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Archive for the ‘inspiration’ Category

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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fireplaceGene Autry crooning from the CD player, the Christmas tree filling the house with its pine scent, wood popping in the fireplace…ah, yes, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Those who follow this blog are aware that I love Christmas and still cling to the faint possibility of Santa Claus (hey, the cookies I leave out are always eaten when I get up in the morning, explain that).

This year possesses an extra poignancy, I suspect, because it’s our last Christmas before our youngest lad moves out, leaving us with ye olde empty nest. And a much smaller food bill (but I digress).

Hectic around here, as it is for everybody else this time of year. Trying to finish last minute shopping, get parcels away to relatives and loved ones, keeping the walk shoveled and the house warm during some recent cold snaps.

I’ll probably do a year end review at some point but not on this occasion.

Instead I want to announce a special Christmas treat:

I’ve created, with the help of those over-priced buggers at Cafe Press, some pins/buttons. The button with the smallest print reads “Frustrate algorithms.” Sorry, despite my best efforts, I remain mediocre at taking still photos.

Button

(Click on images to enlarge)

These pins reflect aspects of my personal philosophy, that subversive, non–conformist attitude I’ve had for as far back as I can remember.

I’m giving away three sets of pins along with three personally inscribed copies of my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, for the best questions or comments submitted in the next month. Post your remarks, then, if you want to be eligible for a prize, send your particulars (address, etc.) to blackdogpress@yahoo.ca. I’ll make my choices sometime in mid-January and post the names of winners at that time.

Feeling very positive as this year comes to a close. There’s a desire now that I’m fifty to start living a more spiritually and aesthetically fulfilling life, to continue to expand my horizons by exposing myself to smart, daring books and films and music, eschewing the trivial and formulaic. Off with the old skin, on with the new.

“…Identity is the daughter of birth,
but in the end, the invention of its owner,
not an heirloom from the past.”

-Mahmoud Darwish, from Almond Blossoms & Beyond
(Translated by Mohammad Shaheen)

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%22Beneath%22Sometimes the words run out.

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile my literary faculties abandon me and I’m reduced to a non-verbal level of communication. I have something to say but it can’t be expressed via text—and so I’m forced to rely on other, more tenuous, abilities to get across what I feel must be said.

Initially, I worked with collage, refusing to trust my “skills” with paint and brush. Then I shot some abstract films, usually with quasi-science fiction elements, incorporating some of the strange, spacey music I like to concoct with Garageband. You’ll find a couple of these cinematic efforts on my “Film & Music” page. I’m collecting footage for another short flick, which I hope to have ready in the new year (2014).

It took me awhile to work up the courage to paint but Sherron recently bought be a lovely set of acrylics and gave me various brushes and so…why not?

For the past month or so, I’ve labored over three pieces and I’m going to surprise my dear wife by posting them here. Y’see, normally I refuse to exhibit my visual work or allow anyone to look at it—my canvases are kept wrapped and stacked behind a chair in my office. Hidden from prying eyes. Sherron thinks that a waste and urges me to get them framed, hang them somewhere in the house (bathroom? basement?); so far I’ve resisted her prompting.

I’m not a visual artist, I have very little talent but a whole lotta inspiration and desire. An eager amateur, respectful and deferential of the painters who have mastered and transformed their discipline while acknowledging I possess none of their gifts or aesthetic affinities. My efforts may lack artfulness and sophistication, but they do pay tribute to true genius, those individuals who have transcended their medium and presented viewers with an innovative and impassioned view of the world they live(d) in.

Recently I’ve been reading about Mark Rothko and poring over his oeuvre. Simon Schama has a wonderful feature on Rothko, which can be found on YouTube. The story I love best about M.R. is when he received a huge commission to provide paintings for the Seagram building in New York and ended up giving back the money and keeping the gigantic canvases he’d executed because he dined in the restaurant where they were to hang and didn’t like the affluent patrons frequenting the establishment. Walked away from over a million bucks in today’s currency because, at heart, he was a leftie/anarchist who had little truck with institutionalized power.

My kinda guy.

%22Rosetta%22A casual glance at my daubs and smears reveals a chap whose influences are all over the place. Like my writing, my visual efforts are impossible to categorize, highly personal…and decidedly not for all tastes.

For instance…”Beneath”, the first painting (top of the page)—is that some kinda blundering swipe at impressionism?

And what about the second one (above), unhelpfully titled “Rosetta”?

Obviously influenced by my love of cave painting, ancient visions of the world as imagined by minds that were proto-human…and already beginning to question the solidity and permanence of the universe around them. Oh, for a few hours in Lascaux

Hard to do credit to these pieces in photographs—there’s lots of layering and texture that is obliterated, subtleties and nuances (yes, there are a few) utterly lost.

I use gobs of Wellbond glue, found objects, whatever I can lay my hands on to give an impression of a third dimension in my work. Scrape at the canvas with trowels, x-acto knives, sandpaper; employ toothpicks, Q-tips, styrofoam and (frequently) my fingers, often discarding brushes as too inexact.

How about this last picture (below), “Yule”, which started out as something completely different and gradually morphed into what you see here. I hope it’s apparent from this piece:  I love Christmas, a Grinch who secretly desires to run down and join in the fun with the good folks in Whoville.  Don’t ask me why, I won’t be able to supply you with a coherent, reasonable answer. Christmas morning, I’m the first one up, practically bouncing off the walls as I wait for our family to descend and gather in the living room for our gift opening. Possessed by child-like excitement. Hopefully, all that is evident in “Yule”.

The rest I’ll leave up to your imagination.

(Click on paintings to view enlarged versions)

%22Yule%22

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My Muse is very odd.

Drives me like a pitiless slave-mistress one minute, refuses to speak to me the next.

Then, yesterday, a bit of a bone.  An offer to collaborate on something with me, except it had to be a visual piece. Sherron had given me a square of canvas to play with, so I went down to my basement cubbyhole and there, with watercolors, model pigments and a shot or two of spraypaint, I concocted “Europan Blue”.

God knows what she’ll have me doing today….

(Click on image to enlarge)

"Europan Blue"

“Europan Blue”

 

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My wife is pretty clever.

She snapped a picture of me while I was outside, on our back deck, trying out some wax crayon thingees she gave me. You can use them as regular crayons or take a wet brush and smear the colors on, like watercolors. Very cool. It was fun to play around for nearly 4 hours, totally oblivious to everything except the mosquitoes (bastards!). Didn’t keep the finished work, quickly shit-canned it as an interesting failure.

I was much happier with three chalk pastels I completed a week or so ago.  Those I plan on getting framed…and then hiding them behind my chair in the office. My visual stuff definitely not for everyone. Call me an enlightened amateur. An idiot with a smidgeon of savant. I don’t claim to be one of those Renaissance men, equally capable in a variety of disciplines. I’m definitely a one-trick pony—a wordsmith and dang proud of it.

But every so often I have to get away from WORDS. I’ll go out and snap some photos or shoot some footage with my palm-sized digital camera. Assemble a weird collage, paint something semi-representational on an old board. Create some strange ambient music.

The end results aren’t always stellar, frequently they’re downright godawful. But they’re helpful exercises, stimulating different parts of my brain than I usually employ when hard at work on a novel or short story. These interludes also allow me a chance to play, something much under-valued in this day and age. Spending a few hours on something completely non-productive, entirely without aesthetic or commercial value, making a mess, being silly, whatever you want to call it.

Today was a welcome break for me and, as you can see from the picture, I was utterly enthralled.

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Picture 2To me, he was the best.

When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.

More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.

He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.

I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.

And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.

I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.

There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.

The King is Dead! The King is Dead!

Long will we mourn his passing.

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True story:

When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of  “professional” actors would stage and perform it.

I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.

I wish I’d kept a copy.

And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.

Good God…”

The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—

He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.

Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.

Well.

My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.

My first submission and my first rejection.

But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.

Proof!

pencil box

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100_0705“Here comes Santa Claus…”

Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…

Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.

First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).

Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:

Three, count ‘em, three new releases.  Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.

100_0704The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.

That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.

Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?

Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…

And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.

Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.

But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)

For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.

I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.

For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.

Couldn’t do it without you.

Wouldn’t even try.

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Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

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The woman, let’s call her Margaret, pauses at the conclusion of her account, looking up at me with an expression of bewilderment. “I don’t know why I told you all that. You have that kind of face…” She trails off and our conversation concludes not long afterward.

Why did Margaret, a woman I barely know, just spend nearly ten minutes bending my ear about her husband’s fraught relationship with his brother? In the process disclosing many intimate details that should never be passed along to a virtual stranger.

And she’s not the only one.

People tell me things. All sorts of things. Funny and crazy and tragic and personal. People on buses, people who do work on my house, people I’m waiting in line with at the bank…casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Men and women turning to me, a confession already forming in their mind.

“You’re a good listener,” my wife tells me. “That’s part of it. You seem interested in what they’re saying. That’s your first mistake…”

Maybe Yoko Ono is right and there are “a lot of lonely people out there”.  I guess that was part of the attraction of the Post Secret project a few years ago. People dying to get their crimes and misdeeds off their chest…anonymously, of course, their courage only extended so far. Similarly, it’s easier to confess some things to strangers or barely familiar faces than to family members and loved ones. A weird kink of psychology.

I spend most of my time alone, isolated. When I do interact with folks, I’m anxious to talk about anything but my work and dull routine…and that might be at least partially responsible for the true confessions and guilty secrets I’ve been subjected to over the years. Some of them not for the squeamish. And if I make the mistake of admitting I’m an author, there are individuals who immediately perk up:  well, if you’re a writer, you’ll love hearing what’s been going on in my life lately

Er, not really, no.

But once people start revealing their problems and complaints there’s just no holding them back. I’ve heard about failed marriages, infidelity, felonies and misdemeanors, nodded sympathetically as men and women tearfully surrendered indiscretions they should have been saving for their priest or shrink. I have no right to this knowledge and yet, afterward, feel protective of what I’ve learned, a certain responsibility to be discreet. The sanctity of the confessional. I think folks sense that as well; a quiet, lonely, reclusive man: who can I possibly tell?

It’s very difficult for me to be rude. I detest breaking into someone’s train of thought, interrupting them in mid-sentence because something they’re telling me is inappropriate, better kept to themselves. Politeness has its drawbacks and I’ve endured many an awkward, one-sided conversation simply because I lack the chutzpah to clear my throat, give an impatient frown or simply walk away.

And, anyway, how can you walk away from a young clerk, enormously pregnant, helping me find a stencil set and, meanwhile, telling me about the heart defect that threatens the life of her unborn baby. Thirty seconds after walking into the store. What can I say? How do I respond?

But she’s looking at me, describing the diagnosis and proposed treatment, affirming the importance of faith in her life, talking freely, without a trace of self-consciousness.

Something in my manner or expression assuring her, a sympathy that cannot be feigned.

While I, for my part, refuse to deny her the kindness of a stranger, shared concern for a child in distress.

My time is not so important, surely, that I can’t spare a minute or two to commiserate or console. These meetings, though frequently taxing, part of the burden I bear for having “that kind of face”.

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