Revisions: Wednesday Workshop

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Revisions
Wednesday Workshop
27 June 2018

Below are the texts of a poem that I am attempting to revise. Any comments on the text(s) or the revision process will be welcome.

In Absentia 1
Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t there. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes, but there he is and
when he stops talking, I can hear her voice.

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her voice again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff,
but no smell. She has no smell, and scentless,

I cannot sense her, I bristle, she calls
me by my favorite names, mews, and I mew
back in reply. But I can’t smell her. There’s

no sense of touch … is this the hell all cats
will suffer … shadows on a screen, a voice,
haunting, memories shifting and dancing,
nothing solid … just shadows and absence?

Problems:
Repetition of scents / smells, there, voice (4), plus avoid all cats

Solutions:
Seems easy to tidy up … but … how do I end the poem with I hate him? Would it make the poem stronger? It would man a total rethink and restructure. 

In Absentia 2
Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t here. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes. He stops talking. I
can hear her warm, sweet words: where can she be?

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her tones again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff,
but cannot sense her. I bristle. She calls

me by my favorite names, squeaks, and I mew
back. There’s no sense of touch, of her presence.
Is this the way we all will suffer? Wood

burns. Firelight flickering, shadows on
cave walls, long gone memories revived to
haunt us. Are these the torments held in hell?
Will dark shapes shift on half-lit screens? Will the

memories of loved ones come back to taunt
us, haunt us?  Will there be nothing solid
in the afterlife, just outlines and absence?

First Revision:
I quite like it, but it has become much longer and the cat’s voice has either been conflated with the human voice at the end or it’s an exceptionally intelligent cat, knowing all about Plato,  unless those can pass as feline memories because she was in the cave with him.

In Absentia 3
Princess Squiffy

I hear your voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by your plastic plaything.

You are not here. He is. I can hear you
talk. I stalk to his noise box. I see a
shadow, moving, but I can’t make it out.

My muscles first tense, then stiffen. I sniff,
lean forward, but find no trace of female
smell. I cannot sense you. You call me by

my favorite names, mew at me, and I
respond. Shifting shadows, your haunting tones,
memories dancing to the music of

your absence. I can’t eat. I bristle when
he laughs. Where are you, my love? He doesn’t
care for me the way you do. I loathe him.

Second Revision:
This is much shorter, builds up to the proposed new ending, eliminates the repetitions, and replaces hate with loathe, a very catty sound. However, I have lost the ending that I liked so much: the suggestion of Plato’s Cave has now been lost. So, let’s head to Plato’s Cave.

In Absentia 4
Plato’s Cat Cave

Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t there. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes, but there he is and
when he stops laughing, I can hear her voice.

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her voice again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff:
she has no smell. I bottle-brush my tail.

Envoi
by Plato

Firelight flickering, shadows on walls,
distant voices echoing, memories
perched on our shoulders, night owls hooting.

Is this the hell we all will suffer, shapes
shifting on a screen, voices taunting us,
memories dancing to half remembered
melodies, nothing solid, shadows, absence?

Third Revision:
This poem has now changed shape and direction. I quite like it but it is dependent on a knowledge of Plato’s Cave. Does the cat belong in Plato’s Cave … I think of Kipling’s Just So story The Cat that Walked … perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t.

Decision Time:

Playing around with the text was fun. The text moved in several directions and now I must choose my final direction.

Comments on any of the versions or on the revision process I used will be very welcome. And yes, nothing perishes. My poems, like my cats, have nine lives (well, four in this case, with possibly a fifth to come).

Broken Record

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Broken Record

I have worked on this poem for a long time now. I worry about it, gnaw at it like a dog gnaws at a bone or a cat plays with an insect trapped beneath its feet. Francisco Quevedo  (1580-1643) rewrote one of his poems (Miré los muros de la patria mía) six times between his first version (1603) and his last version (1643) two years before his death. Are we condemned to dance attendance on those poems that haunt us? I don’t really know. Here is the link to my first version of Broken Record. Is it the best one? The only one? The one I should keep? Here is my link to This Old Man. Is this a better version? Does the change of photo change the context of the poem?

Like Francisco de Quevedo and his long history of Miré los muros … I can no longer tell.  That said, here is the latest version of my poem. I hope you like it. Do some clicking (it’s also called research) and let me know what you think. I look forward to your comments.

Broken Record (?)

A vinyl disc going
round and round,
the diamond-tipped needle
stuck in a groove:
me and my broken-
record memories.

I stop old friends
in the supermarket
and, when I start to talk,

they stand there,
tapping their feet,
trapped in a doldrum
where no winds fill
their sails to move them on.

Caught in multiple mirrors
surrounding the barber’s chair,
my tongue is an open razor
constantly stropped.

I have turned into
a babbling book of hours,
life’s moribund albatross
necklaced,
a hot towel round
my reluctant throat.

 

 

Wednesday Workshop: Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.

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.

Wednesday Workshop: Editing Plus

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Editing Plus
Wednesday Workshop
14 March 2018

We all need a second pair of eyes whether we are editing our own work or when we edit the work of others. Clearly,  there are several levels (layers is also a good word) at which editing can place.

1. Self-editing: I think we are better off creating the work first and editing it afterwards. However, whether we like it or not, self-editing, and even self-censorship, often takes place during the act of creation as we shuffle sentences, change words, and search for appropriate metaphors. Finish the first draft. When the piece has been drafted, we can look at editing it. I very much like the idea of going to an unfamiliar place so that we re-read in an unfamiliar setting. If familiarity breeds contempt, then unfamiliarity can often breed better editing. That is why I like to leave pieces fallow for a while, before returning to them.

2. Self-editing: One of the best forms of self-editing for me is publishing work on my blog or reading it at an open mic session. When I publish on my blog, I think of the offering, be it prose, poetry, memoir, or criticism, in terms of the ‘other’, those other eyes that will read it. When I read at an open mic session, I think of the people who will hear my spoken word. In both cases, I usually make changes in response to the audience and the perceived audience. Sometimes I make these changes as I read … realizing as I speak my offering that certain phrases are better said in a different fashion or left out altogether. Open Mic readings: I always read my offering aloud and time it before I read in public. Viva Voce is the best way, in my opinion, to catch errors in rhythm and to improve word usage.

3. BETA Readers: Many of my friends use BETA readers, trusted friends who read and criticize their work in early format. I like this idea, but I trust very few readers. Those I do trust are often too busy with their own writing to have time for consistent BETA reading.  Trust is a key issue here. If you have a good, tried and trusted BETA reader, shower them with gifts, buy them presents, keep them by your side.

4. Copy Editing: This comes at several levels that vary from the friend who corrects the occasional error, to the copy editor who fine combs your work and corrects grammar, accuracy, and punctuation. Good copy editors rarely work for free. However, it is well worth while to prepare a manuscript with great care, and some cost, before sending it away, especially to a professional publishing house. Again, trust is an important issue here.

5. Structural Editing: The editor who can deal competently with structural issues is both rare and priceless. We often see and hear how brutal editing can be, both on the writer and the text. While structural editing  can be destructive, both to the text and the writer, if well done, it can be very constructive. I think of Ezra Pound’s notes and changes to Eliot’s Waste Land as an example of exemplary editing. There are many others.

6. Editing and Publishing: I know of authors whose first books were edited heavily by the presses that published them. I also know that in some cases they never published again and in other cases they were frozen into a ‘what will the editor say mode’ that disabled their creativity enormously. Editing can be destructive as well as constructive. Alas, if we want that elusive publication, sometimes our professional editors give us very little choice. Publish or Perish + Change OR Else = an uncomfortable situation in the course of which the original wok can change shape in ways the author cannot control. This is doubly true if the writer belongs to the Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth school. And remember, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder who just happens to be editing and then offering to publish your work.

This is an interesting topic and there is so much more to say. I hope I haven’t wasted too much of your time with this.
Roger,
waiting for the snow to arrive,
in Island View.

Battle Axe

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Battle Axe

A battle axe, the children call her,
grim-faced, ageing, wrinkles
bone-deep scarring her skin,
a grimaced frown, much practiced,
worn like a fencing mask to keep
the world’s sharp teeth at a distance.

Over her shoulder, the mail-pouch
slung like a Viking’s shield,
swung to keep stray dogs at bay.
At her hip, mace and pepper,
twin guns in separate holsters, ready
for Rotty,  cross-breed, and Pit Bull.

Wrapped in her coat of mail,
her eyes aflame, trigger finger twitching,
ever on the lookout for that one wild dog
to run the gauntlet of her gaze
and launch its all-out, mad dog attack.

Comment: I was disappointed with my earlier version(s) of this poem, entitled Mail Lady, and wanted a stronger, more forceful set of images that hinted at the perils of dog attacks on mail (and fe-mail [sic]) workers. This is the result.