My Favorite Pen

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My Favorite Pen

This is my oldest Mont Blanc fountain pen. I must have bought it in 1986 when I traveled to London to attend a Spanish Golden Age seminar at one of the university colleges. I can’t remember which, though I do remember the seminar was on someone called Francisco de Quevedo. We met like spies, my pen friend and I, on the steps of the British Museum. I had never met him before, so he carried a specific book under his arm, one of Quevedo’s I think, by which I would recognize him. We lunched together at an Italian Trattoria, whose name also escapes me, and we discussed the ways of that ancient Hispanic world and our own research upon it. I paid for our lunch from my travel funds. I had a sabbatical that year and had arranged a short tour of four or five British universities in my search for knowledge. After lunch, he took me back to his London college and I sat and absorbed wisdom from 2:00 until 5:00 pm.

After the seminar, walking back to the nearest tube station, I passed a shop that had this Mont Blanc in the window. I went in and bought it. On the spot. No second thoughts. Then I caught the tube to Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer. A well-dressed man, slightly older than me, asked if he could join me. I said yes. He sat down and began to talk. He told me how to commit suicide by slashing my wrist with a knife.  There were many incorrect ways to do it, he explained. But only one right way, if you wanted to be successful. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me his collection of scars that ran crisscross and welted over his left wrist. Failed attempts, he said. But I’ll get it right next time. I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes as me, if you decided to try it.

Must go, I told him. My train’s about to leave. I left the remains of my pint on the table, looked back, and watched him finishing my beer. Good job I didn’t spit in it, I thought. Then I realized that I probably had, one way or another. I boarded my train and 90 minutes later I was back in Cardiff. No more post-war, coal and steam engines, a diesel this, powerful, fast, and smelly. It reduced the former four hour journey to much, much less than two. Cafeteria style, the train carriage offered a table top for every four seats. I opened my new pen and wrote in the pocket journal I had bought for the trip.

So many memories. But I don’t remember the names of either of these two men. I do recall those scars, though, deep and ridged, crisscrossing like railway tracks. Every time we clicked over a junction or a cross track I shivered and my writing wiggled on the page.

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Pen Friends

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Pen Friends

A writing day, today: so, spoiled by choices, even though some of those choices have grown wings and flown away. Pen friends and mood pens: I think I’ll begin with … and they are color coordinated for ink … this one … but you’ll never know which I chose … Maybe it will be my Waterman’s: speckled blue, second left. I do love pens: so essential to write with. Cursive hand-writing too, no longer taught in schools. It has become my secret code: nobody can read it.

But do you remember when pen friends really were pen friends and you wrote long letters to people in France, or Spain, or Germany, so they could practice their English and you could practice whatever language they spoke? I can remember playing postal chess with some of my pen friends. A move per letter and each letter taking a week or more to arrive. A full game with a pawn ending could take years! Did anyone ever meet their pen friends, I wonder? I know I did. I think of the immediacy of today’s online dating sites and I sometimes sigh for the old days. Courting by fountain pen … the slow and solemn can-can of two tortoises in the Carnival of Animals by Saint-Saens.

I write every day in a hand-written journal and have done so most days since 1985. I also keep a pocket notebook for odd moments, usually when I am outside in Mactaquac, or Funday National Park, or on Prince Edward Island, or at the beach in Ste. Luce-sur-mer, or beach-combing in Passamaquoddy. If I manage to write anything decent, I transfer these written ‘gems’ to the computer, where I revise and re-work. My poetry is almost always penned, but short stories usually go straight onto the computer, as do the novels, I have written three, though ideas and plans for stories and chapters do appear in the journals. I have come to think of the journals as a quarry and a memorandum, the computer as a workshop.

Come to think about it, I have, in the not-so-distant past, given workshops and seminars on just this topic. It is a very useful and informative subject, especially for beginning writers. With it comes the statement that (a) we must learn to recognize good writing when we see it; (b) we must learn to recognize, and reject, poor and weak writing; and (c) we must realize that we are not writers, we are re-writers. I always recommend people to keep their early drafts. Our tendency as re-writers may well be to revise out the energy and spontaneity of the original. This usually happens when the high-school policeman (thank you, Ted Hughes) steps into our brain and lectures us on how to write properly and correctly. If we lose that initial emotion, we must re-re-visit the original flow and try to recapture it recapture it in the re-re-write. Now here’s a good question: how many re-re-re’s can we get in there?

 

Forgetfulness

 

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Forgetfulness

a lone dog tied out in the rain
a lost German Shepherd barking at stars and moon
grass growing through plastic flowers on a grave
a name eroded by the sand paper wind
a solitary sea bird carving its name on a cloud
a sea gull slicing the sky with its wing
unwashed dishes sunbathing in the sink
a knife and a fork side by side not speaking
the bike with a flat tire growing dust by the door
the kite’s face locked in the prison of the tree
a teddy bear sitting by a forgotten glass of wine

Forgetfulness is also me and my blog. I have been writing elsewhere all week, preparing two manuscripts for a competition. It’s been a long slog: gathering the material, organizing it, structuring it, revising it, polishing it, cutting unwanted material, searching for valid replacements.

Tuesday I had the honor and the pleasure of working with a local high school in their  creative writing program. I am no longer a part of the Writers in Schools Program (WiSP), so this was a freebie. I came, I sat, I talked. And then I drove home again. I answered questions from the students on my life as a writer. It was very interesting for me as some of the questions were sharp and pertinent. How do you deal with writer’s block?   Do you write by hand or on the computer? Where do you get your inspiration? Hopefully my responses were of some interest to the students who gathered to listen. The one question I expected to field was never asked: “How much do you earn as a writer? The answer of course is very little, if anything. I write for pleasure, not for money, and I have never been published by a major press.

According to TWUC, the Writers’ Union of Canada, the average earnings of a writer in Canada are $12,500. Subtract the millionaire big earners (e.g. Margaret Atwood, David Adams Richards, et al) and most writers earn considerably less. Poets are traditionally at the bottom of the pay scale and I am principally a poet. The transition from print to digital also has everyone running in different directions. Personally, I like writing. I don’t like the marketing, advertising, selling of myself and of my books.  In fact, I now self-publish and give my books away. There’s very little money in it, but I enjoy myself and my friends seem to appreciate the gifts I give them.

Unless you are a ‘top draw writer’, working with a large, established company, you are unlikely to earn much money from your creative writing. In fact, many writers make their money from workshops, fellowships, grants, residencies, retreats, and things like that. I took a different direction. I chose to be an academic / teacher / researcher (full time) and a writer on a part-time basis. The academy kept food on the table for my family. The writing was always in addition to the mainline job. Retired now, I can dedicate myself to writing full-time, and that is just what I am doing.

Writing: so many meanings, so many ways to write. I blog, I maintain a journal, I write e-mails, I post to Facebook, I write poems, short stories, and I have written three unpublished (and probably unpublishable) novels. Also on two separate occasions, I have run a weekly sport’s column (athletics and rugby) in local newspapers. I have written academic books, translations, book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, and I have maintained, with the assistance of my beloved, an online bibliography and an online searchable data base. I have also helped edit some fourteen academic journals during my time as an academic. In my editing career I have been an editor, a co-editor, an associate editor, an assistant editor, an editorial assistant, and a book review editor, as well as sitting on the editorial and / or advisory boards of a handful of magazines. I have managed to do this in three languages (English, French, and Spanish). So, what exactly do I say when people ask me “What do you write?”

I am also a fan of the following statement, though I cannot remember where I first heard it. “We are not writers, we are re-writers.” This is certainly true of my editorial roles in academic magazines, for I have done a tremendous amount of rewriting and revisions for the people who have submitted their work to the magazines I was helping. So, there it is, in a nutshell … except for one thing, I have been involved in so many writing experiences, that I have forgotten many of them. Forgetfulness: the theme of today.

 

Academic Circles

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Academic Circles

A response to my friend who responded to an academic committee’s negative response with a response of his own only to receive from the committee another negative response to which he wants my advice on responding aka “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your unreason.”

  1. Academic committees are keepers of the gates of universal knowledge. Knowledge is defined as (a) that which the committee will allow to pass those gates and (b) that which passes from the prof’s notes to the student’s notes without going through anyone’s head.
  2. If nature abhors a vacuum, academia abhors creativity.
  3. Creativity in academia is that which creatively follows the rules of academia while adhering to them with the utmost strictness.
  4. Academia teaches young people to think outside the box by creating creatively bigger boxes inside which they can think.
  5. Academia has solved the ancient problem of squaring the circle by thinking in circles and creating bigger, better boxes.
  6. Academia places its adherents, known as professors, in square boxes that are often called offices. In a zoo, they would be called cages and we know what they are called in prisons.
  7. Academia promotes its most successful adherents moving them into bigger boxes. Bottom level adherents are herded together in one small box, usually windowless. Top adherents are sometimes allowed an individual box sometimes with a window out of which they can see the world passing them by, if they have time to look out.
  8. Academia resolves everything by means of committees.
  9. Academia believes strongly in Freedom of Speech, with responsibility. That’s why Academia draws up committees to which their adherents are deemed to be responsible.
  10. Academia believes strongly in Academic Freedom, with accountability. That’s why Academia draws up committees to which its adherents are accountable.
  11. Academia believes in Creativity. Creativity is defined as (a) the ability to obey the rulings of committees while sticking to the letter of the law promulgated by those committees and (b) as the ability to creatively build, according to committee design and regulations, bigger and better boxes.
  12.  Academia does not understand, permit, or encourage mirth, and humor is banned.

Welcome to the Ivory Office Block (once upon a time called the Ivory Tower). Above are the twelve most important Laws of Academia. Disobey them at your peril. For more guidance on The Perils of Academia follow this link Thinking Outside the Box.

Snowman

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“Settle down, children, and be quiet. I am going to read you a story about the snowman who didn’t believe in global warming. You, at the back, Elizabeth … yes, you. Sit down and shut up and stop biting your fingernails. And no, it’s not recycling when you chew them afterwards. Stephen, stop blowing raspberries. Now, children, shall we begin?”

“Yes, miss.”

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, after a big snow storm in November, Little Justin built a snowman in his garden. It was a lovely snowman. You can see how lovely it was if you look at the picture at the top of this page. There. Isn’t he lovely?”

“Yes, miss,”

“Justin was a very clever boy and he could do magic tricks. So, he made his snowman mobile and the snowman walked all over the garden. He was a very happy snowman and he threw snowballs at Justin who caught them and threw them back. Stephen, will you stop blowing raspberries.”

“Sorry, miss.”

“Justin’s snowman could speak and understand long words and sentences. He was very clever, but not as clever as Justin. David, will you stop picking your nose and don’t put that finger anywhere near your mouth.  And Stephen, one more raspberry and I’ll make you stand in the corner. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, miss.”

“One day, Justin told the snowman all about global warming and how the spring would come and the sun would shine and all the snow would melt. ‘Phooey,’ said the snowman. ‘I don’t believe you. And anyway, I don’t care.’ ‘You just wait until April or May,’ said Justin. ‘Then you’ll believe in global warming.’ ‘Right,’ said the snowman. ‘I won’t believe in global warming until April or May. Then I’ll believe in global warming. Maybe. We’ll see.’ Justin was very upset that the snowman didn’t believe him. Stephen: that’s enough. No more raspberries, I said. Now go stand in the corner. With your face to the wall. Any more noise from you and I’ll put you in detention. Do you understand?”

“Yes, miss.”

“Well Christmas came and the snowman danced on the snowbanks and thumbed his nose at Justin. ‘Global warming sucks,’ he sniggered. Justin shivered through the cold winds of January and February. Then March came in like a lion and the cross-country skiing was wonderful and Crabbe Mountain was full of young people all having fun. Meanwhile the snowman danced away and sang under the moonlight. Some nights Justin would wake up to find the snowman’s face, like a great full moon, leering in at his window. And … what was that noise? Stephen, was that you?”

“Please, miss. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t a raspberry, miss.”

“I know it wasn’t a raspberry. And I know what it was. You’re coming with me to see the principal. Class, you can take out your pencils and notebooks and write your own ending to the snowman story. Stephen, what you did was disgusting. You’re coming with me to the principal’s office. Right now.”

“But, miss,” Elizabeth an David raised their her hand.s and spoke in chorus” “What happened to the snowman?”

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Buzz Words

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Beware of Buzz words. Beware too of the perils of what Bobby McDonagh, in the article linked below, calls the thought incinerator. A thought incinerator is a word or phrase that can be repeated again and again to destroy thought and argument. McDonagh’s article illustrates the use of thought incinerators in politics. Being more apolitical than political, I am interested not in politics, but in the linguistic argument that involves the erosion of language and meaning and the destruction, with chanted, thoughtless choruses, of logical discourse and analysis.

Lock her up, the people have spoken, build that wall, drain the swampfake news, all fall into the category of thought incinerators, precisely because they can be repeated endlessly with no need to present logical arguments to support their continued usage. While these mindless chants can be attributed to one side of the political divide in the USA, more similar phrases can be found in the article below touching on the current political situation in the [Dis-] United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. some examples follow: the elite, project fear, Brussels bureaucrats, Brussels bullying, Brussels blackmail, the EU wants to punish Britain, whatever did Europe do for us, not to mention the notorious red bus and its far-reaching message “350 million quid a week for the NHS. I encourage you to read the and hopefully to understand what such mindless repetitions do to incinerate thought within our so-called democratic society.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/20/brexiteers-trump-language-fake-news

The problem goes beyond politics and enters the realm of language erosion. In our province, the local newspapers write at a grade nine language level and like it or not, we deal on a daily basis with functional illiteracy. Spelling, if and when people actually write, has become phonetic because less and less reading takes place, and the world is summed up in catchy sound bytes from radio and television and the shorter the better. Slowly, we are reduced to devouring slogans like those repeated above.

I look at the trees in the garden: birch, pine, spruce, fir, tamarack, hackmatac (from the Western Abenaki?), balsam poplar, larch, willow, mountain ash, black willow … they can all be reduced to trees. In my garden, at the feeder, I have birds, sparrows (so many varieties), nuthatches (white and red-breasted), woodpeckers (at east three kinds), finches (many species), grosbeaks, siskins, song-birds, warblers, passerines … but as the clear-cut loggers who cleaned the hillside behind my house pronounced “trees are just trees, we’re here to clear them out,” we might just as well say “birds, just birds, we’re here to fatten them and feed them to the cats”.

The erosion of language, the erosion of thought, the dumbing-down of society, the reduction of the world to advert, slogan, and chant, the loss of thoughtful democracy … this is what I fear most. And, as I age, I fear the loss of memory as song sparrow, white-throat, chipping, Lincoln, are slowly fading into generic ‘sparrows’. Soon, alas, they will probably all flap their wings and fly away, fading into the simplistic grey mist of a disappearing species … ‘birds’. I fear that day and I fear what memory loss and thought incineration and language erosion are doing to my precious world.

More thoughts on language erosion can be found here

https://rogermoorepoet.com/2018/11/17/thinking-outside-the-box/

Thinking Outside the Box

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Clichés, I love them.  Take one of our current Canadian educational clichés, for example: “We teach you to think outside the box.” I have met many teachers at various levels of education who tell this to me, and to their students.  Yet most of these teachers cannot themselves ‘think outside the box’. What they usually do, when teaching, is shut off the student’s original box by teach them to build a slightly larger one around it. They must now learn to think inside this new box in the way the teacher wants. Hence the cartoon above: We build bigger boxes and Building bigger boxes.

The central motif is, of course, the original ‘tiny’ box outside which the student must be ‘taught‘ to think. For ‘taught‘ substitute one of the following: persuaded, bullied, pressured, beaten, shamed, starved, embarrassed, … depending on the time and place, all of these words are sadly suitable and yes, in my learning career, I suffered at one time or another at the hands of teachers who used each of these methods, and others equally (or more) brutal, sometimes more than one at once.

What was inside that original box? Of course the contents vary with each individual, but creativity is in there, challenging authority is in there, self-belief is in there, a desire to ask endless questions, a childish wisdom to see the world as it is, not as the grown-ups say it is. I ask you, have they really ever grown up, have they ever escaped from their own hand-built boxes? Education: locking down the walls of that original box. Do away with creativity [not that way, this way!], free thinking [you mustn’t say things like that!], challenging  authority [cheeky, disobedient child!], asking questions [little children should be seen and not heard …. silence! … silence in class!] and finally, do away with self-belief and make the child dependent on the teacher [please, Sister Mary … please, Mother Theresa … please Father Maguire …] …

As the walls of the bigger boxes grow thicker and stronger, so it becomes more difficult to once again think as a child. Questions are answered by authority figures or on the internet with answers to FAQs and pre-packaged concepts. How do we regain our creativity? I assure you, we have never lost it. Where is it? Where is it hidden? In this world of folly and rush, of hustle, muscle, and busy bustle, so few of us have the time or can afford to take the time to sit and think, to undo those false walls that surround us, to find again the child-loving pleasure of thinking for ourselves, of discovering for ourselves, of being creative in the ways that we were so very, very long ago. Remember what Picasso said of his later paintings: ‘it took me a long time to relearn how to see the world as a child.’

Creativity: it is always with us. We must rediscover it. We must unwrap it from the tarpaulins that the system placed around it. We must dig it out from under the walls, the ruinous walls, with which the system surrounded us. It is still there, waiting for us to rediscover it. Believe. Roll up your sleeves. Dig deep inside yourself. And think for yourself. Then, when you have found that original box, open it, find exactly what is in it (the universal gifts to the new born), and become creative yet again. Only then will you have taught yourself (yourself, because others won’t teach you) to truly think outside the box, the multiple boxes, that the system and society designed to trap your creative spirit. Open the cage door: , release your creative spirit and let it soar to the skies.