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 God 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.

Wednesday Workshop: Recycling

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Wednesday Workshop
09 May 2018

Recycling 1

“You never know when you might need it,” my

grandfather said, finger-nails cracking red-
waxed parcel string. Bright sealing wax rained down
on the tablecloth, covering it with hard,
scarlet chips, wax cracked, tight knots emerging.
One by one, my grandfather first loosened
them, then sought the string’s free end, following
it along its snaking way from knot to
knot. Like Theseus following his twine
through the labyrinth below the palace, my
grandfather mused, hesitated, followed
the clues given him by the knotter’s mind.
Set free from its parceled knots and lashings,
he looped the string around his fingers and
tied the twine into a tight bow that he
stowed away for future use. Reef knots, slip
knots, sheep-shanks, bowlines, bowlines-on-the-bight,
he showed me how to tie them all. He taught
me too how to never tie granny knots.
“Never cut string with a knife: untie knots,”
strict his advice and followed still today.

Recycling 2

finger-nails
cracking red-waxed
parcel string

sealing wax rained down
staining snow white tablecloth
wax cracked
hard scarlet flakes
tight knots emerging
loosened

now seek the string’s
free end
then follow it
the way it snakes
linking knot to knot

muse
hesitate
unknot
the mind of she who tied

set free these
parceled knots and lashings
loop string around fingers
tie tight the twine

a child’s bow
to be stored
for future use

Recycling
Haiku 1
[7/11/7]

string yields blood-bright scarlet wax
a thread to lead through the parcel’s labyrinth
open now the magic box

Recycling
Haiku 2
[5/7/5]

blood-bright scarlet wax
a thread through the labyrinth
open now the box

Commentary:
There are many ways to recycle. All are valid. Some are more valid than others.

Inundation

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Inundation

Seven flashes of light, then raindrops start
falling, one, two, followed by a curtain
dragging its damp dishcloth wetness over
windows, walls. It pocks the river’s troubled
face. Rising waters surpass all levels
from former floods. Water pours into homes,
floods basements, climbs stairs. Drowned branches scratch at
second floor windows as they float by.  Old
people evacuate their houses, are
boated to higher ground, beloved pets
upon their laps, boxed and caged. Men wonder
when this will end while older people shake
their heads, saying that they have never seen
anything like it. Overhead the storm
gathers strength. Rain tumbles, bubbling in
brooks that slide downhill filling the river.
Grand Lake now extends from Freddy to Saint
John. Why has it come to this? What can we
do to appease the mindless river gods,
fall on our knees and pray, if so, for what?
Last year we suffered drought, forest fires,
wells running dry, wild life dying of thirst.
This year it is death by inundation.
Rain continues. Thunder rolls. The wind gets
up and drives waves high against house windows.
Lightning carves fresh scars across dark clouds.
We shuffle our feet, accepting our fate
with grimaces, hugs, kisses, and sad smiles.

Friday Fiction: Crave More

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Friday Fiction
04 May 2018
Crave More

Crave More: I hate those words. I always choose
a cart with the shop’s name on the handle.
I can handle that. I can’t stand a cart
that screams Crave More at me every time I
bend to place an item in the wire grid.
If stores were honest they would write Think More
and Crave Less
 on their shopping carts. I bet
that would cut into profits. Anyway,
there I was, in LaLaLand, leaning on
my cart, half asleep, when this ghost drifted
towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.
I need money for food.” I woke up from
my dream, looked at the ghost, tall, skeletal
thin, cavernous eyes and cheekbones sticking
out, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn with shame.
“Sorry,” came automatically. Then I
too felt shame. I looked at him again. “I
only carry plastic.” The excuse limped
heavily across the air between us.
I saw something in his eyes, I knew not
what, and turned away. As I walked away,
I added one hundred pound of muscle
to the scarecrow frame. Took forty years off
his age. Filled his body with joy and pride,
not shame, and remembered how he played, hard
and fast, but true. I ran the card index
of former players that I had coached through
my mind. I knew their moves, and attributes,
the way they played the game, strengths, weaknesses …
I remembered him holding up the Cup.
But I couldn’t remember his name. I
pushed the cart all over the store in a
frantic search for him. At the ATM
I withdrew cash. I could hand it to him.
I could tell him he had dropped it. I went
through a thousand scenes. I could invite him
to the snack bar. I could tell him to buy
what he needed and follow me. Check out
time, I would add his purchases to my
bill. I looked everywhere. He was nowhere
to be seen. One opportunity. One
chance. That’s all we get. Miss it, and we blow
the game. Grasp it and we medal with gold.

Commentary:
I have been experimenting with iambic pentameter, counting words and syllables on my fingers, tapping rhythms on the table, driving Clare crazy, and disturbing the cat. I have also disturbed my usual way of writing, for better or for worse I am not yet sure. Yesterday’s entertainment was to rewrite my brief story, Crave More, as a poem in pseudo-iambic pentameter. The measures seem to function and the rhythm and word count move both within the line and in the melodic, rhythmic phrasings that move between lines in a constant enjambement.

So, by all means let me know what you think of this experiment.  Here’s the link to the short story, also called Crave More. I would love to receive your opinions on narrative pseudo-iambic pentameter.

Revised Version:

Encounter

I was in the Superstore, leaning on
my cart, half asleep, when this ghost drifted
towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.
I need money for food.” I woke up from
my dream, looked at the ghost, tall, skeletal
thin, cavernous eyes and cheekbones sticking
out, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn with shame.
“Sorry,” came automatically. Then I
too felt shame. I looked at him again. “I
only carry plastic.” The excuse limped
heavily across the air between us.
I saw something in his eyes, I knew not
what, and turned away. As I walked away,
I added one hundred pound of muscle
to the scarecrow frame. Took forty years off
his age. Filled his body with joy and pride,
not shame, and remembered how he played, hard
and fast, but true. I ran the card index
of former players that I had coached through
my mind. I knew their moves, and attributes,
the way they played the game, strengths, weaknesses …
I remembered him holding up the Cup.
But I couldn’t remember his name. I
pushed the cart all over the store in a
frantic search for him. At the ATM
I withdrew cash. I could hand it to him.
I could tell him he had dropped it. I went
through a thousand scenes. I could invite him
to the snack bar. I could tell him to buy
what he needed and follow me. Check out
time, I would add his purchases to my
bill. I looked everywhere. He was nowhere
to be seen. One opportunity. One
chance. That’s all we get. Miss it, and we blow
the game. Grasp it and we medal with gold.

Comment to the Revision:

The first eight lines of the original poem set the scene. While I tried to use them to accentuate commercial exploitation of the customer’s potential for greed, Crave More, they are not essential to the story of the encounter. Meg noticed this and following her interaction I have revised the poem, eliminating those first eight lines.

This is an interesting and inter-active way to work. Thank you Meg!

Revisions

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Revisions

This carving may be gently touched

Original Version
(Pseudo-Jackpine-sonnet with a fifteenth line)

It doesn’t act like a bear. It has a
Spaniel’s stop. Its jaws are wedged in a
grin. Its tongue hangs still. No saliva drops
from its chin. Motionless eyes. This carving’s
tame. Children sit safely on its back, may
stroke the mighty muscles. It’s safe. Woodworm,
like moth, have left holes in its back. More:
many a crack ensures its tameness. Its shoulders
hunch. Sixteen claws probe at the concrete museum
floor. It’s nearer ear is chipped like my grandmother’s
tea-set. There’s lots of room for slips between cups
and this bear’s lips. Yet I can sense death’s closeness.
Suddenly, I know you’re in there, Bear, alive, alert,
angry, hungry. I feel you move: cold sweat covers
my false, carved skin.

Revised version:
(Meaning within each line rewrite)

It doesn’t act like a bear.
Its head bears a Cocker Spaniel’s short, sharp stop.
Its jaws are wedged in a grin.
Its tongue hangs still.
No saliva drops from its chin.
Motionless eyes.
This carving’s tame.
Children may sit safely on its back,
may stroke the mighty muscles.
It’s perfectly safe.
Woodworm, like moth, have left holes in its back.
More: many a crack ensures its tameness.
Its shoulders hunch.
Sixteen wooden claws chisel the concrete museum floor.
It’s nearer ear is chipped like my grandmother’s tea-cup.
There’s lots of room for slips between cups and this bear’s lips.
I can sense death’s closeness.
Suddenly, I know you’re in there, Bear,
alive, alert, angry, hungry.
I feel you move:
cold sweat covers my false, carved skin.

Comment:

Be careful how you revise your earlier work. The ‘revision’ often loses the impact of the original. By extension, don’t destroy you  original, ever: you may want to restore it one day. My horoscope said: ‘You will dither all day and never get anywhere. Take a firm grip. Drink less coffee.’