Restoration

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Restoration

Before you restore
the river’s name,
you must first
restore the river.

Strip it of its many dams,
drain the head pond,
bring back
the long-lost salmon
so they can spawn again.

Restore the forests.
Stop clear-cutting:
let the trees grow back.

Create anew a wilderness
where moose and deer,
porcupine and bear,
can wander at will.

The wilderness
a wilderness again.

Except it never was
a wilderness,
until the white man
came.

 

Friday Fiction: Gringos

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Friday Fiction
23 March 2018
Gringos

            By day, I sit in the shade beneath the grapefruit tree and watch as the sun turns each globe of fruit into a shiny planet. The hummingbirds visit me. They whir their wings, bow their heads, and pay homage with their ruby throats.

            On warm days, the sun decks me out in a shining cloak of sumptuous colors, red, blue, yellow, green. When it rains, my captors quickly confine me in a small dark place: no moon, no stars, no worshipers, no forest canopy, no grapefruit planetarium to shape my dreams. Just night and silence. I tuck myself in and hope for the occasional dream to reach out its hand and extract me from my cell.

            Fine weather today. I sit beneath the grapefruit tree and the gringos buzz around me. They push grapes, raisins, bananas, crusts, cigarette butts through the bars of my cage. I scorn them. Gringos, I cry with contempt. Gringos. They clap their hands. Bray with laughter. Sway from side to side splitting their sun-red faces with gold-capped teeth. I eat very little of what they offer. An occasional grape. A chunk of banana. I never take food from their fingers: the temptation to bite the hand that feeds is far too great.

            I am learning their language. The compound guards who allow the gringos in and out of the gates that lead to the outside world teach me gringo words. I can now say gringos go home and this makes for much merriment. The gringos slap their sides and double over with strange cackled cries of laughter. Sometimes tears come to their eyes.

            I drowse in the sun and recall my childhood on the building site. The workers took me from my forest home, placed a chain on my leg, and tethered me to the broken branch of a leafless tree. At first, I couldn’t understand their speech, but they persisted and bit by bit, I picked up their words. When I repeated them, they laughed. Now, I rarely use them and when I do, the compound guards throw a blanket over my head and carry me back to jail.

            I am very careful with what I say. Gringos go home. That is fine. But I rarely say what I really want to say. I want to tell the world how much I love the sunlight as it pierces the leaves and filters down to me, sparking fragmented colors from my frame. My greatest desire is to move in a cloud of many colors, all my family together. I love being part of the crowd-cloud, a voice among voices, all of us in counterpoint and tune. Instead, I sit here, isolated, alone, pining for my brothers and sisters.

            Gringos, I want to say, gringos, let me go home.

          Today, a great event. One of the gringos has picked up my prison and moved it from under the shade of the grapefruit tree to a new spot beneath the balcony. I now sit directly beneath the geraniums. The gringa who lives long-term on the second-floor waters her flowers regularly.

            The gringa grows old and forgetful. She knows she must not water her plants during the day, especially when I am around, but today she is out in the sunshine, forgetful, without her hat, dressed in her dressing-gown and grizzled slippers, with her hair in steel curlers, and a watering can in her hand. Water. It is the symbol of my baptism. It is the element that will release me from my bondage. Water will quench my thirst and free my soul.

            I hear the water, the blessed water, falling on the flowers. I hear the water filtering down through the flower pots. I feel the water bouncing off the geranium leaves threading its way down to settle on my back. My mind returns to the building site of my youth.

            I remember my childhood friends. Their faces flood back and grow like flowers as the waters flow and I remember every word those old friends said as they ran from the building site to take shelter from the rain that stole their money, stole their livelihoods, and stopped them from working.

            Fucking rain, I screech, as the water hits me. Fuck this fucking rain. Fuck this mother-fucking rain.

            I hear the sound of running feet followed by voices.

            “Gertrude’s watered the parrot as well as the geraniums. He thinks it’s raining.”

            “ Quick, fetch his bloody blanket. Shut up, you foul-mouthed parrot.”

        Alas, my moment in the spotlight is over. The play is done. The curtain falls. Darkness descends. I tuck my head beneath my wing and before I fall asleep, I squawk one last feather-filled word:

Featherless-muffer-fuckers.

Thursday Thoughts

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Thursday Thoughts
22 March 2018

Washroom

Locate the nearest washroom …  I am growing old. Maybe I am the only one who needs the consolation of the proximity and known whereabouts of this item, but I am so much happier when I have located it and know where it is.  For me, it’s part of the pre-reading, ‘scouting out’ process that I wrote about yesterday.

The other thing I should have mentioned: work out for yourself a simple relaxation exercise that helps you to concentrate and brings your nerves back under control very quickly. Closing your eyes and breathing deep, one in, one out, does it for some. When uptight, I use a simple exercise from my early piano lessons. (1) Shrug your shoulders, relax your arms and let them hang down, then roll your shoulders, forwards and backwards; (2)  shake out your forearms and fingers; (3) close your eyes and breathe deep. This takes about five – ten seconds.

A personal anecdote: the first time I was due to read a paper at a major academic conference (in Laval University, Quebec) I was standing outside the lecture room listening to the chatter of a group of friends. I opened my mouth to join in and … squeak … no sound … speaker’s block … my voice had disappeared.

I eventually found a washroom,  did a series of  relaxing routines, including this one, sipped some water, and just like that, my voice came back. I returned to the conference and was able to read my paper, five minutes later, without further embarrassment.

Such narrow margins between success and failure.

Wednesday Workshop: Preparing a Public Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
Preparing a Public Reading
21 March 2018

Preparation is all important. You cannot prepare enough.

First question: how long do you have? Your reading must be tailored to your time frame. Our local open mic sessions are composed of 3 minute slots. I choose poems or prose passages that can be read in 2 minutes to 2 and a half minutes. Time passes very quickly at the podium. Well-prepared, you will not over-run your time. Read your piece out loud and time it. If you can record it, do so. Listen to it as you read it. Do you feel comfortable with it? If so, go ahead with the reading. If you feel uncomfortable, or awkward, if you feel that the piece isn’t right, then choose another piece. Comfort is everything. Familiarity with reading the piece and with listening to your own voice will be of great comfort to you. You will step up there knowing you can do it, not wondering if you can do it.

Second question: are you familiar with the room and the mechanics of the room? If so, no problem. If not, take the time to visit the space in which you will read. Attend an earlier session. Visit one afternoon when nobody is there. It is easier to read in a familiar place than an unfamiliar one. Check out the room in advance. The mechanics are also important. How many will be in the audience? Will you need a microphone? Will you be expected to project your own natural speaking voice? Is there a podium? A reading table? Will you be sitting or standing?  Knowing this in advance reduces nerves and gives you practical answers and takes away both nerves and the fear of the unknown. Mechanics are important. Familiarize yourself with the mic. Is there an assistant to help? Think height and adjustment and remember, if you start your reading with necessary adjustments, this will take time out of your reading. Always leave that little extra space.

Third question: Is someone introducing you or are you expected to introduce yourself? If the former, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If the latter, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If you are doing your own introduction, then write it out in advance and read it out in advance. Treat it like a part of reading and include it in your reading time. Whatever you don’t, don’t start by explaining what you are going to read: this wastes time. Your work should speak for itself. If you are very confident, you can ad lib, but this takes precious time away from your reading space.  If you are not confident, then stick to your text, and plan and time your text in advance.

Fourth question: how will you choose your text? My suggestion is that you apply to your choice of text exactly the techniques that you use when writing and revising your text. (a) which chapter pleases you most? (b) you must feel joy: which sections give you the most joy? (c) which words, which sequences spark joy? I would also ask whether you want to read a single long text or a sequence of smaller texts. That is your choice. Again, comfort is the key word. If you are not comfortable reading out the F word in public, do not choose a passage that is filled with F words: your discomfort will transfer to the audience. Select a couple of passages, read them out loud, time them … then concentrate on one passage (longer) or a contrasting or complementary set of passages (shorter).

Example: Last Sunday, I was gifted a twenty minute reading slot. I chose six short pieces of prose that formed two distinct but complementary sequences. The total reading time was 17 mins and 30 secs. I was introduced, then read. I did some ad libs (I always do, sorry). I shuffled feet and pages. Total time of the videoed sequence 23 minutes, of which the intro, my slow arrival, and my initial sorting took about 3 mins. And yes, I was nervous. You could see my hands shaking and the pages waving up and down! I knew the audience, and I knew there was a possibility that young children might be present. They weren’t. So I read my F-word story … and yes, it’s full of F-words. I had another story, much gentler, in reserve. Just in case. If you are an experienced reader, you can respond to the audience and change at the last second. If you are not, stick to the plan.

Apologia

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Apologia pro vita mea
(for Ana)

          Late last night, I opened Alistair Macleod’s book The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and I re-read the first story. I was soon dabbing my eyes with a tissue and blowing my nose.

This morning, I want to destroy everything I have written. I know I don’t possess the verbal and emotional genius of the great writers and I sense that I cannot write like them. Graduate school taught me to be passive, not active, and to write impersonally, choking every emotion when I write. Academia also taught me how to kiss and how to run away with my thirty silver pence. “Never challenge the status quo,” my professors told me. “Learn the rules and disobey them at your peril.”

But here, in this private space where I create and re-create, there are no rules. The enemy is not clear any more and the fight is not one of black against white. It is rather a choice between diminishing shades of grey, and all cats are grey in the gathering dark that storms against my closing mind. Should I destroy all my writing? I won’t be the first to do so; nor would I be the last. And I won’t be the first or the last to destroy myself either. Intellectual, academic, and creative suicide: as total as the suicide of the flesh.

I carry on my back the names of those who have gone on before me as if they were a pile of heavy stones packed into a rucksack that I carry up a steep hill, day after day, only to find myself, next morning, starting at the bottom once again. But this is not the point: the point is that if I cannot write like the great writers, how can I write?

I think of Mikhail Bakhtin and his cronotopos, man’s dialog with his time and his place. I have no roots, no memories, and that is where my stories must start: in the loss of self, the loss of place, the loss of everything. I was uprooted at an early age, soon lost my foundations, and only survival mattered.

I look at the first page of one of my manuscripts. My writing manifesto is clear before me: “And this is how I remember my childhood,” I read. “Flashes of fragmented memory frozen like those black and white publicity photos I saw as a child in the local cinema. If I hold the scene long enough in my mind, it flourishes and the figures speak and come back to life.”

I am aware of the words of T. S. Eliot that “every attempt / is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / because one has only learnt to get the better of words / for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / one is no longer disposed to say it” (East Coker).

Are these stories an exercise in creativity or are they a remembrance of things past? How accurate is memory? Do we recall things just as they happened? Or do we weave new fancies? In other words, are my inner photographs real photographs or have they already been tinted and tainted by the heavy hand of creativity and falseness?

The truth is that I can no longer tell fact from fiction. Perhaps it was all a dream, a nightmare, rather, something that I just imagined. And perhaps every word of it is true.

I no longer know.

Herring Bones

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Herring Bones

Last winter, a heavy snowfall
toppled the garden wall.
Bricks and mortar now litter
the grass in untidy piles.

I take my child by an arm
and a leg and swing her round,
faster and faster till, dizzy,
she calls ‘no more’,
and I let her go.

She can hardly stand,
staggers like her grandfather
who lurches around the garden
leaning on a walking stick.

 He jabs at the red-brick wall
he wants me to rebuild
and claws,
with twisted fingers,
at words,
bricks laid
like herring bones
and
caught in his throat.

Wednesday Workshop: Editing Plus

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Editing Plus
Wednesday Workshop
14 March 2018

We all need a second pair of eyes whether we are editing our own work or when we edit the work of others. Clearly,  there are several levels (layers is also a good word) at which editing can place.

1. Self-editing: I think we are better off creating the work first and editing it afterwards. However, whether we like it or not, self-editing, and even self-censorship, often takes place during the act of creation as we shuffle sentences, change words, and search for appropriate metaphors. Finish the first draft. When the piece has been drafted, we can look at editing it. I very much like the idea of going to an unfamiliar place so that we re-read in an unfamiliar setting. If familiarity breeds contempt, then unfamiliarity can often breed better editing. That is why I like to leave pieces fallow for a while, before returning to them.

2. Self-editing: One of the best forms of self-editing for me is publishing work on my blog or reading it at an open mic session. When I publish on my blog, I think of the offering, be it prose, poetry, memoir, or criticism, in terms of the ‘other’, those other eyes that will read it. When I read at an open mic session, I think of the people who will hear my spoken word. In both cases, I usually make changes in response to the audience and the perceived audience. Sometimes I make these changes as I read … realizing as I speak my offering that certain phrases are better said in a different fashion or left out altogether. Open Mic readings: I always read my offering aloud and time it before I read in public. Viva Voce is the best way, in my opinion, to catch errors in rhythm and to improve word usage.

3. BETA Readers: Many of my friends use BETA readers, trusted friends who read and criticize their work in early format. I like this idea, but I trust very few readers. Those I do trust are often too busy with their own writing to have time for consistent BETA reading.  Trust is a key issue here. If you have a good, tried and trusted BETA reader, shower them with gifts, buy them presents, keep them by your side.

4. Copy Editing: This comes at several levels that vary from the friend who corrects the occasional error, to the copy editor who fine combs your work and corrects grammar, accuracy, and punctuation. Good copy editors rarely work for free. However, it is well worth while to prepare a manuscript with great care, and some cost, before sending it away, especially to a professional publishing house. Again, trust is an important issue here.

5. Structural Editing: The editor who can deal competently with structural issues is both rare and priceless. We often see and hear how brutal editing can be, both on the writer and the text. While structural editing  can be destructive, both to the text and the writer, if well done, it can be very constructive. I think of Ezra Pound’s notes and changes to Eliot’s Waste Land as an example of exemplary editing. There are many others.

6. Editing and Publishing: I know of authors whose first books were edited heavily by the presses that published them. I also know that in some cases they never published again and in other cases they were frozen into a ‘what will the editor say mode’ that disabled their creativity enormously. Editing can be destructive as well as constructive. Alas, if we want that elusive publication, sometimes our professional editors give us very little choice. Publish or Perish + Change OR Else = an uncomfortable situation in the course of which the original wok can change shape in ways the author cannot control. This is doubly true if the writer belongs to the Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth school. And remember, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder who just happens to be editing and then offering to publish your work.

This is an interesting topic and there is so much more to say. I hope I haven’t wasted too much of your time with this.
Roger,
waiting for the snow to arrive,
in Island View.