Thursday Story: Punching Jackie by Matt Sumell

Last week was one of those weeks where life upended me, and so I had no time to get a blog up. Had no poem to recommend either, even if I had. This week is no better, honestly, as far as everything being entirely, hilariously fucked, but I do have a tiny bit more time and no work tomorrow, so here I am.

I’ve been reading less poetry these past few weeks, a natural reaction to the fact I’ve been writing much more of my own and assembling what I’ve written over the past few months into something that both looks and feels like a collection. A real, honest to fuck collection of poetry that is cohesive and layered. I’ve spent the past two years writing bits and bobs, utterly dismayed at the published collections I read, their seamless thematics, their overarching meaning or narrative threads, consumed by the knowledge none of my poems fit.

If they were jigsaw puzzle pieces, the final picture would look like a mangled Picasso drawn in crayon by an addled child. I finally stopped tormenting myself and just kept writing. Now, seemingly of its own volition, a thematic scaffolding has arisen, a metaphor with which to hold together these parts, and I seem to be hurtling toward the finish line with terrifying speed. I almost feel asleep as I write, as if the threads were being pulled by someone else, and it’s both a wonderful experience and a scary one. In any case, I can only hope it continues and very soon I’ll be done with it – as a first draft, at least.

Which brings me to this story, Punching Jackie by Matt Sumell. I may not be reading much poetry, but I’m still reading everything else I can get my hands on. This one has been sitting in my inbox the past two weeks and I finally read and loved it. Sumell doesn’t hold back, from the first sentence to the last, he comes out swinging, the brash masculine voice of the protagonist oozing out of every line. It’s fast, vicious, and funny as fuck. I don’t care what you’ve been reading lately – this will be a welcome palate cleanser, a reminder of the vitality, the range of colour and flavour a confident writer can bring to a short story.

This is a powerful piece, not to be missed.

Saturday Stories: Heat, Poems, Passion, Religion & Rage

So, I’ve decided to share a few more stories this Saturday. To recap the purpose of this: these are the stories or poems or articles I didn’t end up sharing during the week, or which have only just come to my attention and would make for some interesting weekend reading.

1. 2014 Was The Hottest Year On Record – NY Times.

This is a fairly straightforward read, but in terms of importance, has to go straight to the top of any pile. Articles like this should be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Every movie and TV show and song should begin with “by the way, we’re literally running out of time to avert cataclysmic climate change” so that we all collectively have to deal with the fact that we’re hurtling toward a cliff.

2. Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and Radical Supporter of Islamic State – John Safran

This is an interesting story about an apparently notorious radical preacher, Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Italian-Australian Muslim convert. I say apparently only because I’d never heard of him. He was recently living in the Phillipines before being deported back to Australia, apparently due to his radicalism, where he now lives with his mum and family in suburban Melbourne. This story doesn’t interest me because of his Islamic beliefs, or because of IS, the logical dissonance in his opinions or even the way ASIO tried to lean on him — this story interests me because of his family. His metal-loving brother, Nicholas, his fantasy-reading brother Steven, his put-upon mother who works as a cleaner at a medical centre, all of them living beneath the same roof, laughing, not just able but willing to accommodate their differences in belief and lifestyle. It struck me as so very beautiful, and human.

With that said, when the piece deviates from Cerantonio’s life, Safran’s opinions intercede, which soured the whole thing for me. I say that because Safran succumbs, as just about every Western writer seems not just willing but eager to do, to the idea you can hold up an individual as a standard bearer for a way of life, or for a religion. His view comes through in lines like the “regular hippies in the Q&A audiences who insist religion has nothing to do it” and the revelation that without a troubled upbringing to point to, “the explanation for Musa is a difficult pill to swallow. He believes.” Yep, it’s that pesky religion all right. Actually, the explanation for Musa is that he’s an idiot, but hey, that’s just my take on it. In any case, it’s certainly an interesting article, well worth a read.

3. Mike Rowe On Why Passion Isn’t Enough

This is a great read, in which Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” responds to a fan who questioned his declaration that ‘follow your passion’ was the worst advice he’d ever received. His response is interesting and articulate, highlighting the problem on an individual and societal level. For the former, he says:

Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?

And for the latter:

Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?

It’s about hard work, about ugly work, about doing what needs to be done, yes, but despite that, he’s not advocating you abandon your dreams. Do everything you can to attain them, work your ass off, and if you’re talented enough at it, you will succeed. The key thing is to interrogate yourself, your aims and progress – to keep yourself honest. How long must you keep almost-drowning before you recognise that swimming isn’t your strong suit, and that maybe you should try something else? Just because something isn’t what you want, doesn’t mean it won’t meet your needs.

4. The Republic of Islamophobia – Jim Wolfreys

This is a truly outstanding essay which provides a thorough context to France’s relationship with Islam and immigration over the course of the past few decades, a relationship which has been thrust into global spotlight following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of a week ago, but which has mostly garnered only the most superficial of reporting. This essay is a truly necessary antidote to most of the nonsense being circulated in the media, and a deconstruction of far-right politics and strategies being employed not just in France, but all over the world. A must-read.

5. Behind Anonymous’s Operation To Reveal Britain’s Elite Child-Rape Syndicate – Patrick McGuire

A chilling read about the rape of children and human trafficking as practised by British VIPs and prominent politicians/world leaders.

6. I Sought Solace In My Bookshelf – Daniel Josè Older.

Daniel Jose Older is an excellent writer, and here he explores the events of recent months/years/decades which culminated in the outcry of BlackLivesMatter, the necessity of which by itself is an incredible indictment of society and its comfortable acceptance of the murder and oppression of minorities.

And so, in the midst of a historically rooted, state-sanctioned attack on black lives, everyone from the president to the very police department responsible for Michael Brown’s death has demanded protesters avoid violence. This is like a pyromaniac telling a fireman not to smoke a cigarette.

7. Lines Written On A Splinter From Apollinaire’s Coffin – Paul Violi

I didn’t want to end on another depressing issue, so here is an utterly gorgeous poem as a palate cleanser. Read on, I promise it’s worth it.

Thursday Poems: Insha’Allah by Danusha Lameris

Hello all!

I’m so glad it’s Thursday, because I’ve been sitting on this poem for days now, twitching with the urge to share it. This is another in the long line of poems which found me, as opposed to my having to search for it, or having even known the poet. Thankfully, American Life In Poetry, a project by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, highlights brilliant poetry regularly and I came across it on Twitter.

This is a lovely poem, pure and simple. The title immediately grabbed me, given I’m an Arab poet and I’m unused to seeing Arabic words in English poems. Hell, I’m unused to Arabic in general, and more’s the pity. I only have chunks of the language in my mind, like mangled chainlink fence riddled with gaping holes, and I need to repair it. Need to read more Arabic writers, too, and that was reinforced by reading this poem, by the ache of familiarity I felt when I saw those words. (To be clear, I’m not sure if Lameris is actually Arabic, and it doesn’t affect the brilliance of the poem one way or the other.)

It begins like this:

I don’t know when it slipped into my speech
that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”
Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.
The baby will come in spring, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.

It is not necessarily about Arabic or even God, so much as it is about language, about the words worn smooth like river stones beneath the tongues of our mothers, our aunties, and grandmothers, handed down to us with a hundred different inflections to choose from, one for every situation.

Every language must have a word for this. A word
our grandmothers uttered under their breath
as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,
hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,
dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.

It’s a short poem, so I won’t say any more but I just want to quote the whole thing, I love it so very much. You can click the link above to see it on American Life in Poetry (and you should, given there are so many other excellent poems to be found there). Or if you’re lazy and skipped it, here it is again. 🙂

Saturday Stories

I have a confession to make: I’m a news and pop culture fiend. I read multiple news/entertainment/culture/art websites every day and I often find a dozen things I want to talk about with people or share or RT or whatever. I don’t share them all, though, because I’m wary of over-posting, of being muted or hidden or whatever, and because I want what I share to have maximum engagement. Basically, I’m always trying to start a conversation, I’m always interested in going a little deeper than the skin, the surface read.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen. These days, it seems most people are either angling for ‘Likes’ or Retweets, as if they were points to be won in a game. Few people are actually interested in creating or sustaining a conversation, be it intellectual or frivolous. Well, I don’t think I’ll be able to change that, and I recognise now that I can’t really dictate what people are going to choose to talk about from the things I share, so I’m basically giving up on that front. I woke up today thinking about the last half dozen stories I’d read, unable to decide what to share, or which one was the most interesting, the most meaningful, etc.

It would be easier if the things I liked and cared about were a little less diffuse, if I could group them under one banner, but if you follow me anywhere on social media, I’m sure you recognise by now that I’m as close to functionally schizophrenic as anyone can be without an actual diagnosis. In any case, I’ve decided to group some of the stories I read this week in one post here on the blog. I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing this regularly or not, but here goes:

1. The Code: A Declassified and Unbelievable Hostage Rescue Story.

Clickbait headline aside, this is an incredible story. It’s about the Colombian army hiring an award-winning ad man with a history of being at odds with the FARC rebel army, to come up with a way to get a message to hostages held by armed guards. This wasn’t the first oddball request the army had given this ad-man, Juan Carlos Ortiz. “In 2008, he dreamed up an operation to persuade pregnant female guerrillas to defect: the army air-dropped 7 million pacifiers into the jungle with a message encouraging rebels to return to civilization. The operation involved seven helicopters, three airplanes, 960 flight hours, 17,800 gallons of fuel, and 72 soldiers flying twice a week for four months.”

It’s a truly fascinating read.

2. Why I Am Not Charlie (from the blog A Paper Bird)

Of all the endless thinkpieces that have been spawned by the tragedies in Paris, I found this one to be the most insightful. It said everything I’d have liked to say, only better. Well worth reading. For more background on the subject, you can also read this great piece by Chad Parkhill at Junkee.

3. Boko Haram Massacre 2,000 people in Nigeria

The actual number of people hasn’t been confirmed but they say “the indiscriminate killing went on and on and on.” The tragedies which occur daily in African countries do not get enough time or space in our media. Sadly, it seems to be only when those issues begin to affect Western countries, or white people, that they receive any traction in our own media sphere.

“A video recently emerged, Genocide Watch reported, that shows gunmen shooting civilians as they lay face down in a dormitory. A local leader explains they are “infidels,” even though he admits they’re Muslim: ‘We have made sure the floor of this hall is turned red with blood.'”

That last bit is especially important. It doesn’t matter to Boko Haram whether they’re killing Muslim people or anyone else; they are violently insane, and that’s all there is to it.

4. Strangers In Their Own Country by Etgar Keret

I’m a huge fan of Etgar Keret’s short stories, or indeed, any of his writing. Here he is underscoring how vital the upcoming elections in Israel are to the identity, the soul of the nation. It’s a very interesting piece, summing up recent events in that country.

5. Deathwinked by Vedran Husic

One of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time, just see the first paragraph:

We called sniper alley the alley of wolves. We were young and boys and had nicknames for everything, first of all the girls. There was the Nanny, the Epilogue, and the Soulcrusher. We thought these nicknames very clever, breathless with truth. We were thirteen and easily excited. To be killed by a sniper meant to be deathwinked, a verb. I came up with that. I had a minimum understanding of poetry, a maximum amount of fear.

6. Life Story by Tennessee Williams

A phenomenal poem that manages, better than any I’ve yet to read, to merge the comic with the poet. As a sometime professional comedy writer and sometime professional poet, how to combine these two separate and totally distinct mentalities has been on my mind for a while. This is the first definitive proof I’ve seen that it’s possible. It’s absolutely brilliant. Read it!

I have more of these, but again, I don’t want to oversaturate you, so I’ll just leave it at that. Hopefully among these news articles, short stories, poems, non-fiction and opinion pieces you’ll find something interesting. If not, feel free to share others!

Thursday Poems: Making Peace by Denise Levertov

Ah, friends, it’s been a strange and unpleasant day. I wish I could welcome you back to Thursday Poems with a better context than another reprehensible attack, more grotesque murders committed by madmen clothed in religion, but entirely empty of its spirit. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to post something today, given news like this never fails to send me into a depressed spiral–the arguments that spring up in its wake, the hatred and retaliatory attacks all feel so very rote, so disgustingly familiar and expected that it’s enough to make you hopeless, to feel this cycle is doomed to continue forever until we’re all dead.

Enter poetry.

I was sitting at my desk, and thought I’d just check to see if I had any poems saved that I might like to read, and I did. From that poem, I found a random link to another, and hey presto, I arrived at Making Peace by Denise Levertov; the title promised the impossible, and what’s even more magical, somehow delivered. I felt a little more at ease in myself, and in the world, by the end of it.

It begins:

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

The stakes are set immediately and they are as high as they could be. The poet must imagine peace in all its fullness, must lay it out for the rest of us to follow, and that follow-through is what Levertov focuses on. Words are nothing without actions to give them life, to give them dimension and character. Too often, in fact, they are left empty and unfulfilled; we live in the absence of war, nothing more.

Meanwhile, actual wars go on across the globe, but for us, the still-free, the horribly wonderfully privileged, we get to pretend they don’t. That is our joy, and our curse all at once.

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

To the poet, this makes complete sense. For many of us, the poem does not exist as a whole until the last word is written. Writing one is like groping your way forward in the dark, and it isn’t until the end that the light flickers on and you can see what you’ve made. So it is with peace — it will seem unattainable, out of reach or immaterial, until the day it isn’t and has arrived full-formed thanks to communal effort. It only takes a tiny amount from each of us to achieve an outsized result.

We can do more than say we stand for free speech, acceptance for all cultures and sexes and sexualities – we can do more than tweet about it, we can do more than hashtags and Facebook likes, we can vote for leaders that are anti-war, that abhor extremism of any stripe, no matter its creed or colouring, that understand our planet is changing and we need to change with it or be crushed by a destruction of our own making – and in the absence of such leaders, we can march until our voices are heard, until, as Levertov says, each word of peace and peaceful intent becomes ‘a vibration of light’. 

Forgive my idealism if you can; in times like these, I cling to hope. A hope which was at a low ebb until this poem rejuvenated me, just a bit. You may not agree with my interpretation of it, the lens of my politics, but the poem itself is worth reading for its simple beauty alone and you can do so here.

In the absence of that, or perhaps as an addendum to it, dear humans everywhere: be kinder to each other, please. We’re all we’ve got.

New Year, New Poem

Happy New Year!

It’s 2015, and in this first week of the year I’ve written around 5,000 words, so I’m pretty happy with that, and I hope I can match or exceed that every week. I’ll be continuing my ‘Thursday Poems’ segment as usual this year, I’m just posting something today because sometimes I write little poems just for fun, the kind I probably won’t submit anywhere and don’t really know what to do with, so I figured to ring in the new year, I’d share this one I wrote last night:

An Established Poet Speaks

Look! Over there.
An Established Poet!
A brass plaque around her neck reads
‘Best before 1983.’
But I look on with envy and awe;
my own neck is empty
of plaques, feels liable to fall apart
without one, as if made of sand
and not blood or meat or bone.
Anyhow, the Poet! Let’s not forget her.
I go over, giddy with excitement
to have a chance to bandy words
with a possible future in the flesh
and in my haste, my naivety,
I vomit jewels into her lap–
words and phrases crafted to perfection,
or as near to it as I can come, or else
of exotic nature and immeasurable value,
the kind mined in Africa someplace–
and she merely looks at the hoard
with bemusement. ‘It’s a nice day,’
don’t you think?’ she said, and left it at that.
Tiny worn pebbles, every word,
but I would spend the next ten years
going over each and every one,
uncertain if, in fact, it had been a nice day.