mathematician what 2 + 2 is, he will give you the answer “4” from his hand to yours. If you ask an engineer to build you a bridge, he will open his hand and from it you may take the blueprints.

My job, as both a writer and a teacher, is to point. That is all I can do. If I wrote a poem about the moon, you could stare at that poem your whole life and the moon would never emerge from between its words. But if the poem’s trajectory is accurate, you might follow it and discover the moon in the night sky of your imagination.

Likewise, the answers to the questions I am asked when I teach lie beyond my reach. Yet I can see them just the same. Some days I point more accurately than others, but no matter. Max, after all, would have eventually found the truck on his own. In this way writing has taught me that words, in fact, are nothing, and yet have the power to collapse the distance from a hand to the moon.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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From the Pulpit

I was raised without religion, but this doesn’t mean I didn’t go in search of sermons. I love the idea of a sermon. A holy man or woman gathers a group of people together and says, “You are always loved. Also, fear nothing.” Then everyone gets up and eats doughnuts and leaves thinking, “Now what did he say I had to do to be loved? And what was I supposed to be afraid of?”

Which is why we need sermons. The daily business of life can invert things in our mind, casting into doubt what we knew the day before. And so back we go to our holy men and women who say, “Honestly, you are always loved. Also – and I mean it this time – fear nothing.”

But as I said, I was raised without religion. So instead I had poetry. Also, The Beatles. I would find myself adrift in life, my entire world inverted, and I would summon a sermon. What was it about love again? It’s all you need. Right. And what about death? Do not go gentle into it. Got it. It is so easy to forget sometimes what you already know.

I was 21 when I learned that the “You” in You Light Up My Life was Jesus. I had assumed it was a love ballad, which I guess it was, which then made me wonder if there was any difference at all between love songs and hymns. I suspected there wasn’t, though I decided it would be wisest to keep this to myself, especially, as I said, since I was raised without religion. The heathens have a way of spoiling Sunday.

I should mention that my father graduated from Harvard Divinity School. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, God was quite out of the picture. No matter. Such intentions have a way of hanging around and hanging around until they find their truest form. When I wrote my first poems my father told me they were pretentious, which – honestly – they weren’t. So I explained them to him, and then he didn’t think they were pretentious anymore.

“Explaining” a poem is a little tricky, though, isn’t it? You sound a bit like someone trying to explain God. I kept it simple that day – This one’s about a ship captain; this one is me complaining about my complaining – which was enough for my father. All the better, I decided. Let him make up his own mind about them now. A poem, after all, should live within you if it’s going to do any good. There it can join all that you know but must be reminded of from time to time.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Between Words

I fell in love with stories before I had learned to speak. My grandmother told me the story of being a little girl coming home from school and being chased by a gaggle of particularly aggressive geese. As she neared her front gate her mother emerged from the kitchen, spied the geese, grabbed the hem of her apron, and drove the beasts back to their pond with two fierce flaps and the direct admonition: “Shoo!  Shoo!”

I loved this story. I knew how small my grandmother felt against her waddling attackers. I loved that there was a race for the safety of home. And I loved that my great-grandmother dispersed the monsters with something so common and benign as an authoritatively wielded apron. Because I could not yet speak, I would retell the story using only mime, sound effects, and enthusiasm.

That was more or less my model for storytelling until I was fifteen and discovered The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. When I read the verse—

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

—I felt that unique synthesis of sound, rhythm, and meaning of which only language is uniquely capable. I had always wanted to sing, but I struggled to hold a tune. Now I understood that words alone could do the singing for me.

Five years later still I would read about Jacques Derrida deconstructing texts word by word. The French Philosopher seemed to suggest that when you pulled a story or essay apart, there was nothing there. How surprising! All that’s left between those words is the enthusiasm the writer had to put them on the page in the first place. Trying to hold that enthusiasm with something so puny as your brain is like trying to understand an orange with a calculator. To know it, you have to eat it up, and then it’s gone. If it was good you are left wanting more.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Cheer Up

As I understand it, Paul McCartney awoke one morning having dreamt the entire melody to “Yesterday.” This is as close I ever came to that, literarily speaking.

I was twenty, and I felt as if I had to simultaneously relearn everything, while I also forgot nothing. I believed it was now time to learn to see the world exactly as it was, not as I wished it to be, and that under no circumstances should I ever write or utter a word that might be construed as sentimental.

One night I dreamt I was in a snowy, barren place. It was night, and I came to a friendly stone building through whose windows I could see the pulse of firelight. I let myself in. There were people busy behind me but they didn’t mind me warming myself by the hearth.

It was a fantastic fire, and as I stared into it, I heard a poem:

There is a hearth.
And in the hearth there is a fire.
And in the fire there are coals
The coals burning in the fire in the hearth
Burning and burning as your soul burns—
Burning and burning forever beneath this Christmas night.

Christmas? I thought. Already? And so I turned and now I saw who was working. The elves were toiling at their workbenches, hundreds of elves, all building little wooden toys by firelight. “I’ve found it!” I thought. “I’m here. It’s the source.”

I felt then exactly as I would secretly feel when as a boy I read the words, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” And as I thought this, the man himself appeared, all rosy cheeked and white bearded and red coated. He walked between the workbenches, and as he passed the elves, he waved his hand like a magician and silver dust rained down on each toy.

I could not speak to him, but I had to know what he was doing. This had never been explained, and so I turned to an elf that was working happily beside me. “What’s he doing?” I asked. “What’s that silver dust?”

“Don’t you know?” said the elf. “That’s Christmas Cheer.”

And then I woke up.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Rats And Bones

Over the last decade I have had to make peace with the unavoidable reality that I am an optimist. This was more challenging than you might think. Growing up, my two literary heroes were T. S. Elliot and Ernest Hemingway. When Prufrock asked, “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there are times for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse,” I felt he was speaking for me; and when Fredric Henry walks back to his hotel “in the rain,” after his beloved Catherine dies delivering their stillborn child, I thought I had read one of the greatest endings in literature.

But I was a young man then, and I was deeply moved by anyone capable of peeling back the layer of everyday life to unearth the roots of our collective despair. Despair, after all, seemed to me to be everywhere; despair was the hobgoblin beneath every bed, the villain lurking in every shadowy street corner. If we reveal the beast, perhaps then we might slay him. This, I believed, was the writer’s job, his (my) highest calling. Anything else was avoiding the truth, capitulating to the silent denial that was otherwise all around me.

Yet the silent truth turned out to be more generous than I had at first understood. When I was a freshman in college, we studied The Waste Land. Of all the poems in Western Literature’s cannon, none cries out for teaching more than The Waste Land. In a way, it is a literature professor’s dream, so packed as it is with references and clues as to make it virtually opaque to the unschooled reader.

I was captivated. As the professor walked us through Dante and the quest for the grail, I felt as if life itself were being shown to me. That life was a wasteland did not bother me at all. In fact, weeks later the subject of the poem came up during a history class. I felt compelled to say of The Waste Land, “It’s strangely uplifting.”

The professor looked at me blankly and asked, “Why?”

I couldn’t answer. The full reply was too large for my eighteen year-old heart, yet it was this: If we are despairing, there must be something worth despairing over. What all the rats and bones literature was really pointing me toward – whether the writers intended it or not – was that which they seemed to have lost. I was strangely uplifted because I understood I had a job to do.  It was an important job, and that’s all I wanted from life.

I became an optimist the day I found what I was looking for, exactly where I had left it, years before.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Professor Is In

I own one of these gigantic collections of poetry, a sort of greatest hits since the beginning of the English language, and each of the 1,000 or so poems includes a blurb by the collection’s editor—an esteemed poet/academic, I believe—placing the poem in stylistic and historical context. The entries are informed, academically insightful, and usually don’t mean diddly-doo in the grand scheme of things.

Don’t get me wrong. This collection was no doubt assembled as a text for undergraduate English students. I am all for undergraduate English students reading these great poems. For many people, college and sometimes high school English classes serve as a first introduction to the world of Literature with a capital L. The question is: what does one do after reading the poem?

I am by nature a student of form, and so for me it is interesting to learn that the villanelle saw a rise in use after the 1930s, but only in the way certain men want to know when the V8 engine first appeared. It’s nerdy really, but this kind of ticky-tacky technical knowledge gets a pass when applied to poetry. All the better for me. Couple my love of poetry with my years as a wine steward and I make a first-rate snob.

I should ask Erica Bauermeister, who was an English professor for years before turning to fiction writing, how one avoids the trap the editor fell into. Form is nice and easy to talk about, but function is why we’re drawn to poetry, and the function of poetry, as with all art, is to invite the audience into themselves.

It baffled me when I went to college and was part of why I left school without a degree. English professors have a difficult job: they are people who love literature, but you can’t merely stand up in front of twenty kids and say, “I think this book is just great! I hope you love it as much as I do.” I suppose if it fell to me I would explain the parts of the poem that are a little murky, and then ask, “What does it make you think of? Do you agree with it? Does it make you want to write a poem?” Not the kind of questions whose answers you can easily grade, but unfortunately, just as in life, the most valuable questions have no right answers.

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