Zeitgeist

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Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist is a concept from 18th- to 19th-century German philosophy, translated as “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”. It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch.
Wikipedia 

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Poems for troubled times.

My current poems are deliberately cryptic. Each one is a mind game I am playing with you. I do not underestimate you. I have placed clues throughout each poem and if you follow the clues you will arrive at many of the poem’s hidden meanings. Some poems are more difficult than others, their meaning more recondite. Others seem very straightforward, yet still contain secrets.

This style of poetry has a long history going back to Anglo-Saxon riddles and way beyond, back into the mists of time. Luis de Góngora (1561-1627) and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) specialized in similar forms of recondite poetry, often based on metaphor and the juego alusivo-elusivo, the game of alluding to something while eluding the act of saying what it is. Jorge Guillén (1893-1984) and Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) also played this game, as did Octavio Paz (1914-1998) and many of the surrealist writers. In the works of all of these poets, the clues may rest in the poem or they may be found in a generic knowledge of the mythology of the poem’s exterior world.

Our world finds itself in an incredible mess right now. Somehow, we have to sort it out. We must pick our ways through the difficulties of these troubled times, as you must pick your way through the intricacies of these poems. Many of you will give up. Some of you, the chosen few, will make your way to the heart of each poem. Remember that images and metaphors tie past, present, and future together. Each word, each image offers a picture that reflects some of the shared realities with which we live.

Remember, as I said above: “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana). Otherwise expressed, in the words of T. S. Eliot: “Time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future / and time future contained in time past” (Burnt Norton). The seeming anachronisms in my recent poems suggest that perhaps all time is ever-present and always one.

Madness & Method

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Madness & Method
(1729 & 1955-1962 AD)

his voice woke the wilderness
shook bread from heaven
he cast it on wild waters

scything and tithing
Frocester’s old barn
Gloucester a stomping ground
walking and biking
whenever he can

dry dusty parchments
old faded leaves
talking together
among the wheat sheaves
Hebrew Greek Latin
vernacular spaces
falling like rain
between words on a page

dearly beloved
moved into sundry places
a town mice stirred into open fields
harvesting blackberries and apples
gleaning like a country mouse
house tumbling wind-blown down

marooned now and listless
an old hermit crab
basking on a sun-dried beach
quilts and crisp  sheets
mermaid-hair pillowed
claws click and comb
fresh footprints laundered
warm summer sands

Orphanage

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Orphanage
(circa 1948 AD)

black crucifix
ivory figurine
white walls
cowled heads
downcast eyes

holy water
damp fingertips
genuflection
sign of the cross
in nomine …

salt tang of tears
wax-scented floors
flip flop of leather
sandals without socks

brown robes
black skirts
hair covered
white wimples
rattling of rosaries
telling of beads

musty confessionals
shaped and shamed
by shadowy sins

time without end
dustless and clean
cleaner than consciences

 

Avila 2007a 039

 

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.