Archive for July, 2013

This counting thing is going to become tedious after a while. I hate when I do that. I start off with a really cool concept, and then realize that keeping track of it is going to be complicated. Like when I promised daily blog updates during my time here Ashland. Forget it. You’ll get every other day and you’ll like it. Or you’ll ignore it. Either way, I’m writing when I can–at least here. 

Monday saw the onset of the first week of workshops here. The way the residency works is rather simple. Each student is assigned a workshop group for each week, led by one of the professors in the program. The group and professor you work with during the first week will also be your group for the upcoming fall semester. The second week’s group, I suppose, is just a good way to get you acclimated to other professors and students in the program, so that when it comes time to select preferences for the spring, you’ll have a wider idea of what you want.

In any respect, we meet daily from 9-11:45 to talk about craft and, eventually, to critique each other’s work. My professor for this week is Ruth Schwartz. She has a very different way of looking at the world, but I certainly appreciate her sensibility and wonder at the way the world works. It’s definitely different from my way of thinking, but this isn’t all bad when you’re talking about writing. One of the reasons I am in this program is because I want varied viewpoints on my writing, and I know, just a few days in, that I’m going to get that.

After the first workshop we have lunch, and then craft seminars again. Monday’s was led by Brian Doyle, the author who spoke to use the night before. It feels a little more like a performance and a reading than a seminar on craft, although we he does lead us in some fast paced, ‘just do it’ style exercises. The feeling about him, it seems, is rather mixed across the program, with a lot of the professors and students really enjoying his style and manner of expressing himself, while others express a distaste for him and his methods, both directly and through dry witticisms. I, for one, enjoy him as a speaker–so much so that I’m very interested in reading some of his writing–but don’t really think I got much from him on a craft level. 

After the seminar, I hit the gym again (I’m feeling much better, even if now, after three days in a row, my legs are throbbing a bit) and relax before dinner. After dinner is a faculty reading, featuring three very different professors reading works. I can see that one of the benefits of this particular program is the diversity of the faculty. While all talented in their own way, no two are alike, and each has his or her own way of expressing what they want to say, as well as his or her own methodology or approach to getting there.

After the reading, a bunch of us who are staying in the apartment complex that is home here at Ashland build a fire in a one of those metal fire pits and sit around just talking. It’s remarkable to me how easy the conversations flow in and out of one another. You have two or three people talking to one another in small groups, but if you get lost in the noise of someone else’s conversation, you simply turn and engage with them. Nobody seems to mind intrusions. People are friendly and want to talk; but they also want to hear your stories, your thoughts, your ideas. Everything. It is such an acceptance. It is fascinating and exhilarating. 

Tuesday runs much the same way. This morning Ruth began our workshop by having us focus on some random things she found on the ground on her way in–sticks, feathers, an old shoe lace, and so forth–and then challenges us to write about it. What it is, what it was, where it came from. Again, this is a completely new way of thinking for me, but I found the exercise very interesting and saw, even on my first attempt, how it stretched my skills, forcing me to find meaning in a stick or an tattered shoe lace. 

After lunch (you’re following the pattern…like I said…schedule is key here), is another craft seminar, but this one turns into more of a W.B. Yeat’s appreciation group, which I cannot be a part of because I don’t know enough of Yeat’s work to actually appreciate him. The “craft” element of the seminar is lost in its brevity (this one was only an hour), still there is something engaging about listening to people who know a lot about a subject and are thrilled by it pontificate on the concepts for a while. Undaunted, I hit the gym again (another new PR, this time in dead lifts at 355#), then wander over to a local Starbucks and Walmart for a few necessities before dinner and another faculty reading marked by, yet again, the catastrophic variations in writing and presentation styles. I will confess I am mentally playing favorites. The bookstore will be loving all the money they’ll be getting from me before I leave.

In other news, being surrounded by such a glorious conglomeration of writers has spurred me on. So far, I’ve written two short nonfiction essays, with thoughts of applying for the dual discipline trajectory the program offers, as seeing all these gifted nonfiction writers has stirred something in me I wasn’t fully aware of until now. In addition, I’ve written a few new poems, as I continue to grapple with my own insecurities and confusions the only way I know how. On the other hand, I have decided that what I want most out of this program is to help me figure out how to keep my voice and style intact, all while expanding my ability to connect with my reader. This, I believe, is the main ingredient missing in my writing, and as I work towards the end goal of my own book by July of 2015, I truly hope this is a skill I can continue to hone with the help of this tremendous faculty. 

Oh, and please feel free to drop me a line via texts or Facebook. As you can see, we are moving fairly constantly around here, but I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.  Thanks to everyone who’s following and reading along. Your support is unmerited, but very much appreciated. Now just promise me you’ll buy my book in a few years when it comes out 🙂

 

God bless,

Robert

The internet here isn’t very good at all. It’s spotty, and frankly sucks from time to time. Fortunately, there hasn’t been much time to really sit and wait for the little blue wheel to stop spinning and load the page. Things have been pretty non-stop here in quaint Ashland, OH since I arrived.

I awoke Saturday morning to see that the rain had followed me from North Carolina. Not buckets–at least not all the time–but certainly steady enough to be annoying. I woke earlier than I had to, but I really wasn’t looking forward to too many more hours in the Super 8, so I checked out and headed out to fuel up–the car and me. Gas was followed by a Tim Horton’s trip for morning donuts and coffee, which I lingered on, knowing I couldn’t really leave Columbus until 11, since check-in on campus didn’t open until noon.

Time properly killed, I hopped in my car and braved the weaving and winding treachery that was I-71N, before meandering off onto a side road or two and finding myself on the Ashland University campus. To be fair, the entrance was rather unassuming, but I was quickly able to find the Student Center, park and check-in. It took some time to navigate the stretch of College Street where my home-away-from-home was supposedly located; and in fact I passed by the building several times before I realized where I was supposed to go. Finding the place, I lugged my stuff inside and selected one of the beds. The apartment was smaller than I’d hoped, and not the 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom job I’d expected. Yessir, there are four grown men sharing one bathroom. This will be interesting, I’ve no doubt.

I met Scott first, who arrived after I had gone into town for lunch at a small, literal hole-in-the-wall pub. It’s his second summer and he’s in creative non-fiction. Very friendly guy. He let me follow him around for the last day or so while I got a feel for the place. Joe showed up a few hours later, a first-year poet like myself, who has been pretty quiet and to himself so far. Still a very nice guy. Doug showed up last, just a little before we were set to leave for the night’s dinner–and first official meet-and-greet with the program’s professors and fellow students–and he’s here defending his thesis in poetry and preparing to earn his degree. We’ve got a wide array of ages and backgrounds in this tiny place, but I think we’ll co-exist pretty well. Scott and I have already hit it off pretty well, and we hung out with a few people he met during the last summer at a local bar called O’Bryan’s, and then hung out in the apartment of our fellow students. Mostly I just listened to stories, but it was cool to feel like I was a part of the group already.

Sunday was a late start, especially compared to what I’m used to, as our first scheduled event (I’m living and dying by this schedule for the next two weeks, it seems) was new student orientation at 11am. Here the first-year students were explained how the program works and were overwhelmed by the sudden magnitude of what we’d gotten ourselves into. Make no mistake, there will be a lot of work to do over the next two years; and while I’m looking forward to the challenge, I’ve no doubt it will not be without its difficulties.

From there, we ate in the dining hall for lunch. The food here has been pretty good so far, which has been refreshing, with a pretty solid variety. It’s nice not to have to think about when and what I’ll eat. I just show up and eat what’s there. It’s one of those small things I miss from being in college the first time and that wasn’t a part of my MA program at UNCC, so I really appreciate being able to live this way, even if it’s only for two weeks. After lunch was a craft seminar, where we get to hear from various professors about various methods and concepts for writing. This first one felt long, but there were some ideas in there that I connected with. I think that as the days go by, I’ll start to get a better feel for the flow of the day, so this first one was tough. Once that was finished, Scott and I went over to the fitness center on campus and I got in some much needed training. I’ve been less diligent about my fitness in the last few weeks, so I’m hoping that I can get back on track while I’m here. Big news: new back squat PR of 300#!

Dinner was next, followed by a reading from one of the visiting writers on campus with us for the residency, Brian Doyle. I had never heard of him, so I had no idea what to expect, but he was phenomenal. He was very witty and an excellent speaker, although it wasn’t so much a reading as it was him talking and telling stories. I am definitely going to be buying some of his books and seeing how his voice comes through on the page (this concept fascinates me to no end).

And now here I am back in our little apartment with the pink tub and engaging with the world outside of central Ohio. I’m looking forward to launching into our classes/workshops tomorrow and really digging into the meat of the residency. I’ve met a bunch of interesting people so far, and am excited about who I’m going to continue to meet as the residency marches on. Mostly, I’m excited to see how I’m going to grow over these weeks, not just as a writer, but as a human being. I’ve no doubt there’s lots in store for me.

God bless,

Robert

Hey all! Since I’m embarking upon the journey towards my second master’s degree starting this weekend, I felt it was the right move to be writing about the process. I’ll be starting at Ashland University this summer, which features a low-residency MFA program. I’ll be focusing on poetry writing, and I’m super excited to announce that by the end of all this (July 2015), I’ll have complete a full-length book of poetry, which is really cool. In any respect, my goal is to blog as much as I can through this process, but especially as close to daily as possible during the residencies, which take place during a two-week period of each summer (the final one, in the aforementioned July 2015, will mostly be about me defending my thesis project). As this is the first, I decided to kick things off tonight.

I decided to cut the trip into two days because the check-in for tomorrow is between 12-6 and I figured the drive was just long enough that if anything went wrong I’d be late. So I booked a hotel just outside of Columbus, OH, which is about an hour’s drive from Ashland, and left about 10:40 this morning from my apartment in Charlotte. I got through North Carolina  just fine, arriving in Virginia at around 12:30, but this is when things started to go bad.

A sign warned me that there was an accident at mile marker 22, so I expected a bit of a delay; however, traffic stopped moving around mile marker 14 and proceeded to slink along for the next 8-10 miles at a ridiculous pace. An hour or so later, I got out of the jam, now almost three hours into a supposedly 7-hour trip. After moving along for a little while, I saw another warning on a sign for yet another accident, this time at mile marker 66. Once again, the traffic started several miles before the posted marker. In all, it was almost 3-o-clock by the time I got to West Virginia, a trip that shouldn’t have taken more than an hour and a half tops. So here I am, 4 hours into the trip, and I’ve still got 4 hours left.

After a quick stop for a late lunch (there aren’t a whole lot of food options while stuck in traffic), I finally make it into Ohio about 5:30, the original time my Google Maps app told me I’d arrive in Columbus. Two hours to go. 33 West turns out to be an odd road through the southern part of Ohio, changing from a 55-mile-per-hour two lane highway, to a 55-mile-per-hour 4 lane highway, to a 35-mile-per-hour trip through a little town.

Finally, I arrived in Dublin, just north of Columbus, checked into my hotel and kicked back. I’m excited to get up tomorrow and complete the drive to Ashland and start to meet the people that will help to shape the next two years of my life.

God bless,

Robert

I’ll admit that it took me a long while to jump on the Relient K bandwagon, which is saying something considering it was an easy train to hop back in the late 90’s/early 00’s when I was working my way through high school and youth groups. RK was a witty alternative to most of the CCM bands wandering around the circuit at the time, a step into the secular without straying too far. I mean, they had a song about Marilyn Manson for goodness sake (even if this song was a cautionary tale about the dangers of said singer’s music), the lyrics were peppered with copious pop culture references and witticisms, it was a Christian teenager’s dream. I, at the ever-astute age of 17, however, was less than impressed with the silliness of The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek, an album I now appreciate as a huge part of the band’s growth–but we’ll get to that.

At any rate, the band grew on me as I grew older. Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do started to see Relient K dialing down the silly and honing in some real maturity; but it took about thirty seconds of Mmhmm for me to realize that this was a band with musical talent in spades and suddenly I was hooked. It was a solid pop-punk album release at the peak of the genre’s popularity, a fact furthered by the hugeness of “Be My Escape” and “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” the album’s two mega-singles. The lyrics were still clever, but they didn’t seem forced anymore. Finally, it seemed the band was growing up.

Five Score and Seven Years Ago followed suit on the growth, even though in hindsight the album now feels a little bit like a band searching for its identity. It dabbles in heavier moments (“I Need You” and “Devastation and Reform”), a folk side (“Faking My Own Suicide”) and even a story song (the truly epic finale “Deathbed”), but on the whole it seems to me now to be uneven. The Bird and the Bee Sides followed, and the newer tracks here (mostly on The Nashville Tennis EP section of the double EP), suggesting the band was settling in. What followed proved this experiment to be true.

While I doubt it is far from a definitive fact, I consider Forget and Not Slow Down to be Relient K’s best album. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s close. The album is the weightiest material the band has released to date, and functions as a bit of a concept album, as it feels like how most of us have felt post-break-up (the ebb and flow of the songs has sparked some debate, but I honestly think this is part of what the album does so well–everyone goes through those “I’m better off…no, wait, I miss you” moments in the wake of a relationship). The album strays a bit from the signature sound, moving from a strict pop-punk sound to a more rounded adult alternative feel, although this is not an album easily pigeon-holed. One of the most brilliant aspects of Forget and Not Slow Down is the way it breathes. There are several tracks that are shorter intro or outro tracks to the songs, and it never feels like the album is rushing to get to its end. It allows the listener to settle in and just enjoy the album’s presence. And while the content is difficult (the pain is especially visible on tracks like “Sahara” and “Savannah”), there is a positivity to the songs that you don’t often hear on an album that is decidedly a break-up record. It seemed that the band had finally found a way to create a sound that was very much theirs, while creating honest, thoughtful songs along the way.

Then comes this, Collapsible Lung, the most recent LP from Relient K. Released nearly four full years after Forget and Not Slow Down, there is a marked change on Lung that at first appears unexpected and, for some, downright painful to take. It is not an album that can be understood fully upon first listen, however, and having worked through it repeatedly since its release last week, I have arrived at a theory behind the change.

It should be mentioned that in between Forget and Lung came a series of cover EP’s that the band dubbed Relient K is for Karaoke. Released first as two separate EP’s and then as a full length cover LP, the songs are just as the title suggests: karaoke tunes. There is very little originality to the versions here (Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” could be a slight exception, although the RK version feels a lot like other rock covers of the tune), and it feels like a karaoke band at one of those fancy karaoke bars where they have a live band. The songs are well executed, but the purpose behind them feels lost in the last of translation. Fun, but nothing new.

That being said–and having heard what followed in Collapsible Lung–I do think it makes perfect sense for the band to do what they did. As I said, Forget and Not Slow Down is the heaviest album the band has released so far (content/theme-wise, not sonically speaking), and I can only suspect that the weight of it was something that singer/lyricist Matt Thiessen wrestled with throughout the recording of the album, and probably has, in his own way, since. For a Relient K album, it is pretty brutal, but as a songwriter myself, I know that there was probably a lot of emotion left in the recording studio, emotion that was deemed too personal for the record. I can only imagine that the last thing Thiessen wanted to do was to launch back into the kind of emotion.

Hence K is for Karaoke, a lighthearted romp through the band’s favorite songs that required little to no emotional connection for Thiessen and Co. And while there is some emotion present on Collapsible Lung, it feels less complicated, more detached; less stressful and decisively more fun. The first track, “Don’t Blink,” feels like a Forget b-side, while “Boomerang” sounds like a radio hit waiting to happen. On the whole, that’s what this album is. It’s another breather album, another chance at experimentation, as the bulk of it was co-written with various friends of the band. It is most certainly a pop album, and unabashedly so, with Thiessen going on record as saying that he recognizes the pop values of the album. It is definitely a confusing album for fans and critics, too, which some seeing it as a fun pop album and many seeing it as a disappointment. The band itself feels a lot more detached from this album more than others, as even Thiessen’s own thoughts on it were that it “needed to be made,” cementing the confusion deeper still.

All in all, it’s an odd little collection of songs that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere in the band’s catalog. At least at their silliest, the album still rocked pretty hard within the band’s sonic wheelhouse; here, the lyrics don’t feel as important. There is some honesty here, but it’s few and far between. But I do understand the reason this was made, and I think the weight of all that’s happened to the band since Forget and Not Slow Down came out can shed some light on it. Band members have come and gone, and there was clearly some emotional turmoil for Thiessen along the way. While this may seem like a rationalization of a weaker effort from a band that appeared to be on the cusp of greatness, I believe there’s something to be said for allowing a band to do its thing. If nothing else, this is another stretching out of the musical muscles, an opportunity to take a chance and see what sticks. And even if the majority of this doesn’t work (for me at least half of it is working so far–for the record, tracks 1-5, then 9 and 11 are the standouts), the band made the album they felt they needed to make. It just so happens that when you are a well-known touring band that you get to exercise your demons–personal and musical–out in public. Personally, it makes me excited to see what might be coming next.