Wednesday Workshop: Balancing the Books

 

15 May 2002 Pre-Rimouski 035

Wednesday Workshop
25 April 2018
Balancing the Books

Two days ago, I wrote the following lines to one of the writing groups of which I am a member.
“Today, 23 April 2018, is World Book Day. We not only celebrate the world of books, but also the death date of three great authors. Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and the Inca Garcilasso de la Vega. Three great writers, two continents, two languages, three if you include the Quechua from which the Inca Garcilasso translated his Comentarios Reales. The Inca Garcilasso didn’t actually translate the Comentarios Reales, for the originals were part of an oral tradition in a culture that lacked handwriting. Hence they were never written down. His mother was an Incan Princess and his father a conquistador. His mother kept the Incan culture and memories alive and it was from the oral traditions of his family (one side of it) that the Comentarios Reales were born. It was recognized in its day as one of the greatest books to come from one of the first outstanding writers with indigenous roots. Hence his place on the pedestal alongside the other two greats. All three died on 23 April 1613, the same date, but not the same day. Two different calendars were present in Europe: the old Julian and the more modern Gregorian … same date, but thirteen days apart.”
I knew long ago that I did not have the strength and stamina to make a living as a professional writer. I knew too that I could not put my beloved and my family through the strain of maybe, or maybe not, surviving financially on a creative writer’s income. I wanted to be an artistic writer, a poet above all, art for art’s sake, not just a commercial writer, writing adverts for a living, or pandering to the lusts of the baying evening newspaper crowd.
In order to support and care for my family I had to make money and balance the books. Rather than writing full time, therefore, I chose a career in academia. My career as an academic led to 90 research articles, mainly in my specialized field of Golden Age Spanish Literature, 70 book reviews, the publication, in book form, of part of my doctoral thesis, and an online bibliography, prepared initially thanks to the loving care of my beloved, and now turned, thanks to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, into a searchable data base.

In addition to my normal course load, I also committed to twenty-five years of unpaid, voluntary overload teaching. I did this in order to maintain a small, understaffed program in a tiny Maritime university. I also had a long-term coaching career (Rugby) at club, provincial, regional, and national levels, and a commitment, at various times, to various editorial positions in 14 local, regional, national and international journals. My creative writing career has understandably suffered because of this commitment to research, teaching, editing, and coaching. In spite of that, while researching and teaching full-time, I was still able, with the help of family and friends, to publish 10 poetry books, 11 poetry chapbooks, 12 short stories and 130 plus poems in 20 Canadian (and other) journals. There was very little money in any this, other than my salary as a tenured professor, and I know only too well that to have been a full time, creative writer and to have maintained a house and a family without recourse to a second career would have been impossible.
Now that I have retired from university teaching, I can finally engage full time in creative writing. In my part-time creative writing career, maintained while I worked in academia, I kept a journal and made sure I spent at least one hour a day writing creatively, even if I had to get up early to do so. This resulted in a couple of poetry books with small presses and later a series of self-published poetry books that doubled with various festivals and other writing sequences. My poetry books never sold well, and there is very little money in poetry anyway, so when I started self-publishing, I determined to give my books away to friends and well-wishers who were interested in what I was writing. In retirement, I discovered CreateSpace and I now have thirteen books up on Amazon and Kindle. However, I am a writer and an academic, not a salesman and a marketing manager. As a result, I haven’t marketed myself and no, I haven’t sold many books. Self-promotion does not appear to be my strong point.
Last year, as Canada reached it’s 150th birthday, a birthday that ignores the fact that the country has existed for much longer than 150 years and that our indigenous people have lived here for 10,000 years or more, without any spectacular celebrations, questions were asked to selected writers about our Canadian Culture. What do we love most about Canadian Culture, was one such question. I gave the following brief answer: “Canadian Culture allows a person like myself, born in Wales, and speaking English, French and Spanish, to live and write in Canada about Wales, England, France, Mexico, Spain, and my adopted homeland. However, the literary and cultural industry boasts of our international character while almost totally ignoring me and writers like me. Those who guard the gates of the literary world ignore the self-published (often referring to us as adherents to what they term the ‘vanity press’) and they constantly belittle and put down those who have not progressed in the ways that they, as literary gate-keepers, find acceptable.”
Do I care? Of course I care. That is why I am writing this and why I will continue to write. Will anyone read this and take any notice? I doubt it. Will anyone take any action as a result of this tiny pebble cast into a Great Canadian Lake? I really, really doubt it. I can see the shoulder shrugging now as the eye-brows raise themselves slightly and the reject piles beckon. Will literary Canada keep staring at its own belly button and congratulating itself on its wonderful cultural opportunities for self-expression in writing? I guess it will. Will things change for artists on the periphery, for struggling artists, for artists like myself who with great difficulty have fought throughout their lives to continue with their creative writing while balancing the family books? I doubt it very, very much indeed.
But I am here, as others are here. Together, we have a voice. I would like it to become a  very powerful voice. This voice has long been side-lined by the literary establishment and the institutions. But we are many. And I too have a dream: it is that one day, we independent publishers, we self-publishers, will raise up our voices, and one day we will be heard.

Movie rights to a sonnet

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Movie rights to a sonnet

Meg Sorick wrote on my blog yesterday and suggested that poetry had flown out of our world.  Here are her words: “Poets used to be rock stars. And not that I feel like poetry has fallen from popularity, because Lord knows it’s all over the place in social media and the blogging world. But I cannot think of one famous contemporary poet. And I’m not talking about famous people who also write poetry. How did that happen?”

Meg’s is a very acute observation. My reply follows. I have changed it slightly from my reply on yesterday’s blog, expanding and annotating it.

“You raise a series of major questions, Meg, ones I have been thinking about for a long time. What is poetry? Has it vanished from our contemporary world? Is poetry as important as it was? If not, why not?”

I will begin with one of my favorite jokes. I made it as an author and a poet: ‘I cannot wait to be offered the movie rights for one of my sonnets.’ Movie rights to a sonnet: beautiful. I love it.

Baltasar Gracián, writing in Seventeenth Century Spain, penned the following: “Lo bueno, breve, dos veces bueno.” What is good and brief is twice as good.

I quote Baltasar Gracián for several reasons. Above all, what he wrote in the 1600’s is still true today. Perhaps, in this age of tweets, twitter, and sound bytes, it is more relevant than ever. Poetry: keep it short. Keep it brief. I would add one more piece of advice: make it memorable.

The rhetorical tools of poetry have never really changed. Reduced to their minima, they are metaphor, witticisms, snappy word plays, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, brevity, and cutting, memorable discourse.

Today, this is the language of advertisement, sound byte, twitter, tweets, labeling. Poetry hasn’t vanished: it has descended to its lowest common rhetorical denominators and today it serves a different purpose.

Trump, for example, is a magnificent poet. He relabels and reclassifies the world in oh-so-memorable epithets according to his own world-view and self-interpretation. As a destroyer and re-creator of language, he is magnificent. We may not like him. We may not always understand him, but we doubt and mock, to our peril, his poetic abilities and his abilities to create narrative and myth in sharp, memorable language.

Rap and hip-hop have also revitalized and politicized language. Poetry is not dead: it has taken to the street where it blends with twitter and tweet. Poetry is not dead: it is regenerating.

Poetry, in our contemporary world, has lost many things. Above all it has lost what the academic critics call The Grand Myth or the Grand Narrative. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye’s book on literature and the bible, the Canadian critic shows how English literature is dependent on the bible. The bible: a code, a poetic language spoken by all great poets. I would suggest that we have now lost that great code and we are no longer bound, in poetry at least, by biblical conventions.

We can say the same of other great codes, The Elizabethan World Picture, The Great Chain of Being, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Courtly Love … codes come and go. They wander the hillsides like lost sheep. They migrate like people.

Migrate like people: a lucky phrase, plucked from the air, yet oh so true. Migrants, emigrants, immigrants: displaced people, we wander the physical world, each with our own set of cultural baggage. Dissatisfied people: we have left one place to travel to another and are unhappy in both. And remember, there are regional migrants, workplace migrants, weather migrants … wanderers all, they have no time to put down roots, to settle into a code of culture.

Ut populi, poesis / as people, so poetry: fragmented poetry, poetry linked to the intensely personal, poetry that reaches out to friend and family but does not extend to a universal code of language, culture, or being … in our current world, how could it?

We few, we happy few, we band of siblings, we cultured poets … we are the forgotten voices of the ivory tower, of an ivy-league academia. We have become immersed in the past, in our own navel-gazing, in the never-never land of things that probably never were and definitely will never again be.

Sitting at our computers, at our desks, at our kitchen tables, we will never connect with the rhythms of the street, of the soup kitchen, of poverty, of bag-ladies, of old men sitting outside the supermarket, their Tim Hortons cups in their hands, hoping for, begging for money. Migrants we may be, but migrating from where, to where, and why? Is my migration similar to your migration? I very much doubt it. Yet, in one way or another, each of us is a migrant. And all migrants pack their own bags carrying with them their memories, their myths, and all too often their native language.

You want poetry? Get out among the gente perduta, the lost people, the garbage cans, the back alleys, the panhandlers. Mix with the migrants. Stand for an hour at the traffic lights with your hand held out to stopped cars whose drivers roll up the windows, lock all the doors, hold their noses, and look the other way.

The nymphs and shepherds of our inner cities wear garbage bags to keep out the rain. They panhandle. They sleep at night in cardboard castles. They lodge in shop doorways. They sleep, poor shepherds and shepherdesses, on park benches. They shoot themselves full of dope with shared, blunt needles. They smoke dope. Drink alcohol from shared bottles. They fight so as not to share that one remaining bottle that they call their own.

Poetry is the voice of the deprived, of the indigenous, of the migrant, of the once-rich toppled from their jobs and left to drown in the gutter. Poetry is the voice of the left out, the abandoned, the depressed, the oppressed. It is the rust of the rust belt, the grind of locked gears, the language of muddled, mixed-up fears.

Poetry uses the same devices as it always did. As it always will. Like water, it flows. It seeks its own levels. It wears away stone. It rises to drown us. It carries our verbal arks, our cultural arks, our Noah’s arks, and it bears us, each and every one of us, into our dreams, out of our dreams, into our realities, into the worlds it creates for us, into the dreams it allows us to dream, into the realities of our everyday nightmares.

Poetry is the rediscovery of ourselves, our voices, our language. Poetry is what gives meaning to our lives, all of our lives. It is what makes us, even now, sit up, and listen, and learn, and live.

Violet

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Almas de violeta, an early poetry book by Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Nobel winning poet, was first published in violet ink. I have a copy of his complete works, Obras completas, in which those early poems still appear in purple, or violet, rather, to match the color of the title. He published poems in green ink, too, but personally I prefer purple. Bruised clouds in an evening sky, dark depths of a rainbow’s glow, Northern Lights at the deep end of their descending scale … or is it just a desire to be different … slightly different, as if that one thing, the color of my ink, might tip the scales and turn me from mediocre to celebrity with a wave of a violet wand or the click of a pair of ink-stained fingers.

What else is there to do, other than meditate and walk your fingers across the keyboard, when rain mingles with snow and grey and white streaks fall at faster, slower rates to trace a network across window, trees, and garden? JRJ, Juan Ramón Jiménez, forgotten now by all but the scholars who read and teach him to the few ardent graduate students who clutter the ivy covered halls of academia and blow away the dry dust that settles on unused books when they languish on library shelves. Is that what will become of us, we poor poets of today? Are we to be reduced to the polvo seco de tesis doctoral / the dry dust of a doctoral thesis, as my good friend José María Valverde once wrote?

I guess the dry dust of a doctoral thesis is better than the silence of unturned pages, the empty sands of the voiceless desert, the dunes of forgetfulness shifting here and there along a sea-shore swept by shiftless winds. Forgetfulness: we must first be read … only then can we discarded and forgotten. And who will read us? Who will emerge from their twitter and their tweets to open a book and lift the written word from the page and carry it into their hearts so it can be placed on the soul’s altar and surrounded by incense and flowers?

Purple ink on a purple page, the violence of violet, life with it’s doldrums and purple patches, the cat curled up in its basket, one paw out to test the weather on this rainy, snowy day, when coffee appears at my elbow, as if by magic, and words seek sanctuary in a ritual flow of  song.

Wednesday Workshop: Attending a Reading

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Wednesday Workhop
Wednesday, 04 April 2018
Attending a Reading

            Number one piece of advice: don’t arrive late. I thought last night’s reading at the Oromocto Public Library began at 7:00 pm. I used Google maps to locate the library and I left plenty of time to get to there early. The Oromocto Public Library is just off the main road, tucked sideways on, so you are driving past it before you see it. I didn’t see it.

            I drove to the first roundabout, went straight through that, looked again: no library where the library ought to be. So I drove to the second roundabout. Still no library, and now I was running out of road space and the highway beckoned. So, I went right around the second roundabout, scanning both sides of  the road for the library as I drove. Still no library. I returned to the first roundabout, went right around it, drove back to the second roundabout … I was becoming fixated on driving in circles … then back to the first again.

            Just past the first roundabout, I spotted a gas station. I pulled over to ask the way to the library and there it was, just in front of me, right beside the gas station, facing the new Japanese restaurant, and sideways on to the road. There was one parking spot left and I took it.

            When I got inside, the library was very silent. I asked directions to the reading room and was directed to the back of the building. The reader stood before the audience, with the podium at his back, and was already talking. It was 6:50 pm. “Wow,” I thought. “He must have started early.”

            I have known Chuck Bowie, the invited reader, for several years and we share the same writer’s group, a group which he organized. He invited me to join it and we meet regularly (there are seven of us), once a week, on Tuesdays. Regularly: this is Canada … regularly, when it isn’t snowing, when there’s no icy rain, when the temperature is above -30C, when the wind doesn’t threaten to blow the car off the road … regularly, you know what I mean. There are usually three or four of us at each meeting.

            “There’s Roger,” Chuck announced my presence as soon as he saw me.  The audience turned round and several people whom I knew gave me a smile and a wave. There were no vacant chairs. A lady at the back gave me hers and went to fetch another one for herself. I found out later that she was the organizer and I thanked her profusely for her generosity.

            Chuck, as I found out later, had started at 6:30 and was well into his stride. He mixed anecdotes from his stories with advice about writing. As I was settling, he was explaining how much research he had done into wine and wine growing for the winery scenes in his four Donovan novels (the series is called Donovan: Thief for Hire). I love wine and I have visited several excellent vineyards in Rueda and La Seca (Spain). Chuck’s deep knowledge of the vines impressed me. “Roots,” he told us, “sometimes going down twenty-one to twenty-four feet.”

            I thought of the Spanish wines with their denominations of Old Vines, Reserva, Gran Reserva as Chuck dragged me from the outside world to the inside world of the winery laboratory where the crime had taken place. Then he read an excerpt from his novel, four or five pages that illustrated the use to which he had put his knowledge of the vines (Book Four of the series, Body on the Underwater Road).

            Chuck then talked about writing from memory (Rumania) and emphasized that memory alone was not enough. Memory gives atmosphere but accurate details come from many places, including the ubiquitous, omnipresent, and virtually omniscient Google search. Thus, as he explained, cum grano salis, the churches in Rumania are circular, constructed that way “so the devil may not corner you.”

            From memory and Rumania, he moved to Manchester Gangs in the 1980’s (Book Three: Steal It All), a simple anecdote about how the neighborhood protection racket protected the local families who in turn protected the criminals, while all crime was committed outside the area. Chuck’s ability to turn a table-top conversation into the idea for a story, or in this case, a full novel, is exemplary. How many creative seeds are scattered on stony ground, never to come to full fruition?

            Violence can play a meaningful role in the crime thriller but it has to be meaningful, and it must be accurate. Chuck spent some time explaining how he had researched guns and armaments so that the right weapons would always be carried by the right people and used in correct fashion at the right time. He talked a little about entry and exit wounds and I had visions of Rumpole, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, stabbing a ketchup filled sponge in the kitchen of his suburban home on The Gloucester Road, to see how the stains spattered, much to the disgust of She-who-must-be-obeyed.

            Chuck’s next book, the fourth in the Donovan series, Donovan: Thief for Hire, is called Body on the Underwater Road. Much of this story takes place in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and Chuck explained how he had scouted out the local area and, in particular, the ‘underwater road’ from the mainland to Minister’s Island. The Fundy Tides, the highest in the world, cause the roadway to disappear at high tide, thus making the island inaccessible for long stretches of time. It also makes the underwater road a natural fishing weir for dead bodies. This research work involved live interviews with the local RCMP and others on the movement of bodies in the Fundy Tides, where would they end up if they were inserted into the water at place A, B, or C. That sort of thing.

            Chuck ended with a request for questions and the audience announced their own engagement by asking questions on how to develop characters, how to name characters, how to thread narrative arcs, and on how much rewriting is necessary if an arc goes wrong. The answer: “Lots. Sometimes you need to abandon the arc completely; other times, you must rewrite it from top to tail. But cave scriptor / writer beware: if you make a change on page 272, make sure that it checks out all he way backwards, page by page, back to the book’s beginning on page 1.”

            The use of humor within a thriller series serves to illustrate the layers of complexity that the characters manifest. The insertion of this element serves notice that genre writers who are serious about their craft write with the intention of elevating words, their sense, and their impact on the discerning reader. It also serves to layer the novel with additional meaning. Such layers of complexity spark joy in the writer.

            An interesting evening, then. With some old friendships renewed and some words of wisdom cast before an appreciative audience by the Atlantic Provinces Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada and local Fredericton author, Chuck Bowie.  I attach his web page. Do some research: check it out.  http://www.chuckbowie.ca

Painting credit: Roger Moore. Fundy Weir Poles (acrylic), St. Andrews, NB.

Why I Write

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Why I Write

In the online creative writing course that I am currently taking, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion.  Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows. Note: this is the first of three planned statements. The second, on Joan Didion, will appear tomorrow on my next Wednesday’s Workshop.

George Orwell … where do I begin?

Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.

Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.

Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and camerasto flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a cool night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or specialized port or a welcome New Zealand Pinot Noir, also has its attractions.

This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.

However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong,  most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether I should start that first paragraph all over, just once more.

Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated.

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.

Velásquez

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Portraits by Velásquez

 Velásquez sought asylum in Canada.
He set up his studio on the shore at Glace Bay.

He photographed short, stunted people
miners who worked underground
mining Cape Breton coal.

He waited while they shook or coughed,
had patience till they were still, then click.
When he had captured their spirits,
he blew up their photos to NHL size.

Slack jaws, puffy eyes:
“Man’s greatest sin
is having been born,”
one sighs.

Another seeks himself
through inner darkness.
He probes dark galleries
with Davy Lamps for eyes.
He finds no gold,
just seams of coal
that cling and clot his lungs.

Velásquez waits
for his cough to stop
and click he’s got him.
Sally Ann Second Hand clothes
lay siege to his tortured flesh.

“Life is a snap,”
Velásquez cries.
“And every photograph
a lie.”