Manuscript Assessment

Hello, new readers and old. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Omar Sakr (it’s plastered all over this joint, so this should be obvious, to be honest). I am a bisexual Arab poet from Sydney, and I’m officially offering my skills for hire.

Here are some of the successes I’ve clawed out of the world already: my poetry has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Poems 2016, Contemporary Australian Poetry, Island, Red Room Company, Strange Horizons, Overland, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Twisted Moon, and Carve Magazine, among others.

I have been shortlisted for the Story Wine Prize (2014), the Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets (2014), the ACU Poetry Prize (2015), and the Fair Australia Prize (2016). This year, I also placed runner-up in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize (2015) with my poem ‘Not so Wild’. I’m incredibly blessed to say that some of my poems have been translated into Arabic and published in the pan Arab newspaper Alaraby Al-Jadeed by acclaimed international poet Najwan Darwish. Earlier this year, I co-edited an issue of Cordite Poetry Review with award-winning writer Fiona Wright, and I’m currently the Poetry Editor of the Lifted Brow.

On the non-fiction front, I’ve been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, Archer, Going Down Swinging, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings, and SBS Comedy, among others. My debut full-length poetry collection, These Wild Houses, is due out early next year (2017) through Cordite Books. Sadly, there’s little to no money involved in publishing poetry, even books of it, so I can’t rely on it to support me. The crazy thing about being successful as an emerging poet, or indeed a published poet at any stage of their career, is that it doesn’t translate to having an income. It is a success that becomes measured in cultural capital, which would be nice, if I weren’t so worried about being able to pay the rent.

I moved from Sydney to Melbourne a few months ago because I knew I couldn’t keep it up. I wanted to find work that I didn’t loathe, and doing that, I thought, would be easier in Melbourne because the rent would be cheaper. I was right about that, the rent is cheaper by a factor of a few hundred dollars per month, which is awesome, but I haven’t found work yet. It’s proven a lot more difficult to get than I expected (as an experienced professional with two degrees), and I’ve been looking now for months. I don’t think editing manuscripts or essays or whatever it may be will become my main income and I’m not looking for it do that, but what it might do is help alleviate some of the pressure.

Ongoing work is the best way out of this loop of anxiety I find myself in, and so I’d like to direct all those interested in helping out to do so by making use of me. If you or a friend have a manuscript of any length which needs proofreading or editing, please get in touch here. To any and all who have contributed, who employ me, or share my work: thank you, thank you, thank you.


a constant state of collapse

[Note: if you follow my blog for poetry posts, you can turn away now. This is personal.]

I have been struggling recently. Those five words are among the hardest to write, to say. Though I have admitted it before, and though this is neither the first or the last time it will happen, it somehow doesn’t get any easier. It’s been an especially weird period in my life, because on the face of it, it hasn’t been all that bad. I have made numerous strides in weaning myself off the soulless corporate tit and transitioning to a life paid for with my words. My writing (which is generally published by other corporations but these at least have some shred of soul, I’d like to think). Professionally, I’ve been doing well. Many poetry publications and a couple of prize shortlists this year is nothing to sneeze at, and I’ve still got work forthcoming in Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Archer magazine and The Saturday Paper.

Personally, however, things have been pretty bleak and never more so than this week. I found out that my poem didn’t win the ACU Prize; my mother lost her tribunal hearing in regards to her housing so she has to find a new place to live in a few weeks’ time (whilst unemployed); one of my older cousins passed away; and my father is in the hospital. Over the course of the past few weeks, I also haven’t been paid for any of the work I’ve done, both the regular “real world” type and the freelancing writing kind, the strain of which is beginning to tell. The only reason I’m even mentioning the failure to win this prize is because, as everything was disintegrating around me, it gave me a sliver of hope I usually don’t indulge in that I would be able to fix things.

A sliver of hope that I might be able to swoop in and help my mother in a substantial way–not save the day completely, because she has never been a woman in need of saving, but help nonetheless. Everyone needs it at some point. Naturally, I ending up losing that chance, if I ever had it to begin with. Knowing that only two non-white poets have won prizes like these out of the last 120+ in this country means that I approach any shortlist with a mountain of cynicism in tow. Once more, my financial circumstances led me to a place of desperate hope and once more I was disappointed. It’s foolishness, really, allowing myself to fall for the same trap. But this isn’t about money, nor is it even about being able to help my mother, as important as I feel that is…

It’s about the fact that for weeks now I’ve quietly been preparing to tell my family directly about my bisexuality. My friends know, of course, and I’ve been open about it online so if any of my blood should happen to look up my name, it’s there to be seen, but I am tired of waiting now. I was praying the decision would go my mother’s way (as it should have, for long and complicated reasons I won’t go into now) and I was praying for the prize in case it didn’t, even though I am not a man given to prayer.

I was praying because if I didn’t have to worry about my mum’s circumstances, I’d be free to tell her about my sexuality. The only reason I can’t now is because once she knows I expect that she’ll never want to hear from me again, even if I was in a position to help her. She’s just that angry, that stubborn, that proud. Like me.

You might say, well, then it’s not your problem. If she turns her back on you, then it’s her own doing and none of yours. Except it doesn’t really work that way. She’s my mother. I will always love her, no matter her flaws, no matter our fractured and violent history. I have to do right by her even if she isn’t doing so by me. So I’m back to closing my mouth, and keeping the words I desperately need to say inside. Eventually, sometime over the next six weeks, I expect the money I am owed for the various works and writings I have done will trickle in, and I will be in a slightly better position, a position to help her. I will do that, as I am able, and then say my piece. If everything goes to plan, that tie will be cut, that weight lost, and I will finally be at ease.

After visiting my dad in hospital today–an experience worthy of its own post–I went to my great-uncle’s place. His son, 45 years of age, passed away recently. I’d never met my great-uncle or his wife prior to this point, but I walked into their little flat, into their grief, and his face lit up. He said, in broken English, ‘You, your father, same.’ Turning his hand this way and that. ‘Exactly same.’ He, like many of my Turkish relatives, seem unendingly delighted in my features, in the similarity they see there. His wife was much more reserved, she didn’t say anything other than to indicate where I could place the box of oranges. I was there with my own uncles (his nephews) to provide the two with enough boxes of fresh food to feed a village. ‘We have to take care of them,’ my uncle said. ‘If not us, then who, you know? They’re old.’

To give you an indication of the age range here, my uncle is 60, his hair silver to my great-uncle’s snow white. Despite that, he huffed his way up four flights of stairs, carrying boxes of food for the elderly couple. That sense of family, of being there for each other no matter what, nearly broke me tonight. As I was leaving, my great-uncle seized my hand and said, ‘Here, you come anytime. Here. Home. Always home, always welcome. OK?’

I nodded and smiled, wanting so much to give in to the ache of belonging, but unable to do so. That deliriously comfortable notion of home is the reason I haven’t been direct with my family all these years. That is the nature of this struggle — it’s finding the courage to accept being cast-off and finding or building a new home in those who stick by you. I could talk about a whole range of other issues plaguing my life, but I have laid bare the crux of it and already I feel better for it. I do have some income due soon, as mentioned, and some work lined up; my life feels like it’s disintegrating, yes, but it seems always to be in a state of collapse and I have survived it before, I will survive it again; and I am always, always aware of my own privilege in still having a home and food, in being a man–even a brown bisexual one–in relation to the rest of this wracked, broken world. So, even now, even in the midst of this, I find room for gratitude, as I think we always must.

It’s only a permanent impermanent home that I lack, a family I can trust in full.  There are worse things to face, I suppose.

These Laughing Gods

A year on from Robin Williams’ passing, and the hole he left has yet to be filled. Re-posting this tribute because it’s a good time to remind yourself to look out for your friends and loved ones who may be struggling much harder than you realise–and to look out for yourself, as well. If you are depressed, don’t hesitate to seek help. There’s always someone out there who cares, always another reason to draw breath, always a little bit of light glimmering somewhere in the dark.

Scratch That

I think we all fall a little in love with the funny ones.

You know the ones; a smile blooms on your face just by thinking of them. Like your body has bookmarked their joy, and said, look, this is how they make you feel. Store this beauty, store this secret magic, let it line your eyes. You build it up inside with every laugh leaving behind an echo, a residue. This is why sometimes, even when they say something that isn’t particularly funny, you’ll find yourself braying at the moon like a drunk donkey, while others sit with a polite grin frozen on their faces. Didn’t you guys hear that one?

Robin Williams – the outstanding comic and brilliant actor, the man, the husband, the father, the genie – passed away today. This will not surprise you, I am sure; his death has hit the world with a seismic…

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Thursday Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Hello, and welcome, you magnificent bastards. Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to those of you who responded so kindly to my poem – I truly appreciate it. I’d also like to say, since it was raised in the comments, that if you’re keen to introduce yourself or say hi, I’m aware you can’t do so on my About page, but you can always go over to the Facebook page I recently made for the blog. It could do with some loving anyway. Ultimately, as I’ve said before, I’m not here just to hear myself talk – so to speak – I’m here to start a conversation. If you’re so inclined, go ahead and start talking.

Now, this week’s headline is perhaps a little misleading. See, what I really want to talk about is the article which led me to the poem. Bringing A Daughter Back From The Brink With Poems by Betsy MacWhinney is an extraordinary story about a mother trying to get through to her self-harming daughter. I’m going to quote liberally from this piece now because it’s so endlessly wonderful, but I urge you to read the entire thing:

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest, so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well. What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe…

One of the joys of writing this weekly blog, of this challenge to find a new poem to talk about every week – generally from authors I haven’t read before – has been the feeling of discovery. The way I seem to just trip over a poem at the last minute, or when I am least expecting it, as if it was some kind of house cat — something we think domesticated, but which is still wild at heart, and always getting underfoot, always making itself the centre of attention —  thrills me to no end. I love being surprised. I think this is why this idea of finding a new poem in your shoe each day resonated so strongly with me.

You will have noticed the poem linked to in the quote above is Wendell Berry’s ‘Made Farmer Liberation Front’, which is itself a truly exceptional poem propelled by furious rhythm; it is a manifesto for living and I can’t recommend it enough. However, I didn’t choose to make it the focus of this piece, I chose Wild Geese, referenced later in the above article, partly because above all, I favour simplicity, and partly because it ties in so well with the theme of the article, with the anguish of adolescence, and the crushing nature of depression.

Because, most of all, it offers hope. It begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

I fucking love these five lines. Forget the rest of the poem, lovely as it is. Let’s linger here. Poetry is all about lingering, anyway, staying in a moment long after the moment is gone, luxuriating in it, exploring, finding more and still more beneath the surface. That first line alone is a clarion cry – so much of our everyday struggle is to be good, whether we realise it or not. When we are children, what are we told? Be a good boy. Be a good girl, you wouldn’t want to be a bad one would you now? Shudder. Perish the thought.

There are times, however, as an adult, where this isn’t possible. You aren’t being bad, in the absence of good, you’re just unable to reach the ideal, to shoulder the constant, exacting burden. It’s too much. You struggle, you fall. If you’re lucky, in time, with help, you get up again and the struggle begins anew. This is why the opening line, ‘You do not have to be good’ is a clarion cry – it slices right through the bullshit, right through that notion that you must be anything, it frees you from expectation, unhooks the anchor lodged in your spine. As far as necessity goes, you need only concern yourself with the last of those five lines.

All you have to do is let yourself love what you love without discrimination, without judgment. Love it, and let it end at your love. Remember, too — this line is so fucking good — we are animals. There is something so delightfully undercutting about that, in the best possible way. We have a tendency to self-aggrandise, to attribute everything to our own actions, and in so doing, tend to judge ourselves on an equally obscene scale, which can only end badly. We’re just soft meat, in the end, like the geese in this poem.

Like them, too, we are always looking for home.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,

I don’t have a poem today, and for that I am sorry. I feel like my chest is a minefield and sometime yesterday, I unwittingly stepped on one, and my everything has been scattered by the blast. My heart would give any veteran’s game knee a run for its money, as far as being utterly fucked on some days, then fine for stretches. There’s no explanation for it. Some days, it’s like shrapnel rattling around in my ribcage and with each move, with each thought, another small cut is sliced and I can’t stop the bleeding.

I spent most of yesterday in a breathless haze, panic clawing at my chest. Imaginary arguments choking my throat with the unsaid. I don’t know why I fear confrontation so much; nothing anyone has ever said could be as wounding as what I hurl at myself, be it through a figment’s mouth or my own thoughts. At about 8pm, I staggered out of the house and into the cool cloudy night, trying to breathe. I needed to go for a long walk. Long walks are my saviour, they always have been. I’m a tall guy, and there is very little that can frustrate me more than not being able to give my inner urgency voice through freedom of movement, through long strides that eat up the ground.

People always joke about seeing me out walking. My cousin will say, ‘I saw you Terminating your way up the street,’ and laugh, or someone will say I saw you walking up this highway, or ‘what do you mean you were walking in this neighbourhood at 3am? Are you crazy?’ With my family, this will usually devolve into an argument about how I should get a license already. They don’t understand that I need to walk, I need to be in a large open space, I need to be moving, because if I’m still for too long, all these thoughts and words and hurts will collide together and the detonation will leave me stunned and prone for days. Weeks, maybe.

So, I’m out on the street in Ashfield, it’s 8pm, it’s cloudy and cool and lovely. I’m thinking about New York, where I spent most of the past four months. I’m not thinking about the literary events, or the spread of lights, the infinity of colour, movies, celebrities, or crazy people I encountered, or lovely people, or whatever — I’m thinking of the walk I took every day, along the FDR by the East River. I was so serene in New York, so calm, so unaffected by the things I’m normally affected by and I didn’t know why, couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so good, despite my usual tiredness and inability to sleep, until now. Now I know.

If you haven’t been there, let me describe it: it’s basically a dedicated walkway that stretches miles. Not a sidewalk with constant stoppages and lights and traffic, but a walkway for people to stroll by the river and the parks, for cyclists and joggers too. On one side there are public basketball courts, athletic track rings, etc, and on the other is the ever-restless blue of the river. The bridges. I lived by East Broadway, right across from this walkway and every day, and sometimes the nights too, I would walk from there up to 18th St, then down and eventually to Union Sq, before heading back. A walk of about 8km, and I would do it twice some days. People often ask me what I was doing in New York and I feel so guilty, so ridiculous about this that I don’t often mention it, but aside from writing, all I would do is walk.

Walk so far without breaking, so far without needing to stop, my thoughts unfurling with music, a pleasant exhaustion seeping through my muscles — my god, it was wonderful. Forget fitness. Forget everything but the pleasure of thoughtlessness, the beauty of existing in a world of intuition and reaction. It is no wonder I wrote so much poetry along the banks of that river, or that it washed into so much of my writing; it saved me again and again and again, day in, night out, the Williamsburg Bridge arcing over to Brooklyn, its strung out Christmas lights gleaming like shiny baubles beneath the real brilliance of stars. When I think about how much I want to return to New York, so very much of it is because of that walk, that river, and how can I say that to anyone without sounding utterly mad?

Except to say that the restlessness of the river is the restlessness of my blood, except to say that when I am still, it is as if I have been log-jammed and the pressure is building, building, building and god, I need to move again before I suffocate. So I’m outside, it’s 8ish, it’s cool and cloudy and my nose is starting to run, but I’m doing the walk anyway because there’s no real alternative. I call this the Francis walk, oddly enough, because it’s the same path I take to my friend Francis’ house and that’s important purely because I’ve done the walk enough times that I don’t need to think about where my feet are going. My mind can float free, can rush and roar in the dark canopy of trees, can swerve into the tail-lights of the cars swishing by, can pause for a moment in the silhouette of the man on his porch looking out at the Arab guy swiftly walking by.

This walk is no comparison to the New York walk. Firstly, the street is suburban, tree-ridden, and without much in the way of street-lights, so I’m forever stumbling out onto the road, afraid of walking into the various spiderwebs I know cling from branch to mailbox. Some of them are only in my mind. Most of them, in fact. That doesn’t stop me from rushing onto the road whenever sudden certainty erupts that I’m about to become ensnared in the easily torn web of a spider; I’m an arachnophobe and I should do more about this debilitating fear of the scuttling, eight-legged eight-eyed symbol of death, but I’m a coward at heart and I have too many other fears, too many other hurts I’m trying to deal with right now. I wonder what the drivers must think about me, safe and still in their boxes, as their headlights flare blindingly to identify the large shape that just entered their field of vision–like, what the fuck is he doing?

I wonder too, in those moments, if this is what the deer feels, if it glories in flexing its muscles, in being so fleet of foot or hoof or whatever, in flashing through foliage, leaping over obstacles, in coming as close to soaring as any land-bound wingless thing; if its heart stutters and stops on the black tarmac, the headlights twin suns, its everything whitened, blinded. And then, if it’s lucky enough, enjoys the resumption of flight. I staggered like a drunk man from one side of the road to the other, my choices based on whichever side had less traffic at the time, only occasionally retreating to the false comfort of the sidewalk. Luckily, it’s a long straight road and I can see for some way in either direction. I pass by schools and fields and roundabouts until I come to a highway in Canterbury and now, finally, here is a stretch without trees so I can walk it in a straight line without fear, without stopping very much, and I begin to breathe better.

Like now, in fact, writing this — I began twenty minutes ago, and in the furious dance of fingertips on keyboard, I gave my thoughts an outlet, I let the river flow its maddening flow and slowly, so agonisingly slowly, the constriction across my chest began to ease, to unfurl, and I can breathe now, I can slow down, I can pick up the patterns in the swirl of the water, the ink; I can liberate the debris. I know what’s happened this week because it’s happened before. Not just the tragedy at the cafe in Sydney, the resumption of fear-driven narratives re: Muslims, race, and refugees, not just the small idiotic household concerns I’ve been putting off, or the stresses about money and rent and getting a “real” job again that isn’t writing, that pays more than the occasional freelance piece. Not just these things, or the various work I’ve sent out into the ether, little pieces of myself I’m awaiting judgment on, but so much more than that, more than I can possibly articulate at this moment–

My grandfather’s death. That’s one thing. I was thinking about this year as a whole–I wrote about it recently for a comedy piece–and while discussing it with my friend, I said to him, this has actually been a really good year for me. After all, I’ve had several poems published, two short stories, numerous articles, and was shortlisted for a prize, to say nothing of visiting Turkey and New York. A great year is what I thought, despite how utterly tragedy-ridden the year has been as a whole for the rest of the world, and I realised at the moment I said it that I’d forgotten my grandfather. He passed away only six months or so ago and he’d passed from my memory too; I’m surprised I didn’t keel over then and there beneath the surge of grief and guilt.

I forgot my grandfather; I forgot his huge ears, which I’ve inherited, albeit on a smaller scale; I forgot the smell of tobacco that inevitably clouded him; I forgot his wiry frame, the way his very sparseness of body seemed to imply a focus, like he was efficiency personified; the way his thick rectangular glasses glinted in the light; the feel of his grizzled cheek beneath my lips as I kissed him hello; seeing him out in the garden, as often to be found in greenery as he was sitting in front of the TV watching various B-grade Western action flicks with avid avian interest, despite not understanding English. I forgot him, and I think that is unforgivable and no amount of walking can change that. That’s part of it, of course–a big part–but there’s some vague, indefinable thing that binds these moments, these wounds, these hurts together, that allows them to never die, but to just sit waiting beneath the thin veneer of my skin, ready to erupt at any given point in time and I am so tired of it. So very tired, despite my mind rushing, rushing, rushing, even now.

So I didn’t find a poem this week to share, nor have I written the things I meant to write, but I will go for a not-so-great-but-just-good-enough walk today and maybe, just maybe, my body will catch up with my mind and I will be wholly tired, instead of forever out-of-sync, and able to get some rest. Able to relax. Able, in that moment of unwinding relaxation, to read poetry, to let it sink into the sediment beneath my river or be the bridge I walk across to the other side, and then, able to share it with you. To give you a chance for the same. So, I am sorry for all of that, but at the very least, I am breathing easily at last and that is a start.