I just spent this past Sunday with my 7 year old daughter at a lacrosse tournament. She was playing with the 3rd and 4th grade girls team, invited because their numbers were thin and she’s tall (and quite coordinated) for her age – and I was asked to help coach. I worried a little that the age/skill difference (and the fact that she had never played a real game before) might make her shy/pensive/un-assertive. Quite the contrary. She had a ball, and I found myself uncharacteristically silent several times throughout the day, just watching her run, laugh, scowl and chase the fast-break, take a breather on the side-line with her goggles on her forehead and a Gatorade in hand. At those specific moments, had I tried to offer some sort of instruction or encouragement, I’m sure my voice would’ve cracked (that’s a no-no, by the way. No emotional stuff, dad.). I did holler though when she scored a goal, her first, and my voice cracked like puberty had made a comeback.
The last couple days I’ve been thinking about how far she’s come from the pudgy bundle we brought home that cool Virginia November almost 8 years ago. Throw in any number of Coldplay, Dave Matthews, Augustana, Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake tunes that happen to be playing on my iTunes and voila! I’m suddenly up to my eye-balls in nostalgia. We had Aleida while I was in grad school at George Mason for poetry. A good deal of my writing was about my every-day…trying to make connections between my past and my present. Having our first child made for a pretty deep pool of “writing matter.” Here’s a section from my master’s thesis (a book-length poem about fatherhood, fishing and the landscape(s) of America) that I just re-discovered, in which I talk about Aleida:
Most pools have been filled in with concrete to keep
kids from swimming. Suckers run in fractional numbers.
Land around the cemetery has been cleared. Wooded places,
have been cleared that used to feel as if, in being there,
your steps were the first. Dogs are not allowed.
Plots are allowed only two arrangements per—
tasteful, modest arrangements.
Dad took my daughter to look for suckers this spring.
In a small piece of slack-water above the fourth bridge
they found three fat lakers holding in the shade.
He lifted one toward my daughter, her eyes wide
& then wider, the fish working its mouth, waving its tail
back & forth. Not sure what to make of this creature,
she screamed when she touched it, laughed her child-laugh,
wiped her hands on her pants as dad returned the fish to the water.
Yep, connections between my past and my present. Fatherhood, much like fishing or poetry I’m realizing, is about paying attention to the small things…before those small things grow up and head into the current of their own life.
I’m a writer at an advertising agency. My job is to understand our clients’ business at least as well as they do and deftly influence the public favor of their products, services or brand.
I’m also a poet. Not in the “my ad copy is Laureate-worthy” sense, mind you. My graduate degree is in poetry – specifically the writing of it. An interesting choice for an Army veteran to be sure.
In truth, I always thought I would teach writing, composition and literature at a college or university. That’s traditionally how poets are able to make a living and work on their craft (there are my favorite exceptions, Doc Williams and Mr. Stevens, though). But life has a way of not always following best-laid plans.
Not long after I joined my first advertising agency, I was told that my background and experience in writing poetry and the military do not count toward experience in writing for advertising. From a tenure point of view, I guess I agree (although the pain and suffering that a poet/veteran experiences for his art is an eerie parallel to that of an advertising writer…it should count).
But my agreement ends there. Having now been in the ad business a while, I’ve come to see the basic tenets of writing poetry are one and the same for writing ads:
1. Economy of words – my guess is that, while it is a bastion of our literary canon, maybe one in a thousand have read Beowulf by choice. The Volkswagen “Lemon” ad from the 60’s on the other hand…
2. Voice – no one likes to read words that lie there on the page like…well…ink. If they don’t echo the truth of your Grandmother’s sage advice, or make you snap to attention like a barking drill sergeant, they’re silent.
3. Relevance – it never matters what the subject matter is…only that the writer closes the gap between ambivalence and action. Moves the needle from ignorance to understanding.
4. Imagination – the best writing – further, the best ideas – make connections between the practical and the fanciful. They leap…and we’re cool with following.
5. Fearlessness – Like my mom told me when she was teaching my how to drive: “He who hesitates is lost.” Creativity or art that hesitates is not creative. It’s merely safe. And where does that get you?
William Maynard of the Bates agency, I think, would agree. In David Ogilvie’s book On Advertising, he was quoted as (now famously) saying:
“Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”
I loved the quote for it’s truth (and personal vindication) the first time I read it. Still do. But the interesting (and, admittedly, motivating) part of the quote is what comes next:
“If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”
I guess this poet’s right where he needs to be.