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GUEST POST: Award-Winning Poet John Davis Jr. Discusses His Journey to Publication

Author photo of John Davis Jr., Poet
Poet John Davis Jr.

Writing poetry that gets published isn't easy. Poet John Davis Jr. Discusses his Journey from unpublished poet to published poet, and the long road it took him down.

As a poet, my publishing journey has been anything but conventional. I started taking creative writing seriously in my twenties. I’d been writing poems since adolescence, and I had noticed they were growing more “real” as I matured. At that time, I defined “real” poetry by how much it sounded like work by established writers. My idols included Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes, and a host of other canonized voices, but my reading of contemporary poets was sadly minimal. I viewed poets of the present with an air of skepticism, even disdain, due to my limited formalist tastes. Anything avant-garde or overly postmodern failed my rubric for “real.” The poets writing those kinds of things, I felt, were simply slinging words on a page and hoping an audience might extrapolate meaning from the mess they made. I was young, stubborn, and addicted to structure and order, rhyme and meter.

My first “real” poems demonstrated this personality – I abided by strict rules in my work that often produced exact end rhymes and tightly controlled syllabics. My predilection had quite a few drawbacks: Line breaks were regularly contrived or forced, and my syntax was hammered into archaic constructions similar to what one might read from the Romantics: “Moss hangs ‘round like a widow’s veil,/ Blacken’d sky turns pink, so pale,/ Now brighter, louder, orange-red wake,/ A rolling boil of colors baked/ by one who makes His presence known/ through infants born and tempests blown…” Yes, I know. Truly awful. But all poets seem to go through that phase where we write pastiches about sunrises before we can get to better material.

Somehow, a few of my fledgling poems found small publishers (mostly long-abandoned blogs and fly-by-night magazines with lackluster editors). Some of my works even “won” a couple of scam contests that had expensive entry fees and “anthology” publications that demanded hefty payments from the writer. My poems landed alongside others that were equally horrible in a faux-leather bound volume no one would ever read. Again, no one had told me about the pitfalls of vanity publishers, illegitimate poetry competitions, or the various schemes used against novice writers seeking a byline. I learned the hard way, but fortunately, I learned fast and began to investigate, asking the right questions of people with qualified literary credentials.

Poetry cover - Middle Class American Proverb by John Davis Jr.
Middle Class American Proverb - By John Davis Jr.

In addition, I attended a few gatherings that featured poets who had travelled the paths I desired: Peter Meinke, poet laureate of Florida for many years, edited a packet of my work during the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Writers Conference in the early 2000s. Because he was (and is) inclined toward formalism, he appreciated my initial efforts and gently persuaded me to hone my craft so that it wasn’t so rigid. He suggested a few poets I’d only heard of by skimming the Poetry Foundation website (a nascent online page back then): Rita Dove, Robert Wrigley, Sandra Cisneros, Rodney Jones, and others. Doubtful but appreciative, I broadened my reading and began to overcome my previous assumptions about contemporary verse.

A few years later, I participated in a writers’ convention where Lola Haskins, another Florida poet, edited my work and gave me a handful of helpful suggestions, as well. These poets and others caused me to take my initial love of language’s music and combine it with greater discernment and analysis. Alliteration and assonance, two of my favorite literary devices, would soon be tempered, as would awkward attempts at symbolism, which I loved for its depth and code-like mystery.

My poetry became more refined, more intentional, and more concise. I reached a place where I examined each word to determine if it was serving an authentic purpose. My new utilitarian approach landed publications in a few more reputable journals, and soon, I had enough reasonably decent poems to create a collection. Enter major mistake number two: self-publishing.

I know some people have experienced great success with self-publishing. I was not one of them. I was too eager, too inexperienced, and too self-impressed. The result was a book that smacked of rank amateurism, had an ugly cover, and looked thrown together in the most unprofessional way imaginable. It also cost me a great deal to get it produced. How was I to know about matters like acquiring an ISBN, designing an enticing cover, or seeking blurbs from reputable authors? The writing magazines I subscribed to at the time were more focused on prose, market listings, and bestselling author interviews (think John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, etc.). I was nearly 30, and I was convinced that I was getting too old to be “discovered” as a poet. So, I rushed the book through the shady self-publisher, and haste made waste. Today, I don’t even mention the collection to people who ask about my books. It dwells in obscurity, awaiting an eventual “out-of-print” status.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. I attended more literary events, readings, seminars, and workshops. I read, and then I read some more. By this time, I’d been teaching high school English for a few years after moving out of newspaper journalism. My teaching exposed me to new voices, as well. I grew an appreciation for diverse poets and poetries, and my individual poems were getting increasingly picked up by university-based magazines, quality small journals, and “ezines” (the early 2000s term for an online journal) with proficient gatekeepers. I was also continuing to feel the sting of frequent rejection, but my writing was getting accepted about ten percent of the time, which was enough to keep me persistent.

These poets and others caused me to take my initial love of language’s music and combine it with greater discernment and analysis.

My exposure to writing groups and workshops added a new habit to my practice: thinking about my work through the lens of others whose voices and tastes I’d learned and respected around long rectangular tables. “How would Bob feel about this? What would Angela say?” These kinds of inquiries made my writing stronger, and I wanted more lenses to choose from when looking over my own work. Revision and rewriting, I’d discovered, were the keys to true craft.

After completing my Master of Education degree in 2012 with a 4.0 grade point average, I’d gained the confidence for further graduate-level study. I had been a lousy student before, but now that I was paying the bills and gaining knowledge in subjects I cared deeply about, I could manage to sustain my focus and perform to the best of my abilities. I also had a portfolio of published work that demonstrated some potential.

When I received an acceptance from University of Tampa’s newly formed Master of Fine Arts program, I was elated. I considered it a sign that their faculty included a mentor who’d previously influenced me: Peter Meinke. For two years, I read craft essays and poems by award-winners and masters while writing poems of my own under the guidance of various mentors, each of whom taught me something new. By the end of the program, I had a full, well-ordered manuscript ready to go, and I wouldn’t be making the same mistake twice.

At dinner one night during the Florida Literary Arts Coalition’s “Other Words” conference in St. Augustine, I was seated beside Sue Brannan Walker, a friend of Peter Meinke. Walker, previous Alabama poet laureate and the publishing maven behind Negative Capability Press, struck up a conversation with me and my wife, asking about my poetry, how I’d liked the MFA program, and other subjects related to literature. As the evening progressed, I mentioned that I had a prepared collection ready for publishing, and many of the pieces had been previously featured in magazines large and small around the country. Sue invited me to submit it to her press, one I’d known about and respected for decades.

The takeaway from my publishing journey is this: Keep going. Not everyone is going to be discovered in their twenties, or even thirties.

In 2014, Middle Class American Proverb became a reality thanks to my MFA program and a chance encounter with a true legend in southern poetry circles. I’d like to tell you the book became an overnight bestseller, but of course, it wasn’t. Poetry, after all, remains a notoriously low-sales genre. Nonetheless, the collection received favorable reviews from several outlets, glowing back-cover blurbs from poets I admired, and a cover design that was remarkably beautiful. It received nominations for plenty of legitimate awards, and it made my common name a slightly brighter blip on the literary community radar. Here was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the catalyst for further successes.

Poetry Collection book cover - The Places That Hold
The Places That Hold - By John Davis Jr.

Since that time, I’ve dealt with small, independent presses who’ve treated my work with the care and consideration of true professionals. Hard Inheritance was released in 2016 by Five Oaks Press (now regrettably out of business), and in late 2021, my latest collection The Places That Hold was published by Eastover Press, whose editor, Denton Loving, was once the editor of Drafthorse Literary Journal out of Lincoln Memorial University. This fine magazine published some poems of mine, and I also spent time at Denton’s writer’s retreat several years ago. I can attest that he is a poet’s poet and a fine editor with a keen eye. The Places That Hold won the Florida Book Awards’ bronze medal for poetry and received favorable reviews in places like Electric Literature and Southern Literary Review, among others. This book and the response it has generated have almost made the terrors of the COVID lockdown worth it, since many of its poems were written while I was sequestered and masked.

Looking toward the future, my plans include releasing a volume of new and selected poems in 2025, the quarter-century mark of my foray into writing serious poetry and moving beyond hobbyist dabbling. With my new home recently purchased and a new writing space providing fresh perspective, it will be fun to see what new chapters lie ahead.

The takeaway from my publishing journey is this: Keep going. Not everyone is going to be discovered in their twenties, or even thirties. Billy Collins, our nation’s one-time poet laureate and one of the most popular poets in publishing, wasn’t known until roughly age 60. Today, his work is eagerly anticipated by a loyal group of fans, and he regularly sells record numbers of poetry books. Persistence, dogged tenacity, and dedication to the art will pay off, especially when networking and a smidge of luck supplement them. Stay the course, fellow writer; progress, no matter how small, reaps its own rewards.

John Davis Jr. is the author of The Places That Hold (Eastover Press, 2021), Hard Inheritance (Five Oaks Press, 2016), Middle Class American Proverb (Negative Capability Press, 2014) and two other books of poetry. He has received many literary awards including the Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal and the 2021 Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. His writings are published in literary journals throughout the South and around the world. He teaches English and Literature in the Tampa Bay area. You can find his profile from Poets and Writers magazine here:

You can support his latest poetry project here. You can also follow his author page on Facebook here. Find his latest book for sale here.

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