Thursday Poems: Song Book by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’m going to have to make this quick — I’ve left Sydney for a writing holiday, and I’m currently burning hours in Istanbul, so I’ve not got much time. However, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I forgot to rave about my most recent discovery/poetic love: Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab American poet.

I came across her as I do most poems these days — through a link on Twitter, bless that chaotic jigsaw puzzle of a social media platform. Though short, this poem ‘Song Book’ is absolutely lovely. It is not a particularly original concept, being about the act of writing and its instruments, but one thing this subject will never lack is an audience: we writers are naturally obsessed with our own vocation. Obsession is the one and only determining factor in the creation of successful writers; if you are not devoted to this craft beyond all reason, how can you expect to hurdle the one million and one obstacles life will throw at you, the endless rejections, the constant miasma of fear and self-doubt and loathing?

So, we write about the subject, and we read it, too. Given that, you inevitably feel as if you have seen it all, but Nye does a wonderful job here with a combination of elegant simplicity and deft personal touches, culminating in those sensational last two lines:

but we are still adrift, floating,
thrum-full of longing layers of sound.

Just gorgeous, isn’t it? Read the whole thing here!

In all honesty, after reading that, I went on a bit of binge over at Poets.org and read a bunch of her poems. I feel like an older, wiser, female version of myself wrote this poems, such is their resonance; it’s as if the words were drawn in secret from my blood and my bones and my hope and my fear. Discovering her work has been an absolute balm, and on that note, I’ll share one more of my favourites, ‘Arabic’, which begins like this:

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”

Like I said, drawn in secret from my fire and my darkness, my joy and my hurt.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a wonder, and she is waiting for you to discover her — be it anew, or again.

Thursday Poems: My God, It’s Full of Stars by Tracy K. Smith

Okay, so I’m a little drunk — this is only relevant because I can’t actually remember which poem I last shared with my friend, and so in turn, I can’t share it with you, the nameless, faceless internet. 

However! I am nothing if not industrious, and so I went to the extraordinary effort of looking to the stack of books by my elbow and the top book on that shelf — Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. I read this collection some months ago, and I may have even blogged about it then (I can’t remember that either), but it’s still on my desk, still on top of the book pile somehow. Maybe I just always wanted it close at hand. More likely, though, it’s just laziness, pure and simple.

That said, this particular collection remains my favourite of all the poetry books I’ve read – from start to end, it is a cohesive, beautiful whole. And this poem, in particular, is exceptional, for all that it is just a single limb on this languorous body. I owe my love of it and the book it came in, to poetry editor Felicity Plunkett, I must admit, as she suggested it to me on Twitter. When I read this poem, I feel like I’m reading America, it’s so unmistakably set in that place, and within a set period of time, though it does cover some ground.

Somehow, despite being laden with pop cultural references, despite being so quintessentially American, it also frames questions and ideas that speak to our humanity as a whole, that contextualises us within the vastness of the universe. The poem itself obeys no particular formal constraint, at least not consistently, though it does favour a 3-line stanza by and large, and shines with light musical rhymes that drift in and out.

Now I’m going to shut up, and highlight my favourite part, even though that’s impossible, because it’s entirely fantastic from start to finish:

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
 
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
 
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
 
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
 
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
 
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
 
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
 
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
 
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
 
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
 
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

 

‘the frenzy of being. I want to be
one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’

There are not enough words for how much I fucking love that. Would that I could write something some day with that much grace, beauty and power. Maybe in a decade or two, I should be so lucky. Now, since I am full of duck and alcohol, I’m going to curl up in bed. Oh, and before I forget, go read the rest of that sensational damn poem here. (God, I hope I don’t regret writing this in the morning…Here’s hoping!)

 

 

 

Thursday Poems: The Corpse Garden by Adam O’Riordan

Hello all! I’d like to take a moment from my usual Thursday Poems ramble to announce some great news! That is, I’m proud to say my short story ‘Up Above’ has been shortlisted for Overland Journal’s inaugural Story Wine Prize!

I received the news some days ago, while on the train home, suffused in a black cloud after a dreary day, and it totally revitalised me. I don’t think I was even conscious of just how much my steps had been lagging lately, how reluctantly I walked, or how low my confidence was until I was shocked by this wonderful development.

After two years of dedicated effort – with some encouraging little successes along the way, to be sure – I really needed a sign I was on the right path. It’s come at an especially crucial juncture for me, considering I quit my job recently to focus on my writing and go overseas. In fact, the day the news was officially released, my Canadian visa application was refused on the basis of a ludicrous technicality (one I refute, but that’s a story for another day), and I suddenly found myself weighing my future once again.

As a writer, it’s hard to know where to go, or what will best yield results, but I suspect this is for the best. Why? Because I’ve never done too well with plans; always I’ve leapt before looking and, as Bradbury suggested, built my wings on the way down. It’s worked out fairly well for me in the past, and hopefully will again, now that I’m pivoting to travelling around instead of a permanent move. I’ll still be able to get a chunk of writing done by staying with family in Turkey for a while, exploring my ancestral homeland and practicing my craft at the same time. 

Now, were it not for this news, I’d still have gone and still have written (there’s no other option), but it would not have been with this spring in my step, this renewed drive. For that alone, I’m already incredibly grateful and happy that the judges chose my story. The depth of talent and experience on display in the other finalists is quite humbling; I’m stoked just to be included among them. I wish everyone the best of luck with their stories.

As for the poem I chose last week, it was Adam O’Riordan’s The Corpse Garden, from his collection In The Flesh. Sadly, it’s not online from what I can see, and I haven’t had time to find another poem available for your perusal. Instead, I’ll urge you to seek out O’Riordan’s work — so far, I’ve found his collection to be musical, sparse, and sharp enough to draw blood. His imagery is fantastic, his writing graceful, and stories… well, they’re just downright unusual. And I live for unusual, so I am absolutely loving it. I’ll have to leave it at that, I’m afraid! Hopefully I’ll have more to share next week.

Best of luck to all with their writing!

Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

I’ve spoken at length about my love of Ray Bradbury; hell, I started a whole other blog, 52 In A Year, based on advice he gave in a wonderful speech around 2001. He said to aspiring writers that instead of working on a debut novel, they should try writing one short story every week of the year. As he said:

“The problem with novels is you can spend a whole year writing one and it might not turn out well because you haven’t learned to write yet. But the best hygiene for, for beginning writers or intermediate writers, is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you could write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of a year you have 52 short stories and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.

It can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful. That’s what happened to me.”

So I set out to do just that. And, over the course of the following year, I wrote 22 short stories, 18 chapters of a novel (I couldn’t help myself), 2 creative non-fiction essays, and 10 spoken word pieces, as well as two short film screenplays. All in all, some 90,000+ words. The year before that? I’d written maybe 3,000 words, tops. So, without a doubt, it was a great success for me. It led me to enrol in a Masters of Creative Writing, to discover poetry, and to the various publications that have come since. I owe everything to Ray Bradbury, to his inspiring words.

So I thought I’d write a little something about him today, on his birthday, just for context. Here now are some great quotes from the man himself, in the hope that they might do for you what they did for me: provide endless inspiration.

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And lastly, most importantly:
Quote-Ray-Bradbury

Happy Birthday, you wonderful, wonderful man, and may you forever rest in peace.

Thursday Poems: Mars Being Red by Marvin Bell

Last week was a big week – I had a whole spectrum of poems I want to talk about, but I’m going to try to limit it, and talk instead about American poet Marvin Bell, the first Poet Laureate of Iowa. I first came across Marvin several weeks ago when I joined an online poetry course being held by the University of Iowa. His was the first instructional video, and for mine, remains the most telling. It’s also the only one I took notes from, and I think you’ll see why in a moment.

Here’s just a taste:

  • Try to write a poem at least one person in the room will hate. Then you know you’re doing something different.
  • Language is relative and subjective; we knew that the first time our mothers said no in a different way.
  • Every free verse poet needs to reinvent free verse. I think of free verse as a way of finding new forms of poetry.
  • Prose is prose for what it includes, but poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.
  • A short poem need not be small.
  • What they say “there are no words for”, that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

Those last two especially I fucking love. Those are the kinds of lines I look over, and each time I read them, I find something new in them. And I hadn’t even got to the man’s poetry yet, but I knew instantly I’d have to, and so here we are. So it was that last week, I finally got to reading his work, and the poem I shared was Mars Being Red, which I think perfectly encapsulates those last two points. It’s a poem I’m still trying to unpack, a poem that doesn’t have an immediately clear meaning.

In short, it’s the kind of poem I usually turn away from. It’s no secret that both in my own poetry, and in the poems I tend to favour reading, narrative is a strong focus. There is a story being told. I tend not to care so much for poems using words “to go beyond words”, or that are opaque for the sake of it, nothing more (or seem to be, at any rate). Nonetheless, once I read it, I couldn’t quite get it out of my mind and it has a delightfully subtle musicality to it, like:

Red of walks by the railroad in the flush
of youth, while our steps released the squeaks
of shoots reaching for the light.

and

 Be calm. Do not give in
to the rabid red throat of age.

This is a compact poem, ostensibly about a red planet, about colour, and all its connotations, its rage and lust and rust, and I find myself endlessly turning over the last two lines.

You will not be this quick-to-redden
forever. You will be green again, again and again.

It can be taken so many ways. Should you appreciate that quickness more, that spontaneous sparking, just because it will fade? Or is he saying instead to be easy, to not fixate on that flame, that restless emotion, it’s okay, you are changing, you will not be that way forever. I’m not sure. I change my mind all the time, and still when I read it, think of so many things right away: the imprint of a doctor’s hand, the flush of heated cheeks, the blush of skin roused by anger, by lust, by sun, by working too fucking hard, by stress, and still, yes, at the end of it, you will be green, you will be no more than grass, and no less – so tiny and inconsequential as a blade, so utterly essential for life. Again, and again, and again.

That’s from a poem of 12 lines, mind you. Consider that, if you will, and then do check out these extra bonus poems which I don’t want to wait a week to share:

The Book of the Dead Man (Nothing) by Marvin Bell

Who Burns For the Perfection of Paper by Martin Espada

Poem Without An End by Yehuda Amichai

Remix This

Recently, I became aware of an interesting project being run by the publisher If:book Australia, called Open Changes. This is essentially an open-ended workbook of flash fiction, which artists and writers are encouraged to play with, to change, to remix. As it says on the website:

Open Changes and Lost in Track Changes are writing experiments that combine contemporary remix culture with old-fashioned writing games. While Lost in Track Changes is the curated version of this event, employing the writing of five influential Australian writers including Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Ryan O’Neill, Robert Hoge and Kissy Kneen; Open Changes will be allowing authors, artists, musicians and film makers across Australia and the world to participate, with several great publishing incentives for you thrown into the mix.

 

Ever since I started to tinker with tools like Telescopic Text, for an electronic poem, I’ve been interested in the ways we can use various online spaces creatively, to tell stories, or simply to be inventive – to do something new. In fact, now that I think about it, my interest predates that, going back to the beginning of this year when my short fiction project “Aftertweet” was selected by the annual Twitter Fiction Festival as part of its winning showcase of digital writing. And then, of course, my interest in using Twitter as a storytelling mechanism stems very obviously from Teju Cole, who I became aware of early last year.

While I was researching his very interesting thoughts and ideas on how and why we use Twitter the way we do, and the exponential potential of it as a literary device, I came across a speech by China Mieville on the Future of the Novel

The aggrandisement of literature and writers is undermined by the increasingly permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as 14-year-olds remix albums – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes craply – people are providing their own cuts of novels online. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Nalo Hopkinson or Ahdaf Soueif, say, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?

We’ll be writing as part of a collective. As we always were.

 

Whether or not this will actually turn out to be the case – I doubt it – it’s certainly an interesting scenario. This idea of someone remixing my novel, something I’ve worked for years on, is terrifying. And electric. Thrilling. Obscene. As he goes on to say:

“The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will write bad novels, but good ones. The literary apocalypse accompanying remixing is not that the public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, but that they’ll improve it. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful.”

Whether or not I’m ready for anyone’s hands on something I’ve slaved years over, I can’t say. What I can say, however, is that it is inordinately fun to play around with someone else’s words, to make connections they might not have, or else to arrange it in a totally different way just to see what it’s like. You can – and I do – take risks with words there that you probably don’t in your own work, for fear of undoing your hard work. Or ruining it. That sense of play is crucial to good writing, and that’s why I was happy to jump in on this Open Changes project. 

You only have 200 words to write with, to remix, to transform. 

So why not join in the fun, and see how far you can take it, how much impact you can have on a story?

Go on, then. You know you want to…

Thursday Poem: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Thursday rolls round again, and I am on hand once more to talk about poetry. This time, I don’t have a poem to share online – I read from an actual book of pages, if you can believe it, Derrick C. Brown’s Strange Light – but I started reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass again, and I have to talk about it. I started reading it some time ago, but stopped, as I am liable to do at any given moment and flick to any of the other half dozen books I’m currently in the middle of finishing. Sadly, however, I didn’t return to it.

Then, last night, in honour of Robin Williams, I watched Dead Poets Society again and Whitman is quoted liberally in the film. So this morning, I picked it up again. I’ve picked up a habit recently of writing out any quotes or passages from books I can enjoy – partly because I might write about it later, and so it’s of practical use to me, and partly because writing out great passages is both joyous and instructive. Ray Bradbury used to say that’s how he learned to write best, he’d write out whole chunks of his favourite novels, and thereby ingest some of the internal rhythm and structure of beautiful writing in an organic fashion.

So, as I began to read it, I started writing some of the things down. Very quickly, quotes became paragraphs, became whole sections of pages and now I think I’m hitting a point where I’ll have to stop, lest I transcribe it in its entirety. My goodness, this book is something else. I am not reading it; I am experiencing it – it’s like feeling someone light the stars in your universe, like a constellation map of my soul. He knew. He fucking knew, and wrote it down, and thank fuck for that, because in these pages – these universe spanning pages – he has written everything I hope to be, the delirious ideal to which I hold myself, to which I aspire. Of great poets, and expectation, he writes:

The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes…but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

Continue reading

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These Laughing Gods

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 wave of grief. You cannot escape it, such is its impact. On every social network, on every news site, today humanity remembers one of the funny ones. I wanted to cry when I first found out, but I was on the way to work. I had to wall it up. Make sure it didn’t get out. Focus on every inane task, and not let it slip.

‘I’m not going on Facebook,’ a friend said. ‘It’s everywhere, and it’s too sad.’

Whereas I struggled to stay away from it. The outpouring of grief, in GIFS, in memes and statuses and videos and blog posts like this one, has very much been reassuring: I am not alone in feeling this. A whole generation of adults woke up today and found an integral part of their childhood was gone, found someone had turned off a light we didn’t even know was still on, still burning away inside us, still keeping the dark at bay. Never has the dark faced a fiercer foe than in that man. He stood on the edges of everything and threw jokes at it, and danced, and laughed, and for a time we danced with him. He burned so brightly for us, sparing nothing.

And because he did this for us, because he kept us safe and showed us the power of joy, we loved him. God, how we loved him. Love him still, and always. Some people like to rag on one of his films, Patch Adams, and the idea often associated with it, that ‘laughter is the best medicine.’ Well, I am the living embodiment of that truth. I have battled depression for years now; it is a bleak debilitating shadow that never leaves me, that I have to always fight. Some days it may only be a sliver of dark on the sidewalk. Other days, it is an all-encompassing blanket of night I can’t see through, and when you’re stuck inside it, you can’t hear anything but the bad voices, the loathing and fear and hate, and you can’t even think to ask for help, can’t bear the thought of looking anyone in the eye and letting them see just how low you’ve fallen.

So, how have I not fallen yet? How have I not given up? Laughter. Comedy is the lens through which I filter the world; to take it too seriously would crush me. This is why I begin to fracture whenever I even begin to consider the Gazan crisis. There’s no room for comedy there, and I can’t handle it. My friend and housemate once remarked that he’d see me come home from work with a ‘black look’ on my face, and that I’d go straight upstairs to my room, but he never worried, because moments later he’d hear the signature sound of The Daily Show start up, and my laugh roll through the house.

I cannot say this enough: Jon Stewart has saved my life. Without The Daily Show, I’m not sure I’d still be here. I watched every episode and whenever I did, I felt that black cloud lift just a bit. Here was a man looking fearlessly into the awfulness the world was throwing at humanity, and said, look here, isn’t this ridiculous? Without comedy, I most definitely wouldn’t be here; I seek it out wherever I can. I watch old reruns of The Simpsons and Seinfeld religiously because they are gifts that just keep giving. Like Robin Williams. Like Jerry Seinfeld. Jon Stewart. George Carlin. Richard Pryor. Patton Oswalt. You name them, whoever it was that made you crack up. Louis C.K.

Hell, last night I was watching Bridesmaids, and just staring at Melissa McCarthy’s face during that scene, just before anything actually happens, had tears streaming down my face. I had to force my friends to watch it because they don’t like “awkward comedy” – I know, I need new friends – but I sold it by saying, ‘When I watched it the first time, I laughed so hard I died, and was resurrected by the echoes of laughter jolting back into my damn body.’ I may also have said it wasn’t awkward at all, because yes, I’m a bastard that way, and I’ll do anything for laughter. And I have a special place in my heart for Melissa McCarthy, who can wring laughs from stones, whose timing and physical comedy is just superb…

I’m rambling now. I just set out to investigate why it hurt so much this morning, what it is that connects us to these people so strongly, and already I’ve spoken about a half dozen other people because… I’m telling you, we fall in love with them. How can we not? They make us laugh. Give us joy. And laughter saves lives /resurrects the dead. Okay, maybe not the last bit, but definitely the former. Now, to every comedian out there, to everyone who struggles with their own crippling shadow, their own mountain of faults and loathing, to everyone who brings a smile to another’s face, who laughs loudly and freely, I leave you with this gem from that much maligned film, Patch Adams:

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride. I love you because I know no other way than this. So close that your hand, on my chest, is my hand. So close, that when you close your eyes, I fall asleep.

Laugh long and prosper, friends.

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(A tribute from artist Joe Petruccio.)

The Monarch of the Glen by Neil Gaiman

I just finished reading the wonderful American Gods novella, The Monarch of the Glen, by Neil Gaiman. It picks up smoothly from where that novel left off, without missing a beat, and Shadow traversing the wilds of Scotland, having understandably left America following his death, resurrection, and a bloody cataclysmic war between the gods.

I loved this little story, because though short, it felt mythic and grand in scope; it achieves this effect because Gaiman steeps his work in history, in fable and legend. It should go without saying that it is beautiful, too. Normally, considering its length, I would not feel the need to comment on it, but on updating Goodreads, I saw a few reviews that seemed to miss the mark entirely, so here I am.

A lot of people don’t seem to understand Shadow; that’s okay, Shadow barely understands Shadow. And it is this central question which the novella begins to answer. For those who didn’t gather as much, however, let’s go over some of it. He lacks agency, you say. He is empty. Yes, he is, and that’s the point. He is the empty container through which the forgotten fable, the invisible local legend, snags and is briefly caught, briefly known again. He is the mirror held up to the landscape, dredging up its secret stories.

Shadow has no real interest in this world, and is therefore the perfect medium through which to interact with it. To absorb it. Such interactions take their toll, of course. As with every fairy tale, there is a price, and it is this question – how much? – which the story begins to answer. You need only read the very first line to know. The best short stories set up a question in the first line; granted, it is seldom this literal.

“If you ask me,” said the little man to Shadow, “you’re something of a monster. Am I right?”

The little man, a man all of grey, is Dr. Glasker, and he hires Shadow to act as security for a party occurring in the coming weekend. Something about it all doesn’t seem right, but Shadow finds himself accepting. Partly because he’s adrift, and partly because the world nudges him to do so, as it always does in these situations. There is a scale that needs balancing in the universe, a question of gods, and Shadow is the feather providing the measure.

Before the party swings round, Shadow walks the countryside, and meets the people he needs to meet, whether he knows it or not, and before you know it, it feels almost as if we’ve always been in Scotland, and as if we’d never leave. Gaiman’s skill is not in making his stories beautiful – anyone can do that – it is in granting them a sense of permanence by drenching the fantastic in the dust of ordinary details, in the ambiguity of memory. Sure, he’ll tell you about the time he met a woman who wasn’t quite a woman (or was she?), a creature of the fey, but he’ll be sure to mention too, the quality of the cup of coffee he had that morning.

“Dr. Glasker kept saying you were a monster,” she said. “Is it true?”
“I don’t think so,” said Shadow.
“Pity,” she said. “You know where you are with monsters, don’t you?”

He never lets you forget the purpose of it all, though. Later, once Shadow’s discovered the truth behind his trip, behind this job, he stands face to face with this question.

“It’s patterns,” he said. “If they think you’re a hero, they’re wrong. After you die, you don’t get to be Beowulf or Perseus or Rama anymore. Whole different set of rules. Chess, not checkers. Go, not chess. You understand?”
“Not even a little,” said Shadow, frustrated.

Shadow – and by extension we – comes away from that encounter with an answer, or at least the outline of one. Why do I say that? Because much as it stands on its own, in as much as anything can when it takes place in a continuing world, this story is also a stepping stone. The full weight and meaning of the answer will be given the time and space it most assuredly needs in the next novel, the true sequel to American Gods. And it can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned.

I didn’t realise just how much I’d missed that voice, that character and world, until I was immersed in it once again. Gaiman’s writing has that sing-song quality I just can’t get enough of, and it is that element he’s mastered which sets him apart from other fantasists, from other writers. As a poet, it is the quality I prize above all else, the tide which guides my course: rhythm. He’s writing moves, and you with it. Naturally, there’s a whole lot more I could’ve said about this piece, and far more directly too, but as with the poems I recommend, I try to leave enough out that it isn’t spoiled for you.

Now as with those, so too with this: go forth and read!