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Archive for the ‘literary’ Category

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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* Click on image to enlarge

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Among the Invisibles

 

From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.

There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves.  Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.

Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire.  Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall.  There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline.  The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob.  Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din.  Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store.  They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink.  The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works.  Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber.  This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.

He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.

His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts.  He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented.  Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble.  He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.

As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle.  Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing.  When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”.  One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.

The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania.  Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him.  He gives the witch a wide berth.  The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine.  The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.

The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight.  Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away.  He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter.  But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches.  He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without.  It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city.  They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves.  Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.

The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.

And finally the world press has taken notice.  Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves.  It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.

Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant.  He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal.  He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it.  As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him.  They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.

There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff.  Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church.  A church.  In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.

Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One.  Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change.  And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing.  He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart.  And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it.  The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence.  His head is squashed, misshapen.  He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.

Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere.  Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again.  Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.

When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile.  Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later.  Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.

Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade.  Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel.  But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off.  Now.

Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.

As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch.  Every time he does, he groans.  He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks.  Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out.  No one has replaced them.  Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor.  This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached.  He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.

In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.

Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed.  He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving.  Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece.  This is the way it is.  You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.

Later he will curse his greed.  This, too, is the way of things.

But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours.  His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless.  His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions.  The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.

Soon he will join the invisibles.  It is almost certain.  He knows this.  Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars.  He wonders what it will be like to be dead.  His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion.  The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense.  In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.

Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling.  Traffic rolls heedlessly by.  The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him.  A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.

Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun.  He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.

 

© Copyright, 2009  Cliff Burns  (All Rights Reserved)

* * * * *

“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.

It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.

You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?

To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.

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The official launch of my two latest efforts, New & Selected Poems and Stromata: Prose Works, is October 4th, 2012. Sherron created a wonderful event poster. Hope to see you there:

(Click on the poster in order to view it full size)

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Yes, I am on Twitter.  It’s easy, it’s fast…what the heck.  I’ve even managed to accumulate a few “followers” (love that).

And I try to make it worth their while by occasionally posting some pithy quotes, words of wisdom or original doggerel.

It’s a challenge to fit that 140-character limit but it also helps focus the mind and creates a very worthwhile writing exercise. Here are a couple of my recent efforts:

April

Winter subsides, withdraws
receding and uncovering
a shivering bareness
raised gooseflesh, a slow blush
spreading to every horizon

That Noir Moment

does it matter how far you fall
once you’ve fallen?
one small step or giant leap
a precipice or merely a pause

Speechless

this typical paucity
as I try to compel the right words
communicating abject faith
simultaneously making my case for clemency

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It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.

And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard).  Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert.  If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.

* * * * *

Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central:  Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.

Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making.  Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.

Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt.  Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer.  Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water.  But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.

You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively.  Er, no.  Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse.  At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).

How does that gibe with your methods?

And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales.  She states, without an ounce of  self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks.  That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate.  Message to you wannabe assholes:  I spit in your face.  You disgust me.  May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you.  I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature.  You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.

But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it.  I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge.  Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.

I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).

I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.

Which begs the question:  what price do you put on your soul?

“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart

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Another birthday rolling around, my 48th, and, natch, the critical, self-regarding mind casts its gaze backward, forward, hither and yon, seeking a pattern, a design, some semblance of order.

Usually in vain.

I’ve described my writing “career” as something of a train wreck and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.  I lurch from project to project, with absolutely no conception of how to “market” or promote myself, zero interest in shilling for my work, peddling it around like an itinerant vacuum cleaner salesman.  My writing doesn’t comfortably fit any niche, veering from genre to genre, encompassing everything from radio plays, to short films, ambient music and spoken word pieces.  My last two novels were supernatural thrillers, my latest is an old fashioned western.  Huh?

But that’s the glorious thing about the new technologies that have sprouted up in the past few years. They allow creative types to try their hand at a variety of disciplines, expressing themselves through different media.  I don’t discriminate between my various projects, no matter what form they take.  They all reflect my interests, fears, fixations and dreams.  They all originate in the labyrinthine depths of my mind.

* * * * * *

Thanks to one and all who have stuck it out thus far.  Popped in to this site for a quick look…and then lingered, read more and more of the entries, downloaded big swathes of my writing or tuned in to some of the weird music I’ve made available for free listening and downloading.

Through this blog I’ve become familiar with good folks and sharp thinkers.  Thoughtful, intelligent people who love the printed word as much as I do.

And I believe that somewhere among the tens of thousands of curious types who’ve visited this blog in the past 4 1/2 years there is at least one ideal reader, someone who has followed my career, read the lion’s share of my oeuvre and eagerly looks forward to each new release.  That’s the gal/guy who brings me back to my desk, morning after morning, my raison d’être, my secret admirer, number one fan and staunchest defender.  Every day I sit down and create purely for the purpose of entertaining, surprising and intriguing my I.R., presenting them with a narrative or tune or spoken word piece that startles them and causes them to re-appraise my work (yet again), examining it in a wholly different light.

I am prepared to go to any extent to unsettle and shake up my Ideal Reader.  I don’t want them getting complacent, taking me for granted.  For that reason, my work must never fall back on tried and true formulas or reinforce commonly held beliefs and preconceptions.

I have to to believe my I.R. would be very disappointed in me if I resorted to such tactics.

My Ideal Reader is as courageous and aesthetically demanding as I am.

And they’d know if I wasn’t giving them my best work…

* * * * * *

It’s become something of a custom for me to either release new work or make some kind of announcement around my birthday.

First, please note to “self-portrait” that accompanies this post.  A couple of Christmases ago, Sherron and my sons gifted me with a big fat scrapbook that I was supposed to play with; included among my tasks was executing a self-portrait on canvas.  Last month I finally got around to it and, well, see for yourself.  I have absolutely no acumen for visual art, couldn’t even figure out how to mix pigments—that’s why my picture is in black and white.

Okay, so I’m no threat to Vinnie van Gogh.

How about another strange, spacey, ambient tune, created a couple of days ago.  “Lapse (II)” clocks in at over seven minutes and I think it’s a worthy addition to my odd musical catalog.

Play…Lapse (II)

And, finally, a couple of updates:

Edits on my western, The Last Hunt, commence soon.  Looking forward to knocking that little beauty into shape.  Anticipating a March, 2012 release date.  I’ll keep you posted.

My science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky“, should be up on Amazon/Kindle in the coming days.  It’s dedicated to “the Golden Age” and I think fans of the genre will understand what I mean.

No plans for my birthday, just another work day.  Forty-eight years old and maybe a tad wiser.  Still a long way to go and enlightenment continues to tease and then elude me.  Every time I think I’m getting close to some kind of meaningful insight into the human experience, something truly ghastly and horrific happens and I am forcefully reminded of the Alain Finkielkraut quote:

“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history.  It is the companion that dogs our every step.”

Amen.

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Here are a few snaps from my McNally-Robinson reading:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special thanks to Alicia Horner, Events Coordinator at McNally Robinson, for her efforts to publicize the reading and the consideration she showed my family and I.  Yer one of the good ones, Alicia…

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Received word from Greg Freed, an administrator of the Galaxy Project science fiction writing competition, that my tale “Eyes in the Sky” garnered an honorable mention in this year’s contest.

Placing in the top five with over 100 entries ain’t half bad…but what made my day was when I received an e-mail containing words of encouragement from none other than Barry Malzberg.  As I wrote to Greg Freed, having folks like Monsieur Malzberg and Robert Silverberg judging the contest was one of the reasons I decided to submit my tale in the first place.  The notion that one of those luminaries might read my work…well, that made it irresistible to me.  Those few short sentences from Barry Malzberg meant a lot to this scribbler—a classy act by a classy guy.

Congratulations to co-winners Susan Forest (Canuck gal!) and Robert Walton, as well as my two fellow honorables, D.K. Paterson and John Hemry.

Kudos to Greg Freed and the folks at Rosetta Books for sponsoring the competition and doing such a good job organizing the entire venture, making sure winners were notified promptly, etc.  All in all, a pleasant experience though unlikely to get me back on the ol’ submission treadmill again.  These were special circumstances and now that the results are in, I’ll be sending “Eyes in the Sky” off to the Amazon Kindle people.

I’m interested in the “Singles” program Amazon offers, short works for budget prices.  I’ll charge a buck or two so folks can download “Eyes in the Sky” and hope that readers—sci fi fans or otherwise—will be drawn by the same elements and strengths that attracted the attention of Messrs. Malzberg, Silverberg and Drake.

“Eyes in the Sky” features a classic what if... scenario, an alternative history where the Space Age never happened, the nuclear bomb was a dud and the Russians and Americans are locked in a very different kind of Cold War.  Ten thousand words and every damn one of them counts.

Sound intriguing?  Keep popping back here for further developments.

Coming soon

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What are your goals as a writer, as a creative person?

This question has been much on my mind for the past while.  I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore.  I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter.  Baubles and trinkets.  Bullion and bullshit.

Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it.  As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call.  (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)

I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies.  I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).

Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?

To be the best.  To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians.  Note perfect.  I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.

I have no interest in being average.  A “decent” writer.  Ugh.  Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.

Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes.  If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards.  Which automatically begs the question:  have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?

I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it).  And I’m a full time writer.  Imagine that.  Day in and day out for 3+ years.  (Shudder)  But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it.  And I was right.

But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels.  I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label.  This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves.  I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation.  There’s just something within me that balks at the notion.  I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.

So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts.  They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience.  They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV.  Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.

What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well.  You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath?  I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART.  I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.

I want to be the best writer in the world.

There.  I’ve said it.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing.  But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name.  My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers.  Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls.  Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.

With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.

My idols would never forgive me.

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