Wednesday Workshop: Codification

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Codification
Wednesday Workshop
30 May 2018

For me, it is vital to see how others read and interpret my work … what comes across, what doesn’t, how things are understood and read, sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. It is always easy to pick out some favorite phrases. However, deciphering, interpreting, and then reacting to, a poem’s inner code, is a very different matter.

I love the cut and thrust of dialog … I was at our Tuesday night writing group meeting last night from 7-9:30 pm and we had a great time, back and forth across the table pecking, like wild birds perched on a literary feeder, at each others’ texts. My own texts are thickly layered and highly codified and I have become very interested in the theory of literary codification.

My own ideas are a development of those of Northrop Frye as he expressed them in The Great Code. When we lose our common code, to what extent do we need to explain a private one? This is of great import to Frye’s studies on William Blake, perhaps (in spite of his seeming simplicity in certain poems) one of the most difficult of English poets.

Perhaps the answer lies in Karl Jung’s theories on the racial subconscious: that we all share deep, (human) racial symbols that transcend words and often appear as symbols and images. If this is true, then we communicate, at a non-speech level, through metaphor and symbol, and that is more powerful and outreaching than linear language, however well and clearly codified it may be.

This emphasis on symbol, image, and metaphor leads us, of course, into surrealism, free writing, concrete poetry, sound poetry, and all those efforts to abandon the linear and reach into the subconscious roots of ‘that which binds us together as human beings’ … in my humanistic theories, to find the links that behind is more productive than the reinforce the fears and misbeliefs that separate. Alas, not everyone thinks that way in the literary world, and private codes can easily be used as wedges to force people apart.

We need codes, preferably codes that we can share. The question is, how explicit would we be, as writers, in explaining those codes? How closely should we imitate the writing codes of other people?

The eternal mystery of Aladdin’s Lamp: “New codes for old.” And don’t forget the magic words “Open Sesame.”

Ah, the joys of codification.

Commentary
This is my first post for some time, ten days in fact, 20 May. No excuses other than other commitments: to the WFNB, to my online poetry course, to my physical writing workshops, to my own creative condition … I am creating furiously at present. Codification is something that has interested me for some time: the Biblical Code, The Western Tradition, Courtly Love, the Icy Fires of Petrarchism, Romanticism,  Impressionism, Expressionsim, Surrealism. Modernism, Post-Modernism … the -isms, once started, are apparently endless. All of these -isms spiral round the ideas of verbal codes. In codification, I would like to start a discussion on what these codes are, how they affect us, what do they mean, especially when they can be so totally personal. By all means, join the discussion: what do you mean by codes? How do you use them? How do you interpret the codes of other people?

Fear

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A List of Fears
(exercise: tick all that apply)

of failure
of success
of inadequacy
of being caught short
of being found out
of the blank page
of revealing intimate details
of feeling stupid
of typos or punctuation or bad grammar
of presumption
of being laughed at
of new things or old things
of something borrowed
of new topics or new methods
of research or hard work or perfection
of rejection or dejection or ejection
of losing yourself or finding yourself
of caring or not caring
of the unknown or the unknowable
of peer pressure
of speaking out loud
of being unable to write like …
of being wrong or right
of political or social consequences
of free speech
of hurting others
of being misunderstood or understood
of large or small audiences
of clothing or mechanical failure
of starting or finishing or writer’s block
of having nothing to say
of having nothing worthwhile to say

fear of fear

Commentary:
Last Saturday, in Quispamsis, I facilitated a two hour workshop on things that writers fear. I began with a list of all the things that I have feared at various times during my writing career. This morning, I turned, with great trepidation, those fears into the list poem I reproduce above.  If you wish to discuss any of these fears, or add other fears of your own to the list, and remember, this is a list of writers’ fears, then please do so. I will be happy to enter into a dialog.
As for the fear of feeling stupid, I often offer this small piece of advice. It has been known to comfort those who actually have a fear of feeling stupid. (1) buy a small fluffy toy, preferably a Teddy Bear, that will fit into your pocket or purse. (2) christen that small fluffy toy with the name of Stupid. (3) you carry Stupid around with you all day knowing that you can put your hand in your pocket or purse and feel Stupid all day and nobody is going to know or care.
The moral of the story is this: when you can laugh at your fears, you fear them no more. And remember: you can stop feeling Stupid whenever you want to.

Looking Back

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Looking Back

Looking back on a wonderful weekend, the WFNB WordSpring in Quispamsis, I remember the highlights.

  1. Picking up Kerry-Lee Powell and driving with her to Quispamsis. Never has the road seemed so short, and rarely has time passed so quickly. Whether it’s our shared Welsh roots or the course I took with her online at Toronto, we had so much to talk about.
  2. Arriving to find so many friends and all of them so willing to help with books and luggage and getting me to my room. Special mentions: Jeremy Gilmer‘s hug on arriving, Zev Bagel‘s offer to help with luggage, Chuck Bowie‘s warm presence and guiding hand, Cathy Fynn‘s hug and firm control of registration and checking in, and many others, some of whose names will appear bit by bit.
  3. Settling into the room was easy.  Then it was a case of preparing for the first workshop (The Sense of an Ending) that started at four and was due to run until five. I went early to the room and met the participants as they arrived. My first surprise: Barb Fullerton, another member of our online Toronto course, announced her presence with a warm smile and greeting. We had chatted online for eight weeks and now she was here at my workshop. Wonderful. Starting the spring conference with a workshop on endings seemed very inappropriate, until I remembered my T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end …” The circularity of time and the intricate relationship of the end to the middle to the beginning … it made a great central theme for the workshop.
  4. The group was composed of many excellent writers and I was able to mention many of them by name. In addition to  some of those already highlighted above [Chuck, Jeremy, Kerry-LeeZev, Chuck] , Ana Watts, Jane Tims, Neil Sampson, and Terry Armstrong stood out and I urged people to circulate during the mobile, inter-active session, meet these writers, and talk to them about their undoubted finishing skills.
  5. Time passed too quickly and we found that an hour was not enough. No problem, I checked with Cathy and we kept going for another fifty minutes in a seamless transition of lengthened workouts.
  6. Friday night passed in a flurry of conversation in the hotel restaurant, coffee house, and bar. Chuck (the TWUC Atlantic Representative) introduced me to Marjorie Doyle, the Chair of TWUC and our guest speaker for the banquet, and we held a delightful, wide-ranging conversation on literary values and travels in Catalonia.
  7. Saturday morning saw the advent of my second workshop, this one entitled The Black Ink of Fear. This workshop was by request and I was more than a little afraid of how I would handle it. I circulated my own Fear Document  and invited people to read it. Victor, my Australian friend, found his sheet was upside down and amazed the room by standing on his head, to much applause, as he read it the right way up. This clearly broke the ice and we employed Chaos Theory to good effect by doing absolutely nothing in Chaotic Fashion and getting everywhere.
  8. Lunch was a delightful selection from Chef’s Table (Sussex) and Chuck Bowie played a major role in keeping me a seat (I arrived late) and getting me settled (thank you again, Chuck).
  9. Worn out after lunch, I missed the afternoon’s sessions and took to my bed in traditional Spanish fashion enjoying a well-earned, rather extended siesta from 2-5 pm.
  10. Supper was at 6:00 pm and I was truly honored when Jeremy Gilmer read my poem Inundation that I wrote on May 6, just when the St. John River flooding was at its worst downstream below Fredericton. We dedicated our thoughts and prayers to the people in Saint John and Quispamsis still affected by the now diminishing waters. It was a double honor when I was invited to say a traditional Welsh Grace, in Welsh, followed by an English translation: “Thanks be to the lord for good food and even better friends.”
  11. My weekend’s activities were not yet over and I received an award (3rd place in the David Adams Richards’ Prose Competition for my short story collection Devil’s Kitchen). I read in a thick Welsh accent a short piece of Flash Fiction from this collection, called Teeth. For some strange reason that I could not fathom, the room was highly amused by this true story of domestic bliss.
  12. Saturday night and we retired to the bar where a small group of us Marie, Louise, Angèle, John, Andrea, and I stayed up and sang to John’s marvelous harmonica and guitar music until one thirty am. Contrary to malicious rumors spread by unknown sources, not mentioned by name, we did not sing rugby songs, but a marvelous mix of Irish ballads, Newfoundland songs, Acadian and French chansons, and contemporary songs by internationally acclaimed singers, many of whom might not, midnight being long past, have recognized their own music.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Later that Sunday morning, we made our sad farewells and Kerry-Lee and I headed back down the road to Fredericton where we arrived after what what seemed to be about five minutes driving (at well below the speed limit). I dropped Kerry-Lee off then stopped at the Happy Baker for cakes and croissants. These I presented to my beloved for Mother’s Day. We shared them over hot coffee … and that was that.

 

Teeth

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Teeth

Lunchtime.

Tiggy opens a can of tom8to soup and heats it on the stove. She slices the remains of yesterday’s loaf of bread into one inch cubes and fries them in olive oil and garlic. Tom8to soup with croutons. Then she puts two slices of bread in the toaster. Her father will only eat toast soaked in butter and layered with Marmite when he eats tomahto soup.

“Lunch is ready,” she calls out.

The black American Cocker Spaniel, bought by Tiggy’s late mother, in a moment of madness, by telephone, unseen, camps in the kitchen. It nests at the far end of the table, by the stove, and defends its territory with warning growls and a snapping of yellowed teeth. Tiggy will not go near the dog.

“Lunch is ready,” Tiggy calls out, a little bit louder. Dog, as they call him, growls and clatters its teeth. It has hidden a treasure in the folds of its old, gray comfort blanket, and guards it with the fierce, loving worry of a dragon protecting its golden hoard.

Tiggy’s father enters the kitchen as she places the soup on the table.

“I’m not ready to eat. Put it back in the pot.”

“What’s wrong, dad? I thought you were hungry.”

“My teeth,” he mumbles through a mouthful of pink gums. “I can’t find my teeth.”

“Where on earth did you put them?”

“I don’t know. If I knew where I’d put them, I wouldn’t have lost them.”

Tiggy’s father circulates round the kitchen opening drawers, lifting saucepan lids, and shaking empty yogurt pots to see if they’ll rattle.

“I can’t find them anywhere. I can’t eat lunch without my teeth.”

“But it’s only soup, dad, tom8to soup.”

“I don’t like tom8to soup. Your mother always made tomahto soup. Why can’t you be more like your mother?”

“Sorry, dad. I’ll call it tomahto soup, if that will make you feel better. But it’s still made out of tom8toes.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic. Help me find my teeth,” Tiggy’s father stomps towards the stove and Dog growls fiercely from its blanket as it guards its treasure.

“Take that, you dirty dog,” Tiggy’s father lashes out at Dog with his stick and cracks it across the head.

“Dad, stop that. It’s not Dog’s fault.”

Dog howls and spits out what it is chewing.

“There they are,” Tiggy’s father bends down, picks up his teeth, still hairy from the blanket and bubbly from Dog’s saliva. He pops his teeth into his mouth.

“That’s better,” he says, “now I can enjoy my lunch.”

Comment:

I included this short story, first published here on my blog on April 13, in Devil’s Kitchen, my new story collection that received third prize in the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick David Adams Richards Award for prose this year. I will probably read this tonight, at the awards ceremony that follows the banquet here in Quispamsis. It’s a beautiful morning, with sunshine streaming through my bedroom window. Hopefully a full day of sun and warmth will help decrease the already diminishing flood waters that have struck this area of the Lower Saint John River Valley.

Friday Fiction: Woof!

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Friday Fiction
11 May 2018

Woof!

The old man limped up to the check-out in Chapters and placed a brown, hand-made, Italian notebook on the counter.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” The check-out girl inquired.

“No.”

“Oh dear, what were you looking for?”

“My dog. I lost my dog.”

“Here? In the store? I can page security. I’m sure they’ll find it.”

“No, you mustn’t do that.”

“It’s no trouble. What color is it? Male or female? What breed? Large or small?”

“No, no. You’re much too kind. I lost him at home.”

“I lost my cat last week,” the check-out girl told him. “We searched everywhere for her.”

“I searched for my dog. All around the block. The dog usually comes home. This time he didn’t.”

“That doesn’t sound good. We never found our cat. My mom said the coyotes got her.”

“That’s not nice. We lost a cat.”

“To coyotes?”

“No. To mapaches, you know, to raccoons.”

“I miss my cat.”

“Me too. I also miss my dog.”

“I hope you find him.”

“I will. Oh, look. Here he is. Safe and sound.”

“I don’t see him,” the check-out girl looked around the store from her vantage point behind the cash register but didn’t see any dogs.

“His name’s Woof,” the old man pulled a small, fluffy, black-and-white dog out of his pocket and put him down on the counter. “Here, you have him. He’ll help make up for your lost cat.”

“I couldn’t possibly …”

“Don’t be silly.”

“No. Thank you very much. But I can’t take your dog. Here, put him back in your pocket. Oh, and that will be eight dollars exactly.”

The old man held out a five dollar bill, a toony, and a loony.

“Thank you,” the girl placed the money in the till and the little bell chimed happily. “Here’s your receipt.”

“Thank you,” the old man turned and limped away.

When he passed through the exit barrier, the alarm bell rang, but he took no notice. He walked rapidly to his car, close by in the wheelchair parking spot. He pressed the starter button, placed Woof on the passenger seat, and drove away before security arrived. As he drove, the old man extracted a brindle hound from his coat pocket and waved him proudly.

“Hello Woof,” he chuckled. “I want you to meet Winnie. Welcome to the family, Winnie. You’re free now.”

He put his hand in his other pocket and pulled out a fluffy Dalmatian, all white with black spots.

“And this is Pooh,” he announced. “Woof, Winnie, and Pooh: all broken out of prison. We’re one big happy family.”

He tooted the car horn and Woof, Winnie, and Pooh sat up straight on the front seat, wagged their tails, and woofed in time to the tooted horn.

Thursday Thoughts: Fear

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Thursday Thoughts
10 May 2018
Fear

Tomorrow I drive to Quispamsis to give a writers’ workshop on Fear. How do I tell the participants that I am afraid? I am afraid of the journey there by road. I am afraid of stray moose and deer, fleeing from the flooding, and standing, frightened, by the roadside, ready to panic and run at the car. I am afraid of getting lost, of losing my way, of being stranded in unknown streets with no outlet, no exit, no easy way home.

How do I tell them I am afraid of them. I am afraid of their knowledge. Many of them will know more than me. They are all unknown quantities, blank faces at present, with tumble dryer minds full of churning ideas, ideas that I have never had nor met. I am frightened. I have it in my head to call in sick, to say I am no longer available, to say I cannot come to orchestrate the music that I myself composed.

Stage fright, I suppose, these pre-conference  nerves that battered me all last night with their owls’ wings, leaving me sleepless, turning and tossing, cringing at my own lack of everything that I will tell them they should have.

Fear: a black monster that hides beneath the bed. I dare not leave arm or hand above the blankets in case the monster emerges and bites off the hand that feeds it with more fears. Fear: the shadow in the corner, looming over the bed, shaking me by the shoulder as I lie there, tormented. Fear: the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch, the hand that holds me by the ear or the scruff of the neck and drags me back into a shadowy past where monsters dwell and flicker in the candlelight, growing larger as I walk down white-washed halls.

Enough, no more: I am just as afraid now as I was before. Sleepless tonight, too tired tomorrow to care, I will leave early, hope for the best, wind my way carefully through deer strewn roads and perilous paths. When I get lost, and I probably will, I will ask the way. And all the time I’ll sing my favorite travel song: ‘I know where I’m going’ … even if I don’t.