To be a writer ….

Photo by my good friend, Geoff Slater. Books by yours truly, who stayed on the bus and believed.

To be a writer ….

He who would true valor see,
let him come hither.
One here will constant be,
come bad or fair weather.
No line length can him fright,
he’ll with a paragraph fight,
and he will have a right,
to be a writer.

Those who beset him round
with dismal stories,
do but themselves confound:
his strength the more is.
There’s no discouragement
will make him once relent
his first avowed intent,
to be a writer.

Rejections nor bad critics
can daunt his spirit.
He knows he at the end
will a book inherit.
So critics fly away,
he’ll fear not what they say,
he’ll labor night and day
to be a writer.

Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”

Scars

Los toros de Guisando, pre-Christian Celtic stone bulls, Avila, Spain.

Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same.
            Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
            The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.

The real thing: young fighting bulls (novillos) on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain.

            Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
            Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
            Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
            Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
            Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat.
            On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out?
            These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal.
            Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.

Titles

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Titles

I am currently thinking and re-thinking the titles to my books.

Clearly, the title is of the utmost importance. The title should draw the reader in while offering some information on the content. Alas, my earlier titles rarely did this.

Monkey Temple, for example, really doesn’t say much about what the book contains. Nor does its subtitle: A narrative fable for modern times. Those who have read poems from the book or who have heard me read excerpts from it, know what it is about. However, deep down the title really says little about the life and times of Monkey, the protagonist who works and suffers in the corporate Monkey Temple.

In similar fashion, Though Lovers Be Lost is a wonderful title, taken from Dylan Thomas, and illustrating his theory that “though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.” If readers have these lines on the tip of their tongues, as most people from Wales do, then they will have a fair idea about the contents of the book. However, without that intimate knowledge of one of the great Welsh poets … many readers will be lost and the title will lack meaning, check my post on Intertextuality.

Bistro is a collection of flash fiction. I am not sure that the title suggests that instead of a standard and expected table of contents the book has a menu that refers to the 34 pieces of flash fiction are contained within its pages. The pieces are so varied, rather like a meal of sashimi or sushi, that it is difficult to describe the contents (or menu) in such a short thing as the title. Does the one word, Bistro, draw the reader in? The cover picture might and the combination of title and picture and cover may go further. However, I have my reservations.

Empress of Ireland, on the other hand, is a book of poems about a specific event: the sinking of the Empress of Ireland  in the St. Lawrence River in May, 1914. Here, title and event are closely linked and hopefully the title is rather more indicative of the contents. Even here, as in the cases of the books mentioned previously, a brief description of the book is necessary.

Sun and Moon is a great title, provided you have lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, and know that Sun and Moon are the official symbols of the state of Oaxaca. Without that knowledge, the sub-title, Poems from Oaxaca, Mexico, is essential. The cover photograph with the state symbol of Sun and Moon is intriguing, but it is still necessary to read the description to find out what the book is about. Are title and sub-title enough in themselves? I’m still not sure.

Obsidian’s Edge is a tricky title. I thought everybody knew that obsidian is the shiny black glassy stone produced in volcanic areas. Further, I thought most people knew that the edge of obsidian is used in weapons and knives that cut. By extension, obsidian knives were used by the Aztecs and others in their human sacrifices … so much knowledge that is clear to the writer but unclear to the reader who may not realize that we all live at Obsidian’s Edge with the sacrifice of our own lives hanging by a thin thread on a daily basis. Oh dear, I have been to workshops and readings recently where people knew nothing about obsidian and its properties … my title gives so little information.

Land of Rocks and Saints has yet to be revised and rewritten. Few English readers will associate it with the old Spanish saying, Ávila: tierra de cantos y santos / Avila, Land of Rocks and Saints. The tragedy of living a life in more than one language is that the cultural knowledge so easily understood in one does not necessarily transfer readily into a second or third language. Some of my readers write me to say that they Google all these terms and learn a tremendous amount from the books. Alas, I have to improve my titles. I need to sharpen them and use them to draw my future readers in.

Ávila: cantos y santos y ciudad de la santa, the Spanish translation of Land of Rocks and Saints that I put up on Amazon / Kindle, is a better title. Avila is both the province and the capital city of the province. The rocks and saints are clearly linked to the name and the city itself is the city of the saint, St. Teresa of Avila, of course. Hopefully, this title, in Spanish, will attract some Spanish readers. I can only hope.

The book on which I am currently working was originally called Iberian Interludes and had no sub-title. In my revision, I am selecting poems about Spain from various earlier collections and placing them together in one large compendium. I have selected poems from two collections Iberian Interludes and In the Art Gallery (oh dear, I never mentioned that it was the Prado and that all the paintings could be found there). To these I have added a selection of individual poems either published in reviews and literary magazines or taken from other collections.

I am still working on a title for this collection, hence today’s post. I have rejected Iberian Interludes as too vague (how many of my potential readers know that Spain is Iberia) and I am now looking at a bold assertion: Spain. If I do this, I will need a sub-title. The evolution of the subtitle looks like this: Bull’s Blood and Bottled Sunshine, ¡Olé!  >  Bull’s Blood and Bottled SunBottled Sun and Bull’s Blood. I wonder if Spain: Bottled Sun and Bull’s Blood will be catchy enough. Will it draw readers in and attract them?

Post Script: By the way, I thought long and carefully, and went with Iberian Interludes anyway. The cover picture shows a modern stone sculpture of a traditional bull. Lovely!

Codification

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Codification

For me, it is vital to see how others read and interpret my work … what comes across, what doesn’t, how things are understood and read, sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. It is always easy to pick out some favorite phrases. However, deciphering, interpreting, and then reacting to, a poem’s inner code, is a very different matter.

I love the cut and thrust of dialog … I was at our Tuesday night writing group meeting last night from 7-9:30 pm and we had a great time, back and forth across the table pecking, like wild birds perched on a literary feeder, at each others’ texts. My own texts are thickly layered and highly codified and I have become very interested in the theory of literary codification.

My own ideas are a development of those of Northrop Frye as he expressed them in The Great Code. When we lose our common code, to what extent do we need to explain a private one? This is of great import to Frye’s studies on William Blake, perhaps (in spite of his seeming simplicity in certain poems) one of the most difficult of English poets.

Perhaps the answer lies in Karl Jung’s theories on the racial subconscious: that we all share deep, (human) racial symbols that transcend words and often appear as symbols and images. If this is true, then we communicate, at a non-speech level, through metaphor and symbol, and that is more powerful and outreaching than linear language, however well and clearly codified it may be.

This emphasis on symbol, image, and metaphor leads us, of course, into surrealism, free writing, concrete poetry, sound poetry, and all those efforts to abandon the linear and reach into the subconscious roots of ‘that which binds us together as human beings’ … in my humanistic theories, to find the links that behind is more productive than the reinforce the fears and misbeliefs that separate. Alas, not everyone thinks that way in the literary world, and private codes can easily be used as wedges to force people apart.

We need codes, preferably codes that we can share. The question is, how explicit would we be, as writers, in explaining those codes? How closely should we imitate the writing codes of other people?

The eternal mystery of Aladdin’s Lamp: “New codes for old.” And don’t forget the magic words “Open Sesame.”

Ah, the joys of codification.

Commentary
This is a golden oldie, a repeat of an earlier post.  I am creating furiously at present and cannot always spend the time to create for the blog. Hence the repetitions and the golden oldies. Codification is something that has interested me for some time: the Biblical Code, The Western Tradition, Courtly Love, the Icy Fires of Petrarchism, Romanticism,  Impressionism, Expressionsim, Surrealism, Existentialism, Modernism, Post-Modernism … the -isms, once started, are apparently endless. All of these -isms spiral round the ideas of verbal codes. In codification, I would like to start a discussion on what these codes are, how they affect us, what do they mean, especially when they can be so totally personal. By all means, join the discussion: what do you mean by codes? How do you use them? How do you interpret the codes of other people? By all means post here, but better by far, rech out and discuss these things with your friends and your writing or art groups.

KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat

 

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KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat

The 2019 KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat will take place from October 6-12 at KIRA (picture and details below) just outside Kingsbrae Gardens in the beautiful New Brunswick town of St. Andrews. More information is available from kira@kingsbraegarden.com 

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The KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat, aka The Art of Writing, is unique in that it concentrates on Creativity: how we channel it, how we express it, and how it changes us. Geoff Slater (artist and line painter) and Roger Moore (award winning teacher, poet, and short story writer) concentrate on different forms of creativity with, in addition to the free time at the retreat, workshops on drawing and painting (Geoff) and poetry and prose (Roger). The morning talks and the evening readings allow each individual to explore themselves and their creativity in a unique setting.

KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat Advertisement

Attendance is limited to five residents. This allows us to offer one on one time with each of the instructors if and when it is needed.

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KIRA

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Commentary:

This is the new advertisement for the KIRA (Kingsbrae International Resdencies for Artists) Fall Session (October 6/12, 2019). Geoff Slater and I will be again facilitating a week of creative workshops, including drawing and painting (Geoff) and writing (Roger, both poetry and prose). These will take place in the KIRA Residence, just beside Kingsbrae Gardens. Residential enrollment is limited to five people. Just send us an e-mail if you are interested in attending this workshop. If you click on the KIRA link in the first line (above), be sure to watch the opening video. Pictures speak louder than words and the video will help you to understand what Creativity at KIRA is all about.

 

 

Revision

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Revision
“We are not writers, we are re-writers.” I do not remember who said this, but it is extremely well said. We write, yes. But then we rewrite, sometimes obsessively, again and again. But how does that rewriting process take shape? Why do we rewrite? How do we rewrite? And what do we do when we re-write? These are all vital questions.

Mechanical revisions and rewrites
This, for me, is the search for typos, punctuation errors, mis-spellings, grammar corrections, that sort of thing. Yes, we can rely on a (reliable?) editor and a not so reliable spell-check, but the editor usually costs money. Or we can learn to do it ourselves, which is what I recommend very strongly.

Grammatical revisions and expression checks
These are usually a little more difficult to deal with. Do the verb tenses check out? Are subject and verb clearly delineated? Does the wording make sense, not just to us, but to the outside reader? A second pair of eyes is always useful at this point. Also, a sense of distance from the text is useful. Leave it a day (or two) and come back to it later when he creative rush has fled the system.

Structural revisions 1
Whenever we do a structural revision, it is essential to check that the revision ties in with the rest of the piece and that we maintain consistency throughout. A simple example: I decide, on page 77 of my novel, to change my main character’s name from Suzie to Winnie. Clearly, her name has to be consistent, both backwards (1-77) and forwards (77 onwards). While this is obvious, other changes, taste, color of hair, color of eyes, height, weight, tv program preference, may not be so easy to check and double-check. But it must be done.

Structural Revisions 2
This is where we must pay attention to the vision in the re-vision. We must ask the question, what does the poem / story / chapter / text want to say? What is it actually about? Often, in the flush of creation, we write words (actions, thoughts, emotions) on the page and they flow like water from a fountain. It’s a wonderful feeling. Later, during the re-vision process, we must ask ourselves, again, deep down, what do these words mean, what are they trying to say? This is actually a slightly different question from what am “I” trying to say?
The speaking / writing voice may want to say something, but the words (and characters and actions) themselves may want to say something else. Now we are faced with a dilemma: do we write what we want to say or do we follow the intricate word-path growing from what we have written? As a beginning writer, I did the former. As a more mature (and I hope, a slightly better writer) I now do the latter.
The result is often a piece that is radically different from it’s starting point. When you listen to what the story / poem / text / characters etc are telling you and when you follow words and characters, then structure changes, paragraphs switch places, thoughts move around, expressions change. We are no longer forcing words into our meanings, we let the meanings grow out of the words. This is particularly important in short story telling and the writing of poetry. It is vitally important to the novel where any inconsistency must have a relevance to the development of action, plot and character. It is also a totally different approach to the meaning of re-vision.

Summary
I realize many writers may have difficulty accepting these points. Those trained originally in the academic world, in particular, will respond negatively to the idea of the words ‘not being forced into the correct academic shape by the quasi-omnipotent academic mind’ aka Constable Thesis Editor. However, the more creative a writer is, the more that writer will respond to the creativity that lies within both the creator and the creation that has appeared on the page and, as writers, we must never lose sight of that creative act, for it is one of the most truly wonderful things that we can do.

Writing Memories 10

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Writing Memories 10
Module 5.1 Generation Next 

We have now arrived at our last module: the happiness brought to us by our children and grandchildren. I refer to this as Generation Next. When we emigrated to Canada, our parents stayed behind in what I am now beginning to call the Untied Kingdom. If we were lucky, we saw each other every two years or so. Life’s realities have not changed all that much, and once every two years or so is when we see our daughter and granddaughter. The big difference, of course, is Skype. The social media breakthrough now allows us to see and talk and share on a regular basis. This is wonderful. So, where do we begin with Generation next? With a poem, of course.

Yellow [Poem 1]:

Sunshine and daffodils: my grand-daughter
paddles in the kitchen sink. Her mother
washes feet and dishes. “Sit,” Finley says,
and “stand,” following the words with actions.

Now she says “Yellow, yellow,” as daffodils
fill the computer screen to shine in that
far-off kitchen five hundred miles away
by road, but immediate by Skype.

“Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon
in that distant province where spring arrives
so much earlier than here, she will see
daffodils dancing their warm weather dance,

tossing their heads to gold and yellow trumpets,
fresh, alive, and young in the soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Amazing how children grow and develop. When Finley first came to visit us, her vocabulary was limited and she would select one word and preach it like a preacher leaning out from her Sunday pulpit. Yellow was such a word. Yellow bananas, yellow birds, yellow daffodils and, of course, yellow jello. Is there really any other color for jello? I tried to convert this poem into prose, but it didn’ change much.

Yellow [Prose 1]:

Sunshine, floating dust motes, and the ever-present scent of daffodils: Finley, my grand-daughter paddles in the kitchen sink, rainbow bubbles from the washing-up liquid, with its hint of fresh green apples. Her mother washes Finley’s feet first, then the dishes. “Sit,” Finley says, and “stand,” she follows the words with suitable actions. Sink water swirls and bubbles as she stamps her feet with the slurp of a washing machine, drubbing old clothes. “Yellow,” she says, “yellow,” as once again my St. David’s Day daffodils fill my nostrils with their heavy perfumes and the computer screen with their brilliant golds to shine in that far-off kitchen five hundred miles away by road, but immediate by I-Pad.  “Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon in that distant province where spring arrives so much earlier than here, she will walk into the garden, hear the robin’s song, and see the daffodils dancing their warm weather dance, tossing their heads to wind-sound through green leaves and yellow trumpets, fresh, alive, and young, fanned by the scent-bearing, soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Some padding, yes, and an attempt o expand the scene and include more varied details, but a success? I am not sure. Right now, I don’t know that I have captured what I wanted to capture. Maybe it is time to rethink everything and start yet again. Before we do, let’s return to the theme of yellow.

Her Shadow [Poem 2]:

Grubby marks remain where her nose rubbed up
against the window pane. Excited she

stood there, watching birds perched on the feeder.
“Finch,” I pointed. “American Goldfinch.”

“Yellow,” she cried out with joy, “Yellow.” Her
tiny hands plucked at air, catching nothing.

Her nose, all wet and runny, left damp, snot
stained letters, her signature, on the cold

glass. That’s how I remember her. Still the
window stays unwashed and her shadow
often comes between me and the morning sun.

Commentary: We all witness them, those moments when time seems to stand still and we see eternity in a grain of sand, or in a stain on the window pane. And what pain we suffer when the little culprit leaves and the house returns to the now unaccustomed silence that reigned before the enthusiastic arrival of Generation Next. The next poem concentrates on the sense of emptiness, and no I will not retouch these poems. They are just where I want them to be.

Empty [Poem 3]:

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: We have all shared such moments and they will vary for each of us. You have had them too. Write bout them, preserve them, catch them and imprison them in the lines on the page that form prison bars for words. Keep them. They are as valid as photographs and just as powerful. In fact, with the proliferation of selfies and the gradual disappearance of the hand-written word, they are probably even more powerful than the ephemera that, like butterflies or one day moths, flutter and flitter through the anonymities of our digitalized world. And now, may the light of the poetic and prosaic muses shine upon you and bring you a wealth of inspiration, for my journey is over and this workshop is done.

Writing Memories 5

 

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A stitch in time

Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Looking back, a year later, I seem to have lost the thrill of that shock. No sensation of pain. Blood oozed, squirted sluggishly, then flowed freely between the fleshy cliffs of the wound. I went to the fridge, took out an ice-cube. Blood all over the fridge door, the floor, dripping off my fingers. I went to the sink, ran the cold water, doused my hand in well water and ice. I could feel it then, a chaotic shrill pain, running through my hand in short, sharp electric shocks. I glanced at my little finger and saw white bone.

I tore a sheet from the paper towel roll: blotting paper to red ink. It sopped up the blood and overflowed in seconds. Another sheet. I bound it round the ice cube and tried, one-handed, to tighten my hanky round the paper. Impossible: the ice cube kept slipping. I looked at the floor: more blood. I looked at the telephone: neighbor? Police? Ambulance? I grabbed the hand towel, folded it in four, and bound it tightly round my hand, clutching the loose end in my fingers. I hurried to the door. Looking back, I saw a trail of blood spots and the cat, nose down, busy licking them up. Left hand held high to try and slow the bleeding, I drove to emergency.

Triage: the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can. “You won’t want this any more,” she grimaced. She took off my amateur dressings, and the blood started flowing again. “Are you on blood thinners?” “No.” You must have cut a vein.” “This will hurt,” she said, and sprayed some ‘stuff’ on my hand. It hurt. I tried not to wince. She tied my finger up tight, put my arm in a sling with the hand held high, and sent me back to the waiting room,

An overweight white male sat there, grinning at me. “Hurt?” he asked. “Yup.” “Much?” “It’s okay.” He stood up, put his hand in his jeans’ pocket, and turned his back on me. I could see the crack of his buttocks over the top of his pants. They bowed and bagged at the knees. He hoisted them up, the crack disappeared, the pants slipped back down, and the vertical crack smiled out at me again. “Here,” he showed me a packet, half concealed in his hand. “Try these. They’ll take away the pain.” “No thank you.” “They’re good. I take them. I get them off the street.” I took notebook and pen from my pocket and started to write. The guy shrugged, put whatever it was back in his pocket, and started to whistle.

The waiting room smells were different from the those of the triage room. In with the nurses, I had sensed their body warmth, their sweat at the end of a long day and at the beginning of an even longer night. I could feel energy, happiness, though I cannot explain what they smelled like. The air seemed to throb with positivity, good will, bustle, hope, and determination.  Perhaps it was the cleanliness, the medicinal smells, the disinfectants, the cotton swabs, the fresh, clean bandages, he sense of teamwork and companionship. It smelled and felt good in spite of the occasional unwholesome odor drifting out from the plastic bag where my blood-soaked hand-towel languished along with pads and bandages bearing witness to my loss of blood.

Outside in the waiting room: a different world. A sense of boredom and hopelessness filled the air. Bodies slept slumped over in chairs. The room smelt of stale sweat, dank clothes. An old man, isolated in the corner, reeked of urine. Some sipped coffee as they waited their turn, its bitter acidic odor similar to that of morning drinks on an overnight transatlantic flight with the same sour stench of too many bodies cooped up in too small a space. Sandwich wrappers and discarded gum packets littered the floor and rustled when disturbed by shuffling feet. Distant babble of nurses and attendants. A TV high on the wall tuned to the 24-hour news on CBC muttered its words quietly from on high. One lady had brought an orange with her and, as she peeled it, its bitter-sweet perfume made my mouth water and I was forced to swallow my own saliva.

Luck was with me and I didn’t have to wait long. A nurse called my name and her arm swept me into another surgery where a young man washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel, and encouraged me to sit down. He took my hand, placed it flat on the table between us, and began stripping off the dressings. When he came to the last one, I started to bleed again. “This should have stopped,” he said. “Tell me about it,” I replied. His eyes sparkled. “I’m sorry, he said, “but this will hurt a little bit. I am going to have to freeze your finger before I sew it up.” “Do it,” I said. He opened a sterilized packet, took out a needle, shoved it into a small bottle. “You’ll feel a little twinge, but the needle carries its own anesthetic, and it won’t take long to bite.” It didn’t. I flinched at first, but by the time he pushed the needle into my finger a second time, I couldn’t feel a thing.

He peeled back the skin, began dabbing and squeezing, and quizzed me again about anticoagulants. He chatted away, happy as a budgie on a perch, and I soon warmed to him. “This might hurt,” he said, as he inserted the needle, and threaded my laceration with a thin, blue thread that he knotted, then snipped. But it didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel a thing at all. “Is your anti-tetanus up to date?” “I don’t know.” “This might be the tough one,” he said, referring to the third needle. It wasn’t.

I walked out of the hospital and drove home, elated. When I opened the door, I looked for bloodstains on the floor. Not one. The thin, pink, sand-paper rasp of the cat’s tongue had cleaned them all up. And there she sat, in the middle of the corridor, eyes glowing, licking her paw, waiting for me.

Commentary: I revisited Triage once again. My memories, a year later, are clearer, yet more distant. Have I managed to capture that experience in A Stitch in Time? I very much doubt it. So what have I captured? I just don’t know. What I do know is that the whole process of remembering, rewriting, re-configuring has been fascinating. That original setting down in words has been the starting point for four different departures, four different journeys back into the past. One of them took place last Sunday, verbally, as I was recounting the experience to those who were with me in the Saint John Free Library. Memory: what does it mean? How do we change it? How does it change us? Are our memories ‘real’, in the sense that they are accurate and permanent, or do they change as we age and color them, sometimes with a rose-tinted hue, sometimes with the deepest shades of grey and black? I cannot answer those questions. I do not have that particular skill set. But I can ask them of myself and I can set them before other writers so that they, too, may set out on similar journeys and enjoy themselves and their past as I am doing.

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Writing Memories 4

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Writing Memories 4

Module 2.1 : Accidents

Like it or not, accidents happen at our age. We trip on the rug, slip on the ice, fall in the bath, so many little things can happen, none, hopefully, serious, but every one of them annoying. In my case, my beloved traveled to Ottawa to visit our family then and I stayed to look after the cat (and have my favorite chair vomited on by the monster). I played contact sports for years, no stitches. My beloved goes away and two or three days later, I slice myself up sharpening a kitchen knife. Everything is fodder for creation. Here’s the poem.

Triage
A stitch in time

1

Banality, stupidity, or just old age:
how did the knife slip from its intended path
and end up slicing through my finger? Blood

everywhere, oozing then pumping, flowing
freely, deep ugly, red, between fleshy
cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain,

short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing
out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning
my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand,

right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first
aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press
down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet

ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom
towel, run down corridor to garage,
leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following,

sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor,
one hand clumsy on steering wheel, the other
held high as I drive to emergency, fast.

2

Three nurses attend me. The first completes
the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages
my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait.

Second nurse inserts needles, kills the nerve,
cleans the wound, sews my little finger up.

Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time
now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, checks me
for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: The poem summarizes the instant well. I think the most horrible and outlandish thing of all was looking over my shoulder and seeing the cat following me, licking up the blood trail that I left spotted across the floor. I remember her squatting there, licking her lips: little horror. So, for Sunday’s session, I turned that moment into prose.

Triage [Pose 1]
A stitch in time

1

Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Blood oozes, then squirts, then flowing freely, deep ugly, red, between fleshy cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain, short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand, right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom towel, run down corridor to garage, leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following, sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor, hand clumsy on steering wheel, horn tooting, driving to emergency, fast.

2

Three nurses attend me. So many questions. The first completes the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait. Second nurse inserts needles, kills the nerve, cleans the wound, sews my little pinky up to the sound of thread pulled through flesh, then knotted, and snipped. Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, checks me for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: Nothing wrong with that. From poetry to prose poem. But is it lacking something, some bite, the feeling of panic, a sense of shock? Alas, it is missing so much. “Every attempt / is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / because one has only learnt to get the better of words / for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / one is no longer disposed to say it.” And that is so true. What was true for me then, battered, bruised, bleeding, in shock, no longer comes through the words I left on the page. I wondered if I could warm them up a little. Here goes.

Triage [Prose 2]

A stitch in time
1
Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Blood oozes, then squirts, then flows freely, ugly, red, between deep, fleshy cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain, short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand, right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom towel, run down corridor to garage, leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following, sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor, hand clumsy on steering wheel, horn tooting, driving to emergency, fast.
2
Three nurses attend me. So many questions. The first completes the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait. Second nurse inserts needle, kills the nerve, cleans the wound, sews my little pinky up to the sound of thread pulled through flesh, then knotted, and snipped. Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, asks me questions, gazes into my eyes, checks me for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: Not much has changed yet now I seem to have lost the thrill, the shock, of that moment. I never even mentioned the feeling of achievement that warmed me when I got home, the knowledge that I had hurt myself and had got myself repaired without having to call my neighbors or emergency. I didn’t add that the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can and that she was unable to stop the bleeding. The second nurse managed that, after he injected me. He also gave me extra bandages in case the cut re-opened during the night. It didn’t. Looking back now, and remembering, I recall the hospital smells, the sense of the needle slipping into my flesh, the gradual loss of all feeling, the smell of the surgery, the scent of the anesthetic, the taste of the saliva in my  mouth. Revisiting the scene, so much later, I can begin to see all that I missed. As a result, Eliot’s words ring out truer than ever. Clearly, I will have to revisit this poem, this prose, this memory sketched into my life. This commentary, written on the spur of the moment, may help me do just that. Clearly I need to move from visual expression to visceral experience and taste and smell may just do that. Yes, I tasted my blood (so did the cat), and my saliva, and  I remember how the taste changed, oh so subtly, with each injection (there were three). I also remember the smells, all different of each of those rooms. Oh dear, so much work still to do.

Suggestions for the writing exercise included in each module:

Write a prose memoir, just reminiscing.

Use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narrative.

Choose 6-12 words from the reading and expand on them using associative fields.

Write from an image or a metaphor.

Journal style: automatic writing, but try to select the gems.

Letter style: write to a friend.

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