Week Three: Unexpected Poetry

Every day, I discover just how little I know. Just how much more is yet to be discovered. Just how much further art, and the written word, can be taken. It’s limitless, I know, but every now and then you read something and you think ‘that’s it, right there. That’s the one. Can’t get better.’

And it’s never true, which is something I can forever take heart in. It seemed to me this week that I couldn’t walk two steps without stumbling over a poem; whether it was my own fingers thundering away at the keypad frantically chasing a stray thought to the end, or an embedded hyperlink (you blue-hearted beauty, you, you eclectic lottery) sending me off to a new place, a new idea, a strange poem or something else altogether. It’s been an altogether elliptical magic, a transcendent trail of dots connected in the pauses between breaths, in the gaps between ordinary days, between waking and sleep.

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Let’s start with the article I read in The Atlantic about a found poem written using the software update messages from the popular game The Sims. 

Found poetry itself is fascinating. It’s the reordering or reframing of existing texts – like newspapers, classifieds, etc – designed to impart new poetic meaning. I wrote one myself last year, and found the process to be enormously challenging, but quite interesting. It forces you to look again at every single word, out of the context in which you originally dismissed them, and hold them up to the light every which way until you can see the angle in which it will shine best.

In any case, the Sims poem in question can be found here. The Atlantic article also references a poem by Carl Sandburg, ‘Under a Telephone Pole’, which I’d not read before but which is quite fantastic. It’s short, sharp, and unexpectedly moving considering its narrator is a copper wire. This was two days ago now, but yesterday, while reading Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she says something along the lines of, ‘I moved on from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, to ‘Invictus’…’

I realised I’d never read Invictus, so off I went:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

It goes without saying that William Ernest Henley’s poem is stunning. So I read some more, to my continued delight. Which leads me to today, when I stumbled across an article in the Guardian about the artist David Hockney, whose work was inspired by poems. In particular, the writings of Walt Whitman, a name I keep coming across – go figure, with a Master in Creative Writing degree and a focus on poetry – but whose work I am tragically unfamiliar with.

No more. I devoured a swathe of his work (while at work myself, actually), and determined that I had to buy some of his collections as soon as it was feasible. The few I read – at random, no less – were that good. From the beautifully ended 1861, to the incredibly evocative ‘A child said, What is the grass?’ to the eloquent and simple ‘A Clear Midnight’:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou
lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

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I also happened to meet my weekly quota! I wrote a very odd short story of about 2300 words – odd in that it was short, not long, and “literary”, not fantastical or science-fiction in nature. Just boring old humans. Well, it was bound to happen sometime, right? Between that, my 2000 words of blogging, the poems, and the Twitter Fiction exercise I engaged a friend in (to pretend we’d been at a bar last night and spontaneously recount the story in real time), I’d say I’ve had a rather productive week.

Here then, to cap it off, is a micro-poem I tweeted:

If wishes were #poems
We’d be drowning in stanzas
& the poorest amongst us
Would rank as high
As children –
The poet laureates of dreams.

Australia Day

Today, I’m taking a break from talking about writing & poetry, to reflect on my country.

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Our nation is one of paradoxes.

‘Australia Day’ / ‘Invasion Day,’ is only the first and most obvious: a celebration and condemnation rolled into one. Some of us decry the day that marked the beginning of our bloody, genocidal foundation. Others say, without a note of irony, ‘Why can’t I just celebrate my country?’

We like to portray ourselves as a progressive, liberal democracy, and yet the arrival of our first female Prime Minister saw a prolonged and vicious attack on her gender and a ludicrous, obviously biased media campaign to dislodge her in favour of corporate interests. We’re so progressive and liberal and democratic that we haven’t legalised gay marriage even though a majority, some 70% of Australians, are in favour of it.

We stand behind the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Britain, and a growing number of American states on this issue.

Why? Because, although we like to say we are a secular nation, our politicians – even atheists like former PM Julia Gillard – stand staunchly with Christian lobbying groups and mouth, at best, nonsensical reasons like “tradition”, or talk about a “Judea-Christian culture” which doesn’t exist. At worst, they actively quote the Bible or devolve into hate speech or wildly inappropriate and dehumanising comparisons.

We also like to portray ourselves as compassionate, as patrons of the ‘fair go’, yet turn on the most needy and most desperate – refugees – to lock them away in island jails. Worse, polls suggest most Australians are in favour of crueller treatment of these women, children and families fleeing war-torn countries, countries we have more than ably helped destabilise in the first place.

There are two main components to this that break my heart: A) We are paying up to $1000+ more, per day, to jail refugees in such inhospitable conditions they will be forced to actively go back and face home-grown persecution, rather than process their requests within our community. For a political climate stupidly fixated on a so-called budget crises, you would think – in lieu of common decency and compassion – that such an outstanding fiscal cost would be enough to warrant a re-think on this issue, but no. We actively choose to pay extra just to be cruel.

B) Hundreds of kids are self-harming and are trying, or have already tried, to kill themselves while in our care. War and sustained persecution wasn’t enough to break them, but our cruelty was more than up to the task. Some of these children have known nothing but warfare; are more familiar with the sounds of bombs falling than an ice-cream truck rounding the corner, and yet still hadn’t faced such poor treatment as they receive at our hands on a daily basis.

We like to relentlessly champion our rugged masculinity and promote our binge-drinking culture, but decry the violence that spews from the resulting unbalanced-youths and the recent spate of “king-hit/coward-punches” without addressing either the underlying culture or the far greater and more insidious rate of violence against women. “Every week in Australia, a woman dies at the hands of her partner or ex-partner. In Victoria, it’s the leading contributor to preventable death, illness and disability in women aged 15-44 years.”

Unsurprisingly, this issue hasn’t received even a fraction of the media coverage being given to alcohol-fuelled youth violence, and our Prime Minister, a man with a long history of sexism and misogyny, has said nothing about it, despite also being the Minister for Women. Just writing that sentence made my head spin.

Our multi-cultural nation, ridden with racism; our progressive liberal democracy, kept consistently stagnant thanks to entrenched corporate interests and religious institutions; our beer-crazed advocacy of two dimensional masculinity coupled with hysterical disbelief to the resulting violence of young men against other young men, a violence which has been statistically falling while women are killed every day by men without so much as a collective blink.

Our fair-go mantra is a hideous joke in the face of our sustained and illegal mistreatment of desperate and downtrodden people seeking refuge. Everywhere, I see hypocrisy blighting our values. How we can say one thing and do another so often without the resulting cognitive dissonance blanketing reality with static or else splitting in two is beyond me.

Often, when speaking out about our continued systemic failures on the treatment of women, on indigenous rights, on gay rights, on human rights, people will say, “Well, if it’s so bad, go live somewhere else,” or “It’s better than fucking Sudan, right?” Yes, by all means, let’s engage in a race to the bottom. Therein lies the death of progress. Imagine if someone had said of the horse, forever and always, “Well, it’s better than walking, right?” Sure. But we wouldn’t have bothered with the wheel, with cars, or trains or planes then. With progress. And we’d have a helluva lot of shit to clean up, too.

We can always do better. We should always do better.

We can always aim higher and we always should – if it’s not being done elsewhere, we should lead the damn way. Not hide from our responsibility. Not shirk our duty of care. Not live such a blinkered existence, beholden to now, unable to look to later or constantly distracted by the latest spin.

For a nation as bountiful as ours, as stable and full of opportunity, there are no excuses. Every year, for me, this is neither Australia Day or Invasion Day, it’s just another day in a calendar of failures to move forward. Some years are better than others. Some are worse. It would seem – with a few exceptions, like gold strands in an otherwise rotten tapestry – the latter type are the trend. While that remains the case, I just can’t muster the will to care about what we call this day. What matters the label if the product is so faulty?

If Wishes Were Poems

I had an interesting interaction on Twitter with poet and spoken word performer Anis Mojgani today.

He tweeted, “Just realized my new favorite poems were translated by Howard Norman, whose book I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place I been DYING to read.” On asking him which of those poems were his favourite, he replied with a link to the some of the poems of Jacob Nibenegenesabe.

Now, these poems are from the book The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indianswhich I absolutely must get my hands on. They are simply stunning examples of narrative poetry, full of whimsy and beauty and no small measure of mischievous joy. These stories are part of the “trickster cycle” narrative tradition, emphasising improbably magical pranks or situations, not unlike the kind you’re likely to find in modern magical realism.

The poem that hit me hardest (from the above link) is simply stunning:

There was an old woman I wished up.
She was the wife
of an old pond.
You could watch her swim in her husband
if you were
in the hiding bushes.
She spoke to him by the way she swam
gently.

One time in their lives there was no rain
and the sun began making the pond smaller.
Soon the sun took the whole pond!
For many nights the old woman slept
near the hole where her husband once lived.
Then, one night, a storm came
but in the morning there still was no water
in her husband’s old house.
So she set out on a journey to find her husband
and followed the puddles on the ground
which were the storm’s footprints.
She followed them for many miles.
Finally she came upon her husband
sitting in a hole. But he was in the wrong hole!
So the old woman brought her husband home
little by little in her hands.
You could have seen him come home
if you were
in the hiding bushes.

I was particularly struck by the wishing premise, I think, because only the second spoken word poem I ever wrote had a similar premise. I wished we needed hand-cranks to breathe, so we wouldn’t move through life on cruise-control. And if you ever lost your breath, someone else could you give an extra push, and you’d be okay. I wished we swam in the clouds and wore shirts of lightning and skirts of storm. I wished there were no walls, only doors, so the ceiling would forever be made of stars. I wished we didn’t hoard all our secrets, didn’t let them line our skin with ink and bury our eyes. I wished, most of all, that the dead could still speak just so I could hear my grandma sing one more time and in turn, I wished the dead could still hear, just so I could tell her, I’m still here.

That was the gist of it, anyway. Its power lay in its simplicity and the rhythm of repetition, each stanza containing the beats of ‘I wish’ and ‘that way’, to build momentum. It was this poem that actually made me fall in love with Spoken Word, and the power of using your voice. Of course, these Native American poems are examples of oral storytelling at its best, and the key difference is that my wishes were presented as whimsical hypotheticals, and theirs were a fabled reality. Here’s another, from Stopping Off Place:

Isn’t that fucking incredible? Good gods. My old spirit already has its shoes on. That line punched me right in the soul.

So I decided to try my own, just for fun, and because I really find these to be utterly wonderful.

What Comes to Roost

One time I thought I was clever
so I wished for wishingbones –
there had to be many I reckoned
with Old Nan turning the river
into a flock of birds
and Uncle Joe wishing
trees into women

(which didn’t work so well,
what with them being so tall
and hungry and wild) and damn near
everybody telling stories
and making change. So I said
I want all the wishingbones
in all the world

and next thing I saw was an ocean
of skeleton reefs, sharp-edged like
and not all white, and not all small
and I went down in there and soon
had cuts all along my arms and feet
and face, and the Sun was red
and I didn’t know up from down
or side from side

And all the bones from round the world
stuck their fingers in me and peeled
my skin back and my meat too
until at last, I had all the wishingbones
there beneath Father Sky’s watchful eye
and you know what I wished for then?

To not have any of it, to put it all back
and be home with my feet planted
solidly in sweet, muddy ground, not stuck
like some pig on the ends of everyone’s
wishes. Well, you know it turned out
all right, I’m here telling it to you
but I shoulda known better than
to wish so hard.

Now my feet are buried here,
and I’m growed up big and tall
and out the house. It’s not so bad
you know, thanks to Uncle Joe!
There’s some women to sing to,
whose songs I can hear on the wind
and my hands are always open
for wings to take their rest.

Week Two: On A Roll

This will just be a quick update, so first, a quick hello to the new followers – welcome! I got myself a shiny new theme just for you. Well, okay, maybe it was totally coincidental, but still, I’m glad you’re here to see it!

I don’t think I’ve ever been this consistent on the blogging front but I’m reaping the rewards, and having a great time in the process. I’ve mentioned previously how important it is to state your goals, not just to yourself but to others, and to keep track of your progress, so I’m happy to report that I more than met the 4000-word goal for this week.

I wrote a 2500-word non-fiction piece about dementia, essentially grappling with the question of what makes us human (you know, that old chestnut). Is it our memories? Our personality? Or is there a fundamental level of humanity, a well of emotion that remains regardless of what disease robs us of – be it memory, speech, or physical faculty.

It was eye-opening to even grapple with the question, honestly. I don’t have the requisite arrogance to claim I answered it – say instead that I explored it, as I’m sure I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. Even then, I doubt I’ll come to a satisfactory conclusion. Smarter, wiser, better men and women than I have tried before and failed. There is nonetheless a certain joy to be found just in the mechanics of thinking, of challenging your intellect.

Aside from that, I also revised and extended my post-apocalyptic, steampunk-y short story retelling of Red Riding Hood. That was an incredibly valuable experience on the whole; revision is everything to the successful writer, and as long as I’ve known that, I’ve also avoided that. How can I stay and work on and polish a world I’ve already created, a story already told, when there are hundreds more waiting to be born in fresh ink?

Unsurprisingly, I have a plethora of short stories with interesting concepts and half-baked execution. So it was great to finally sit down and fix a story draft (though it needs more work, honestly) and watch the world come into greater focus. That’s why you stick around on the already-done stories and make them shine, by the way. It’s like constantly watching a fuzzy TV when you could have high definition Blu-Ray quality.

I also worked on some poetry and some earlier blogs, which took my efforts this week to the 5000 mark and over. As far as the new year goes in terms of writing and productivity, I really can’t complain. I’m loving this.

Here’s hoping you’re doing all this & then some. I’ll leave you with this week’s Tweet Poems:

Left a candle
guttering in the wind
for 100 long years –
shielded by hands
aged with duty
it was undone
by a butterfly’s stray flight #poem

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When it rains
the world becomes
a soft puddle to skip stones on
& false rainbows abound
& birds fly in Ys
& frogs philosophize #tweetpoem
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Zero o’clock etched in moonlight;
the leaves a choreography of falling,
the night a fat song begging
for a throat to sing from. #micropoem
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The false light of stars
brims over the limbs
of the freshly dead
& mangled roadkill alike
making of it a beautiful
wretchedness. #tweetpoem

As the Albatross Flies (poem)

A few months back, I wrote a poem about asylum seekers for a competition. It was ultimately unsuccessful and I forgot about it.

Until I saw a post on Crikey from poet John Kinsella talking about the same issue. As well as providing his own poem on the issue, he says, “I think we’ve reached a low with the ‘turn back boats’ stuff. The situation is deplorable, and poets should be speaking out on the issue.”

Now, I previously published a poetic take on the situation several months ago on the ABC’s The Drum website but I absolutely agree with John that we should be speaking about this issue and speaking often. So here is another, newly updated.

As the Albatross Flies (circa 1788 – 2013)

The ghosts of ships haunt the horizon
of our doors-shut window-locked home.
Frayed sails hang limp on their masts
like dead flags waiting for dirt graves.

The ghosts of ships haunt the headlines
of newspapers and broadcasters. They slip behind the eyes
of media pundits and peek out from their white smiles.
You can find these lost vessels listing in supermarket aisles

and the local convenience store, dashed
on the reefs of small talk. “Reckon they can stop
the boats?” Or tow them back, or buy them off,
or fling them into space?

The ghosts of ships haunt our hoods, the creak
of seasoned wood, the hollow boom of metal hulls
rusted into shape. Walk down the streets lined with debris,
and filled with the songs sung between a mother and child

grown apart. In Cabramatta, Burwood, Auburn, Villawood,
Leichardt. In Port Douglas, Liverpool, Manchester, Dublin,
London and Cape Cod, listen to their familiar watery cries
if you can hear them above the whipcrack of war

the desperate drumming of sweat-drenched fear
the harsh caws and demented glee of shock jocks
the sweet humming of the tides after a squall
or unresponsive static to radio calls. Their mistake

not ours, to come on the ghosts of ships
and not fly as the albatross once did.
Lodged between their third and fourth ribs
weathered feathers rustle, pin-prick edges

henna-tattooing skin with aged blood
in their eagerness to be freed –
by ocean or man. by friend or foe
it remains to be seen.

Read More, Motherfuckers

I often liken great writing to falling down.

I’m not even sure why, except that when I read a great line, or wonderful paragraph – when the words leap off the page and into my throat, salmon-drunk – the sensation I have is of falling. One minute, I’m upright, engaged, fully conscious; the next, the world is sideways and my cheek is pressed to the floor, while the tectonic plates inside shift and grind and change. I live for those moments, and I can never predict where I’ll come across them next.

In any of the six books I’m reading now, in the poetry I peruse online, in a random comment or Tumblr page or New Yorker piece? It could be anywhere. I’ve become a bit of a junkie for this sensation, this collapse of self into literature, into text itself, so I read widely, almost feverishly.

Which is why I was so horrified to learn the meaning of “TL;DR” a few weeks ago. Too long, didn’t read. I keep seeing it in comments on articles across the Net, and on statuses and links on social media, like some kind of apathetic virus. Worse, I started to see writers themselves incorporating it into their process, writing less – which, when the subject is big and complex and worthy of in-depth investigation, actually isn’t good.

It leads to a less-informed citizenry, which leads to poorer decisions, to greater intolerance, and allows the elite to get away with pretty much anything they want. Just as bad, everyone becomes that little bit more boring, that little bit less developed,  and well rounded. We’re all busy as hell, but you can make the time to finish an article, to learn the full extent of rape against men in war, or to get a thorough and fascinating profile of President Obama, or be charmed and re-invigorated by the talent of Maya Angelou.


The thing is, as often as I am compelled to share the spoils of the writing I come across on the internet, I know that the longer the piece is, the less likely anyone is to read it or comment or share. People aren’t even prepared to have the conversation. The profile of President Obama is 18 pages, a fair slog for anyone, and it’s not that I don’t understand why people can’t be bothered sometimes, or that I myself don’t sometimes just want to skip it, it’s only problematic I feel when the practice becomes so commonplace as to have a shorthand. As to change the way we interact with the written word.

The value of reading widely and reading deeply cannot be overstated. To read is to douse yourself in another’s soul, to lose yourself, to silence the cacophony of your mind and stretch. This is another sensation I equate with reading, stretching – your mind, your heart, your everything becomes more. Nor am I being overly whimsical, there have been scientific studies showing that reading, even just one book, can have an immediate impact on your brain that lasts for several days.

But let me return to the reason I wanted to write this post, it actually had little to do with the insidious “TL;DR”, or with people reading less, it was just to talk about the Paris Review interview with Maya Angelou that I linked to earlier. Now, I’ve read several of her poems, and I’m aware of her general presence and legacy but this interview, which I read in my lunch break, was like a supernova going off in my cerebral cortex. Her charm and grace and way with words was so instantly apparent that I determined to immediately purchase her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after work.

Which I have done and began reading and am already in love with. Now, in preparation for few people actually reading that piece, I’ve chosen three paragraphs she wrote that smashed my ribcage to powder. And you will see, I hope, how, even in an interview, a great writer can speak to you with such resonance that you know you are destined to read them, because in so many ways, you already share the same breath. Believe me when I say picking just three paragraphs was difficult, and you really should read the whole thing, then buy her books, but if you can’t, if you only have space for three paragraphs, let it be these:

1. “Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth.”

2. “When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”

3.  “Terence said homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. When you look up Terence in the encyclopedia, you see beside his name, in italics, sold to a Roman senator, freed by that Senator. He became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that statement have come down to us from 154 b.c. This man, not born white, not born free, without any chance of ever receiving citizenship, said, I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

Now if that doesn’t move you, nothing will.
And I found it because though I was tired, in pain, and at work, reading is everything.

Week One: A Bust/ Accidental Success

A week ago, I promised I’d get my writing schedule back on track.

I set a low minimum bar of 2000 words per week, with a goal of 4000. Well, as fiction goes, I didn’t do much of anything this week, I’m afraid. I did, however, write two substantial blog posts which easily crested over the 2000 mark. I didn’t plan on writing the blogs, as it happens. It just so happened I had things to say on certain subjects. Conditions in my cursed house (it traps the worst of the weather inside, be it hot, cold or deathly) were awful, too, but I persisted.

Typically, I can’t write in the heat. I cannot focus when it’s so hot my sweat is sweating, and I find myself somehow sinking into and slip-sliding across my leather office chair. And yet, I didn’t go to the blessedly air-conditioned library, I sat at home, and I wrote those posts with relative ease, all things considered. The difficulty with concentration is seemingly much easier to overcome when the subject of my writing is non-fiction, is journalistic.

Fiction demands more.

Or, it’s entirely psychosomatic, and I’ve built a big ol’ something out of a whole lotta nothing. Either way, my point is I got shit done. I wrote. Any writing is better than no writing. I also finally got started on a long-brewing, multimedia, multi-platform project. I was reminded, thanks to Teju Cole, whose work on Twitter remains far more interesting and thought-provoking than anything he’s done with conventional fiction*, of the power of micro-fiction on social media and utilising technology in interesting ways.

Teju is – to borrow a phrase from China Mieville – a bit of a literary DJ on Twitter, dipping into the “stream” of the timeline and carefully utilising the chaos to string a deliberate, ordered story throughout it. Like little stepping stones that can be grasped by powerful swimmers and the drowning alike, he decontextualises the building blocks of story and sets them loose into the vortex of Twitter as if daring you to build your own meaning around fragments or hook you enough to go find the rest of the story yourself.

So, seeing that reminded me of the story I wanted to tell, entirely based in Facebook/Twitter, and I’m happy to say I made progress on that front. I also re-started my tweet-poems. Every now and then I used to tweet little micro poems, but I hadn’t for the longest time, and having gotten going once more, I’m already reaping the rewards. Not just in more followers, which I don’t really care about, but in keeping my mind sharp and the poetic lens in focus.

I don’t want to just be a passive observer, a might-as-well-be-a-bot account, fading into oblivion beneath an unceasing tide of Tweets and Facebook statuses. I want to interact with it, to create, to poke around in the guts and see what makes it tick, what makes you tick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m often every bit as boring as most people, with gratuitous photos and mundane posts aplenty – I’m just sick of it. That spark in me always wants to do something more.

Something interesting, you know? Hell, I wrote a poem on this a few weeks ago.

That said, here is a selection of these micro poems to wrap up:

@tinylittlepoems My dreams leave footprints
on her pillows; cloud-shapes
to decipher in the morning –
a stray breath & it’s gone #tweetpoem

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Skin opens beneath sun;
Drink in light, ooze memory
A photosynthesis of thought
& dream, wilting in tall grass.

A #tweetpoem for #Sydney.

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Passing time
is harder & easier than kidney stones:
I lose moments with each breath.
Others lodge in my ribs
like fruit of bone #micropoem

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If I could only open my chest,
spread red & white wings back,
I’d see just how small the fists
of rage are, how tinny its voice. #micropoem

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Don’t cut into the heart of me
& spill books -other people-
poems and worlds
Out. You’ll only get lost
in the excess. Like I am #micropoem

Not going to lie, writing in such incredibly tight constraints is insanely difficult, especially for poetry. What I love about these is that they represent little fragments of my mind, floating thoughts, that would otherwise be lost. So while I’m sitting on the train on the way home from my dreary, mind-numbing job, it’s so very easy to just sink into that creative space and write the very first thing that comes to mind.

They may not be amazing; they’re not meant to be. I like them for what they are, for being signifiers of what would otherwise be lost. Now, as I start to exercise this muscle more often, I’m sure the quality will increase as well, which I’m sure we can all look forward to together.

All in all, as first weeks go, it wasn’t the best.

But it certainly wasn’t bad, either; I wrote, and that’s enough for me.


* Just a note that I should really give his novel Open City another go.
Didn’t make it all the way through the first time around.

An Outstanding Start to 2014: Books

This year has already been absolutely terrific for me, as far as reading goes. The first book I read was a Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Other Wind’, which I grabbed while down at a friend’s place in Kangaroo Valley. It’s a beautiful, elegant fable, powerfully told by a master storyteller. Since then, I’ve had the absolute pleasure to re-read an old favourite (American Gods) and discover an incredible talent (decades late).

That talent would be the remarkable Denis Johnson. A week or two back, my friend came home and said, ‘I’ve chucked a you, and just bought a random book by someone I’d never heard of. It’s called Train Dreams.’

He read it, I read it, and we agree: it’s a masterpiece. At only 120 pages, it’s more novella than novel but it  packs more beauty and pain in its punch than most fully-fledged books. It’s like sinking into the dream of a worn life in the Old West. Johnson’s prose and ability is akin to Hemingway – they have the same blunt, efficient sentence-making – but better, in that he couples this narrative immediacy with the finesse of poetry.

Having stumbled accidentally onto this Pulitzer Prize-nominated, National Book Award winning author and poet, I couldn’t stop there and have just finished his short story collection Jesus’ Son. It absolutely blew me away. This collection is set against the backdrop  of a run-down small town and while never stated outright, is narrated by the same troubled young dope addict. Johnson’s immeasurable skill is in taking ordinary, beat-down people and, in a single sentence, transporting you into their lives. He brings them to immediate, vivid life in each story – most of which feel like disturbing fever dreams.

Time is elastic; so is his perception of the world, along with his morals. These stories feel not like drug-highs, but the hangover that follows, the pall that pulls at reality, stretches and bends it and makes universes out of each sand-grain rolling in your eyelids. But don’t take my word for his brilliance, here’s a selection of some of my favourite lines.

In Car Crash While Hitchhiking:

His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down on the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

In Two Men

A quarter mile behind us, Stan paused among the fields in the starlight, in the posture of somebody who had a pounding hangover or was trying to fit his head back onto his neck.

In Out on Bail:

I looked down the length of the Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped some place – I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists.

In Dundun:

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

In Work:

The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that stranded her here.

In Emergency:

A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.

In Dirty Wedding:

I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materialising and dematerialising in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.

Okay, this isn’t working. Every sentence I choose is shown up by the next sentence in line, and the next, all of them of a piece with their respective wholes, with the tone and atmosphere. I’m so immersed in them, I don’t even know if I’m choosing right, I want to choose all of them, every word – to give you the ordinary description pared with the unexpected brilliance, the sucker punch of poetry, to give you the command of narrative, the rejection of form, to show you how utterly impossible it is to know where any given story will end or why.

I cannot explain how he’s able to say so much in so little space, how a character can loom so large over a single page, how a single line can realign the meaning of the entire narrative and your perception of the narrator. This is a novel I will have to read again, and again, and again so that its magic can sink into my bones, so that by osmosis if nothing else, I can begin to learn the secrets of such masterful work. Right alongside George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Alice Munro’s Dear Life, these are stories to be experienced and to be studied.

Pick up some of his work as soon as you can – you will not regret it, I swear. With that being done, and continuing the theme of incredible short story collections, I can happily report I’m now reading Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and it is shaping up to be everything I hoped for and then some.

A Tale of the Manifold Americas

The other night, I watched two films back to back, ‘the Wolf of Wall St’, and ‘Out of the Furnace.’

I rarely have the time or inclination to do such, but it made for an interesting contrast. The first film, ‘Out of the Furnace’, starring Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Forest Whitaker, is a stark and grim depiction of urban decay. The small town of Braddock, PA, is dying a slow death, its fortunes inexorably tied to the steel mill which is now shutting down.

This is a story of two down-and-out brothers, Rodney (Casey Affleck) and Russell Baze (Christian Bale). Rodney is an Iraq war vet on a self-destructive downward spiral, unable to extract himself from the war, to deal with the utter mundanity of working a shitty 9 to 5 job after the exhilarating and traumatic experiences he had as a soldier. He gambles and gets himself in deep debt to local bookie and small-time crim John Petty, who puts him to work in underground bare knuckle fighting rings.

Russell, the older brother, is in no better shape. A solid, hard-working man, he is used to cleaning up after his younger brother,  until one night he can’t anymore: tipsy from a meeting Rodney failed to show up to, he drives home under the influence, and is involved in an accident. He winds up in jail for a few years, leaving Rodney to fend for himself. The difference between the brothers is rooted in their psychology, in the way we react to hardship: Russell buckles down, gets the work done. It might not pay much, but the satisfaction of doing good work is what holds him together.

Rodney, on the other hand, disdains work. Disdains a society that he finds goes out of its way to ignore him, that doesn’t recognise and belittles his sacrifice. Nothing illustrates this contrast better than the scene in which Russell comes home from prison for the first time – he finds the house in great disrepair, and immediately sets about fixing the place. Rodney comes home, freshly bruised and busted from his last fight, and says, deadpan, “The place looks great.” The point of this film isn’t the recession, isn’t the treatment of war vets, isn’t any of the tentative political touches – it’s right here, in the painful, pulsing moments between two brothers, two great actors.

Casey Affleck and Christian Bale do an outstanding job in bringing new meaning and heat to familiar material. Their scenes together are mesmerising; Affleck’s tortured physicality, his wounded eyes, and Bale’s deep-seated sadness, his disappointment so constant its woven into his skin, clash whenever they meet. Briefly then, the cloud is lifted. Their melancholy fades behind genuine camaraderie, behind fleeting joy. This ultimately dour film is not saved by its performances, but is definitely rendered memorable thanks to them.

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Write Now

Okay, it’s time to dust off the rust & fly again.

I took a break once I finished my Masters in Creative Writing last year. I only meant for it to last a week or two, but as is always the case, it keeps stretching out and it’s now been almost 6 weeks with only bits and pieces and the occasional poem written in between. I told myself I’d start my writing schedule back up again this week but already, I’ve found life continually doing its best to get in my way and prevent these fingers from doing their fated work.

Even this declaration of intent has been a struggle to get to – I’m writing this at work right now.

But I have to do it. The great thing about the “52 In a Year” experiment I tried out last year was that my intent was public. Everyone knew my goal and I need only look at the last post to see the gains I’d made, and renew my dedication to keep going.

This time around, I’m not going to aim to do a short story a week. I want to finish this damn novel. That’s my goal this year.

No more excuses. Not even for poetry, that darling orchard in my chest that keeps on growing. This year, I finish my novel and I’ll aim to do that via a weekly goal of 4,000 words, with a 2,000 word minimum for those hard-to-get-to weeks. I don’t think every week will be devoted to the novel. I’m too scatter-brained for that, there will inevitably be a week or two of short story writing interspersed throughout but even accounting for that, I should have this book well and truly done before the end of the year.

I’ve said it now, said it the world. I never keep the promises I make to myself, you see. The silent ones.

But the notion of ever breaking my word to another fills me with horror. So this is my promise to the everyone:

This year, I will finish this novel and more besides. Everything else be damned.