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The Algebra of Inequality*

Once they enter the algorithms
consult their computer oracles
assigning dollar value to life & limb
with suitable aplomb

In the boardrooms of corporations
where the wolves run free
who will pay due compensation
for the sheep they slay?

 

%22Algebra%22

 

*Title derived from “Report” (short story by Donald Barthelme)

© 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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DSC00570First Snow

 

Winter invariably defeats
the colorful palette
that precedes it

trees brutally denuded, stripped
of their plumage

hillsides and glens
made barren by the
mass killing of flowers

 
July 1, 2014

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Poetry1I wanted a dedicated space for the fine volumes of poetry I’ve managed to accumulate over the course of my reading life.

Books of poetry have been scattered around various locations of the house but now, thanks to Sherron, we have a charming little bookcase that’s perfect for highlighting our collection. She happened to spot a garage sale on the way home from work and couldn’t believe her luck when she spied this little beauty. Four shelves and solidly constructed.

Poetry has taken on increased significance and importance in my life over the past five or ten years. I’ve developed the patience and maturity required for verse and have a real appreciation for authors who have the vision, concision and mental discipline to execute truly great poetry.

I have numerous volumes by my current favorites—Paul Celan, Arthur Rimbaud, Ted Kooser, W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins—and offerings by lesser known poets like Naomi Shihab Nye and Carolyn Forsche. A cool, eclectic mix of new and old, with a few oddities thrown in to keep things interesting.

I’ve heard it said most people are only interested in poetry for use in weddings or funerals and that’s unfortunate, an indication of how badly poetry is taught in school. Dissected for its component parts like a frog, rather than appreciated for its beauty and, with the very best poetry, universality. Most readers are afraid of poetry, intimidated by it—poetry is “difficult”, “elitist”, “frustrating”.

I wonder how much of Ted Kooser’s work they’ve read. The simplicity and clarity of his language might surprise them. I advise them to pick up a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press; 2004), encounter a writer who doesn’t hide behind opacity or cloak his ideas and themes in haughty esoterica.

Time to rediscover the joy of reading well-crafted, superbly conceived poetry.

Believe me, there’s a lot of it about.

Seek and ye shall find!

poetry2

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Dore1

Reprisal

 

An intimacy only death allows.

 

Forced into close alignment to conserve space.

 

A press of upturned faces.

 

Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.

 

Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.

 

In defiance of this latest atrocity.

 

 

 * * *

 

Dore3

The Last Room

 

Is someone there?

 

Why don’t you come nearer?

 

Step into the light…

 

I can barely see you.

 

There’s so little time.

 

Please, show yourself.

 

I don’t want to be alone.

 

Approach, stranger:

 

Take pity on my penitent soul.

 

* * *

stadium2

Chase Scene

 

—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.

 

“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”

 

Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.

 

The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.

 

Oh, Christ!  Oh, Jesus, help me—”

 

The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…

 

* * *

stadium1Sheep

 

Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.

 

Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.

 

Exhausted and compliant.

 

A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.

 

Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.

 

The gates are closing

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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dore2“The fuck is this?”

 

“That’s him. That’s our guy.”

 

“You kidding? You’re taking the piss, right?”

 

“Look, I’ve been up all night, you wanted to see what I got, this is it.”

 

“But what is it?”

 
“It’s a, waddaya call it, a screen capture.”

 

“A what?”

 

“Like they take a picture, a still frame. Enhanced all to fuck but that’s what they came up with. There’s your perp.”

 

“I still don’t get it. You’re saying that’s taken from the hallway camera—”

 

“Yeah. What you’re looking at is, like, a single fucking frame. That new guy, Panda or Pandra, whatever the fuck, he spotted it. And, man, how he managed it, I’ll never know.”

 

“So he’s zipping through the footage and something clicks and he goes back and slows everything down—”

 

“Right, exactly. And this thing is there for a flash, right outside the fucking door, and then it’s gone.”

 

“Time frame?”

 

“Fits.”

 

“Fuck that. Nothing fits. This is a locked door mystery and the two of us are hanging out to dry here. In less than an hour I gotta go upstairs, smile ever so nice and show them…what exactly? This? This fucking—”

 

“It’s all we got.”

 

“Nine of our best standing around with their thumbs up their arses while the guy we were supposed to be babysitting—“

 

“No one got in or out. You said so yourself.”

 

“No one but this guy. That’s what you’re telling me, right?”

 

”The question is, what are you going to tell them.”

 

“I’m not going to tell them anything. I’m just going to show them this. The best evidence we have.”

 

“And then?”

 

“Then? Then it doesn’t matter. Because it won’t be my problem any more…”

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

 

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DSC00555Extinct

 

It flutters and at first I think it’s a leaf or a feather.

Run to catch it.

But it moves in my hands!

Drop it like it’s hot.

Go and get Mother.

Telling me to shush as she kneels beside it.

Looking up at me, crying.

“It’s called a butterfly. Butterfly.”

Making me repeat it, so I’ll never forget.

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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100_1034Three weeks of HARD editing.

Down to the grind now, my novel really tightening up and starting to take on a polished appearance.

Just about finished my “Sherron Draft”.

I started this book last August (2013) and, except for a few breaks to work on small side projects or conduct research, I’ve been pounding away on the manuscript ever since, grappling with it, trying to find the shape within the stone (if you know what I mean). When discussing the book with my wife, I’ve spoken only in generalities and other than a broad outline, she really isn’t privy to plot details or my approach to the material. But in 2-3 weeks I’ll print what I have, a complete third draft, 225 pages, and hand it over for her perusal.

Sherron’s a smart, discerning editor and she knows my aesthetic—she’ll spot any lapse, identify shortcomings, ruthlessly point out awkward passages. She’s well read and has a sharp, critical mind. She won’t soft-pedal  or candy-coat her remarks. We both want the same thing: to make this the best possible book and, in that sense, there’s no room for wishy-washy critiques.

No one likes criticism, we all like to feel that every word we commit to paper is the very essence of perfection. Sadly, that isn’t the case.

If you want to know the biggest difference between me and 99.999% of the “self-publishers” and indies out there, it’s the time and effort I lavish on my novels, short stories, poems and essays.

You think those assholes who excrete paranormal romance and shapeshifter erotica will spend over a year going through their work line by line, meticulously editing literally every syllable? And, I want to emphasize, I’m a full-time author, I do this every single day of the year, from eight in the morning until eight at night. Yup, weekends and holidays too. Each paragraph, each individual comma is carefully, endlessly, tirelessly scrutinized and weighed and measured.

And I’m not close to being done yet.

After Sherron’s had a chance to read and comment on the manuscript, there will be yet another complete draft and more editing until the book finally meets my exacting standards. Tentative release date in April, 2015, so I’ve got, by my estimation, five more months of work ahead of me.

And you wonder why writers drink like fish and use every substance known to Nature to soothe their jangled nerves and quiet their raging minds?

I’m a fortunate man to have someone in my life who is able to contribute in such a practical, selfless manner to my obsession and is as serious as I am about my writing and my desire to achieve the status of elite literary author. A world class talent.

We’re a team dedicated to excellence and we will countenance no slapdash writing or unoriginal thinking.

We’re creating literature for the ages.

Nothing else will suffice.

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Dilemma

 

Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,

I tear down this crummy, old fence

of ours—then what?

 

Do I replace it with another fence,

clean and white and perfectly straight,

the wood treated with poison

solvents to keep it from weathering?

 

Perhaps a higher fence, six feet

or more, the boards squeezed close

together to dissuade prying eyes;

a solid wall to keep others out.

 

If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana

or what have you, as has been suggested,

will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy

barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?

 

The other option is to leave our backyard

wide open and accessible to the alley…but

I’m not comfortable with that.

 

I agree that our fence is worn out,

dilapidated, something of an eyesore;

I apologize if it embarrasses you.

 

But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy

matter replacing it—and some of your ideas

involve considerable expense. We must not

act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.

 

I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best

I can, until a practical solution presents itself

or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally

collapses, defeated by a horde of years.

 

Fence

 

 * * * * *

Diagnosis

 

Apparently I suffered from a

“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,

the school counselor, told my mother,

which somehow explained the boils,

bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.

 

I remember wondering if this cuteness

was curable and how I got it when I

was such an ugly child, my sisters said

so, and no one else took my side or

stated a contrary view.

 

boy

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dishI’m glad you asked.

Well, since my last post, I’ve been a busy lad, working hard on the novel-in-progress, kicking PayPal’s ass and—

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned my on-going dispute with those lovely folks at PayPal/eBay, have I? Here’s the poop:

Three years ago I filed a formal complaint with the Privacy Commission of Canada. PayPal brusquely informed me that my on-line transactions had reached a certain (arbitrary) limit and I could no longer use their services until I allowed them to link to my bank account. Ahem. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am touchy about my security and privacy almost to the point of paranoia. There was no way I was going to give those corporate scum-suckers that kind of potential access to my personal banking information.

So I ratted PayPal out to the Privacy Commissioner. Insisted that I was being denied services and my rights as a private citizen were being violated.

After several years of investigations and submissions from both parties, the Privacy Commissioner has concluded that my complaint was “well-founded” and I have had my PayPal account fully restored. Not only that, Paypal has agreed to change its practices and fully implement the Privacy Commission’s recommendations regarding on-line transactions by November 30, 2014. These “corrective measures” will provide PayPal clients with more information and an “alternative solution”, other than the illegal and unwarranted collection of personal banking information.

My thanks to the folks at the Privacy Commission for pursuing such a lengthy and complex case and for holding PayPal’s feet to the fire until they were forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns.

Vindication! This is what happens when you refuse to be one of the dull-witted, simple-minded “sheeple”. As consumers and citizens of a free country we have rights and must make every effort to ensure our private data isn’t being collected/mined or our financial security rendered vulnerable by greedhead corporations and/or overly nosy, inquisitive government agencies.

So stay vigilant.

voiceWhat else? The novel…ah, yes, the novel. What can I tell you—very little really. It progresses, slowly but surely. Still anticipating an early 2015 release date…other than that, I have nothing to add. Cautiously optimistic but unwilling to go any further. How’s that for unhelpful?

When I’ve not been writing or editing, I’ve been watching a number of good movies, some of which I’ve reviewed over on my film blog. You did know I had a film site, right? Oh, for Heaven’s sake…well, you’ll find it here. I post infrequently (surprise, surprise) and refuse to have anything to do with silly popcorn movies, rom-coms or abominations by the likes of Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder or (saving the loudest retch for last) James Cameron. I try to champion obscure or forgotten movies, doing my bit to enlighten contemporary cinema-goers, many of whom haven’t seen anything older than “Jaws”. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen so far in 2014 is a Czech film Sherron gave me for Christmas called “Marketa Lazarova”. Nothing else has come close. Set in the Medieval era, complications involving two warring clans…strong intimations of Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” and Kurasawa’s “Throne of Blood”. I intend to watch it again before I sit down and write my review. So much to take in—there is greatness in that film.

March 8th, Sherron and I attended a performance by the Saskatoon Symphony. Not a regular occurrence, I’m shame-faced to admit, but this time around the bill was too good to resist, featuring two of my favorite 20th Century composers, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the intermission, three different choirs filed out and added their voices to Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” (the text derived from poems by Walt Whitman). Two solo vocalists, Monica Huisman and Peter McGillivray, were also highlighted and the evening concluded, as conductor Victor Sawa promised in his pre-concert chat, not with a huge flourish, but a gentle exhortation to sail on, ever onward, risking everything, abandoning safe anchorages and familiar stars:

“O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail! …”

Unforgettable.

Lots of reading and music in the past few weeks—some titles that stand out, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (recommended by Penn Gillete on one of his “Penn Point” podcasts), Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan), as well as lots of poetry by the likes of Ted Kooser, Tom Hennen, Donald Hall and W.S. Merwin. In terms of tunes, I’ve been enjoying everything from a compilation of Simply Saucer songs I picked up in a thrift shop, to the Foo Fighters, Airbag, Radio Moscow, Bob Mould, Hayes Carll, Spiritualized…how am I doing?

And I want to take a moment to give a shout out to some individuals deserving of special mention, this month’s Roll Call of Honor:

First of all, a huge “Thank You” to Jason Brock for surprising the hell out of me with a couple of first edition Richard Matheson books. Gifts that arrived from out of the blue (an act of generosity I’ll remember a long time).

A big hug to my sister, Colleen, who recently retired from her longtime position with Viterra and, I hope, will now sit back and smell the roses for awhile—God knows, you deserve it, gal!

And, finally, a sad but fond farewell to a man who often represented the conscience of his nation, Tony Benn. One of my colleagues on LibraryThing posted the following quote, which sums the man up perfectly:

“Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn (1925-2014)

satellite

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SEX:coverTwenty-five years ago, I was a frustrated, angry writer.

I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.

Didn’t matter.

See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.

“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”

Heard that one a number of times.

But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this:  good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.

What exactly was “this type of thing”?

My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.

And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.

So my book was effectively dead in the water.

But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.

Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980′s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.

When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.

It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.

Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.

It was astonishing.

I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There were no returns.

The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:

“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”

Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.

I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.

I was hooked.

I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.

The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz.  Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.

Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.

So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years  and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.

I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.

Thanks for your support over the years.

The best is yet to come.

Write on…

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