Memories

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Memories

The old man, bag of bread crusts in his hand, walks towards that lake I knew so well in my childhood. His friends, the ducks and geese, wait for him to arrive so they can have their breakfast. The old man limps today in the early morning damp and walks, slow and hesitant, leaning on his stick.

His friends are hungry and impatient. They leave the lakeside to waddle across the road in a lengthening gaggle, fastest at the front, laggards strung out, straggling behind. When they reach him, the old man stops for a moment to greet them. Ducks and geese and traffic stand still as the world pulls to a halt. Watching, I remember how, when I was a child, those same sharp bills nibbled at the crusts I held in my fingers as my father rowed our hired boat over the lake’s smooth waters.

The old man crosses the road with his flock strung out behind him and drivers and passengers take photos and videos on their cell phones as the battalion marches on, down the slight slope, back to the waterside where the old man scatters crusts and breadcrumbs and throws corn as if it were a shower of stars from the firmament.

Greying skies threaten above dark waters. At lake’s end, above the waterfall, the monument to Scott of the Antarctic pierces the gloom with its fine, white tower. Scott sailed from this city in search of the new lands and adventures. Like me and many others he left, never to return.

I look at the bruises that decorate my wrinkled hands. Neither spots nor wrinkles were there when I left that lake behind me, was it really fifty years ago? I view the video on YouTube, shot from an I-phone in a parked car, and my eyes mist over. This was my home, this was the land of my fathers, this was the land of song that would always keep a welcome … yet I no longer go back.

The video is grainy and bears grey threads that mimic the passing clouds. I gaze on that well-remembered lake: there, so many years ago, I swam in its waters, ran and biked along its winding paths, rowed around its edges in and out of the reeds, fed the lake birds as I floated beside them, and fished the waters with my boyhood rod and line. I remember all too well the warmth of spring and the joy of the returning sun that banked the flowers and strew gold daffodils beneath budding trees.

I see myself reflected in the computer’s screen: my wrinkled skin wraps my shriveled flesh in the same way crinkly paper winds itself round an Easter egg. Yet there is so much inside that binding, so many memories and secrets dream their lives away inside me. Old bones now bind my body into its fragile box with its arteries and veins and circuited strings holding me together. I close my eyes and for a moment I am once more that youthful body flashing its jack-knife blade into those rippling waters …

Later that night, I stand in a shimmer of moonlight at the garden’s edge, my hands held out to catch a falling star. Alas, I seize only the mutterings of snowflakes strung between the stars. My scarecrow dream stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps bright treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-thin blade and the lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone. Moonlight and starlight run twin liquors, raw, within me.

Inverted, the Big Dipper hangs its question mark from the sky’s dark eyelid. A honking of geese haunts the highway high above me. I swivel from north to south to catch an impression of darkness swift and sudden that blots out the scattered grains of stars.

A finger-nail of rising moon emerges from the trees and hoists itself skywards. Stars nearby fade in its brightness. I have built a fire inside the house. When I go back inside, my goose quill pen scratches black lines in my journal as I weave words by firelight across a flickering page.

Ghosts of departed constellations drown in the nearby river. Pale planets scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on this rising flood of memories.

Comment: This would be a “raw poem” were it not a piece of “raw prose”! I found it among my notes late last night and revised it and put it up this morning. It was based on a YouTube video of a man feeding geese at Roath Park Lake in Cardiff, South Wales. When I was a teenager, my family moved from Swansea to Cardiff and Roath Park was a short bike road from our new home. The Scott Memorial stands at the lower end of Roath Lake, just by the waterfall. Apparently Robert Scott sailed from Cardiff on 15 June 1910 in a converted whaler in an effort to walk to the South Pole. Like me, when I left Cardiff, he didn’t return.

Here’s a link to Robert Scott: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Falcon_Scott

This is the video on which the piece is based: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clbbMt2sl0k

Geese

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Geese

The arrowhead precedes its shaft and leads its feathers into night’s perfection. Summer catches flight and waves good-bye to Arcturus as an obsidian knife flashes black lightning across the icy threshold of a morbid sky. Darkness, swift and sudden, blots out each scattered scat of golden grain and swallows an iris of stars. Inverted, the Big Dipper hangs its question mark from the sky’s dark eyelid.

When daylight breaks cold sunshine over broken ground, the great white geese lay their burdens down by the riverside. Pristine as they drift to the land, flake by fluttering flake, they accumulate the colors of mud daub and anonymity as they grub food from the neat ploughed fields that march their earthen armies across the land. Fallen angels, they sprawl down from heaven and abandon eternity to adopt their waddling time-and-earthbound shapes.

Now, the afternoon gropes steadily to night. Some people have built fires; others read by candlelight. Geese litter the riverbanks with their mud-stained snowdrifts. Freshet mud besmirches them — or is it the black of midnight’s swift advance? The geese step on thin ice at civilization’s edge. Around them, the universe’s clock ticks slowly down. Who forced that scream through the needle’s eye? Night gathers its darkening robes and the seabed reaches its watery arms out towards a magnified moon.

Ghosts of departed constellations drown in the river. Pale planets scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on the flood. I walk on the beach sensing the flesh that bonds, the bones that scarcely bind, the shoulders and waist on which I hang my clothes. Now I stand nameless in a shimmer of moonlight and listen at the water’s edge to the whispering night. I catch the mutterings of snowflakes strung between the stars.

My dream stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps bright treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-thin blade and the lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone. Moonlight and starlight run their twin liquors, raw, within me. What will I bury beneath this year’s fallen leaves?

Self-Publishing

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Self-Publishing
Wednesday Workshop
29 March 2017

Why do we write?

Before we talk about publishing, in any form, we must pose the question: why do we write? As a former academic, my writing was intimately tied to academia. At first, I wrote to pass my exams; then I wrote to pass my courses by handing in essays and potential papers; then, when I was a full-time academic, I wrote for the “publish or perish” world of academia, churning out articles (90) and reviews (70) on topics that were tied to my research projects. My writing, in other words, had a purpose and a direction. I knew why I was writing and I was conscious of the areas and places in which my publications would be acceptable and accepted.

At the same time as I wrote for the academic world, I indulged in creative writing. I have always written poetry. I have always been aware of my vocation as a poet. However, I was also aware that it was very difficult to earn a living as a poet. We’ll talk more about that later. The academy, research, and teaching gave me enough free time to indulge my dream of being a creative writer. It also permitted me to put food on the table and to keep my family warm and comfortable during our cold, Canadian winters.

So, the first question you must ask yourself is: why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve as a writer? Who do I want to read my works? Why do I want to be published? How do I want to be published? Your answer to these questions, and others like them, will determine your relationship to the publishing process.

Traditional Publishing

It isn’t easy to become published in the traditional fashion. In the first place, there are fewer major presses out there, and those that do exist are very large and powerful indeed. They want only the very best work. Not only that, they want the best work that will make them the most money. Good writing isn’t always guaranteed to sell well and thus to make the most money, remember that. In the second place, there are some excellent smaller presses, but they tend to be niche presses tied to a specialized corner of the market. Academia is a niche market. My own area of academia, Spanish Seventeenth Century Literature, is a very small niche market indeed. In order to get published in the traditional manner, a great deal of research into the niche area and the presses that publish therein is needed.

Most major presses will not look at up and coming writers unless they are represented by an agent. Few agents will take on an up and coming writer. This is a chicken and egg conundrum: how do we get the experience to be represented when we need the representation to help get the experience? All writers must solve this problem in their own fashion. There is no easy answer. Novels that have the potential to be turned into films: these will attract an agent and a big press, because that’s where the money is. How many of us are capable of writing them? Short story collections used to be a reasonably safe bet, but it appears that fewer presses and literary magazines are publishing them. Poetry generates little or no money, hence it also belongs to a highly specialized niche market with very small circulation figures. Once these realities are understood, then we can consider the alternatives.

Self-Publishing

 Self-publishing is no longer associated with the so-called Vanity Press, a term used to denigrate it. Not so long ago writers who paid for their writing to be published were considered by many to be ‘poor’ writers, ‘vanity’ writers. This is no longer true and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) now accepts self-published works as genuine works of literary merit, always provided that they are well-written. The advent of the computer revolution made all forms of writing, printing, and publishing so much easier. The ensuing advances in desk-top publishing allowed anyone to be a published writer and a writer’s life was suddenly that much simpler.

I published two poetry books with traditional presses in 1978 (Last Year in Paradise) and 1986 (Broken Ghosts). In 1990, following the death of my parents, I felt a deep desire to write and to be published once more. I had poems published in small literary reviews and magazines and I had a track record of wins and honorable mentions in writing competitions, but nobody wanted to publish another book of my poetry. I papered my walls with rejections … and I got nowhere. Therefore, in 1990, I started to self-publish.

My first six books were simple: I typed out the poems, ordered them the way I wanted, and took them to the local print shop where, for a small sum of money, the books were printed and saddle-stitched. This was a cheap means of production, so cheap, that I didn’t need to sell the copies so I just gave them away to my friends. Between 1990 and 1996 I published six of these little paperback chapbooks: Idlewood, In the Art Gallery, Daffodils, Secret Gardens, Iberian Interludes, and On Being Welsh. The runs were small, ranging between 100 and 200 copies, and very cheap, often less than a twonie (two dollars aka ‘loonies’ from the loon on the coin) per copy.

All the initial work for these books was done by me: writing, selection, typing, and editing. The printers did the rest: copying and binding. In the case of these first self-published books, the covers contained typed titles and the author’s name and nothing more. In 2000, I was very fortunate. I met a genuine editor who agreed to work with me to publish my poetry via a small university print-shop. I wrote the poems and typed the text. My editor, a wonderful lady, then edited the text and prepared it for printing. My beloved (aka my wife) designed the covers for these books. Between 2000 and 2012 we (self-) published six of them: Sun and Moon, Though Lovers Be Lost, Fundy Lines, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22, and Monkey Temple. These were genuine paperback books, with an ISBN. They were all limited editions and again I gave them away to my friends.

2008 saw Nashwaak Editions, the book division of the Nashwaak Review, publish Land of Rocks and Saints, a book of poetry that I wrote while in Avila (Spain). Again I funded this printing myself and again I gave it away to my friends and colleagues. I was devastated on several occasions to find signed copies of these books in second hand bookstores, that which I had given away for free had been sold for money. The receivers of free gifts had gained more cash than the books’ writer.

I continued writing and now had several manuscripts that I thought well worth publishing. Armed with a genuine list of publications and prizes and with excellent letters of recommendation from established writers, I again tried the traditional approach. Alas, I got the traditional results. Two small trade presses who agreed to publish my work both went out of business before they could do so. Agents, if they bothered to reply (and most of them didn’t), turned me down. I got to final judging with a famous niche press, but their marketing department said the book wouldn’t sell and they refused to market it … I didn’t know where to turn.

I had for some time been getting e-mails from houses that, for a large sum of money, would publish my new works for me. However, I was by now retired, and didn’t have those ‘large sums of money’. Publishing costs varied from $1500 US to $3500 US to £3000 (sterling). Well, I wasn’t that desperate, especially when I was suddenly subjected to regular e-mails, constant phone calls, and targeted advertising. I got tired of sales reps ringing me up and asking “are you read to go to press now?” There had to be easier and cheaper ways to get published.

2016 saw a major change in my self-publishing. A new friend, now a very close friend, suggested I try CreateSpace on Amazon. He came over one afternoon to give me a demonstration and we had a manuscript up and running that same day. It cost me nothing. I still haven’t sold a copy of that particular book. But it is up and available on Amazon. I buy copies at a relatively cheap rate and, you guessed it, I still give them to my friends. I now have nine titles on Amazon, two new titles* and seven rewrites and expansions. These include Monkey Temple, Bistro*, Though Lovers Be Lost, Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, Empress of Ireland, All About Angels, Iberian Interludes, and Avila* (my first book of poetry in Spanish).

Marketing is still a problem partly because I just don’t have (nor do I want) what it takes to be a salesman. I still give copies of my books to my friends. I guess I’ll never make any money worth speaking about from my creative writing. But that has never worried me: I have never written for money, only for love. I write because I love writing. I publish so I can give copies of my books to those friends who ask for them. I am a poet, whether I want to be or not. I am also condemned to my fate: I am a book writer and a book self-publisher and I’ll never be a businessman.

Is it all worth the effort? Yes, I think it is. Can (other) people make money from self-publishing? Yes, they can, especially if they are willing to advertise, market, and sell their books at every opportunity. This is something that I just cannot bring myself to do.

Quality Control

Are self-published books capable of being genuine works of art? Indeed they can. Bistro, although being self-published, has just been confirmed as one of three finalists in the NB Book of the Year competition (2016). Several of the stories in Bistro were either published separately in literary magazines or were part of larger manuscripts that received recognition in one way or another for the quality of their writing. Parts of several of my other books on Amazon have been published or awarded prizes or honorable mentions in competitions. My creative work has a track record of respectability.

I am an academic, trained to assess written work and to maintain quality control on my own written work as well as that of other people. Not everyone is born to be an editor, let alone a self-editor. How do we get to the level of self-editing necessary to be confident in our own quality control? Enter your work in competitions. Submit your work to literary magazines. Take writing workshops online and in person. Consult with other writers and join a good writing group or form one yourself. Be careful of submitting your work to the opinions of your best friends and your family: they will only tell you how good you are. Remember that your granny may be your favorite person, but she is not your best critic. Seek always the objectivity that allows you to stand back and criticize your own writing from a distance. Seek the opinions of others who are objective and will do the same.

Summary

  1. Think about why you are writing and what you want to achieve with your writing.
  2. Consider the different ways in which you can publish or self-publish and decide which is better for you.
  3. Research your market / niche market as carefully as you can and target the area in which you wish to work.
  4. Writing is a long-term commitment: you must make that commitment and stick with it.
  5. Remember that there is no substitute for high quality writing.
  6. Remember the words of Dewi Sant, St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales: “Keep the faith.”
  7. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. If you stop writing, you will never achieve your goals or finish that book.

Marshall MacLuhan

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Marshall McLuhan

Black ants drip off my pen.
They crawl across my journal
organizing themselves
into marching battalions.

It doesn’t matter what each ant
weighs or means. What counts
is the accumulated weight
of all those ants. Just twenty-

-six of them: that’s all it takes,
as they divide and multiply,
shuffle their feet, form and reform.
All this jazz about medium

and message is meaningless
when internal organs start to fight
and the body’s civil war
tears me into tiny pieces

that the ants seek out,
reshape, rebuild,
and reconstruct into
new and relevant meaning.

Absence

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Absence

I left my father lying there
unable to look him in the eye;
I was his only living child,
but I never flew back to say goodbye.

My absence tore apart my heart.
I couldn’t face a hotel room,
no house, no friends, no family,
in the town I once called home.

I remembered my dad for a little while,
but then his face just fled.
Now I seek his smile in this photo,
but his eyes fill me with dread.

No life, no light, no focus,
nothing that I recall;
I look at him quite helplessly:
but he can’t see me at all.

 

This Fragile Light

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This fragile light
filtering through
the early-morning mind
filled as it still is
with night’s dark
shadowy dreams
their dance demonic
or perchance angelic
as light rises and falls
in time to the chest’s
frail tidal change
the ins and outs
of life-giving breath

Bright motes these birds
at the morning feeder
feathered friends
who visit daily
known by their song
their plumage
their ups and downs
as they dazzle and spark
breaking the day open
with their chorus of joy

Blind

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Blind

Warmth in a color,
with heat visible to the touch
and shocking pink a shock
to seeking fingers,
not one that you and I,
gifted with sight,
would ever understand.

Blindfolded, they wheel me
round and round the garden
in my teddy bear reality.
Gravel scrunches beneath
the wheels and I am flooded
with the inability to see, to know,
to be sure of the shadows
that are no longer there.

The ones who push me
talk and tell but cannot show.
How could they hold a rainbow
before my eyes or let me hear
the northern lights crackle the sky,
their visible Niagara a curtain
of fairy lights dancing up and down?

And those glorious organ notes
quivering the body, angel voices rising,
falling, grasping at my eye-
lashes, peeling my eye-lids apart.

Song of songs and the singer
deaf to his own sublimity,
oh dealer of cards, fingerless
pianist, bold dancer prancing
on your amputated stumps.

Comment: Raw poem, written for Gwen Martin who opened my eyes to the fact that blind people can perceive color through their finger-tips.